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THREE


Days later, and she was on a brilliant white beach stained pink by the rising red sun.

Pebbles. Wisps of seaweed. A sword half-buried in the sand, the hilt jutting up without function. Further along the beach were bizarre metal lattices towering up into the skies. They bled into the distance, several of them, elegant, rusting and redundant behemoths.

These were the first images Lan saw, as the mental fog was dispersed by the tidal roar and the pungency of the coast that assaulted her. The sea breeze was cool against her skin: the thought prompted her to glance across herself. Bare feet, khaki breeches, her long-sleeved white shirt she had no recollection of these items at first, they werent hers, they werent her, but soon enough the images flashed back.

Its all happening so quickly . . .

Her new body thronged with pain. Muscles seemed to spasm whenever she moved, and even though there werent bruises where she expected them, it didnt diminish the pulses of agony. Cayce had warned her, of course, and she knew exactly what to expect but the theory and the reality were quite separate. These were the effects of sorcery, even if Cayce would have hated her using the term. She was living a fantasy, a dream, and she couldnt quite believe it. Cayce had explained that it was something she must grow used to, and from now on she must to learn to lose the years of layered frustrations, drop her self-consciousness around others.

Because she had undergone a major transformation.

Lan shaded her eyes from the intensity of the light and pushed herself up, sand clumping to her arms. She still hadnt become used to this temperature, this balmy, sultry warmth. There were a lot of things she wasnt used to.

Further down the shore, two of the indigenous Cephs were handling a boat, steering it onto the shore. Their handling was awkward. Pale-skinned and hairless, the creatures were humanoid save for their arms, which were thick purple and pink tentacles several feet in length. They curled to and fro, each with pulsing suction cups.

The Cephs hauled nets bulbous with fish, and lugged them up the beach, through sedges and reeds and onto land. Aside from their shaggy breeches, they were utterly bare-skinned, and she still could not quite discern where the human body ended and these marine appendages began, so gradual was their change in morphology. Contrary to what she had first thought that these were creations of the cultists Cayce had informed her that they were part of the natural tribes of the Boreal Archipelago. Over the tens of thousands of years of human and rumel military dominance, they had taken sanctuary off and on the coast of Ysla, where they remained living peaceful, simple lives.

Lan breathed in deeply this clean air, content with watching the Cephs go about their business, their tentacles unfurling majestically around bundles of fish, or massive planks of wood in order to repair their huts.

The sky was vacant except for the flight antics of pterodettes, and their reptilian squawks echoed across the bay. Out to sea, a few tiny boats were navigating the treacherous channels, gullies and tiny whirlpools around the reefs. The surf folded over itself, endlessly and the repetitions were intoxicating. The landscape served to calm her mind and, if ever there was a place in which to recover from such painful surgical procedures, then this was it. If she could bring herself to believe in the Jorsalir tales, then this would be what she hoped the heavenly realms would be like.

Am I dead?

She stood upright, stretched tentatively, then more snaps of pain savaged her nerves. She grinned. No, most definitely alive. Lan bent her arms this way and that, trying to work out the pain.

She turned back to face the city in the deep distance, a construct of wood and stone and metal. It blended in with the texture of the vegetation, yet towered above, dominating the panorama.

Villarbor, the forest city.

Cayce called it a treetop metropolis in which cultist magic flickered in and out of existence, but to her eyes Villarbor was a city of violent sorcery. She had been barely conscious when she entered the place, but there was plenty of the weird to alarm her. Nothing there seemed to make sense; it was a phenomenally different way of life. Magic charged through the skein of streets. Buildings were constructed from, and within, the trunks of titanic trees that seemed settlements in themselves.

Each lightning-pulse of magic that now boomed in the distance sent a quiver through her body.

With that in mind, she sauntered along the sand, a slow arc around the beachhead. Such beautiful heat, she thought. I dont ever want to go back to Jokull, that freezing island.

Further up the shore she spotted a lone figure. Cayce was sitting on a rock smoking a roll-up. He was wearing a cream-coloured outfit. She could smell his heady weed from a distance. As she approached, sand squelched between her toes.

He looked her up and down, brushing his stubbled chin. He analyzed her anatomy, and she knew by now that there was nothing sexual in his examination. This was merely one of his inspections.

So you are enjoying the beaches, I see, Cayce said.

Something like that. The Cephs theyre bizarre people, arent they? We dont have anything like that where Im from.

Cayce frowned, scanning the Cephs in the distance, but he didnt acknowledge her words. Rubbing his arms, he said, You look really good, Lan, and I mean that. You were already in impressive physical shape there are a good many unhealthy people, with all that ice. Despite his slightly unusual accent, he spoke with utter confidence, as if he was always declaring something profound, and whether or not he knew it, his words were helping to rebuild her in places his science couldnt quite reach.

When will I have to leave? she asked. Id love to hang around a little longer.

We are all done, as far as Im concerned, he replied. Ysla, for its own sake, does not permit visitors. So, Im afraid you will have to leave soon. You simply cannot stay and it is not just for our good, but yours, too.

Lan thought as much. In the morning?

Indeed. Cayce jumped down from the rock, his cream cloak flailing around him in the breeze. Marram grass rippled along the edge of the dunes whilst a flock of gulls suddenly filled the sky before drifting in circles along the shore.

There are some festivities tonight cultural celebrations for one of the orders. You may as well enjoy the night before you head back just, if you please, try not to talk to too many of the others.

For my own good? Lan asked.

You have, it seems, caught on well. Cayce turned and Lan moved to follow him across the sand.

*

The approach to Villarbor was contoured with surges of trees and plants that seemed alien to the Archipelago. Spiked structures and fat-leafed things and explosions of gaudy colours. Heavy, almost monstrous insects droned in and out of the foliage, snapping back branches with their clumsy flight. Other creatures drilled holes through bark, filling their venous sacs with sap.

The stone track was well-kept, tidied regularly by small teams of men and women. They cleared paths of vegetation with strange relics shaped like a crossbow, with minimal effort, and it was not at all obvious how the devices worked.

Lan never understood why, on an island without money, anyone would want to do such jobs, yet they did. Surely you should be paid for having to do chores like this? They stopped their tasks to gather around and talk to her, and she had to strain to follow their accents. She forced a smile in her effort to cease being self-conscious. Their clothing was garish, and woven with little patches in the style of harlequins. Not one of them dressed identically, and both genders sported equally unique variants of style, and wore bright flowers in their hair which made her frown since back on Jokull flowers were generally worn only by women.

Cayce humoured them all for a moment, but then steered her onwards towards Villarbor. She waved her goodbyes over her shoulder.

Further up the road she asked, Are we in a hurry for a reason?

They will spend all day talking to an outsider, Cayce replied. We do not get many of your kind here a layperson from the Empire, I mean.

Why is that anyway? Lan asked.

It is just easier that way, Cayce said.

You said that last time, too.

I probably did, was his non-committal response. We are simply taught that outsiders have a tendency to corrupt I wish our society to remain harmonious, is all.

One more question, Lan said.

Just one?

She paused and chuckled. I know, Im sorry. Its just exciting for people like me, thats all.

Your question?

How come you were allowed off the island? Seems as if everyone else is curious about me but does no one ever leave?

Few people want to leave. They are free to do so, of course, but they hear of the many tragedies of the Archipelago, and want nothing whatsoever to do with it.

And you . . . How come you travel?

My experiences and feelings are not entirely like the others, he replied, and marched on before she could press him any further.

*

Fields rolled back in all directions. Various colours denoted what must have been dozens of different crops covering small plots of land, unlike the vast, intensive efforts on Jokull. Clusters of huts and thickly wooded copses were dotted everywhere, surrounded by strange climbing fruits.

The sun was sliding from the sky, the heat still unbelievably prominent. Cayce said that the cultists managed the weather in Ysla. Whilst around the Archipelago winds and clouds heaped ice and snow, here there was little but clear skies and intoxicating warmth. It was no wonder the cultists kept this island to themselves.

She had seen the process of manipulation and been mystified. Figures perched on a hill, tilting some device towards the sky and, on the next hill along, another working in tandem. Purple shafts of light had buried deep into any clouds that persisted, disintegrating them slowly or ploughing through into the heavens. Whatever they were doing, these acts were certainly keeping the weather favourable.

Lan didnt spot where the city actually began. As they approached the urban fringes of the settlement, they passed through smaller hub communities and Cayce explained that this was the real principle behind Villarbor; not one centralized district but lots of them, all small interconnected zones. Between each stretched small grassland meadows, which were punctuated by mats of purple or white flowers, then secondary growth forest and coppiced trees and then majestic woodland. Now and then they became something more formal, gardens that frothed over into one another, coloured plants blending into the distance.

The smells, the pungency, the colours, the textures, were like nothing shed ever known.

The gardens are remarkably pretty, she commented, still on Cayces heels.

He strode on and said, They are not meant for aesthetic purposes we use everything in this particular district for medicinal value. Each plot is divided up by the ailment they treat. Districts specialize, most for food, but others for purposes like this.

They passed a single-storey house surrounded by one such garden, and three women standing in casual conversation.

Good afternoon, sisters, Cayce called out.

One of them, a dark-haired girl, seemed to act coyly towards him, waving but turning away quickly, her white skirt trailing her in an arc.

Guessing youre a heartbreaker here, Lan observed, hoping that the casual conversation might open him up.

I have no idea what you mean, he replied.

You know. Girl saves herself for you, thinks of you a lot, tells all her friends how charming you are.

Cayce shrugged and laughed. I would, indeed, hate to be in such a position of power over another person.

Power there it was again, a word that seemed electrically charged on this island, one spoken of with great disdain.

Into the forest proper and, after stepping between two giant buttress roots, they entered a zone that was clearly central to Villarbor.

Woodland towered before her, a million shades of green and brown that ultimately blended to become a dark haze in the distance. Thick, red-brown trunks extended upwards, losing themselves within a densely packed canopy. Alongside the trees, metallic structures extended like scaffolding. On others, vast ornate staircases wound themselves anticlockwise around the timber. Tracks had been cut between trees, in numerous directions, through an undergrowth of ferns.

What species are these? Lan asked.

Oh, we have various Tsuga, Taxodium, Sequoia . . . We have some rarer varieties further in.

Why such interesting names? Lan stared up at the amazing textures to the bark.

These are, to our knowledge, the names given to the species when the seeds were stored, several millennia ago. Civilizations rise and fall, and after one particular fall, possibly due to some apocalyptic event, the landscape became devoid of forests. The forests of the world have since been re-grown. It is a sadness that we no longer know their original names.

Clustered huts formed tree-crown dwellings. Walkways traversed the canopy and, above, unbelievably, people were wandering back and forth as if on the streets of a city. Food-filled baskets were constantly lowered and raised from the ground. Tiny lights cascaded down from branches, illuminating the more atramentous corners of the treescape and Lan wondered how magical it would look at night. Within the gaps in the canopy, brown balloon-like crafts were gracefully lowering themselves towards respective platforms. People disembarked in their droves, mainly humans, but rumels, and the occasional Ceph too from this distance, they all looked like insects.

Everything here seemed superbly crafted, and unique. The details carved into every structure were massively ornate, intricate geometric designs, or baroque and sprawling, as if the trees themselves had grown in that mesmerizing manner.

Lan turned to Cayce. So whats your house like?

Nothing here is mine, Cayce laughed.

Well, where do you live? she asked.

Villarbor. He gestured to the forest.

You own the entire city?

No one owns any of it. Cayce wore his usual serene expression. There are no rulers to order us about. We share communal hab units grafted into sections of the forest. We choose where to live and, quite unlike Villjamur, no one has to pay a fortune to be in the most fashionable areas. We self-organize and choose everything about our way of life ourselves. Should any of us wish to live elsewhere, we can move and build other places, fashion them out of the forest providing others are not against this wish. One can make each place with as much craft and care as one desires. Cayce paused to contemplate his words. When the first cultists came here, he explained, around about the time Villjamur was established, they adopted the ways of the local tribes the newcomers did not want to interfere with the natural way of the land, and that philosophy of self-organizing has evolved into what we have now.

I understand, I think . . . Lan lied. It just makes no sense without money and a governing body.

We have found governments and traders do not have the majoritys interest at heart, Cayce replied. We cope well we organize, distribute, work mutually with other autonomous hubs and districts across the island . . . I know what you are thinking this all seems impossible without money and without rulers. But, it helps that we are cultists, so we can do anything we want, because money does not dictate or place values. I had to run the decision bringing you here past assemblies of the community because there is a reason we generally keep outsiders away, a reason we dont like their influence or their ideas and why Im reluctant for you to converse with us too much: what we have here works well. The Empire is a hegemony, attempting to impose its dominance on the rest of the Archipelago, crippling island after island in order to sell the fineries you see in Villjamur, and you would do well to understand that. But out here, in Villarbor, it just would not be sustainable. On an island like this our systems would implode. Here, we take only what we need. We will have some food tonight and you may sample some of the delights the forest offers, and then you can return to Villjamur as one of the sacred few to have witnessed this place.

*

Cayce led her into a humid tree grove. Fat roots had formed an organic archway, and citizens of the forest stepped out from between them, drifting along wide paths through the vegetation. The pace of life here was leisurely. People were standing idly chatting, gripping baskets of metal, hunks of bars and piping and cogs. Children played games among the foliage, whilst a handful of smaller ones sat down on the grass listening to a man for what must have been a lesson.

Presumably without money, these children dont have to pay to be schooled?

Certainly not! Cayce replied. They have access to everything it is extremely important that every child can learn to read and write.

Lan was surprised, recalling the guilt of her own expensive education, despite the abuse she suffered. What are they being taught?

Theyre being taught how to think.

The treetops flared with purple lighting, which stretched under-canopy in flat pulses, and Lans heart raced at this electrical activity. No one else took notice of it.

They passed through an area that might have been an iren in Villjamur. Here it was something entirely . . . relaxed a few rows of people openly weaving fabric or cooking food, stopping occasionally to talk to passers-by. Lan marvelled at the quality of decorative crafts on display, and the variety of fruit and vegetables. The choice.

Lan noticed that some of the wooden habs flickered inside, as if a smith was working steel but she suspected it was magic being worked, rather than metal.

Is everyone here a cultist? she asked.

By your definitions, probably, Cayce remarked. With one exception, I should add. On Ysla, we are all of us equal. On Imperial soil cultists use relic technology for their own gains, occasionally bartering their skills for positions of power, even to fight against others in order to further their agendas. One will find none of that occurs on this island we do not express power over people in our communities, or even the local tribes.

*

In the evening, Lan joined Cayces table at a large outdoor banquet, and basked in the balmy air. Such a mild evening . . . Its something Id almost forgotten.

Coloured lights and strips of bright material littered the forest clearing like a star-field. Children mingled with adults at a vast table shaped like a broken letter O, with people sitting both inside and out, mainly humans, but also a few rumels, and even one Ceph further down, who Cayce glanced to more than once. In the centre, a group of musicians played lute-like instruments, and drums and violins beat out loud melodies based on local folk songs. The forest vibrated with an energy that reminded her of the shows. There must have been a few hundred people there, each of them drinking and eating exotic foods ones that could only really grow so far south, with such an altered climate. Succulent fruits and mellow-tasting mead, and thick stews and soft bread. The tables were overflowing.

And this was the first time shed been amongst so many people, able to feel quite safe. Yes, she could think about herself now with great relief. There was no deep-rooted fear that she would be victimized. When people talked to her there still remained an echo of her former self-consciousness, and that would perhaps linger for some time, but for now she could cover it up with her interest in this other culture.

As incessant as midges, the locals attempted to quiz her about the outside world. Cayce kept suggesting that people leave her be, to allow her to recover in peace, and she softly smiled her apologies to them.

The discussion surrounding her was wide-ranging, though often concerning matters of organization: transportation, how many people would man the bridges the next week, assemblies to be held, union guilds, schooling, districts, skills. For the most part it seemed all these people did was plan what needed to be done, but there was a good deal of talk of spiritual practices and liberal arts. There was a lot of talk of the finer points of sorcery, too, but most went over her head. Conversations at some parts of the table flared into altercations and semi-rows, though elders stood up and softly waved for calm. They all seem a lively bunch on Ysla.

A name was suddenly whispered across the table, and the expressions on faces soured considerably and conversations quietened.

Lan leaned towards Cayce. Whos Shalev?

As he struck alight a roll-up, Cayce observed the reactions of others along the table. Eventually, still looking their way, he answered Lan. She is someone who was . . . of an unpleasant nature. She did bad things.

A criminal? Lan asked.

We have no criminals here.

What?

Keep your voice down, Cayce muttered calmly, and took a drag. I said we have no criminals. We have no prisons. We do not punish in the same ways as the Empire.

How do you stop people from stealing things?

If no one owns anything, how can someone steal? If someone can have anything they want by asking, work, relic, or by doing it themselves, then there exists no need to steal. Most crimes are against property and here, that is a non-existent term.

Who decides these rules?

We all do, Cayce replied. We all have a democratic say in our own affairs, and this includes making the rules by which we live.

I take it theres no Inquisition here, so who the hell polices all of this?

No, theres no Inquisition. We have our own community body who see to it that everything is fair, and democratically assign a punishment according to the offence that is committed, and to ensure the victim is suitably compensated.

What about murder?

Something flickered behind Cayces eyes then.

Lan pressed him further. Is that what this Shalev person did, kill someone?

Cayce glanced at the others who were now listening in to the conversation. No. Not just some one. Shalev was thought to have killed several people through her erratic practices. She was an unstable person, who did not fit in with our ways despite being brought up here, for the most part. Shalev is not an indigenous cultist. She came from a neighbouring island. She was difficult for many here to understand, and she was never popular because of that. Then her experiments became more reckless, and civilians were killed due to some of her relics. She failed to accept responsibility for her actions, and was exiled from all the communities across the island.

Where do you think shes gone now? Lan asked.

Cayce glanced down at the table. This was the first time she had seen him lose his cool demeanour. Shalev always talked about hurting the Empire in fact, this was a contributing factor to her being exiled. Shalev wanted to impose our own systems elsewhere as there has been much talk amongst our own people over the centuries of doing the same. But Shalev wanted to use violence to achieve this, which contradicts our way of life. So, in answer to your question, I fear she has headed to Imperial soil.

*

Cayce walked her back to a hab, both of them harmlessly giddy on the local alcohol. It was still humid despite being deep into the evening, and as they stepped across the firm decking, Lan quizzed Cayce relentlessly. Why help me, Cayce? I want to know. Im just a nobody, so why? Please, be honest.

You are quite the solipsistic lady.

No, its not that. I want to know who the person was who helped me. Who you really were, before I walk back to that cold island on the other side of the Archipelago possibly never to see you again.

Cayce gazed at her for some time and gestured for her to enter the hab. Hesitantly she shuffled inside. The darkness abated as he lit a lantern, and the soft glow warmed his anxious face.

Everything inside looked carved from the forest, from the floors to the furniture. Pinned up against the walls were detailed diagrams of the human body, in one corner a stack of books leaned over precariously, whilst thick bundles of paper were scattered haphazardly across the floor. A window faced out across the dark forest crown.

He drew curtains across the window to block out the night, and bolted the door shut suddenly Lan grew fearful.

Sit, he instructed, and she quickly collapsed into a wooden chair by the desk.

He stood before her, sliding off his white robe. Then he commenced unbuttoning his undershirt.

She froze, said nothing. Is he going to hurt me?

Very slowly he peeled back his shirt and dropped it to the floor in a pool of his clothes.

Lans jaw dropped.

Scar tissue blossomed around his deltoid muscles, and between there and his pectorals she could see severe blistering no, the faint bubbles of suction cups, some even protruding, pushing up through human skin. He had been very grotesquely altered. The colour of his arms was noticeably lighter than around his abdomen they did not look to be his own.

He watched her watching him and she began to apologize pathetically for her stunned reaction. From her of all people.

Now you have seen, Cayce whispered dolefully. I . . . I was once a Ceph. I once swam underwater with them. I understand, to some extent, how you yourself feel. I longed to be human deep within me I felt such a distance from the sea. I hated the cold depths. I craved light and knowledge, the land and human culture. I left my people, and am shunned by them now, for they do not appreciate the ways of this island. They are brutal and simple people. At a very young age I was made human by the cultists here, and given all the accoutrements of a human being. I became one of them, I learned their languages and their ways and practised until no one could tell me apart from any other. I grew to be who I am now, and it was not easy, but among this society I was welcomed, and that . . . that open-mindedness and generosity is something I wish to show others.

He held out wide the arms that were once not his own. So, Lan, I understand your desire for transformation. That is why I helped you.

*

There was so much more Lan wanted to know, but it was time to leave Ysla.

Morning sunlight filtered into the hab and she listened as Cayce talked to her from the other side of his desk. He was informing Lan of the details of her transformation, how it would affect her, and she readily drank in his words, trusting him instinctively after he had revealed his own secrets to her. She had no doubt that this man understood her, though it did not make what he said any easier to absorb.

Weve been able to give you as much of a functioning female anatomy as we thought we could, Cayce said. And of course, we have . . . smoothed away masculine contours from your form, especially on your face, and in other ways with hair and voice. These were simple enough. So firstly, you should be able to experience intercourse as a full woman, but I cannot say how much pleasure you will receive from it.

I never got much anyway, she replied, grinning. Besides, for years she had never gone that far because she ran the risk of being discovered.

Cayce ignored her dry humour, stalling over his next sentence. Youll also still . . . You will be unable to have children, and . . . theres no way we can encourage natural menstruation.

Lan suspected as much, though always retained that vague hope of having the option, but now that hope had ultimately died, a small light in her heart went out for ever.

Aside from that, he continued, and given that gender is a fluid notion we are not Neanderthals who deal in binary on Ysla I think you have many good reasons to be happy, Cayce concluded. And are you happy with your physical state?

I always felt like a woman anyway, but, you know, its so much more meaningful now? This isnt just about how I look. She allowed a contemplative pause, and it was only in this silence that she realized how much more softer her voice had really become. How much of this will remain a secret? Lan asked. I wouldnt want any of this getting out, is all. How many people know of what youve done to me?

I understand. Cayce peered up. A small network of cultists will be aware, but that is it. Besides, with all that ice around to worry about, who else will care?

Ill care.

Cayce folded his arms, hands under his armpits. He gave her a look of deep empathy. Of course.

Im sorry, Lan said. His words were all very pleasant, but wasnt she still some experiment to them? This was a mutual arrangement, after all. Theres just so much to cope with.

I told you there would be. People come looking for physical changes all the time, but they dont understand just how connected the body and mind can be.

I understand, she replied.

You may always have ghosts, Cayce warned. Do not think they vanish overnight.

Before Lan departed she didnt quite know what to say. Cayce merely stood there, alongside a doorway at the top of the stairwell leading down to where shed be transported back to the freezing ice-wastes of Jokull. Others from the island had gathered in their multicoloured clothing faces with which she was distantly familiar. The sun was intense, as it always was here. She gazed behind into the distance to see Villarbor, and its hundreds of hub communities stretching across the many shades of green that comprised the landscape. What a view . . . She would certainly miss this island, but was honoured to have at least witnessed such exoticism.

Cayce guided her to the steps. The local tribes like to point out to us that for rebirth, first you must choose the path of death. I would recommend that it is an opportunity to let go of the person you were.

I will, she replied. Ill go to Villjamur I have just a little money saved, but yeah. No more life at the circus for me.

Very wise, Cayce replied.

Cayce, I dont know what to say . . . She was welling up, and thinking her emotional outburst absurd, but how could she thank this man who had given her a new life, the life which she naturally felt for all these years, which was both ever-distant and as close as a dream?

The pleasure is, indeed, all mine, sister, Cayce said gently. I have explored new science here, and my order are thrilled with the work we have done together.

She suddenly embraced him, unable to hide her gratitude, and then she turned down the stairs, under the gazes of others, back towards the musky darkness.

To a new life.


| The Book of Transformations | c



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