The cut-throat razor lay in the bucket of hot water. He plunged in his hand to retrieve it, and began to shave: gentle scrapes, always two strokes down before moving along, two strokes then move along, carving away thick lines of foam. Rumels’ skin was tough and leatherlike, and he had only to shave once a week because of the slow rate of hair-growth, but his was still a routine of perfection. When he had finished he rinsed the razor before placing it to one side.
Wearing only a pair of breeches, Investigator Fulcrom faced himself in the mirror, his damp brown skin shimmering in the lantern light. He had a slender face and body for a rumel, who were normally broad and relatively squat creatures, and he had wide black eyes that, so the ladies told him, were adorable. Making postures at his reflection, he noted that his intensified workout regime had really worked. All those sit-ups and push-ups each night were clearly taking effect. Absent-mindedly, he brushed a finger down his ribs over an old knife wound.
He investigated his well-defined face for any missed areas and, after dabbing his skin with a towel, he slicked his mop of silver hair across to the left – always to the left.
For a rumel he was still young, but had recently felt deeply unsatisfied with his life. Well, with his work at least. He had been a full investigator for a decade now, but when he’d worked with old Investigator Jeryd on one of his darkest cases, things had changed dramatically for him. Villjamur had been – still was – plagued by refugees, and there had been a plot to dispose of them in the tunnels under the city, in what amounted to genocide. Urtica was at the core of it, but he had blamed it on the then-Empress Rika. Only Jeryd and Fulcrom knew of these events, but couldn’t prove anything, couldn’t tell a single person. All they could do was rescue the refugees from execution, only to release them back outside, beyond the walls of the city, into the hostile ice. Time dragged by, and one by one, the refugees probably perished of hypothermia or disease or starvation. Meanwhile, no one in Villjamur knew what had happened to Jamur Rika since she fled the city with her sister just before she was due to be executed. There had been no reports on her progress, and he was wary of enquiring through any official channels, just in case anything untoward should happen to him. There are some questions you just don’t ask . . .
Ever since then, Fulcrom had found it difficult to believe there was much justice to be found in Villjamur. It certainly wasn’t like the stories that inspired him as a kid, or like the notions that MythMaker peddled in those sketches. Back then he’d loved those tales of slick and smooth investigators stalking the evening in search of villains.
Fulcrom put on a clean undershirt, a formal shirt then an over-cloak. His top-floor apartment on the fifth level of the city was not too close to the raucous bars, but near enough to where things went on in the city.
A pterodette gave a reptilian squawk outside his window, and he took a glance out to regard the cityscape beyond, as the green creature flapped its scaly wings and darted up into the cloud-base. The view from his window was impressive: turrets and spires and bridges, thousands of years of architecture, and low sunlight that forced half of Villjamur into shadow. The octagonal structure of the Astronomer’s Glass Tower glittered from above the roofs of the opposite buildings.
A final look in the mirror, a quick adjustment of his collar and, picking up his Inquisition medallion, he set off for work.
Villjamur was still dripping after the previous night’s snow – not as much as usual, which led Fulcrom to question if the ice age was just an empty threat of the politicians. For years people had talked of the coming of the ice, what the causes might have been, and what it now meant. Imperial astronomers had given their predictions and, staying true to them, temperatures had plummeted, but just recently, there seemed to be a recovery. No matter how cold it was, people always ventured outside, every day, as if in bloody-minded defiance.
Like some ancient beast, Villjamur woke from its slumber. Little streams of smoke drifted up from chimney tops. Granite blended into patches of time-eroded limestone.
Citizens milled around backstreets and main avenues, a blur of furs, cloth and boots. Traders, some of whom were draped in cheap gold, strode half asleep to the irens at Gata du Oak, hauling handcarts or, if they were lucky, leading horses loaded up with wares. All along Matr Gata, pots were simmering with oysters, dumplings, breads stuffed with offal, the vendors regarding the street with bored glances and calling out prices. From the back of a converted caravan a member of the Aes tribe was giving an illegal shell reading. Only one religion was permitted in the Empire, the Jorsalir tradition – a pact that bound the church and state together – and as soon as Fulcrom approached him, the tribesman, who was wearing furs and a number of teeth around his neck, packed up his accoutrements and smiled his apologies before backing off down an alleyway.
A jingle of chains and something was launched up to a high open window to the side of the massive ornate facade of the Hotel Villjamur. A pretty grey-skinned rumel girl stepped down its faded gold-edged steps, wearing a blue cloak and matching head-scarf, and she smiled at Fulcrom as he walked past. Kids scampered by, and one of them arced a snowball that splattered against a window pane of the Dryad’s Saddle inn, narrowly missing Fulcrom as he slipped and slid his way to one of the bridge staircases.
The bridges themselves began to vibrate under the strain of activity. Any ice that had formed overnight peeled itself away from the city’s high places to plummet towards the ground. Much of it ricocheted off slate roofing, stalling its descent, but some thick chunks clattered into the cobbles, narrowly missing people. Every day someone would be killed or seriously injured. It was also starting to cause massive structural damage, accelerating the ageing of the stone, pushing cracks in masonry further apart. The ice was bringing the city to its knees.
Fulcrom’s relationship with Villjamur was uneasy. Born and raised in the city, he had a strong affinity for the place, and the beauty was here to see every morning; but he knew there were other sides to it. Out here, on the levels of the city before Balmacara, people were well-to-do, healthy, stayed on the right side of the law, and had something of a decent existence. The buildings were beautiful – thin, three- or four-storey constructions, painted in a variety of weather-worn shades.
But there was also Caveside, a larger section of the city, one hidden from view. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in Villjamur, but the majority of them suffered in relative darkness. Fulcrom had heard tell that most of the residents had descended from the cave dwellers who had lived there before the city was founded eleven thousand years ago. It was the oldest part of the city and very few people ventured from one sector to the other. If the rumours were to believed, it was like hell on earth.
Fulcrom criss-crossed alleyways to navigate the wet, labyrinthine backstreets of the city, towards the headquarters of the Villjamur Inquisition. The entrance was a large yet discreet black double door that stood at the top of wide, crumbling steps. There was nothing ornate here, no fancy brickwork, merely two cressets set behind glass. Only the two brutish-looking guards indicated that something went on inside this building. They nodded to Fulcrom as he flashed his Inquisition medallion at them.
‘Sele of Urtica, sir,’ one grunted, opening the door for him.
Fulcrom entered and passed Ghale, the human administrative assistant, who was dressed as smartly as always in a frilly white shirt, green shawl and long black skirt. Her blonde hair was pinned up in one of those new styles.
‘Sele of Urtica, investigator,’ she announced. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘Good morning, Ghale. No, I’m fine, thank you.’ He made to move on.
‘A drink, perhaps?’ She held her hands out in front of her.
‘No. Thank you anyway.’ Smiling awkwardly, Fulcrom headed immediately into his office.
It was a drab affair, like many of the rooms within the arterial layout of the Inquisition headquarters. Musty old rumels lingering in their chambers for hours, working by lantern-light, poring over administration, missives or fine-tuning the legal framework of the city. Such an existence was not Fulcrom’s preferred way of helping the city – being left to rot behind a desk would be a nightmarish future.
One side of Fulcrom’s vast office was lined with shelves rammed with leather-bound age-ruined books. He had them arranged neatly, ordered by subject and year. Two angular diamond-shaped insets allowed in light through coloured glass, and a painting of an evening city scene, a retro original, was hung above the door.
After he placed his outer-cloak over the back of his chair meticulously, he set about starting a fire, rummaging through the accoutrements to one side. He was nearly out of kindling.
Presently, after a few moments, the flames spat into life and, as Fulcrom warmed his hands, one of the most senior officers, Investigator Warkur, an old black-skinned rumel, barged into the room without knocking.
‘Fulcrom,’ he grunted stridently. ‘You got a moment?’
‘Of course,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘Take a seat.’ He indicated the leather chair behind his stately mahogany desk. After clearing a couple of the papers, he struck a match and lit a candle within a small glass lantern. ‘Apologies about the mess.’
‘Don’t be a jerk, Fulcrom – damn place is immaculate.’ Warkur reclined into the chair with a thunderous groan. He was a bulky rumel with a scar along his lantern jaw, allegedly from a garuda fight forty years ago. He had a broader nose than most rumels, and his black eyes were set unnaturally deep, so Fulcrom was never quite sure if he was looking at him or somewhere in the distance. Warkur was one of the old-school investigators, the kind they didn’t make any more, and with nearly two hundred years on the service, the man didn’t care much for modern ways. He had outlived a handful of emperors, as he constantly liked to remind people, which meant that he had little tolerance for changes in procedures. Too jaded to ever make the position of Arch Investigator, he now spent his days mentoring the younger investigators, which suited Fulcrom fine.
‘What’s the problem?’ Fulcrom asked.
‘How long you got?’ Warkur sneered. Then, ‘Nah, I’m grouchy this morning. One of our three Inquisition printing presses is defunct, and no one knows what to do about it – expensive bits of kit, too. And, I slept in my office again – Stel’s going to roast my behind if I do another night here, I swear.’
‘Surely she understands the commitment, sir?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘If you need a hand with anything . . .’
Warkur waved a fat hand. ‘I know you’ve been handed some pretty dire cases lately, Fulcrom.’
‘It’s not a problem, sir.’
Warkur glanced to the floor, rubbing his face with his palms to bring himself to a more alert state. ‘We’ve got an issue that goes right to the top – Balmacara. Now, it’s not a case or anything, it’s more of a . . . project.’ He leaned forward. ‘I don’t have to remind you that sometimes these matters go beyond mere secrecy.’
Fulcrom stole a quick glance to check the door was closed properly.
‘Now the Emperor’s worried, Fulcrom. He’s convinced Villjamur is very quickly falling to the underworld and that damn Shalev character is causing him a massive headache.’
‘I can well understand,’ Fulcrom agreed.
‘Urtica claims that the woman is behind most of the current crime, especially the acts of terrorism plaguing every military station and every shop on these outer levels, including the attack on the Jorsalir Bell Spire. City patrols are in a snit. Morale is shot to shit.’
‘And he has a plan?’ Fulcrom suggested.
Warkur regarded him with a glare that said shut up. ‘Yeah. Emperor Urtica has a plan all right. There’s this special project he won’t talk about, and he needs staff from the Inquisition to help. I can’t spare all that many men. In fact, I can only spare one.’
‘And that’s me?’
‘And that’s you.’
‘What do you need me to do?’
‘Good question.’ Warkur leaned back in the chair with a sigh. ‘I’m not entirely sure what the role will be, but it needs someone efficient and alert, apparently. Something to do with new technologies, so no doubt you’ll have some of those cultist bastards hanging around. You’re young, you’ve got a good brain, and you’re about as thorough as we get in this business. Just look at this damn office of yours for a start.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Don’t thank me yet. I’ve not got a clue what you’ll be doing – could be hell for all I know. Thing is, Urtica trusts you specifically – when your name came up he remembered you from when you discovered who was behind the raid on the Treasury a few years back.’
‘He remembers that?’
‘Politicians have a long memory when it suits them.’
‘When would you like me to start?’ Fulcrom asked.
‘Later today. You’ll need to go up to Balmacara after noon. It’s a special kind of project, and since this kind of work might be new to the Inquisition, I’m putting you in charge of all special projects – your own department. Given that you’re working with the Emperor and might not be completely able to follow our routines, then it might as well be you.’
‘Might I ask how many are in this department, sir?’ Fulcrom asked.
After processing some administration of overnight detainees, Fulcrom took one of the Inquisition horses from the rear stables and rode up the levels of the city. Drizzly mist had drifted in from the coast, tainting the air with its chill, and many of the tall buildings dissolved into its mass.
Villjamur was layered like a cake, seven tiers in all. Fulcrom liked to boast he could run a circuit of the second level in two hours. The vast, house-rammed platforms were built in enormous arcs. The layers backed onto the caves at one end and, at the front, onto the city’s walls, which prevented any invading army from penetrating. The higher people lived was a general indication of the more money they had, and the formidable dark structure of Balmacara, the Imperial residence, dominated the city’s skyline, and could just about be spotted from every level.
Surrounding him were whitewashed or pebble-dashed structures, or faded thin limestone houses three or four floors high that leaned precariously into each other. Timbers seemed about to buckle around their midriff, but still these old buildings held themselves with a fading dignity. Traders moved back and forth from the many irens throughout the city, or to the shops higher up, whilst citizens, layered up in furs or rain capes, rooted around the wares, or headed to a tavern or bistro.
Fulcrom’s mare sauntered gingerly along the cobbled streets, and he made a point to greet as many people as he could. Citizens were worried – sure, there was significantly more crime these days, but people’s fear of it was far greater than the reality. The way some people spoke, it was as if the city had crumbled and Caveside gangs were in control. The reality was far from that; though Fulcrom had had his work cut out in dealing with burglaries and violent assaults and muggings, at least he wasn’t investigating murders.
So what could the Emperor want with him? And what exactly was he going to be doing? Fulcrom explored the depths of his mind, but aside from the connection that Warkur had mentioned there was nothing he could think of. Perhaps it was something to do with the case he and Jeryd had worked on, when they helped the refugees . . .
No, you’re just being paranoid. It was only Jeryd who was known to be involved, no one else.
More likely it was that Fulcrom had been selected because it was well known that he had no life outside of the Inquisition – a sobering thought. He had no partner to attend to now, and his only family in the city were very distant relations. Yes, I’m a loner in this world, but I’m happy enough.
At each level he accessed, even after showing his medallion bearing the angular symbol of the Inquisition’s crucible, guards searched Fulcrom thoroughly. Soldiers had garrisoned themselves in small stations on each level and, with the recent attacks, it was procedure for random stop-and-searches of civilians. He knew better than to make a fuss. He would rather set an example that if it was all right for the Inquisition to put up with this, then citizens could too. At least he was permitted up here – most of the citizens had to possess specific written documentation in order to head upwards.
Ever since the incident at the Bell Spire, the anarchist movement which originated and operated deep within the caves, Urtica had ruled with an iron fist. Fulcrom was especially surprised – not too long ago, the anarchists were a joke collective of angry and bitter individuals who knew little of politics. But ever since Shalev had arrived, only days after the legendary Night Guard soldiers had left for the north, the anarchists had suddenly become something to worry about.
‘No, the Council were not in the Bell Spire,’ declared Emperor Urtica, commander of the Urtican Empire, ruler of seven islands of the Boreal Archipelago and, Fulcrom had to confess, a man with a bit of a temper on him, ‘because I’m not that fucking stupid.’
Fulcrom should have known better than to ask the obvious question, even a few weeks after the event, but he didn’t expect the Emperor to be so . . . sharp in his response.
An aura of fear purveyed the golden halls of Balmacara. Gossip rippled through the administrative staff and servants, and filtered out to the rest of the city. All the stories he had heard filtered back into his mind.
Urtica was in his late forties, tall, and with short, dark hair showing a lot of grey. His grey tunic showed just under a purple robe – which differed from the green of the other councillors, but similar enough to suggest he wanted to be seen as a man of the people. There was definitely a charm about him, some innate handsomeness in his symmetrical features and broad chin, but any pretensions to glamour were cast aside the instant he opened his mouth.
‘My apologies, my Emperor, the Inquisition only gets few briefings on these matters,’ Fulcrom muttered humbly. ‘And I knew, of course, that you all survived – however, I merely spoke rhetorically, in appreciation of your tactical awareness.’
‘Yes, well . . . all right then,’ Urtica said. ‘Just try not to use honeyed words too much. That’s all everyone else does around here.’
The room was ornate, with huge mirrors and portraits and a fireplace so big a bull could stand in it. Light from the numerous windows lit the room with a dream-like haze. Urtica was seated behind a vast marble desk, edged with garish gold-leaf trim. Resting neatly upon it was what appeared to be a draft of the People’s Observer, Urtica’s new Imperial newspamphlet after he had closed down the others in the city. Copies of this journal were issued free, both on the outer levels as well as Caveside. Some were even being shipped to the Empire’s outposts, so that the various portreeves, commissioners and commanders might dictate Imperial information to their subordinates. Pencil marks were scattered about its surface – corrections, Fulcrom assumed. He had only seen one copy of People’s Observer, and knew by now that it would never deal with events worth debating. For the most part, it seemed to discuss the dealings of various lords and ladies and socialites, with the occasional terse update on the war that was about to start in Villiren, where the legendary Night Guard had been despatched.
Urtica went on to explain how he had escaped being blown up at the Bell Spire. He’d made sure that he leaked a false location of the Council, as he did every time, and then changed the real venue at the last moment. Ever since the Atrium had been set alight by terrorists shortly after the former Empress Rika escaped, he knew better than to trust people in Balmacara. Twenty days had passed since that room had gone up in smoke, twenty days of total lockdown across Villjamur, and still, despite the amplification of military personnel, some . . . some bloody terrorists had managed to get through their security and wreck an iconic structure of the city.
‘Bastards!’ Urtica slammed his metal cup against the desk, and it rattled to a halt – utterly dented from his venom.
‘Indeed,’ Fulcrom echoed.
‘I understand you were one of the only riders who managed to get near the bastards?’ Urtica sprawled back in his massively ornate wooden chair and placed his boots on the desk, a perfect posture of contemplation.
‘That’s right. They are, or were, working with cultists, according to your Imperial briefings.’ And Fulcrom described what he witnessed on that day.
‘Cultists are a very powerful lot . . .’ With a sudden calm, Urtica began to guide the conversation somewhere else. These were all things the Emperor must have been told long after the incident – he was therefore now testing Fulcrom.
Fulcrom was getting nervous. He potentially had a long career ahead of him, and right now that seemed to be in a vulnerable position.
Urtica continued. ‘The incident at the Bell Spire was just one of many, but it is getting too close for comfort. I have no idea how this crime wave has flourished, but flourish it has. They say they are anarchists, and that they are claiming the city for the people. Roughly translated, at the moment that means they are undermining authority – my authority.
‘Their politics have begun to have a new texture entirely – even when there was that minor riot months ago, they were a laughable lot. Not now. They’re organized. Their leaflets have made their way about the city. There are intelligence reports of city intellectuals joining their schemes, educated men and women becoming bloody turncoats. They talk about things like wage slavery and self-organization. They recite extracts from what they claim are Council documents, and want to show the city how the functions of the Council and the Inquisition do not work for the good of the populace.’
Fulcrom shook his head. ‘Appalling, my Emperor.’ Though he was quietly disgusted with how little information made its way into the Inquisition channels. Much of this was news to him.
‘Lies spread like a disease, Fulcrom. Meetings are being held in the dark, in undisclosed corners of the city, and whenever the military arrive they find only empty rooms. There is talk that money has become redundant in some Caveside zones, that goods are being provided for free amongst certain groups. It is said that the Cavesiders think Shalev is some kind of saviour, but you and I know better. She is a violent terror-maker.’
‘I was reading a report only this morning, my Emperor,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘Shops are being targeted for robberies. Military personnel are being beaten up on the streets. Those on the higher levels of the city live in constant fear.’
‘And that’s something I will not allow. I don’t need to tell you how much work this is causing us, being in the Inquisition.’
A dignified smile from Fulcrom’s lips. ‘We’re certainly stretched.’
Urtica acknowledged his words. ‘You people work hard. I myself have agents who have infiltrated all of this nonsense only so far, but these people are highly organized, and I don’t like it one bit. I cannot allow for miscreants to dominate the affairs of the Empire.’
Fulcrom loathed the sycophantic language he was using. After all, this man before him was responsible for trying to murder the refugees outside the city gates. ‘You sound like you have a plan, my Emperor.’
‘That’s right.’ Urtica lowered his feet and leant forward across the desk, his gaze holding Fulcrom’s own, analyzing him. ‘Now, so far the city guard have proven useless and, for all I know, those ruffians are mixed up in it all. But you, Fulcrom – as a member of the Inquisition, who I believe I can trust – are going to be part of my plans.’
‘I’m absolutely honoured,’ Fulcrom lied.
Urtica had made a pact with cultists. That was, at first, all he would say.
The two of them strode towards a meeting chamber in a distant corner of Balmacara, one tucked inside the rock which the residence backed onto. Servants and administrative staff fluttered around the Emperor like moths to a light, and Fulcrom noticed how their expressions were keen, stressed and frantic with worry that they might commit a gaucherie before him.
The corridors were, at first, ostentatious – decadent cream tiles, statues and busts and paintings, the light of a thousand lanterns and candles flickering in the gold trim. Then a mere carpet, yesteryear’s decorations, busts of lesser-respected figures. And as Fulcrom descended into Caveside itself, a change to raw stone and crude cressets that emitted a dreary light, a corridor devoid of life save the two bodyguards Urtica had enlisted to follow from a distance.
Two doors on the right, one made of iron, and Urtica wrenched down the handle, heaved it open. The guard the other side moved hesitantly then snapped to attention.
‘And I suppose you call this security?’ Urtica sneered at the massive hulk of protection. ‘I could have been absolutely anyone. I could have killed you.’
‘Apologies, my Emperor. Won’t ’appen again, sir.’
‘Make sure it doesn’t.’ Urtica plunged past the man and into the chamber, while Fulcrom calmly followed.
Around a vast circular oak table, three people were seated, all wearing the cloaked and hooded garb typical of cultists. There was nothing on the walls here, no ornamentation, nothing grand – and, in fact, the stone had been carved from the caves themselves, a rippled and textured effect that made bold shadows from the light of the wall lanterns. It seemed the important thing about this room was that it was kept away from prying eyes.
Those around the table all stood as Urtica settled himself, then motioned for them to all be seated again. ‘Please,’ he said, and indicated a vacant chair to Fulcrom.
Urtica made the introductions. Two men and the woman to one side were cultists from various sects that – as far as Fulcrom could tell – had been offered wealth and security to work on behalf of the Empire.
‘You three know the background,’ Urtica continued. ‘Investigator Fulcrom here doesn’t.’ He turned to face Fulcrom. ‘They have been assisting me with a rather special project. Despite our best efforts to close down movement throughout the city, to pour military personnel into the streets, the violence from the caves keeps escalating.’
Fulcrom regarded him coolly. ‘It’s understandable you wish for this to end, as do we in the Inquisition.’
‘And this is where our cultist friends come in,’ Urtica smiled. ‘They’re in the final stages of developing their technologies to a level where they can blend with flesh and bone. You have heard of the famed resistances given to the members of the elite Night Guard, now assembled in Villiren. Well this is slightly different. These cultists can transform a human and rumel. They can enhance one to the point of endowing special powers.’ In a posture of pride, Urtica leaned back, his arms folded.
‘You don’t want me . . .’ Fulcrum tried his best not to sound too apprehensive. He loosened his collar.
‘No of course not,’ Urtica laughed. ‘We already have three individuals in mind for the job.’
‘Who are they?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘And how do you see me fitting into this scheme?’
‘Obviously we need three individuals we can not only trust, but tolerant to the process – we’ll be endowing them with supreme powers, and I’m afraid we’ve lost some early volunteers throughout the process, since not everyone is up to the task. So we will require people who we have some . . . leverage over, as a way of securing trust.’
‘Blackmail?’ the investigator added.
‘It is merely a security, you understand. They will be the owners of amazing anatomies. Essentially we will be creating a new form of individual to help protect the city, a hero to the people – no, more than that. A superhero if you will, more than someone who can front an army. We need these new-style crime-fighters in order to tackle these anarchists and all the terror plaguing my city.’
Fulcrom remained wide-eyed. The cultists simply slumped back in their chairs with hubris.
Urtica continued. ‘And you, Investigator Fulcrom, are to be their liaison with the law. In fact, we will want you to work closely with them so that they have access to all levels of information in the Inquisition, and – according to your superior officers – you have a very deft touch with people. These individuals will require managing, in order to produce steady performances. You are to brief them on troubling cases, and all the necessary leads.’
‘Superhero,’ Fulcrom echoed, too scared to question the decision.
The cultists then explained the projects in a manner riddled with meaningless jargon. They spoke of complex surgeries and talked of specimens. Each of them took it in turns to lecture on various aspects of the process – meta-anatomy, metallic enhancement, organ replacement, rewiring.
Urtica knew all he needed to, and even Fulcrom could see that he also did not comprehend what was being discussed here.
‘So, investigator. Can we guarantee your assistance in the matter?’
‘You can indeed. Can I ask who it is that you’ve selected to form this new trio?’
‘Of course,’ Urtica declared. ‘We’ve already got one of them incarcerated and we want you to be there tonight to see the next being . . . initiated. This one shouldn’t be too difficult to persuade. In fact, you know him already.’