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TWENTY-FOUR


Some entire bookcases were built around doors, and others were themselves doors. They might open up into hidden enclaves, showing texts bound in different materials, from different ages. Most of the books were covered in centuries of dust. Rats scurried away from the light, spiders tottered backwards into corners. The more of these rooms they travelled through, the worse the quality of the architecture became these were more basic zones, rooms for primitive collections or almost-forgotten tomes.

Do the staff permit you this far? Fulcrom enquired.

I doubt they are even aware that most of these rooms exist, Ulryk replied cheerfully. If you have noticed from our rather convoluted route, we have entered a labyrinth of sorts. It is quite a common arrangement in ancient libraries, which leads me to believe that they were all constructed, originally, by the same architect or designer. Such creators intended there to be hidden regions, for the protection of certain tracts of information, for those in power to maintain their grip on the populace, even to rewrite histories. I suspect, though, there were powers greater than mere emperors at work, areas to even which the ruling kings and queens were blind. That is the thing about knowledge: there is no discrimination over who owns it, or who may abuse it.

Room after room, each one different. Corridors turned this way and that, with no apparent design. For much of the next hour, Fulcrom saw only the lantern and the soft glow it cast upon the side of Ulryks face. Occasionally the priest would pause at some dark intersection, with the possible paths ahead denoted only by their utter absence of light. Once, Ulryk raised the lantern to the wall to show Fulcrom the graffiti of yesteryear. There were names and directions written in a script that hadnt been in common use for over two thousand years. Other languages here were even more alien.

Is it going to take much longer? Fulcrom asked, aware of how petulant he must be sounding.

We are about halfway, Ulryk replied.

Is this the route the dead took?

I have . . . little idea of their methods, Ulryk confessed. It seems that although I pretend to hold great knowledge, there are many things strange to me.

You and me both, Fulcrom muttered.

*

Their placards argued for a peaceful resolution to their claims, though their sheer mass was an implied threat. In the late afternoon sunshine, thousands of people marched out of the caves, men, women and children, human and rumel, and old garudas with broken wings. Underground radicals and change-seekers, all were unified on this march. It seemed a critical mass had been achieved.

Perched on a wall alongside several of the city guard in their crimson finery and slate-grey armour, the Knights watched the unfolding scene.

Fucking inbred scum, muttered a soldier in the red uniform of the Shelby Corporation Soldiers.

Aye, another said, leaning on his sword. Bad enough that they leech on the rest of us, now here they come spreading their diseases.

Why do you hate them so much? Lan asked.

Cunts come out here and steal things for their own decrepit culture, is why, the first soldier said, putting on his helm ready for combat. Take food from honest hard-working folk, steal whatever trinkets they can get their filthy hands on, rape women.

Lan had a flashback to that period a few years ago, after she had left home. She tried to remember what the people were like in the caves, but she realized she had been drunk or on drugs for the most part. All that came to her was a visual echo of the girl who just about cleaned her up, their friendship born out of an urgent desire for secrecy.

People flowed out towards them in their thousands, a river comprised of years of pent-up resentment. They blocked the cobbled streets leading from the caves, dressed in the general Caveside fashions, cheap-looking breeches and shirts, overalls, shades of greys and browns. Lan couldnt help but notice that the women were dressed just like the men. She was not sure what to make of all this, or even if the Knights would be of any use in a situation where surely diplomacy was the key.

She focused on the details, tried to discern the chants and the scrawls on crudely painted boards:

The Cavesiders called for respect. For better jobs, for investment in peoples health and housing, and not pretty irens for the rich. They wanted food for the refugees outside the city walls. And better rights for women, for acknowledgement of tribal cultures and religions, and the right for all Cavesiders even those with unregistered addresses to vote. They called for the end of brutal conduct by organizations like the City Guard and the Knights, and a halt to the endless victimization of Caveside dwellers. To Cavesiders, these authorities of the city were feared and despised. There were slogans suggesting oppression. Wooden boards were held aloft with the symbols of the new anarchists.

All strands of concern had been brought together and Lan stood agog at the sheer energy they created, the challenge they presented. There was a hatred towards her that was different from any she had known previously and she had known a lot.

Get down there then, ordered one of the soldiers.

Vuldon turned his bulk steadily. Lan for once appreciated his potential temper. Who the fuck, Vuldon growled, do you think you are, talking to us like that?

The fear was obvious in the soldiers eyes. I didnt mean no harm, like. I just meant for you to help us. Honest . . .

We take our orders from the top. No sooner had Vuldon spoken than a messenger came directly at the Emperors request, asking for the Knights to stand before the front row of the protest.

The front? Lan asked.

Its our job, Vuldon snapped. This is what we do. Come on.

They set to work. Tane and Vuldon shuffled off the wall with the soldiers, while Lan simply stepped off and glided down to the cobbles. They criss-crossed through a series of narrow alleyways behind tall, granite walls and taverns. As they moved towards the front, soldiers from the city guard and the Dragoons had already lined up to block their passage. Lan guessed they were facing off against the protesters.

What do we do? Lan asked, turning to Vuldon.

Vuldon could see over the sea of grey helmets. The chants and buzz of the crowd were threateningly loud down on street level.

The road banks down towards the caves, so I can only see the tops of the placards.

Tane said suddenly, Look at whos lining up.

Archers in green and brown uniforms were scrambling over the precarious rooftops on each side of this wide street. They negotiated the wet and hazardous angles of slate, until they had positioned themselves perfectly with a view of the Cavesiders protest.

Lan felt remarkably uncomfortable at the fatidic nature to the event, even more so because Vuldon and Tane didnt have a clue how to handle the situation. She had no doubt that the military ranks on the front row had their weapons drawn and were prepared for combat.

Against their own people? This shouldnt be happening. Theyre not rioting at all, theyre not causing any damage, this is just a simple march.

Whos in command here? Vuldon bellowed.

The back rows of the guard peered back to regard Vuldon, and soon word rippled forward. A few moments later and a senior officer, a thickset veteran, shuffled through his own ranks in order to speak to the Knights. They walked sideways until they were in the shadow behind the back of a bistro, out of the potential conflict zone.

I want you to tell me in simple terms, Vuldon ordered, what the fuck is going on here.

The soldier removed his helm, revealing a weathered face, a wide nose, and a thick greying beard. The look in his eyes betrayed his uncertainty. Not even he knows what to do.

Military orders, issued from the Council, are to stop this march from progressing any further. Theyre spread out for half a mile up from the caves, causing havoc. Citizens from this level have been evacuated theyre in fear of their lives.

Its just a protest, Lan said, not a war.

You conspiring with them, eh? the soldier said fiercely, then laughed. Course youre not, love. Best you leave this to the men, eh?

She turned to Vuldon, who signalled his permission. Lan grabbed the soldier by the throat and slammed him against the wall; using her powers she raised him only a few feet in the air. His sword and helmet clattered down on the stone and one or two of the other soldiers turned in response, but Tane, now displaying his claws, cautioned them back.

To the veteran, Lan said, quite coolly, Do not call me love, and do not treat me as if Im some useless fucking dress-tart. Weve done more for this city in a few weeks than you probably have in your entire life.

All right, lady, I was only kidding . . . he spluttered.

Lan lowered him, but let him drop the final foot. He stumbled to his knees amidst scraps of food and murky puddles. His glance was full of disdain as Vuldon hauled him back upright, and dusted him down theatrically.

Now where was I? Vuldon said breathing into the soldiers face. Oh yeah we got orders to defuse the situation.

So have we, the officer replied. Look, we can let you pass through, all right, but thats all Im doing for now. You wanna go to the front? Fine. Rather you than me.

A few quick orders and a line parted in the gathered ranks allowing the Knights through. There were men and, surprisingly, a few women, from units of the Dragoons, Regiments of Foot and city guard; their shields raised, their swords in hand, their helms fixed in place.

As they approached the front, a row of protesters could be seen stretching in a rough line the full width of the street, which was perhaps fifty paces wide. Thick, granite walls boxed them in surprisingly bland structures for Villjamur and the buildings they had passed were mostly terraces. This meant there was no route for the protesters to move out of the street.

There was only backwards or forwards.

Towards the military, or back to the caves.

A few people leaned out of the windows to hurl abuse at the Cavesiders, some chucking rotten food on them. The archers were numerous, silhouetted against the bright sky. A few garudas swept over the scene, and would probably be relaying details back to the commanders.

The Knights presented themselves to the Cavesiders, which had stalled about twenty paces from the military in a stand-off, and as soon as they arrived the protesters began to hurl abuse and obscenities.

Lan was mortified. Why couldnt these people see the bigger picture? There were signs that declared her presence was an act of oppression, that the Knights victimized Cavesiders, that they worked only for the rich and served the privileged. Was that even true? Had she sold her soul to the wealthy?

Vuldon and Tane moved forward and tried talking to some of the protesters, but this seemed to raise the aggression towards them.

When they eventually returned to her side, Vuldon gave a huge sigh. Theres not a lot we can do here. Were part of the reason theyre protesting. Well make things worse by being here.

An object flew by a bottle and it crashed down a few feet to one side, then burst into flame. A pool of liquid was on fire. Lan could swear that it had come from behind, from the Empires soldiers, and not the Cavesiders.

A ripple of clattering metal: in an instant, the front row of the military surged forward past the Knights, and locked their shields. Another bottle exploded further away. This most definitely came from above one of the archers? What were they doing? Black smoke began to rise and the snow suddenly intensified.

I see now, Vuldon said, his head turning left and right as he analyzed the scene. Oh shit, I can see.

What? What do you see? Lan demanded.

Theyre planning to slaughter their own people! Vuldon snapped.

Shouldnt we stop this getting out of hand? Tane asked, peering around hurriedly. The abusive chants amplified around them.

Vuldon shook his head in despair. What, cat-man, do you suggest we do? The military has already made their decision. There are hundreds of them and only three of us.

We cant, Lan pleaded. Were meant to look after the people of the city and that includes Cavesiders, surely? They deserve our protection, just like anyone else.

Movement above: the archers were now readying their arrows, and taking aim.

Get away from this, Vuldon ordered them both. He pointed his finger down at their faces, like they were children. We walk away or this will haunt you for years. Do not involve yourselves in this massacre. We wont stop the military and the Cavesiders wont listen to us even if we could get to them. I can do dirty work now and then, but Ive found my backbone, and I wont be involved in a massacre. These are my orders now. Walk right away immediately.

More bottles exploded around them. Instructions were being barked from somewhere within the massed ranks, and soldiers edged closer into position.

Lan felt shame and hopelessness, and an overwhelming urge to remain there, to do something anything but Vuldon was now pulling her back, back through the lines of soldiers, away from those she wanted to help, to save, to be the hero she believed herself to be.

Soldiers pulled into ranks, obscuring her view of the scene on the ground. Lan was aghast: arrows commenced raining down on the Cavesiders, whose screams rose up from the streets, shrieks of hysteria drowned out by the sounds of the Imperial soldiers continuing their assault upon the Empires own subjects.

*

Fulcrom was getting bored. There was only so much he could take of seeing one dusty room after another, hearing his own footsteps shuffling on the stone, and following the light clasped in Ulryks hands. Only the occasional downward stairwell broke the monotony of their location. The corridors were oppressing, the centuries of darkness and decay closing in on them like a fist.

Some of the rooms possessed statues of humans: bronze busts or full figures, covered in dust and cobwebs, gazing lamentably into some distant realm. Fulcrom speculated at who they might be, but they bore no resemblance to the paintings and statues of Villjamurs leaders of the past few hundred years. How far have we come? Fulcrom asked. Ive counted well over fifty sets of stairs going down.

I suspect were far beneath the city. The floors are gently sloped; we have entered rooms that open out onto lower levels though do not ask me how they have been constructed.

And youve been this precise way before? How can you be sure youre not going a different way?

Why, my footprints are in the dust, Ulryk observed, and lowered the lantern to prove the point. Within the next hour, though, the books were no longer present on the shelves, and soon the empty shelves vanished, and the rooms became caves, then vast caverns. Beneath their feet, flagstones capitulated to loose gravel, fine pebbles, larger, moss-strewn chunks that were hazardous to navigate over in the light of one lantern, and their feet no longer tapped but crunched.

There was suddenly a change in the quality of air: it wasnt still and confined, but stirring, bringing with it a damp aroma. And Fulcrom heard the water before he saw it, a vague dripping sound. The ground grew uneven, rising then dipping, and Fulcrom followed Ulryks lantern until it reflected off the surface of the water. Its intense pungency made Fulcrom question its origin.

A small river, perhaps ten paces across, was flowing.

Before you ask, Ulryk said, as if reading his thoughts, no, I do not know where the river flows from. But if we follow it, you can see where it runs to.

Are we under the city?

Directly under the heart of Villjamur, Ulryk beamed. Although we are probably now in a different part of reality than where we walked from. We have been travelling down for hours, yet . . . no paths from the outside lead here. We have gone through secret room after secret room, and travelled through a labyrinth designed specifically to keep people away. And we may though this is merely an assumption, given what you are likely to soon see not be in the same realm of . . . our usual time. So you need not worry about being late for any further investigative work.

The priest was too cheery for Fulcroms liking. If Ulryk was used to this kind of weird stuff then fine but for Fulcrom this was difficult to comprehend, even to believe. There was no logic.

You see, Ulryk continued in the darkness, Villjamur or rather, this location predates this Empire. The city itself is a mere eleven thousand years old, and within this cave system lies the remnants of something greater. Many ley-line maps of the Archipelago have suggested there is something to be found in Villjamur, where the lines all converge. It is no surprise to find activity here that one may never expect. You seek answers to what happened on the surface last night, investigator well, I will show you where the dead have come from. Theyre not far away now. They never were.

Silence seemed the best answer. All Fulcrom could do was absorb the information and process it steadily, like he had always done, sifting through it for some sense. Had Fulcrom not seen his dead wife in the mirror the night before, he might have dismissed the priests crackpot suggestions in an instant. As it was, having her haunt his room, he decided to maintain an open mind.

They continued, their feet crunching on the stone for some way before Ulryk sat down beside the river.

Whats wrong? Fulcrom asked.

Nothing is wrong. See over there . . . Ulryk gestured with the lantern, and even though the light was weak, Fulcrom could make out an utter blackness filling an arch. We must continue along in the water from here.

Im not swimming in that! Fulcrom said.

Oh, investigator. You do amuse me. We are not swimming, we will be sailing.

In what? Fulcrom demanded.

Patience. Ulryk said, drawing out his book that book he always used, the one which produced magic.

Before you start, what exactly is that book?

It is one version of The Book of Transformations.

I know that, but what does it do what do they both do?

There were two, both written by Frater Mercury. This is not the one I seek, however, though it does nicely in disaggregating the world when such talents are required. The one I seek is much more powerful than this, I believe, though I dont quite know how much they differ; but when they come together, real magic should begin . . . Ulryk flipped open the book and began to recite some words, hypnotically, and Fulcrom stood agape: the pebbles around the shore were slicking and slinking across each other, coalescing until they formed a flat, rigid platform beside the priest. A moment later, he pushed it to the waters edge.

Its quite safe, Ulryk urged.

Fulcrom did as he was bid and climbed aboard, stunned that it didnt sink on its own, let alone with their added weight. The cold stones held firm, and the two eased out further into the water, until they were caught in its flow and began to drift forward. Ulryk simply crossed his legs, placing the lantern alongside him. Fulcrom drew his knees to his chest, preferring not to get wet.

The two sailed through the cavern, further along the river.

All will be revealed shortly, Ulryk declared portentously. Fulcrom seriously doubted that and felt foolish for having come this far: why was he even here, following the whim of this priest? Perhaps it piqued his curiosity, fulfilled his desire for learning new things. Was he escaping his dead ex-partner, or was he trying to find a way to make sure she would leave him alone? Of course, there was the matter of the other dead folk walking the city, and Fulcrom would have to find a solution to that.

Well, if the priest caused all this, then maybe he can give some answers.

There seemed to be more ambient light here, and Fulcrom could just about make out ruins no, a crippled city in the distance. Ahead were some glowing forms, tiny white phantoms, and a few more along the bank of the river to their left. Another river flowed in from the right, causing the current to alter slightly. There seemed no colour here, just monochrome shades of grey, black and white.

I believe, Ulryk announced finally, that this passes for an underworld of sorts. And the little glows you see on the shore? Why those are the dead, dear investigator. This is the thing about Villjamur it isnt just the hub of the Empire, its the centre of more than that. Things we do not understand. There are gateways and connections that I cannot fathom there were even dead portals in that labyrinth. And I believe it is here in this rubble-strewn city where my quest needs to continue. Somewhere, here, is the original copy of The Book of Transformations. I am sure of it. Ulryks tone changed to a more conversational one as if he was turning ideas over in his head. I have been tracing mentions of this place through my research, and all the metaphors turned out to be quite real. Rivers I took to be representative of Time, for example, but no here they are, all flowing to this one place. Having traced my notes, I am convinced my quest will be resolved here.

Fulcrom watched as the figures on the shore waved to them. Once you get this book what are you going to do with it?

Ulryk remained silent. The stone raft drifted closer to the shoreline and a few of the white glows took their human and rumel forms more clearly. They stood in groups of two or three, gazing as the raft came in. The dreary, dreamlike silhouette of a broken city lay behind them the rising towers in decay, half crumbling, if not already a wreck; walls with notable damage; black, windowless frames. Before the city, running down to the waters edge, was a dark pebble beach.

My quest, Ulryk finally replied, is simply to use the book to return its author to his world.

This Frater Mercury guy?

You have a fine memory, investigator. It does you credit.

And just what is Frater Mercury going to do when he is back? Do you even know if hes anything more than a myth? I get the impression a lot of this is based on faith.

Much of all we do is based on faith, investigator. I have been . . . conversing with him. Through various methods and rituals. Through dimensions. He is quite real. His world is spilling through into ours, and you know already of the genocides and wars in the north. Here is evidence.

Thats not evidence of him, though.

I have seen what I need to. Not everything can be proven. We need faith in the things we cannot see.

Fulcrom was stunned. How could anyone communicate through dimensions? Then he realized by his questioning he actually believed everything that Ulryk was saying. Just because youve seen the dead doesnt mean all he says is true.

They sailed to the shoreline, where a white figure with a much gentler glow up close helped them up.

Back so soon, eh, Ulryk? he called out, much to Fulcroms surprise, in a traditional dialect. The man was bald, tall, muscular, wearing ancient fashions, high collared shirts and a knee-length tunic. His nose and chin were thin and long, giving him an almost bird-like appearance, and his skin was dark like dusk no, only the right side of his face, because the other was pale, and no matter how hard Fulcrom looked, he could not see the bisecting line down his face. Brought a friend this time, I see.

This is Investigator Fulcrom, Ulryk said, climbing off the raft.

Oh, aye. Weve some Inquisition members here who still fancy themselves in charge of law and order. Not that theres much point, heh. Anyway. Welcome, sir. My name is Aker. The old ghost offered a hand, and Fulcrom, pushing himself upright, didnt know whether or not to take it, whether he would grip onto nothing. He did take it, in the end and the grip was quite real. A moment later and two huge waist-high cats padded down across the stones to Akers side and, when seated, eyed Fulcrom suspiciously.

Dont mind these two, Aker said. They just aint too fond of the living. Sets em off.

And Im not too fond of the dead, Fulcrom thought, watching one lick its paw. Do you get many of the living here?

No, Ill give you that. Just Ulryk here.

Fulcrom and Ulryk were guided further onto land where more of the figures greeted them.

These are all the dead, Ulryk whispered on approach. Many followed me back to see what the world was like again. Some had unfinished business, you see, or people they wanted to see. I can only assume the rest here didnt want to leave.

The dead appeared much like the living, but wore the wounds that had finally killed them. They also possessed an ethereal shine, similar to the one that Adena had possessed. Clothing spanned history, and Fulcrom noticed various costumes or styles from tapestries or paintings hed seen over the years. In groups, they came and went, seeing the spectacle of the living visit them. How many are left here? Ulryk called to Aker, who was following with his cats weaving around behind him. Then, to Fulcrom, Ulryk whispered, I think this fellow is some kind of gatekeeper.

Oh, I would say around a hundred or so, Aker boomed. People prefer to stay around for the most part. Living aint what it used to be. Besides, a few who tried to cross the river felt too weak didnt have the determination to go on, so to speak.

I do not suppose you bear news on the location of the book I sought?

Aye a few of the locals were thinking about this. There are old libraries down here, too, though wrecks these days. Much like the rest of the place. But nothing yet, Im afraid. Theyll keep looking. It keeps them busy, since life can get dull round these parts.

They passed through a massive iron gate set into dark stone walls. Huge cracks penetrated the stone, splitting it completely in places, and Fulcrom noticed how the design of the walls was much like Villjamur, as if it mirrored its style, yet had suffered from the impacts of some apocalyptic event.

Fulcrom shook his head in disbelief. The city was laid out similarly, roads banking up either side in a circular route. The buildings, tall and narrow, were leaning precariously upon each other, crumbling or ready to break. It was unnaturally warm. Two dead men were playing cards on a table in the street, one with a knife protruding from his back. There were plazas and courtyards, parks with dead trees, and the dead were everywhere. Fulcrom felt an overwhelming and unexplained sorrow, which was met with his refusal to accept what he was seeing. Nothing made sense any more, nothing at all. Were these genuinely the remains of those who had died from the surface world?

Ive seen enough, Fulcrom said. I ought to return to my duties on the surface.

Ha, typical of the livin, that, an old man said. Always concerned with duties and jobs. Try enjoying life a bit while you still got it, yeah?

I enjoy my job, Fulcrom muttered. I make a difference. There was more defensiveness in this final statement then he would have liked. Then to Ulryk, Please . . . I cant stay here. I cant bear to look.

Ulryk placed a hand on each arm as if he was going to shake Fulcrom. You wanted explanations, investigator. And I wanted you to believe. I will need your help, most definitely in the coming days. I know a man of logic when I see him and you needed convincing. This, I feel, has helped. Have faith in me and what I am doing your world is about to change greatly.

I know that the church has ordered creatures into the city. When I find the other copy of The Book of Transformations, I will need to conduct rituals upon the surface. It may take me a good while to ascertain the details, and in this time I will need your protection, as much of it as you can offer. I will require your faith in me. There are few who will be able to believe in what is going on here, few who can offer such loyalty.

I think, Fulcrom whispered, that you can relax. I believe in you.

The smile on the priests face was tinged more with relief than happiness.

Though tell me, Fulcrom began, forcing his mind back towards logic, what about the dead who have gone to the surface? They need to be returned here, dont they? All the time his thoughts were on Adena, and how to rid himself of her ghost.

Aker interrupted them. The thing is, any of those who have gone up need to be persuaded to come back down.

Fulcrom breathed steadily, his eyes widening.

Aker laughed, rubbing the ears of one of his cats. With a face of pure contentment, the beast crooked its neck to allow further scratching.

Whats up, sir? Aker asked. You look like youve seen a ghost!


TWENTY-THREE | The Book of Transformations | TWENTY-FIVE



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