Fulcrom was making it up as he went along. The Emperor seemed concerned only with results, the cultists with science, and he alone was charged with organizing three individuals into a crime-fighting unit worthy enough to use the city’s name. What’s more, due to the nature of his duties he was relieved of some of his general work with the Inquisition and now had been given the broad but spurious command of ‘Special Investigations’, whatever that meant. Still, this was a challenge. Something new. Something to get his teeth into.
Fulcrom guided them down to cells deep beneath Balmacara, where the cultists had rigged up a palace of technological trinkets. As the group descended a spiral staircase into the cultists’ workspace, they watched agape at what was presented. Under arched brickwork stood huge conical devices that hummed with energy. Purple light sparked across the surface of orbs the size of small houses. Shelves were buckling under the weight of coloured jars and blades of all shapes and sizes. The air itself seemed like a living thing – there was an atmosphere of intense anticipation. People expected things, events and history to be generated within these walls.
Nearly a dozen cultists, in their esoteric black outfits, worked diligently by lantern light at tables overflowing with wires and vials and mould-ravaged books. Those who approached treated Lan, Tane and Vuldon with an eerie level of respect, as if they’d already been invested with their supposed powers. A few councillors had drifted down in order to witness their pre-transformation state. Hands were shaken, pleasantries exchanged, and Fulcrom was treated like royalty. But he knew these politicians feared anything the cultists would generate, and their presence was merely a meek declaration of political backing.
Tane was by far the keenest of the group. With much to lose, and few career options, he seemed to make the mental switch to his new life remarkably quickly, and had nothing but bright eyes and quick jokes for the cultists and officials. His reluctance to take anything seriously is probably why he made an awful investigator’s aide. Vuldon was about as happy as a storm cloud. Fulcrom had made it clear to the man that he could opt out at any point, but Vuldon continued to grumble, ‘There’s nothing else left for me, that’s why I’m here. If you can call it a choice, so be it, but this is the least shit option in life right now.’ So Fulcrom steered him away from those with hope-filled eyes, or who expected something more pithy and profound from him.
Lan was an enigmatic woman. Fulcrom watched her the most, since he wasn’t convinced of her engagement with the project. If she didn’t commit fully, she wouldn’t be much use. She was here under pressure, because of her secret – and what a secret it was. Marvelling at the talents of cultists, he found it hard to believe she had ever been a man, but forced himself to purge any prejudices from his mind.
Each of the three were taken to a room little bigger than a gaol cell, but within was a comfortable bed, surgical instruments, a changing screen, and lanterns that hung from the curved ceiling. Now they awaited the event that would change their lives.
Vuldon was first. His was the simplest procedure of the three, low-risk, merely a modification of the processes used to enhance the legendary Night Guard soldiers. His development was going to be a vastly enhanced musculature, fibres rebuilt, signs of ageing peeled away, giving him unmatched strength. A reconstruction of his sense of dignity, of the quality that made him the legend of the past – and what a legend it had been.
The files the Inquisition had kept on Vuldon had been studied by Fulcrom. It was estimated that, in his few years duration as the city’s hero, he had saved three hundred and twenty-three citizens from death or violence; foiled seven attacks by vicious tribes to scale the city walls; saved the then-Emperor twice; prevented a fire from ravaging Balmacara; and saved a small school from a mad-axe murderer. His value was impossible to deny.
Fulcrom asked this figure of dormant pugnacity many gentle, searching questions, seeking to bypass his reluctance to talk. Eventually, hunched on the bed in his rather effeminate white gown, his already powerful shoulders providing an intimidating bulk, Vuldon began to open up. For the first time he gave more than a handful of bitter grunts.
He spoke of the old days. He spoke about the Inquisition in particular. ‘Shouldn’t like a man who wears those colours.’
‘Few citizens do,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘I know about your past—’
‘What you know,’ Vuldon interrupted, ‘is probably the wrong side of the story. Some cleverly spun tale written down in spurious histories. A few edited documents.’
‘They were different times, back then,’ Fulcrom pleaded. ‘A different emperor, a different regime.’
‘You think this one’s any different? They’ve only ever got their own interests at heart.’
Vuldon went on to talk about his wife, a glamour girl who ended her life after things went badly for them. ‘She drank herself into her coffin after choking on her own vomit,’ Vuldon said. ‘You know what that’s like, investigator? To find the woman you love not able to cope with the fuck-ups you’ve made – or rather, the fuck-ups blamed on you?’
‘I . . . honestly, Vuldon. I’d love to give you some nice line here, but I can’t; but if it helps, I understand – I lost a partner, too.’
‘You responsible for her death, rumel?’
Fulcrom shook his head. ‘What I will say is that it sounds like you hold yourself responsible, which I don’t think is fair on yourself. Time can do strange things to one’s memories . . .’
Vuldon gave him a brooding glance, and Fulcrom respectfully lowered his eyes. Somewhere, under that hunched and rather wrecked mass, was a skilled and determined human, and Fulcrom would damn well coax it out of him.
‘So this new transformation,’ Fulcrom said, ‘do you think you’re ready to go ahead and be part of the Knights? We so desperately need your experience, Vuldon. You were the first of your kind, and you know how these things work. Here’s a chance to reclaim your former glories, to make it clear to people that the past was wrong, that the city can trust you again.’
‘There’s not a lot I can’t handle after what I’ve been through,’ Vuldon muttered, lifting his legs up onto the bed, lying down with a deep groan. The hanging lantern made a lot more of the angles of his face, and he appeared truly brutal even in this relaxed pose. ‘I’ll do what it takes. I’ve nothing else, though if we’re going to undergo such transformations, I’d prefer, where possible, to be renewed – lose the name. The Legend is exactly that, a legend, a myth. Let’s keep him that way.’
Fulcrom left the room, passing a stream of cultists and surgeons carrying vials and cases, in order to visit the next of the Knights.
He found Tane in repose on his bed, one arm propping up his head, a half-eaten platter of food by his chest, like some artist’s vision of an emperor. ‘Fulcrom, old boy, the food here’s quite superb. I’ve just eaten a boatload of fruit which I’ve never even heard of before, let alone seen.’
Fulcrom had to laugh. ‘I hope you’re going to take this job seriously.’
‘Absolutely.’ Tane continued his way through the platter with a wide smile at Fulcrom. He offered some to Fulcrom.
‘You don’t seem to be taking it seriously,’ Fulcrom observed, politely waving away the offer.
‘I’ve spent all my life trying to pass those exams for the Inquisition and I’ve got nowhere. Now I have been offered a rather lovely route right to the top, avoiding all that street duty nonsense and all those horrid legal texts. Do you honestly think I’ve no reason to be anything but delighted? I’ve always wanted to help people, and I can make a real difference being one of the Knights.’
‘OK, but don’t think you’re going to have it all easy. You’re going to be transformed, Tane – altered. Changed. You’ll undergo ailuranthosurgery. Do you know what that means?’
‘I was informed that it was something to do with feline-like abilities . . .’
‘Werecat, Tane. You’ll be merging into a semi-form of a wild animal.’
‘Tigers, someone said, yes, yes, yes. They don’t sound all that wild, if you ask me. Rather regal from the stories I’ve heard. Which of course suits me down to the ground.’
Fulcrom felt his frustrations flaring. How could the man be so casual about this? ‘But the point remains, Tane, that you’re going to be forever different. It will bring with it a whole load of new psychologies.’
‘One must allow for risks in life, Fulcrom, in order to progress. Obviously I’m a little nervous—’
A male scream echoed outside along with the sound of roaring static.
Fulcrom tilted his head. ‘That’s coming your way, I hope you know.’
Tane gaped at him. ‘Is it . . . going to hurt?’
‘Of course it is, you idiot. You’re probably going to ache for days afterwards, and you’re . . .’ Fulcrom allowed his emotions to simmer. ‘Look, just don’t make any jokes, don’t try to sweet-talk any female cultists, and for Bohr’s sake do what they tell you to do. It’s for your own good.’
Lan was the last of the Knights Fulcrom visited. Her transformation was the most complicated of all, and he prayed to . . . Well, the god Bohr seems pretty out of touch with all of these procedures, doesn’t he? Fulcrom hoped to whatever powers were involved in all of this that her body could withstand these further changes.
When he reached her, Lan was perched on the edge of her bed, staring deep into a fire burning in the grate, her arms rigid by her side.
‘I’m sorry for putting you through such things again,’ Fulcrom began.
Lan simply shrugged.
‘So you’re the only one in the group who doesn’t really want to be here?’
Lan glanced up at him, and he could see then that she was a slender lady, with such tight musculature. There was something vaguely familiar about her appearance – she looked very much like someone he once knew . . .
No. Don’t think of her now. Lan’s hair was long and dark, her fringe bold, and he noticed her nails were well bitten. Her brown eyes displayed a distance that he wondered if she’d put there herself, to cope.
‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it,’ she replied. ‘The only thing that repulses me is that there is knowledge being used against me – the fact that knowledge is being used to keep me here. The rest, I’m OK with – I maintain that there were nicer ways of asking though.’
‘We’ve got knowledge on the others too, though it doesn’t make it any better, I know. It’s just a security bond, something to guarantee you’ll not abuse your powers – and I want to stress that they aren’t my orders, this isn’t my style, but I understand that there is a requirement that you yield to the Emperor’s will.’
There was a world of thought in her expression, and Fulcrom could tell his words were being analyzed. He liked that.
‘I did have some money,’ Lan said, ‘but I knew I’d have to get employment eventually, which I knew was going to be limiting, being a woman.’
She stared hard at him then, as if testing him for a response.
‘And this . . .’ Lan sat up to gesture around the room with one hand. ‘This doesn’t seem so bad. It’s all a little too high profile for my liking, but still. You know, really, they could have just asked me nicely, rather than assaulting me.’
‘They need to use fear to get what they want. If it’s any help, I’ve learned from working in the Inquisition that more often than not, you just need to treat people with respect, no matter who they are, and they’re more likely to respond positively that way. That’s how I would’ve done it.’
‘I like you, Investigator Fulcrom,’ Lan said boldly. ‘You’re probably the first person I’ve met on Jokull who’s treated me as an equal.’
That was a relief.
‘Though,’ she went on, ‘I believe it’s freakish that anyone in your position can keep your shoes so remarkably clean.’
He glanced down to his immaculate boots, then ignored her comment. ‘Lan, in a few minutes those cultists will treat you . . . just like they’re doing with Tane and Vuldon. I’m sorry, but it won’t exactly be comfortable.’
‘Cultists,’ Lan repeated, ‘I’ve noticed that they have a tendency to look at everyone like they’re an experiment, which, I guess, is a form of equality.’
‘It’s a good opportunity, these new transformations,’ Fulcrom pressed. ‘Especially yours.’
‘Gravitational forces,’ she breathed. ‘That’s what they said, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. You’ll more or less receive metallic plates and a whole bunch of stuff I don’t quite understand, and they’ll enhance your mobility and you’ll be able to alter your interactions with gravity. Which will be interesting to see, given your already useful skills from the circus.’ Pausing on that word, he realized he wanted to know a good deal more about her former life. She seemed so gentle; it disturbed him knowing the pain she would go through. ‘So can we trust you to work for us, Lan? I need to know you want to do this, rather than just being forced to do so.’
‘Answer me this,’ Lan demanded. ‘Are the three of us experiments? Has this been tried before on others? I’ve worked with cultists, as you know, but they seemed very thorough and detailed. These ones are wandering about behind the scenes and don’t let on much.’
‘The process has been refined somewhat, in secrecy, though I believe the Emperor has only known about the available tools in recent weeks, and he’s immediately seen their potential.’
‘What happened to the others?’
‘The others – who this has been tried on?’
Fulcrom wanted to move things on. ‘The science has been refined now, and that’s all you need to know, Lan – the rest, I’m afraid, is confidential.’
As he turned to leave she said, ‘Shalev – that’s who you’re looking for, isn’t it? Vuldon mentioned her name earlier.’
Fulcrom froze and turned to assess her words. ‘That’s true, yes. We think she’s behind much of the surge in crimes recently. Do you know something about her?’
‘When I was on Ysla – with the cultists – they mentioned the name Shalev. It’s a woman, by the way.’
‘Why did you take so long to say anything?’ Fulcrom enquired, attempting to remain calm at this information.
‘Well . . . no one asked what I thought until now.’
‘What do you know about . . . her, about Shalev?’
Lan said, ‘I didn’t hear much, only of her escape – it was when I was . . . you know.’
Fulcrom acknowledged her words.
‘She murdered people, on Ysla, apparently. They’ve pretty strange ways over there – a bizarre culture – but she wasn’t welcome there. She’d been sent to a part of the island in whatever exile those people can permit with their strange lack of law. Then she vanished. She wasn’t like the rest of them I think. She had a bad history with the Empire regarding her homeland. That’s all I know – I swear.’
‘Thanks, Lan. That’s the most we’ve heard in a long while.’
Later that night, sprawled in a vast chair in an antechamber adjacent to the main operation theatre, Fulcrom was sipping a mug of spiced tea whilst staring into the light of the only lantern in the room. An open notebook lay to one side and, in it, he had been pencilling in plans and strategies to ensure the Knights could reduce the crime-wave that had washed over Villjamur. He’d also made notes about Shalev, exploring what Lan had told him, that the woman might have some personal vendetta against the Empire, and was targeting symbols of the city.
Fulcrom waited as the screams of the Knights ebbed and flowed through varying stages of their transformations. He closed his eyes hoping that these pains were not going to scar them for life. Distantly he thought of what it was about Lan’s appearance that provoked him, or at least his memory. Adena . . . of course, how could you be so stupid. The acknowledgement and memory of her disarmed him.
Emperor Urtica fresh from his Council business suddenly marched into the room.
Fulcrom raised to greet him, with a bow. ‘Sele of Urtica, my Emperor.’
‘Less of that, investigator,’ Urtica instructed, and gestured for him to sit back down.
Urtica paraded around the room ending up behind Fulcrom’s chair, and suddenly slapped down his Imperial hands on Fulcrom’s shoulders. Fulcrom noticed the man’s hands were shaking slightly. Is he nervous?
‘They were right about you,’ Urtica declared.
‘What’s been said, my Emperor?’ Fulcrom enquired.
The Emperor moved in front of him, a darkness momentarily blocking the light of the lantern on the table. ‘That you possess remarkable skills with people. You’ve managed these misfits rather well already. They’d never listen to someone as . . . well. Let’s just say that I do not have the patience to put up with errors and slowness in individuals.’ Urtica paused for a moment, as if considering his next statement. ‘I need to trust you will have the people of this city enthralled by your achievements, investigator. I . . . I don’t trust that many people in Balmacara. People there seem to always want things from me, or seek my favour.’
Is this some sort of mind-game? ‘I don’t ask for faith in me,’ Fulcrom said. ‘We’ll work hard. You’ll see results.’
‘Results – yes.’ Urtica perked up suddenly, like a different man. ‘I need to see results – the city needs to see results, and the fears of our citizens need to be abated. You are responsible for this, and your management and crime-solving abilities come recommended very highly, so do not let me down.’
‘My Emperor,’ Fulcrom replied, ‘I’m simply honoured to serve you and the city.’
‘Splendid,’ Urtica said. ‘Because if you fail I will have you killed in a heartbeat.’
With that, the Emperor departed the room, leaving Fulcrom alone with his pulse racing. There was little Fulcrom could do about his new role and knew all too well what would happen if he opted out. Still, at least it seemed a good opportunity for putting something positive into the city.
It wasn’t every day that happened in Villjamur.