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TWENTY-EIGHT


From a bridge spanning between a church and a dancehall, the two Knights looked across the evening cityscape, regarding the gentle ambience of a calm, cold night in Villjamur. A pterodette skimmed the edge of the bridge before disappearing somewhere.

‘I don’t like it,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘Not even the dance is making that much racket. It shouldn’t be this quiet.’

‘Why ever not?’ Tane replied. ‘There is a lot less work for us to do on a quiet night. Even criminals take time off from time to time.’

‘Maybe.’

A well-to-do couple walked by, the man in a very regal purple cape, the woman wearing a beautiful gown. They nodded their greetings to the Knights as they went on their way, their footsteps echoing. In the distance he could see the warm light of the dancehall and the heads of people busy mingling.

‘Don’t you ever feel just a bit of a fool out here?’ Tane said. ‘Not that I’m complaining, ultimately.’

Vuldon turned to look at him. ‘What d’you mean?’

The cat-man gripped the brickwork as he regarded the empty streets below. ‘I know that the Emperor wants us to be visible, to be seen by people, and I’m fine with that, really. But should the time come – and we’re required for some major operation against the anarchists, say – would people genuinely look to us, and could we cope?’

‘I could,’ Vuldon replied. ‘I get what you’re saying though. But what else would you do in the Freeze? I don’t relish getting drunk in a darkened room again. My rep is good these days. I’m happy to give a little hope. This lot up here don’t think beyond their own lives, so there’s no point in wanting more from things.’

‘A little cynical, but I see your point.’

A harsh screeching noise suddenly shattered the calm. Tane placed his hands to his ears, cringing as he crouched down behind the wall.

‘What the fuck was that?’ Vuldon scanned the city but could see nothing out of the ordinary. Then to Tane he said, ‘Get up.’

‘Blimey,’ Tane replied, ‘that hurt my head.’

‘Which direction did it come from?’ Vuldon once again looked around the city and after a moment Tane leaned forward next to him.

‘A few streets to the east,’ Tane said.

‘Are you sure?’

He shrugged. ‘As much as I ever am.’

*

They ran along the bridge and through the empty streets, taking side routes and down crumbling stairwells, all the while checking around them for any signs of where the scream had come from.

‘Do you have . . . any idea . . . what it could be?’ Vuldon spluttered through huge intakes of breath.

‘Possibly a fight, I can’t really tell.’

They sprinted down-city, using Tane’s senses to guide them, and being careful not to skid on the cobbles.

Eventually they reached a tiny viewing platform that overlooked a small stone courtyard between closed shopfronts.

‘There,’ Vuldon snapped, and the two paused. ‘What the hell is that?’

Down below a huge, skeletal creature in a hooded cape was towering over an elderly man. The thing held up a huge iron morningstar, a bulbous, spiked weapon. Two blue eyes glowed from within the hood, and its movements were eerily fluid. The old man managed to scurry out of the way of the blows, which sounded like those of a blacksmith’s workshop.

Vuldon heard a word hissed loudly between the high stone walls: ‘Heretic.’

The old man seemed to pause for a moment and chant something. Vuldon watched in disbelief as a sword materialized in the air before the man who, gripping it firmly, commenced sparring feebly with the creature.

There was no quick way down, and the fall would likely injure Vuldon, so the two Knights were forced to run around the perimeter path, then down a stairway that led to the courtyard. Luckily, Vuldon saw that a member of the city guard was already moving to the aid of the old man. That would buy them some time.

As they navigated past the detritus in front of a bistro, Vuldon looked at the scene in annoyance. The young soldier was of no use: he pissed himself as he stood before the monster. Paralysed with fear, he meekly held his sword forward, muttering something to himself. The bony creature with perverse and unlikely musculature and tendons flaring underneath its crude brown outfit pulled back the morningstar behind its shoulders and with one swing smashed the soldier’s head. The man’s body remained upright for a moment longer before crumpling in a heap.

The skeletal creature plucked the hunks of flesh that had adhered to its weapon, then turned to face the old man. ‘Heretic,’ it hissed once again. ‘I have been ordered to stop your blasphemous lies, priest.’

It leered, swinging its weapon through the air in an attempt to kill the old man and struck the ground so fiercely that sparks skittered upwards, and in places the cobbles themselves were removed in twos or threes.

Tane and Vuldon arrived to intercept the assault.

Tane immediately began to attack behind and around the demon, which could not bring its weapon down in time. Tane’s extended claws drew across the back of the monster’s legs, hamstringing it, and while it fell, lowering the morningstar for a moment, Vuldon barged in and stomped a boot into its chest, sending the weapon clattering to the ground. He grabbed the demon’s bony arm while Tane drew his clawed hand down the creature’s back, ripping its already flimsy outfit – the creature let out a sinister hiss as if deflating. The waxed overcoat and cape fell away, revealing its repulsive body, a bony form with bulging flared muscles. It screamed, then lashed out; Vuldon smashed down on its arm, then slammed it face-forward to the floor, before he reached down for the morningstar. Then he whipped the weapon down on its head with a crunch: its legs kicked out, its arms flailed, but then it became quite still.

The old man, his sword no longer to be seen, shuffled over to the Knights and began expressing his gratitude. ‘Thank you, thank you, my saviours. Please, who are you? Let me know your names.’

‘We’re the Villjamur Knights. I’m Vuldon and he’s Tane. Now, who the fuck are you?’

‘I am but a simple priest – my name is Ulryk.’

‘Well then, priest, what was that thing and why was it after you?’

‘It is called a nephilim,’ Ulryk replied, slowly edging away to regard the corpse. ‘It was a demon created in secrecy, and sent with a purpose to kill me, but to explain why could take many hours.’

‘We’ve not got all night. We’re going to have to log this with the Inquisition,’ Vuldon replied. ‘You’ll have to come with us, I’m afraid.’

*

A new day, a new beginning. Cleansed of his past, though still a little raw, Fulcrom felt like he had been reborn. He was up early, felt a little groggy, and splashed water on his face. With a towel thrown across his shoulder, he scanned his apartment, contemplating the scene from the night before.

Lan dominated his thoughts. There were so many qualities about her which made him smile: her confidence, strong-mindedness, the life she’d led, the way she’d note down interesting names she saw on signs or conversations she overheard, the way she played with strands of her hair, all of which formed the content of her soul. Fulcrom didn’t commit himself often, he decided, but when he did he was certain it was the right thing.

He shaved with all his usual meticulousness and checked his face in the mirror. He slicked his white hair to one side. This time, it was because he wanted to be on best form in case he ran into Lan. He picked up the folded clothes on the chair but realized Adena had sat upon them and, though he was not a superstitious man, he decided to put on different attire: a black undershirt, a green tunic, Inquisition outer robe.

Out into the bone-piercing cold. From the front door to his building he watched the snow begin to settle once again on the city, despite the best efforts of the city’s cultists. Cobbles were obscured. The undersides of bridges formed bold black streaks across the sky, like print on paper. People hugged the edges of buildings, cocooned in thick and heavy clothing.

Around one corner Fulcrom saw an old ritual under way. A dozen women dressed in warrior garb, a design worn hundreds of years ago – padded red and blue garments, bascinets and aventails, and bright chain mail across their torsos – were parading beneath a flag bearing a red leaf and a flame. The women were dancing in a circle around a fire in a barrel, throwing stalks of various crops into the flames whilst reciting – in an almost scream-like pitch – a poem, a lament for those who had lost their lives in crop failures three thousand years ago. Crowds had gathered to watch the procession, parents drawing children closer to them, a whispered word in their ear explaining the reasons for the ritual. It was said that the incident brought the Empire to its knees, to the point of collapse. Fulcrom rarely thought of the cultists who had provided farmers with free seeds treated to survive the extreme temperatures across Jokull, and which arrived by the boatload in Villjamur. He prayed history would not repeat itself anytime soon.

As Fulcrom carried on his way to work, something dark streaked past above him and landed to one side.

Lan crouched down to absorb the impact, and rose to greet him. ‘I wasn’t stalking you, promise,’ she said with a smile. ‘I was just passing.’

The winter cold seemed muted by her presence and penetrating gaze.

‘Well, as far as stalkers go . . .’ he joked. ‘I see you’re up early.’

‘Yeah, having worked late last night, Vuldon and Tane are both still asleep. Vuldon seems to spend a lot of time either in his room or out on the streets anyway – so I wasn’t going to hang around waiting for those two to wake.’

Cautiously, Lan stepped into his embrace and their lips brushed. He held her there, small and fragile, vaguely aware that citizens, as they parted around the couple, were watching them attentively. But he didn’t care. Right now, it was about this girl on his lips, and to hell with what others thought.

*

Barely able to keep their hands off each other, they kissed openly on the steps of the Inquisition headquarters. Afterwards, under the impressed stare of many investigators, aides and administrative staff, Lan sprinted up the red-brick sides of the building and, with her final step, pushed and walked across a fifteen-yard gap onto the roof of the adjacent structure, her feet narrowly missing a gargoyle.

To those closest to him, Fulcrom explained, ‘It’s not just for show. There’s not as much ice on the side of a building so she gets a better grip.’

One of the younger investigators was grinning like an idiot. ‘Fulcrom, she’s famous. It’s been years since you’ve even talked about a woman and now you’re dating one of the Knights?’

‘I’m sure that’ll disappoint a lot of ladies,’ said Ghale, the human administrative assistant. Her expression was one of mild disdain, and he wondered if Lan’s showy exit had upset her somehow.

No sooner had Fulcrom set foot in the building, than Warkur grabbed hold of him. ‘Fulcrom, my office, now,’ he growled, stomping away.

Fulcrom sheepishly followed, speculating on the reasons behind the old rumel’s sour tone.

Warkur’s office was Fulcrom’s worst nightmare. Papers were heaped up in haphazard piles that leaned on each other for support, documents with handwritten notes scrawled all over them. Legal texts were scattered across the floor, opened, and stained with rings from cups of tea. How Warkur managed to navigate his way through the Urtican Empire’s ancient, baroque and sometimes eccentric legal system was a mystery to Fulcrom.

The walls were cluttered, too, with framed documents or certificates, various titles he’d been awarded over the years, and none of them were parallel with any other, but pinned up at all angles. Obscure weaponry was heaped on the shelves, maybe illegal repossessions, maybe his own collection. In one corner lay a blanket and pillows, and a storm lantern stood on a table. There was the faint aroma of something gone off, but Fulcrom couldn’t deduce a thing beyond the mess.

‘Sit down,’ Warkur sighed thunderously as he sat behind his own desk.

Fulcrom tiptoed across the apocalyptic office and perched opposite his superior officer. ‘Is anything wrong, sir?’

‘You’re damn right something’s wrong. We’re now down to one arsing printing press.’

‘Has the other one broken as well?’

‘I wouldn’t know. It’s been stolen.’

‘Stolen?’ Then the irony hit him. ‘You saying that someone has stolen a printing press from the offices of the Inquisition?’

Warkur’s expression said two things. The first was that he was a very tired man. The second was that if anyone breathed a word of this outside this building, he would personally sign their execution order.

‘Any leads as to who might have taken it?’ Fulcrom asked.

‘There was a small flag which we all know and love,’ Warkur said, ‘and that would have been left by our friends, the anarchists.’

‘Oh.’

‘Fucking “Oh” indeed,’ Warkur muttered. ‘Aside from that, where were you yesterday? There was a stand off between the military and the anarchists, and you weren’t to be seen.’

‘I thought the conflict was between the military and the Cavesiders, not the anarchists, sir.’

‘How could you know if you weren’t there?’

‘Lan told me.’

‘Lan told you.’

‘Yes, sir. We were . . .’

‘I know what you were doing,’ Warkur said. ‘I saw the two of you outside, all over her like a kid licking a sweet.’

Fulcrom looked at his boss steadily. ‘It won’t get in the way of our project – there will be no conflict of interest, and we’re well aware of the issues.’

‘Good. And meanwhile the official line is that the military engaged with anarchists, simple as that. There was trouble, and it was dealt with.’ Warkur’s gaze became distant, his mind drifting elsewhere. ‘It never lasts, you know.’

‘Sorry, sir?’

‘That passion,’ Warkur declared. ‘Never lasts.’

Fulcrom’s eyes settled on the blanket and pillows behind Warkur, and though he concluded much, he said nothing.

Warkur changed the subject by demanding a status report of everything Fulcrom had been working on, and if he was any closer to finding any figures involved with the anarchists.

Fulcrom confessed it seemed as if they were chasing shadows. The Knights were always one step behind – responding to crime rather than preventing it in the first place. None of the known, established criminal families were involved – the anarchists were offering something different to the people, and money wasn’t of interest any more. They were highly organized and they were networked. Little had been heard about Shalev outside of the confrontation between her and the Knights, at the indoor iren.

‘The Knights, having interrupted the majority of the major planned offences by the anarchists,’ Fulcrom concluded, ‘are holding the city together.’

Warkur was absorbing the information. ‘Well, I’ve some information for you on a related matter. That priest who called for you a while back – the man’s been brought in by Vuldon and Tane last night.’

‘Ulryk was arrested?’

‘No, not arrested. He was kept here for his own safe keeping, apparently. They brought in a weird-looking corpse, too. You’d better take a look.’

*

Satisfying her occasional preference for isolation, Lan surveyed the cityscape from a high church roof. For the very first time in her life she could admit to feeling a happy person. People around Villjamur took on a new form. There were smiles where previously she saw none. There was laughter where previously she heard only morose grumbling or discreet whispers between underworld figures. Even the garudas, as they sailed through the air, were no longer imposing; they were now graceful creatures, possessing a freedom she had once envied, a symbol of everything that was out of reach.

Was she really a bundle of clich'es all of a sudden? Was this what actually happened when you fell for someone? Get a grip!

Lan shook herself into a more focused state. She was a Villjamur Knight and she had a job to do.

She closed her eyes to listen to the sounds from the street for any signs of trouble. Much of the job distilled down to this simple act: an inspection of the city, waiting until she could offer help. And despite her new-found happiness, despite her tendency today to err on the side of optimism, something seemed wrong. She didn’t for a moment believe she had some kind of extrasensory perception, but Villjamur itself seemed primed for something.

From the east of the city, a woman’s scream came to her ears. Lan pushed herself to the crenellated edge of the roof and jumped across to the opposite building, a gap of ten feet, and then up onto the rim of a cultist-treated bridge. People looked up startled as she sprinted past them, following the echo of the scream.

She crossed over several streets, actively enjoying the rush of speed. She was utterly comfortable with her powers by now – completely attuned to their nuances, harnessing the forces inside that altered her sense of balance and maintained her position in the air.

She settled down to the ground on the second level of the city, the furthest point from the caves, and paused to filter the sounds of the city. Villjamur’s endless passageways provided a huge frustration: they played havoc with sound, and had completely wrong-footed her on several occasions. Becoming a little out of breath, Lan’s sprint became more of a jog.

It wasn’t long before she located the crime. In the shadow of tall buildings, at the back of a narrow brick alley, two men had pressed a blonde woman up against a wall.

‘Hey!’ Lan called over as she approached.

The two men were shaven-headed, looking like brothers. Both stood over six foot tall and were wearing long wax coats. One thrust an iron bar against the woman’s throat; her thick coat lay discarded on the cobbles, exposing a heavy brown dress and hefty leather boots. Underneath the grubbiness she was pretty, and the tears streaking down her face left little to the imagination as to what had been going on.

‘Leave her alone,’ Lan ordered, confidently entering the dark alley. Her voice reverberated between the stone walls.

One of the men turned towards her and spat at her feet. His voice sounded raw, as if he’d been drinking all night long. ‘Piss off, bitch. This needn’t worry you, unless you want to join us.’

Lan pushed her left leg against the wall to lever herself upwards, then she leapt to close the gap between them before they could do any more harm to the woman. She landed a few feet from them and, curiously, both men backed away to the dark dead end behind. Are these thugs scared of me? Lan immediately checked that the woman was OK, whilst she kept an eye on the men.

The victim hid her face in her hands, shaking, and Lan looked towards the two men who had paused—

In an instant, the girl reached up and grabbed Lan’s hair. She pulled it, and slammed her head against the wall.

Lan shambled backwards in a daze.

A whistle came from somewhere. At the open end of the alleyway, several figures quickly closed in, silhouetted against the light, each carrying a weapon. Though her vision was hazy, she noted that the men at the dead end were smiling. The woman she was meant to have saved laughed as she kicked at the back of Lan’s knees, sending her sprawling forwards onto the ice-cold stone.

Lan’s hands and face stung from the impact. She wiped grit and blood from her chin.

‘Wait,’ Lan held out a hand as she climbed to her feet, ‘I was only trying to help.’

One of the skinheads spoke. ‘We don’t need no fucking help, bitch. We’re sick of you fuckers ruining things. You represent authority and power – you’re of no use to us. Can’t you see it’s best for the people if you just stay out of our business?’

‘You work for Shalev?’ Lan spluttered.

‘We don’t work for her. We work together.’

A blow to Lan’s stomach, an iron bar across her back, and she collapsed to the ground as a useless ball of agony.

A squat man with bird-like features poked a wooden club into her ribs and asked, ‘Is this the he–she one?’

‘Apparently. Fancy taking a look to see?’

Crude laughter.

‘See what? S’all changed by cultists, innit?’

‘Fair point.’

Distantly, Lan wondered, How could they possibly know? She tried to come to her senses and her feet, but only managed to rock herself to her knees. She needed to tune into that quality within, to tap that force which she had been given, but the kicks and punches had knocked any concentration out of her system. Clawing at the force within, she pushed her arms aside, the blows knocking back two of her attackers, and they stumbled against the wall. That effort in itself weakened her and she allowed her judgement to drop.

Distances seemed artificial. Suddenly her head felt incredibly heavy. The gang crowded her.

Weapons rained down upon her skin, and she felt them as light taps. One to her stomach: she hunched again. One to her forehead: she flipped gently backwards. One to her hip: she sprawled forwards on the ground.

Gentle strikes to her back and skull, like brutal raindrops . . .

*

The corpse lay stretched out for them all to see.

Measuring almost seven feet in length, its feet drooped over the edge of the polished granite table in one of the old quarantine sectors of the Inquisition headquarters. Formerly a cellar, the room featured a domed brick ceiling with several open arches for doorways, meaning the place could receive an unusually large amount of traffic, if it wasn’t for the fact that people knew dead bodies were often observed down here. Cressets burned along the wall, as did a huge log fire at the far end of the room, and within these simple confines, Fulcrom, Ulryk, Vuldon and Tane were attempting to make sense of the alien body.

The specimen reeked. What clothing it once possessed now lay in a heap in a metal container by the wall. Sinewy dark skin was taught across jagged bones, which, at the joints, were formidable-looking structures that seemed set to burst through.

It was hominid, as much as they could tell, possessing two pairs of tightly muscled arms and legs, and where its skin had been torn by Tane’s claws, black blood had bubbled upwards to seal the wound. Much of its head had been reduced to mush, as Vuldon proudly pointed out, but what remained now were barely more than fragments of a malodorous skull. Fulcrom had never seen anything quite like this, and he had seen some strange things bred by cultists in his time. No, this was entirely an alien entity, and one he was glad he hadn’t encountered personally.

‘It is called a nephilim.’ Ulryk muttered the word as if it left an acidic taste in his mouth. ‘It is a demon of the church.’

Tane whistled, leaning over to take a closer look. ‘Ugly chap, isn’t he? Vuldon, do you swear this isn’t one of your girlfriends?’

Vuldon ignored Tane and prodded the priest for further information. ‘Why was it after you specifically?’ he asked. ‘From a distance, we saw it went after you alone.’

Ulryk peered imploringly at Fulcrom, and he knew just how difficult it was for Ulryk to explain his past once again.

‘You can trust them, Ulryk,’ he encouraged him. ‘They’re here to help.’

To his credit, the priest encapsulated his story as much as possible, avoiding the questions of altered histories, of politics within the church. He mentioned that the church merely considered him a heretic for his views, and had placed a bounty on his head. His mission in Villjamur was one of great urgency, and the nephilim was sent to prevent him from succeeding. Fulcrom wondered just how much the church knew of the priest’s intentions.

‘Your mission, priest?’ Vuldon stood as ever with folded arms, showing little sympathy for this old man who had fled across the breadth of the Empire simply because of his beliefs.

Ulryk told him he was looking for a copy of a book that would betray the church and everything it stood for.

‘Sounds fair enough to me,’ Tane said cheerily.

‘Idiot,’ Vuldon grunted. Then, to Ulryk, ‘Will you be causing any other incidents that are going to threaten other people’s safety?’

Fulcrom was impressed at how well Vuldon had developed a sense of dedication to his job. If only Tane would at least sound responsible, just once. Every time he spoke, Fulcrom cringed.

Ulryk contemplated those words, closed his eyes, and said something Fulcrom deeply suspected was a lie. ‘The populace will remain undisturbed.’

‘Fine,’ Vuldon replied. ‘Make sure that is the case.’

Fulcrom had put his faith in everything the priest had said up until this point, though he had not fully committed to a belief in him. An open mind was one thing, but here, right before them, was yet more physical evidence that everything Ulryk had said up until now was utterly true.

Yet Fulcrom had never considered just what would happen when the priest obtained his other copy of The Book of Transformations.

‘Investigator,’ a voice came from one of the arches – one of the aides. ‘We’ve another incident. This is urgent.’

‘Do we need the Knights?’ Fulcrom indicated Vuldon and Tane, who were now alert and focused.

‘I think it’s best,’ the aide replied, ‘since it involves the other.’

*

She was strung up by her left foot, dangling from a vast, arched bridge that crossed over one of the busiest irens in the city. Hundreds of people clustered underneath and pointed upwards as she spiralled on the spot in the wind; and from windows, many more silently watched.

Fulcrom managed to remain surprisingly calm. He knew instantly that it was Lan – she was garbed in the iconic uniform of the Knights, and her notable, dark hair drooped down below her head. For the second time in his life, the woman he loved had been taken from him.

In a state of numbness, the following moments became a blur.

He remembered sprinting up a stairwell, slipping on the first three steps and hurting his thigh; Vuldon knocking him aside to charge past him; Tane taking a more complex route via rooftops. Fulcrom vaguely remembered the gust of wind that almost knocked him over when he reached the bridge at the top.

Pushing through the crowds, tears in his eyes, praying to gods he didn’t believe in.

Vuldon and Fulcrom ran to the centre of the bridge, where the rope was tied tightly around a crenellation. Vuldon leapt up onto the edge, his bulk causing a vast shadow and, as Tane arrived alongside, the Knight began pulling in the rope in great lurches.

Fulcrom stood watching Lan’s ascent, her hair all over the place, so isolated and so vulnerable, his tail gripping the side of the wall for security. Below, the crowds were still gathering, their movements gentle and fluid from this height. Morbid curiosity had caused many more to gather near them on the bridge, and Tane and Fulcrom shoved them aside as Vuldon gently lowered Lan’s body down to the cobbles.

Vuldon used his own mass to push the crowd back.

She was covered in blood. Her face was bruised and bleeding, there were cuts to her eyebrow and chin, and the back of her hands scuffed from being dragged along the street. Fulcrom instantly placed his ear to her chest and . . . could hear a faint beat. ‘She’s not dead,’ he spluttered, then tried to calm himself. ‘She’s unconscious, but she’s not dead.’ He forced himself to think logically. ‘Tane – we’ll need the cultists immediately. Fetch them. Please, we need your speed.’

Tane didn’t need telling twice. The cat-man vanished into the crowd.

‘You,’ Fulcrom demanded – it was a small boy in smart robes, who looked startled at being brought into this affair – ‘will you fetch me some water and a cloth? This is a Knight of our city and she needs help.’ The boy looked at Lan, nodded eagerly and ran. A few minutes later he returned with them. Fulcrom began tenderly cleaning Lan’s face.

‘Get a hold of yourself.’ Vuldon shook his shoulders. ‘You can’t cry in front of these people. It ain’t manly.’

Fulcrom hadn’t even realized he was crying until he wiped away his tears. ‘Fuck you, Vuldon,’ Fulcrom replied, ‘and fuck being manly. This isn’t the time for your cheap machismo.’

He continued treating Lan, cleaning her up, aware of Vuldon’s burning gaze.

‘You genuinely care for her, don’t you?’ he asked gruffly.

Fulcrom watched the water leak from the clenched cloth, carrying blood down the smooth lines of her face, and ignored him.

*

Lan was still unconscious when Tane and the cultist, Feror, arrived carrying a stretcher.

‘Her bones really ought to have survived the incident,’ the old man advised quietly, ‘but this is merely a precaution.’

Fulcrom and Vuldon lifted her gently onto the stretcher, still with people milling around them – why would they not just leave? They carried her along the bridge, then into a beautiful plaza on the third level, where a horse and immense black carriage stood waiting for them.

They lifted her inside the carriage and laid her on the floor.

‘I’ll stay with her,’ Fulcrom said, an order, not a request.

*

In one of the many drearily lit chambers near the clifftop residence of the Knights, Lan was stripped of her uniform – something that made Fulcrom distinctly uncomfortable – and her nakedness revealed painful-looking abrasions and bruises on her body. He could only imagine what brutality created them. A team of cultists half-immersed her in a bath of brine on a surgical platform. Wires were lowered into the solution, and machines were activated. Metal artefacts hummed and sizzled into life.

He paced back and forth outside, listening to the bubbling and buzzing and spluttered gasps, trying to piece together what was developing behind the metal door, but his imagination soared with variants on how Lan was being dismantled. Instead, he focused on what had happened.

Tane and Vuldon were not much help and, happy that Lan would survive a little longer, had headed back out into the city to see if they could find witnesses or clues. Fulcrom doubted they would find much.

The anarchists were frustrating, militant and smart people. They weren’t just a step ahead, they had whole plans sketched out, and he had virtually nothing to show the Emperor apart from showcase heroics. And he had no idea just how many Cavesiders considered themselves part of the movement. Though the Knights had given the rest of the city something to talk about, managed to prevent many crimes and put offenders into the hands of the Inquisition, Fulcrom realized that all they were doing was trying to plug holes in a dam. There was only so much they could take before the force would become overwhelming. The rest of the Inquisition were overworked with increasing numbers of criminal cases and leads that went nowhere.

What could he do, order a purge of Caveside? Who were they even fighting? Anyone brought in for questioning said nothing. Either they genuinely had nothing to say, or Shalev had inspired such loyalty that they would not give anything away. No, a purge would do no good, and besides the military had already slaughtered civilians.

For the first time in his life, Fulcrom began questioning his purpose as a investigator. Not even when he helped Investigator Jeryd free the refugees, only for them to go straight back into the decrepit camps outside the city walls, did he feel as low as he did right now. His choices were limited: the Emperor would have him killed if he failed or walked away. All he could do was press on.

*

About an hour later they let Fulcrom in to see Lan. She was lying with a blanket over her body like she belonged in a mortuary. But she was, at least, breathing. Miraculously much of the bruising had vanished from her face and, from what he could see, her neck and shoulders.

‘What did you do to her?’ Fulcrom asked the room. Three of the cultists in the corner, busy tweaking bits of equipment, glanced at each other, as if deciding who could be bothered to give such a long-winded answer.

Feror stepped in alongside him. The old man was a reassuring face, as much as a cultist could be. ‘It was me, mainly,’ he said. ‘I guess it’s nice to know I’m not completely letting everyone down.’

What does he mean? Fulcrom thought, observing his nervous mannerisms that contradicted his confident words. ‘Go on.’

‘We essentially bathed her in a solution that speeded up her recovery at the . . . cellular level.’

‘What?’ Fulcrom demanded.

‘The little building blocks, which make us all.’

‘If there are any secrets you’re keeping from—’

‘It is well known in cultist circles. A lot of the enhancements we’d given her, particularly the skeletal alterations, protected her. If she was a normal woman, she would be dead.’

‘What do you mean by normal?’ Fulcrom snapped.

‘Without our rigorous enhancements,’ Feror corrected, and Fulcrom contemplated the sudden silence between them.

Feror continued, ‘So, what should have taken months of recovery, will now take hours.’ Feror talked about obscure things like oxygen flow, and to Fulcrom the science could have been magic for all he knew.

The important thing was that Lan was alive and would soon be back to normal. The cultists’ work done, Fulcrom was allowed to be alone with her. As they closed the metal door behind them, Fulcrom pulled up a leather chair alongside the surgical platform on which Lan was resting, and slumped into it.

And waited for her to wake.

*

When she was fully conscious and her drowsiness fading, with a beaker of water in her hands, Lan described the attack in full detail to Fulcrom, who stood alongside her bed and affectionately caressed the back of her neck.

‘It was a trap,’ she told him. ‘And it was definitely the anarchists. I remember them arguing how far to take the beating. Someone asked if they should actually kill me, but the woman in the gang – it wasn’t Shalev – she said that they wanted the city to see how vulnerable it is, and how normal the Knights are. That they had the upper hand. They wanted the bourgeoisie to feel scared again, to give people something the People’s Observer couldn’t twist into propaganda. She said they were using me as a symbol.’ Lan took a sip of water. ‘Which explains why they dangled me off that bridge, I guess.’

‘Feror told me if you weren’t enhanced, you would probably be dead,’ Fulcrom said.

‘Oh,’ Lan replied and appeared to contemplate the statement. ‘Perks of the job, I guess.’

Fulcrom smiled. It was reassuring, under the circumstances, to see she still possessed a sense of humour. ‘Apparently your recovery is going to be quick, because of these cultists. You’ve considerable value to the city, you know.’

‘I feel a little guilty, if I’m honest. Especially after seeing so many people slaughtered by the military, for me alone to receive such privilege just doesn’t feel right.’

‘The Emperor has invested heavily in the three of you. He’s simply protecting his interests. Nothing personal, I’m sure.’ Fulcrom winked.

‘You’re full of love this . . . afternoon?’

‘Nearly. It’s early evening now. You’ve spent a few hours in bed.’

Lan pushed herself so that her legs hung off the edge of the platform, and Fulcrom pulled the blankets up over her to keep her decent, should any of the cultists return to the room.

She gave him an intense look then, and he knew that there was a deeper problem, one that the cultists couldn’t fix. ‘What is it?’

‘I’m . . . I’m pretty sure they knew my past.’

‘Nonsense,’ Fulcrom reassured her. ‘I promise you, no one outside of the highest echelons of the empire have the slightest clue, and even then the background of the Knights is hugely confidential – just one or two cultists, perhaps; security is tight on this. They wouldn’t gossip.’

Had she imagined it? Her head was hazy from the beatings and the treatments. Maybe it wasn’t true. No one was treating her any differently, were they? And in fact the cultists had just spent their resources repairing her. She felt she should just keep quiet about it.

‘From now on,’ Fulcrom said, ‘I want the Knights only to work as a group, or at the very least patrol the streets in pairs.’

Lan creased her face as little fluxes of pain moved around her body. ‘I feel a little drunk. What did these cultists do to me?’

‘Saved your life, is what they did,’ Fulcrom reminded her. ‘It was Feror’s work mainly.’

‘Good old Feror.’ She gently eased her feet to the floor, Fulcrom clasping his arm behind her for support as her legs took her weight.

She let him prop her up for a while longer, and he walked her around the room in slow circles.

Soon he realized she was walking normally. ‘Do you actually need my arms around you?’

‘No, I can do this on my own – I just didn’t want you to let go.’ She smiled, stood upright, faced him, then with a sigh she held him, burying herself beneath his robes.

For someone who’d nearly been beaten to death, her grip was remarkably strong.

*

When Lan was well enough to return to her living quarters that evening, Fulcrom guided her home, taking care not to be too patronizing with his gestures. He found Tane and Vuldon in the company of Ulryk. Of course, Fulcrom realized, the priest has not yet found a new place where he can shelter. What better place than this?

He didn’t think there would be a conflict of interests – he was overseeing ‘weird shit’, as Warkur so aptly put it. It seemed more efficient to lump all the weirdness together.

None of the three stood up at the couple’s entrance. Tane and Vuldon were hunched over a table. The pages of The Book of Transformations, Ulryk’s copy, was the focus of their attention. The tome was surprisingly large under the mellow lighting, at least a foot long, and three or four inches thick. Sometimes Fulcrom wondered why so much fuss was being made over a simple book.

‘Investigator,’ Ulryk announced, ‘I was explaining what it was that got me into so much trouble earlier. I considered that such brave and skilled people might be able to help me . . . where we both visited.’

‘I was thinking something similar,’ Fulcrom agreed. ‘Though I’d only be able to spare a maximum of one. No more, I’m afraid. Maybe it’s something Lan could do?’

Lan nodded as she joined the three of them at the table. Somewhere in the distance, Fulcrom could hear the sea droning against the base of the cliff.

The tattered sheets of vellum were turned slowly, one after another, as Ulryk revealed some amazingly incomprehensible scripts and diagrams. There were weird woodcuts, parodies of real-life objects, creatures in perpetual states of change, and unexpected juxtapositions – couples bleeding into flowers into houses.

‘To the trained eye,’ Ulryk explained, ‘there are numerous glyphs, none of which are to be found in any other text in our world, and no more than seven per word. This is a special script, a special language, comprised of special letters, written in intricate code. It is an artefact of huge importance.’

‘Who wrote it?’ Lan asked.

‘Frater Mercury,’ Fulcrom said. Then, aware of everyone’s surprised expression. ‘That’s what Ulryk told me before. I’ve no idea who he really is.’

‘The wars you have heard about, where creatures have come from another world into ours,’ Ulryk said. ‘They come from warring civilizations, ones created by Frater Mercury. These civilizations he created millennia ago, in this very world. He is responsible for all you see – for life as we know it – and within The Books of Transformations we can be witness to some of his secrets. I think, also, that he has left such texts for wayfarers to discover, people such as myself, should he need to return to our world. I am convinced it is so. Now he needs to return. As islands of our realm are cleared of human and rumel life, as alien cultures swarm into ours to destroy it, we need him. And, as I understand it, things are far worse where Frater Mercury still resides.’

Though the news of the wars on the fringes of the Empire came rarely, Fulcrom was aware of the threat. He was convinced that what reports People’s Observer did publish were heavily censored so that the information wouldn’t be detrimental to the population’s peace of mind – or, indeed, threaten the current regime.

Was it some ancient conflict coming to fruition?

‘Frater Mercury – the man who wrote this – you’re saying he’s still alive?’ Lan asked. ‘How old is he?’

‘Who knows?’ Ulryk sighed. ‘He is responsible for creating much of our culture. As his influence grew, and his creations began to dominate, he was forced into another dimension – a choice he took in order to preserve his work.’

‘Is he some kind of god?’ Lan asked.

‘Gods are crafted by mortals, dear lady, so that may have been the case at one point. I believe that he was a scholar, a theologian, a scientist, a philosopher, a linguist. A world-changer.’

‘What kind of things did this Frater Mercury make?’ Fulcrom enquired.

Ulryk sat back with a beatific grin. His shoulders rose and fell as he chuckled. ‘What didn’t he create?’ Then with sudden urgency, he returned to the book and pointed out a section which seemed to feature wings . . . Garudas. They were definitely draft sketches of garudas, with tables of incomprehensible script to one side.

‘Here,’ Ulryk gestured with the flat of his hand, ‘lies the method in which garudas were constructed. And here’ – he skipped backwards two pages, where a diagram of other animals upon which large wings had been grafted – ‘here is where primitive experiments at creating flying beasts failed. I have trouble reading much of the notes, but I have little doubt that garudas were as a result of experimentation deep in the past. And Frater Mercury had repeated this process for hundreds of other creatures, many taken from our own stories, made real – merely because he had the knowledge to do such things.’

The group stared dumbly at the pictures, not quite understanding, but not quite disbelieving either.

‘It is my conclusion, from years of study, that cultists – who for thousands of years said that they rescued and perfected ancient methods of technology – were in fact merely resurrecting the tools of the author, Frater Mercury. I believe that the still undiscovered companion book to this unites the two texts; and that, together, they contain a ritual for the restoration of Frater Mercury in this world. Given the great disasters about to ensue, his return might well prevent a catastrophe.’

Vuldon seemed to take a deep interest in the pictures. With reverence, and a delicate gesture, he turned the pages, smiling when he came to an elaborate sketch. ‘This is a recipe book for life itself, then.’

‘It is indeed, my dear Vuldon,’ Ulryk sighed.

‘The pictures – do they come to life or something? I mean, is this magic?’

‘No, though there are techniques I know where pictures can have an extra dimension added to their purpose – pictures that can influence minds.’

‘I’d really like to see that.’ Vuldon seemed impressed. ‘Fulcrom, Ulryk can stay here for the evening if he wants.’

Fine by me, Fulcrom thought. Better to keep an eye on him than have him summoning anything else into being.


TWENTY-SEVEN | The Book of Transformations | TWENTY-NINE



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