Mark Newton: The Book of Transformations

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Mark Newton The Book of Transformations
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    The Book of Transformations
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Mark Sharan Newton

The Book of Transformations


This was no time to be a hero. Under the multicoloured banners of the sanctuary city of Villjamur, under the reign of a new emperor, and amidst a bitter northerly wind reaching far through the knotted streets, something was about to start.

Seven human teenagers sauntered back and forth in front of a gate that permitted access to one of the highest levels of the city.

Sleet was whipping by in the channels between these old stone walls — buildings three or four storeys high, with fat timber frames and decorated with hanging baskets inhabited by little more than limp tundra flowers.

From his horse, Investigator Fulcrom could glean only so much about the movement of the youths: their first walk-by was purely to check out the guard situation, maybe gauge the soldiers’ temperament. A little tease. Those kids had done well to get this far, given the current political climate. In their baggy breeches and hooded wax coats, they moved with long, easy strides right past the military installation. They possessed every intention of creating a scene. At least, that was what the guards were meant to think.

But Investigator Fulcrom, a brown-skinned rumel in his younger years, knew better. He’d seen this kind of thing before, from his casual dealings with the underworld — an advantage that these simple guardsmen did not possess. No, these youths were decoys — they didn’t have the guts to challenge the guards outright. Sure, they laughed and whistled and threw around tentative insults and crude hand-slang gestures; but this wasn’t the real deal, not by a long shot.

So if they’re not looking for a fight, what’re they up to?

About a dozen armed men and women sporting the crimson and grey colours of the city guard peered on glumly from behind the bars of the massive rust-caked gate. Fulcrom suspected they were probably annoyed to be out in this weather as much as being faced with these young piss-takers.

Another group of kids loitered by the massive, arched door belonging to a disused tavern. Are these connected with the main display? In the shadows they chattered and pointed at a piece of parchment nailed to the wood. Fulcrom knew they were looking at the artwork of MythMaker, an unknown figure who would occasionally leave his hand-drawn stories about the city. It was rare to see one of the sketches here — rare, in fact, to see them much at all these days. The parchments were usually left by schools, or in places where children would loiter, and Fulcrom wondered for a brief moment if it may or may not have anything to do with the events about to transpire.

Back to the main show: a second taunting walk-by from the youths still yielded no response from the soldiers.

Cobbled streets weren’t as dangerous to traverse these days, not with the cultist water technique imported all the way from Villiren to keep the ice at bay, so the kids strolled safely in a line, right before the assembled military.

A shadow flickered, followed by a sharp ripple of wind: a garuda skimmed the air overhead, making its presence known. Fulcrom tracked the garuda as it flew between the spires that defined Villjamur. A few of the older structures here were latticed with ladders and scaffolding, bearing workmen and cultists as they continued the Emperor’s massive programme of regeneration. Either side of Fulcrom, the streets weren’t at all packed — merely a few of the usual well-to-do citizens that you found about the fifth level of the city, trudging from store to store. Faded shop facades indicated tools or gemstones or bistros, and not for the first time Fulcrom noticed a couple of those new private soldiers of the Shelby Corporation stationed as guards. Beyond, cobbled lanes arced upwards, winding and twisting like slick-stone veins into the heart of Balmacara, the dark fortress that was the Imperial residence. Suddenly the bird sentry banked upwards, drifting into the haze, then scrambled to a standstill on one of the overhead bridges, where it stared down ominously across the scene.

Fulcrom inched his horse forwards, closing the distance. He should have been at the office by now. He had dozens of high-profile burglaries to be investigating, but he wanted to see how this played out, and his tail swished with anticipation. He was fifty years old — remarkably young by Inquisition standards — but he could tell a ruse when he saw one. Pity the guards can’t… How useless can they get?

He would have intervened, but it would be bad etiquette. In the moment’s pause he absent-mindedly wiped the excess mud from his boots, then rearranged his crimson robe.

A greater density of people now began to mill about around him, drifting forwards, curious about the show. Women in drab shawls, men hunched in furs and wax raincoats, the dozens soon became a hundred: here was the promise of something to break the monotony of everyday life in Villjamur. Citizens were currently experiencing lockdown conditions — the Council was in its regular session, and virtually no one was allowed near the upper levels, the forbidden zone lying beyond the guarded gate.

The third walk-by now, and all laughter had faded as the youths began aggressively throwing rocks at the guards. The stones pinged off the bars, or slapped against the wall to one side.

‘Get the fuck away, brats,’ a veteran guard growled. Stubbled and heavily built, he looked like he knew his way around a fight. The man unsheathed his sword with a zing.

One of the youths strutted forwards, took a wide-legged stance and beckoned the guard forward, much to the entertainment of his mates.

There followed a clank clank clank of a mechanism; the gate started to lift and the youths inched away, peering at each other, then around the streets.

Fulcrom followed their gazes, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. They were just looking for escape routes.

So where is it? When’s it coming?

The guard grabbed the youth who was beckoning him by his collar, slammed him into the ground and pointed the tip of his blade at the kid’s throat. In all the commotion, Fulcrom couldn’t hear what was being said, just continued to followed the anxious glances of the others. A woman from the crowd screamed for the guard to leave the kid alone.

Suddenly, from two streets away, four figures garbed in dark clothing and riding black horses burst through the bad weather and, with immense speed, approached the gate. The one at the front swung his sword and decapitated the veteran guard — blood spurted across the cobbles, his head flopped uselessly to one side, the kid in his grasp shrieked in disgust. The other youths made their escape.

The four riders, their faces obscured by black scarves, collided with three guards, knocking them aside, then spilled through the gate. Another soldier was trampled, another was driven back into the wall with a scream, and then the others were hurled aside by a violent purple light that burnt at their flesh.

The crowd were in hysterics.

Cultists? Fulcrom pulled up his crossbow, loaded it, and nudged his white mare in an arc across the wide street, trying to make his way through the fleeing masses.

He spotted a gap — and moved in pursuit of the riders, with two city guards moving in to flank him. The winter winds whipped across his face.

Like hammers on anvils, hooves pounded on the cobbles.

A trail of seven horses curved upwards through the high-walled streets and galloped through a thronging iren. Screaming people lurched aside while traders cursed as their cheap wares were scattered across the ground. Bones of the unfortunate were crunched into stone, but Fulcrom ignored this and focused on plunging through the horse-made gaps in the crowd, his heart racing. These invaders were quick and skilled and working those horses with purpose. They know where they’re going, Fulcrom thought. This has been well planned.

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