The Eight Crimes of The Iconodules

William

The one-time friend walked among the Sirens, but did not listen to their songs.

It was their home that he strode through, unafraid. What looks they gave him were furitive and uncertain. His fingers trailed along the old furniture, leather gloves gathering up dust and splinters. It was not as clean as he remembered. It was not the same. His dark gaze caught one of the Sirens full on, and what she saw there had her recoil, and his gloved hand closed in a fist. He would not judge them, though, whatever mistakes they may make. Sirens did not understand. They knew he was special, but not why. They did not know that he had been like them once, before chum hit the streets and he drowned in sharks.

Animals, all of them.

What else could you call creatures that didn’t understand?

To him it was crisp and clear. Her voice did not command anymore. He couldn’t hear her words. Perhaps she had grown weak, or he had travelled too far, or something else blocked the song. It didn’t matter. So long as a beat, he would follow it. He saw the Sirens experiment, saw how they could lure others with fragments of the song that they heard clearly only in dreams. Those souls gathered here, in dust and refuse, and embraced the miracles, if not the song. There was nobody left that understood the way she could grip your soul and the rightness of being tugged towards a greater purpose. She could show you perfection.

“The best souls…” she had said, not long before the sharks came. William did not remember how it ended. It seemed less important, now. He remembered a time when she was younger, and it was just the few of them that would listen, and she spoke about merely people, not souls. Somewhere in the process of what she was and what she was becoming she outgrew all that. Saw something deeper. It lay at the center of everything, she said. “I have told you this many times, but you never remember.”

And he didn’t.

William paused in the battered place he called home, looking at the feeble souls that looked to him as though he was Her. They couldn’t be more wrong. He was a sliver of what she had shown them. Once, he tried to tell the Sirens what the world was really like. They only nodded, and waited for the song. It was addiction, shelter, comfort. They were cold or confused or fearful, and it was the suggestion of her that made them whole. He offered them something more, but they did not accept, so he grew silent, and they began to create their own truths. “This is what she looked like.” they said, gathering around the statues and relics they had, which were pale imitations. “This is what she sang.” they would say, and sing.

Which is why William was fleeing the room, ears shut tight against the mockery.

Outside, in the cold night air, he stood on the balcony, looking out over the wooden roofs of Dramanaks. Lanterns burned oil brightly in the distance on balconies and porches. People moved in the streets now. There were sources of clean water, even if they were being controlled. People had grown used to burning their friends. Fear of his plagues was waning. The City would not cave to his demands. Leather fingers wrapped around the banister and he leaned forward, slamming the door behind him shut with a sharp kick. The Sirens faltered in their song, but took it up again soon after.

She would never have faltered.

William wanted to listen to The City. That was always where he heard her voice. His gaze wandered upward, away from the glow of the night and towards the black dome of the sky. The song came soon after, hinting at things that were long gone. A thousand lights. A sphere that made the oceans roil rather than ripple. He heard them in the rise of the notes. He knew she listened as well as sang, so he spoke. There had been a word for what he did, once, but it had died.

“I don’t know what to do.” he confessed, and the song quieted, listening rather than dying. “We have not broken them.”

“Many souls have tried to break this city.” Her answer was emphermeral, barely there at all, but she lived. His heart lifted. No news, however grim, was suffering when it was her voice that spoke it.

“What do I need to do? I want them to release you. I want to see you again.” He tried to make it not sound like pleading, but it was.

“You’ll see me again.”

“When?”

She did not answer for a time.

“William, you have done well.” The relief that flooded him was immense. He was glad he held the banister, sinking down to crouch, nearly kneeling as his eyes once again turned skyward. “You cannot free me from there.”

“Then why do I linger? Where must I go?”

“Nowhere. You will not free me.” As quickly as his elation had come, it fled. William felt like he may collapse. He couldn’t manage the words to ask her what she meant. “There is another that will.”

“Who?” His voice cracked.

“You had a friend, once, William. I did too.”

The one-time friend shut his eyes, trying not to remember Rast and failing. “The bells took him.” he explained. “I have seen him once. He is gone.”

“No.” the song said, and its melody carried him to his feet, looking once again over the city. Her voice gave lyrics to the tune as it guided his gaze southeast, towards the glow of the Clean Zone.

“He is here.” Melodia said.

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Research

Hypathia Colt had spent a great deal of time trying to get clean when she returned to the Asklepian. She hadn’t had much luck. Dramanaks, above all other districts, was filthy. Clean water for a real bath was unthinkable. Like any good Researcher, however, Hypathia wasn’t content with the world as it was. She would make it better.

For her, anyway. Everyone else could wait.

The bettering of Hypathia’s world was a process that began when she solicited three of the off-duty Watchmen to help her carry one of the hospital’s tin tubs to the roof. When questioned as to its purpose, she told them that she would be beginning a project to bring safety back to the district, but the magic involved would require concentration and privacy. Also it would require them to help her haul about thirty buckets of water up five flights of stairs.

As trained law enforcers, the Watchmen weren’t impressed. As a trained wizard, Hypathia insisted.

It was drilled into researchers not to abuse the various advantages of their position. It would certainly be abusive to give orders to others on the pretense of helping them. For that reason Hypathia rationalized her flagrant abuse of her position as vital to maintain her dwindling sanity. As for abuse of power…

There was something electric about summoning magical fire. Okay, yes, it was not technically electric, but there was no reason to spoil a perfectly good metaphor for the sake of accuracy. The joy of the act never really went away, and running the flames along the sides and bottom of her bath, Hypathia worked it to a boil, realizing only after the fact it would now need to wait to cool. So she sat in her red robe and rested her chin on one hand, staring as the tin hissed, trying to find a color more natural to it than the orange glow it currently sported. Sitting gave the Researcher time to think, more than she had when she was trying to survive in the quarantine, or trying to escape some ramshackle prison.

Langar was dead. That was something. If she hadn’t lost her first spellbook, Hypathia was certain it would have been dead much sooner. Maybe if she wore green robes she would’ve spotted its Idolatry more readily. Sometime before it began to command the earth and sky and raise titanic slugs to do his bidding. Ostensibly it was burned and buried, too, which showed remarkable respect for someone who had, apparently, not gotten along with the Inspectors.

Those Inspectors were on loan from Periad, according to Shavrem. A loan ordered by the Dreamer himself! The First Watch had been surprised to see her again, but certainly appreciative. He was no more comprehending of her questions, of course. “How can we have made no progress on a cure? What have we requisitioned? What have we even tried?”

“Talk to the Idol.” had been his only response, in his nasally whine of a voice. Though perhaps his tone could be forgiven, what with the nosebleed.

And talk she had. Galin, it called itself. Though apparently it was in style outside of Adladom to refer to Idols by their gendered pronouns. That was the style among certain parts of Adladom, too. The division was a pithy part of a much larger academic debate. Hypathia was of the opinion that the Idolatry obliterated the original personality, but it was hard to test. At least Galin was driven and clearly wanted a cure more than Spencer did (she had the audacity to say she was busy with the purification plant issue!) The Idol, at least, couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t stop helping people long enough to help more of them. It was actually kind of scary.

Hypathia blew her bangs out of her eyes, frowning. Spencer won’t work on a cure because there’s no time, Galin won’t work on a cure because there’s no time. There’s no clean water for her bath unless she makes it herself. Everything was terrible. The Researcher sighed, looking from the steam rising off the water she had boiled and west towards the walls that divided the quarantine. Her head swung back and forth a few times, the frown she had managed disappearing in a sparkling moment of clarity. In a flurry of excited motion, Hypathia Colt abandoned the bath, tearing down the stairwell towards the basement of the Asklepian, red robes flapping behind her.

The Researcher had an idea.

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List

Kallen knew he would find the limits of his own power eventually.

The problem was not that his Idolatry had suddenly peaked. There was still exploration to be done there. Sometimes he dreamed of things he had never seen: wooden planks and bloodstained dirt, more trees than he knew in his life, a vast plain of white…stuff. Cold white stuff. That one was probably the most confusing. Kallen felt like he should know what it is, or that he did know what it is. Shaved ice, maybe, like the Shavraythalai had. He hadn’t brought it up to Anis. A man can only take so much patronizing dismissal to simple questions in one day.

And he had certainly had a lot of that, at late.

The limit of Kallen’s power and understanding, it turned out, was not in the ephemeral realm of dreams, but in the very mundane realm of bureaucracy. He was not used to bureaucrats. Their purpose was comprehensible enough. Like many people in the city, they merely did things Kallen did not want to do, things which were therefore of minimal concern. They were, for that reason, noble professions. Certainly not the best professions.

Kallen chewed on something invisible for a moment, thinking at his own thoughts. So much strangeness.

Unfortunately it was well within the power of these bureaucrats to deny him what he wanted. Vellius helped him with the first missive, Evenria, by correspondence, helped with the next two (she was back with the Inspectors?). The tone had started out calm and respectful (Vellius) and meandered its way into accusatory and impatient (Evenria). Strangely it was the latter that got the proper response. Kallen felt he really should have read what was contained in any of the missives. All that had mattered to him at the moment were that they would get him what he wanted: every scrap of information that The City had about Luciva.

Which, of course, he was denied.

Apparently without clearance to summon or imprison black-level entities in the Menagerie, his ability to even know about them was limited. The Agents that had delivered the first response were almost bored. Those that delivered the second asked a dozen pointless questions. “Who made you aware of this entity?”

“Well, she did.” Kallen had replied, perhaps needlessly sarcastic with them. They told him that he wouldn’t get anything. Shamelessly tenacious, he had sent the third letter. That one, at least, had gotten a real response.

“A third party has granted you temporary clearance in this matter. Here is a portion of the information requested.” it had read. Signed by a bureaucrat, a name of no importance. No amount of reading gave a hint as to who that third party was. In the end, and Kallen was somewhat embarrassed to admit this, he presented the letter to the dogs to sniff. They whined at him and failed to go charging off to deliver him to these third parties that toyed with his progress. Worse still, it wasn’t clear if they were trying to help or hinder his progress. Reading the short sheaf of paper that it came with (all fresh copies of some original text) only raised further questions.

Dozens of redacted names, slashed out with a flat ink as black as the Edge itself. The format was the same for each. Blacked out name. Dash. Date. Dash. Payment. It wasn’t hard to figure out what it was. It was a hit list. The City was aware of her, keenly aware of not only her activities but also her victims. Their names were there, though. Dozens of individuals Kallen didn’t recognize, but three he did. Gammond, Kelling, Orvan. Much more recent than the others. Kallen flipped back a few pages. Then a few more.

The tally ran back to the Founding. Then before. Dates in notation he didn’t even recognize.

Well, Kallen thought. shit.

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Menagerie

“The laws, including the True Laws, only apply to citizens.” Vellius explains. It’s a bit hard to keep track of the boy. He moves briskly, purposefully, hesitating only at junctions as you walk together through the massive building. What was this one called, again? The names were all draconic, and without translation to give them meaning they tended to blur together. “So, strictly speaking, The City has no relationship with the entity you call Luciva.”

“What, that’s not her name?” Kallen asks, incredulous. Whatever hook he was looking for, that wasn’t it.

“No no, it’s the only one she goes by. Her True Name may be on record in the Menagerie, though.” the blue-haired man offers. Strange how Vellius seems to grow older or younger as you consider him. In silence he is wide-eyed, curious, uncertain. When he speaks it is with practiced assertiveness, an authority not…internal. Borne of association.

A competent beta.

Kallen shakes out his head, trying, trying not to think like that, and failing. Whatever. He’d sort out his own brain later. There were answers in reach. “The Menagerie?” He considered Razerfang, and was briefly absorbed with the thought it may be considering him in return.

“A…storage system, of sorts, for certain entities that survived the inward migration. Those deemed non-sentient but useful. Or those that it would be…morally indefensible to leave to their own devices. The scope of the project does include some sentient creatures.” Vellius indicated a right turn, and they took it together, not breaking stride.

“You’re holding sentients?” the Inspector in Kallen screamed the word “Criminal!”, but he kept his mouth shut for the moment.

“Non-citizens.” Vellius clarifies. “I know, it doesn’t sound right…” the boy’s voice trails off into uncertainty as he leads Kallen through an archway into a vaulted room. The space beyond is filled with an amount of books, and therefore knowledge, sufficient to make the Inspector somewhat nervous. The kaleidoscope of men and women at long tables glance at the pair of them, especially raising a brow at Kallen’s plain hair, but seem content to tend to their own business. Vellius consults a tome, then a shelf, then scales a ladder. Kallen waits. The dogs wait. Outside, of course, at Vellius’ insistence. Leonard tried not to be insulted for them. It’s not like they’re going to find anywhere in here to piss.

Vellius descends the ladder, a scroll tucked under one arm. “Sorry. This probably isn’t what you’re looking for. The Menagerie is in Rast, so we don’t have access to their full records. Do you have an account with them?”

“Not a wizard.” Kallen says, not apologetic in the slightest “Never had the need. What’s in the scroll?”

“Use protocols. Here.” Vellius rolls open the scroll on a nearby table. A man who was, apparently, building towers out of the books and only reading them when one of the towers accidentally collapsed into his hands, scowls at their presence taking up the corner of his workspace and goes back to sleep. Vellius jabs at the paper with a finger. “Luciva. No other names associated with her. An account requires black-level clearance to summon her, and special dispensation from the Menagerie itself. Strange. Probably because the account holder who had her put into the system wants to be warned if her services are needed by a third party.”

“…she’s an assassin.” Kallen says flatly. “Kills citizens? Criminal? I didn’t expect you to just up and admit she’s out on…parole of some sort. It sure isn’t for good behavior.”

“Well…” Vellius seems like he’s going to start an argument, but at a frown from Kallen the administrator throws up his hands defensively. “I’m not going to argue that. It’s your job to enforce laws, not mine. Just two things to note, here.”

“First, she’s not technically criminal because she’s not technically a citizen…understand? If not, you’ll need to talk to your friends, the cult-hunter and the wizard will probably have a better grip on exactly what I mean. She’s not ensouled in the strictest sense. More like one of your dogs.”

Kallen glances at the dogs. They’re straining to keep track of him over all the tables, without moving from where they sit.

“Second, if she’s black-level clearance then the list of people that can summon her is going to be very short.”

“How short?” Kallen asks, still frowning. “Are we talking under a hundred?”

“Probably under ten.” Vellius says, and is surprised to see the Inspector smile.

“The Menagerie keeps track of summoning?” he asks, and only smiles wider at the response.

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Kallen

Leonard Kallen was an idiot. Objectively an idiot. He could have had case studies pulled down by Researchers, checking up on their listing of definitions and degrees of idiocy. There in beautiful, illuminated manuscript they would find Kallen’s glowering face, next to a list of his exploits. Exploits which had been…what?

What had he done before this?

Not joining the Inspectors. That had followed naturally from the incident at the stockyard, which had followed from his youth, which had followed from his upbringing. Which…he had insufficient memory of. Born in Periad, definitely. A native. There were other children at one point. He had taught one of them how to climb a drainage pipe. Now Kallen mostly taught dogs how to climb things. For a moment, it seemed stupid.

For a moment.

Then that blaze of certainty was back, the same thing that he was beginning to conflate with idiocy. It glowed with absolute, definite demands. Defend the Inspectors, chase when they run, bring them down. The certainty had a source: the incident at the stockyard. Idolatry. The word came unbidden to his suddenly aware mind. And where that memory burned, so burned the power that he used to work miracles, the spark that the hounds looked to, the purpose that made his step sure and straight. Nobody called him “Leonard” anymore, did they? It was always just “Kallen.”

Kallen.

Everyone called him Kallen now. Kallen had done a lot of things. Stupid things. Some of them still made sense. That was the idiotic thing. If he had been paying attention, that erosion of his previous identity would’ve been obvious. Stupidly so. If he had time to sort it out…

“Leonard Kallen?” The voice that called his name seemed calm but insistent. Leonard stood up instantly. As did the dogs. They were looking at him, though, not the newcomer.

Well, sort of a newcomer.

When he was out of Kelasho, Velius’ hair seemed somewhat less ridiculous. It was only when you had beautiful golden light streaming in high glass windows, carefully metered stone columns, wooden inlay (what a waste!) around doors and around the rim of the ceiling…suddenly a bit of blue hair looked less ridiculous. The young man carried a staff with a hooked head, but did not walk with it. It just hung at his side.

A weapon, the Inspector in him noted.

The other Inspector at the room smiled disarmingly at the younger man, nodded to Kallen, and recused herself to somewhere else in the ostentatious hellhole. Her hair was very bright golden, too, Kallen noted.

Maybe it was a Brise thing.

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Distraction

“One of the worst rings in years, Ondras.”

Navion Dran’amir, the Dreamer, Lord of The City, Ambassador of the Eight Districts, currently sat at Master Mintay’s desk, fiddling with what Ondras had always insisted was a valuable piece of material evidence, but really looked more like a spiralling, rusty spring to Velius. There was a reason he was in charge, he supposed, but if not understanding Master Mintay’s desk toys was it, Velius was not entirely sure he would ever be in charge of anything. Regardless, it was strange to see the ostensible master of Brise fiddling with a piece of metal like a bored child. Moreso because he hadn’t been invited.

As usual, Master Mintay didn’t look surprised. He strode into the room steadily, not breaking stride at The Dreamer’s spoken reproach, offering only a quiet “I’m aware.” as he set his payload of scrolls on a different desk, snapping the first one open. Velius retrieved a chair, and halfway through retrieving it realized what he was doing. There was a moment of embarassment at his own training. Seating himself, Master Mintay opened the first scroll and started reading, then spoke. “What have you been involved in?” was the Master’s only question. There was that disquieting habit of being able to read and carry on a conversation simultaneously. Velius merely took up his position by the bookshelves, realizing he once again had no place in this conversation. Such a stark contrast to all the responsibility he had in Kelasho.

“Ah, as much as could be expected. Trying to sell this ringing as routine rather than reactionary. Stifling rumors about Dramanaks. Telling the gryphons to spend a day on the ground. Talking to dragons.” The piece of metal spun in the fingers of the ruler of the world. His strangely youthful face frowning in annoyance at it. Did the Dreamer recognize the scrap of metal?

“Dragon.” Ondras corrected.

“No, actually.” Navion shot back. “Spoke to both of them.”

“That one doesn’t count.”

“Oh, certainly not. He certainly counted when you needed blood, but you’d be damned to take his advice.”

“We would all be.”

Navion went quiet for a moment, then shrugged. “Point. Did you know they killed Kraleth?”

“I did,” Master Mintay said, setting the scroll he poured over to one side, eyes still locked on it and reading as he opened the next cherry-wood tube, drawing the parchment inside out and setting smoothing it out with his hands. Three things, now, Velius noted. In exasperation at his own limitations, Vel glanced to the bookshelf at his side. Its contents gazed back, almost daring him to say something.

“Yes, where Kelling failed. Interesting how that works out. An individual can do quite a bit, but a concerted group of individuals, working together, can accomplish all sorts of things.” The Dreamer’s voice had taken on a distant tone, and Velius found it strange that the Master was only paying him half his mind. Well, a third. “Does any of that sound familiar?” Navion asked.

“There are no adventurers anymore, Nav.” Ondras said after a distracted silence. “I assume it was the Daizeki and his clan. Were any of the Grey Orc’s materials retrieved from that altercation, Vel?”

It took Velius a long moment to break his gaze away from the creature on the bookshelf, which politely reminded him with a tiny snort that he was staring. “No, sir.” Velius said, probably more sharply than he should have. “The Agents investigated the site before leaving. There were pieces of alchemical equipment, a series of prisoners, some sort of teleportation device.”

“Hellgate.” Ondras and Navion said instantly. Their occasional shared thoughts tended to catch Vel off guard when the two men were in the same room. Navion, however, forged on “And it wasn’t Gorzak Daizeki, nor his original nor adopted clan which did the heavy lifting. It was predominantly the work of the same Periad Inspectors that were involved in Gammond’s death.”

Mintay stopped reading. His entire mind focused on one invisible task, the older man’s studious posture froze in the effort.

Then he shrugged. “Twice is coincidence.”

The Dreamer was almost amused as he set the coiled spring-toy back onto Ondras’ desk. “That’s what they say.” Navion shrugged himself, and, ignoring Vel’s brief bow, strode back out of the chamber, leaving the two men to clean up the aftermath of the Bells.

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Scars

It was not appropriate for a paladin to regret his behavior, especially in pursuit of a higher ideal. Regardless, what Noam Kelling experienced at the moment was definitely regret. He was worse at self-deception than he was at compromise. For instance, he rationalized his failings as improperly developed skills instead of ignorance to be proud of. Kelling was, after all, not a deceiver, and pride was the downfall of his peers.

What peers? A thought asked.

“Was.” he said to himself, answering his own question. That was a curse he could do without. The constant train of thought that analyzed every action he took for its accuracy, its truth, its morality. It got on tangents like this and occasionally ignored the task at hand.

Noam slammed himself up against the door frame, the wooden face of the portal cracked and blackened with the same ash he kept wiping from his face with the leathery glove on one hand. It was as though the tower was designed to keep him out specifically. Not the locks. The Black Halberd had dealt with them briskly enough. Noam short-hafted the weapon in one hand and lowered the shield from his face, glancing over it into the room beyond. More laboratories. Who designed this place? Usually by now he ran into at least one kitchen or a boring store-room full of sundries.

Then someone would rifle through it for loot.

Kelling stepped into the room with measured pace, testing the stones of the floor for traps. They had all been runic or poisonous so far, but there was no reason not to be cautious. There was a great deal of reason to be cautious, however. Part of the paladin missed the old days. Certainly there was reason to. Not just because there had been someone to deal with magical traps. Walking past a table, Kelling reached out with the halberd and swung it absently at whatever experiment was percolating through the glass and metal-ware on a nearby table. The shattering glass and splitting metal dissolved into an ochre mess on the floor. He froze, waiting for someone to respond. Someone finally did.

Getting this high in the tower hadn’t been easy, Kelling admitted. He was already considering retreat. Paladins, it should be said, did not know fear. Sometimes, Kelling felt like he was missing vital information because of it. Still, he had gotten this far, and finally found what he came for.

Kraleth.

The Grey Orcs had not yielded easily to the Peace Bells. Or, indeed, yielded at all. It had been assumed that if anyone had escaped that slaughter in Periad, they had gone into hiding, finally cowed to the Bells’ supremacy. Noam knew better and, faced with their prodigal daughter, was happy to note that he had been right.

Or as happy as a paladin ever got when their concerns were proved correct. Noam dropped his grip on the halberd down to its full length, glancing up at the stage-like dias and its strange altar where the orc looked down on him. Everywhere her skin was visible there was scarring, tattoos in a quartet of colors. Black, vermilion, green, indigo. Infernal. the analyst in him noted dispassionately. Noam nodded at it, his teeth set.

“No more demons left to summon?” he asked. To an outside observer the question would appear pompous, arrogant even. Part of the process of assessing a new threat. Answers meant one thing, silence another.

“Not for me, nor anyone in this world.” the Grey Orc answered. There was smoke rising from her broad shoulders. Her frame was actually larger than his, armor included, Kelling considered. Well, no reason to give his enemy too much credit. He had never been a tall man. “You have come to kill me? Sent by The City?”

Noam shook his head, dislodging ash and sweat from his matted hair and the strap of beard that ran under his chin. “No. Sent by myself.”

“Why?”

The speech shot into his head instantly, and Noam knew he had to share it. There was something special about having your target before you, someone you knew that you would kill. There were things you could only share with a murderer, because only they would understand.

“Two months ago a man from this district manifested as the Idol of Charity. Your agents were recorded taking him from his home against his will. His followers were slain, and I encountered her corpse two floors below us and had an enlightening conversation with her.” Noam adjusted his grip on the Halberd, feeling the weight of its obsidian blade settle into that space just where he liked it, low and to the side, where great arcs could be cut out of the air and the force of its impossibly sharp edge was nearly unstoppable.

Beneath her hood, the scarred lips of the orc broke into a smile, white hair framing what little of her face he could see. “The Idol held others. He was criminal. Your laws afford him no rights.”

“No,” Kelling responded “Not my laws.”

He charged.

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Ringer

As part of the Ringer department of the Researchers, let me be the first to welcome you into the Crystal Consortium. This briefing, and the half-dozen others you’ll receive over the course of the next two days, will help familiarize you with the history, maintenance and operation of our charge, as well as how you’ll be spending your time as a Ringer. Ours is a busy and absolutely vital profession to ensuring a peaceful city. Don’t let all the rumors about commanding Agents and access to vast resources deceive you. Most of our work is logistical in nature.

That being said, you haven’t been asked to join us here because of your logistical skills.

Let’s talk about our Charge a bit, first. You’ll hear us use that term a lot inside these halls. That’s because the project, officially, has no name. The public has taken to calling them the Peace Bells, which is fine, but in your work here you’ll most frequently hear the terms ‘the charge’, ‘it’ or ‘them’. This isn’t purely to propagate an air of enigma, you’ll find constantly calling them ‘the peace bells’ or even ‘the bells’ can get exhausting if they need to be referred to well over a hundred times a day in various capacities.

The bells were designed and constructed before the founding of the city, in secret. The facility that housed them originally was a private wizard’s tower in what is now called Adladom. Sometime after their first use, the bells were disassembled and transported here to their final resting place under intense secrecy. I know the location surprised some of you on the trip over. Trust us, the charge doesn’t require as much acoustic amplification as one might think.

You’ll be given a chance to take a look at the bells as part of the tour. Some of you may even be assigned to study them. This is because we know little about their operation. I know some of you were hoping to have that question answered when you were shifted to the Consortium, and I have to apologize. As the Researcher put in charge of trying to understand them, nobody is as disappointed about our lack of information as I. I can summarize what we know fairly quickly, though: There are one-thousand and eight individual units, each of which operates differently to affect a multiple ranges of mental activity. They are not uniform in size or shape, and their arrangement is absolutely vital to their operation. Yes, we have run experiments, and yes, the complexity of studying our charge is exacerbated by the fact they need to remain usable and readied at the shortest of notice. It’s not an enviable task, but for those of you with the inclination towards real research, you’ll find nothing more fascinating to spend a career on, excepting perhaps our colleagues working with Hymortilus.

That substance is going to save us all.

I’m off track. I’m sure a few of you are wondering, at the moment, how, if we don’t understand it, do we operate our charge? The short answer is that we don’t. The Bell-ringer is the only one capable or even comprehending of that particular duty. As the designer and operator of the Bells, the Ringer is privy to the secret of their function and use. Due to infirmity and a severe amount of personal energy being invested in the original enchantment of our charge, the Ringer is infirm and is not to be bothered except during scheduled interview and interrogation over the course of the week. There’s a schedule set up for that. Some of you will be assigned to the Ringer directly. If so, you have my condolences. The work is frustrating and often unproductive. Try to stay sane.

The majority of you, however, will be assigned to Interventions. I will presume most of you are well aware of the effects that our charge has on the population of the city. I will tell you something that most of you likely already suspect or have deduced on your own: our department has ways of circumventing those effects. The methods are not perfect, as the energy of the device is extraordinarily powerful, capable of penetrating most arcane-inert substances we’re aware of. Lead, choritzite, cold iron and even Anti-magic fields, if you have ever had the displeasure of encountering one, are little use against the field it generates in response. Most of our methods of circumventing the field are…crude, but we’ve got some promising things in development using Hymortilus that should be much more palatable.

This is because during the operation of our charge, The City has things that need to get done. We intervene in conflicts to minimize damage to citizens, to reassert district boundaries and ensure that new political powers, especially those lead by Idols, cannot gain a foothold in any of our districts. To this end you’ll be directing small cadres of Brise’s Agents in monitoring specific trouble-spots, and intervening when the Peace falls. Most of this is getting in position, getting your facts straight, and keeping track of your targets, whatever they may be, while keeping them comfortably uncertain about your presence. Tough work, extraordinarily rewarding for that brief payoff.

Though it can get messy sometimes.

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Meeting

It was a difficult task to get the entirety of the Enforcers together, but Gorzak was up to it. He had done difficult things before. There was that incident with the ‘Lethi a few months back, for instance. Six dead, and not one of them an Enforcer or one of Kraleth’s sulfuric servants to show for it. All unaffiliated parties. Of course, the fight hadn’t been the hard part, nor was pulling himself into an old section of the fort and sleeping it off with half his blood splattered over upper Kelasho. Nah, the miserable part was being hauled out to Brise in that state and asked why a Researcher had been among those killed. Six dead in his district and only one gets so much as a question. They hadn’t liked his answer, either.

“I mean, statistically speaking,” he had said, “it’s a surprise none of them had died yet.”

Yeah, they hadn’t liked that. They put that blood back in him and sent him home with a new Rule. Gorzak didn’t like people telling him what the Rules would be, but he supposed, upon introspection, that it was inevitable that Brise would start to get opinions. They always did, on and off. In practice “Nobody touches Researchers.” was a Rule that needed little Enforcing. There weren’t many around to touch. Still, arguing with his employers was not something Gorzak liked to do. The Dreamer was intense, demanding, and all the while managed to make the massive orc feel like he was ignorant.

Well, ignorant to a degree he was uncomfortable with. Gorzak was content with a certain amount of ignorance.

What had he been doing?

Gorzak’s higher brain functions, suspended briefly as they worked on another task (he recognized it was somewhat of a failing that he could only handle a single task at a time, but figured it had been enough so far), reasserted themselves. He looked around. A great deal of people were watching him. Gorzak almost glowered at them, until he remembered that he had asked them to be here. Clearing his throat, which didn’t help with his accent but seemed somehow appropriate, Gorzak leaned back to address his Enforcers.

“Okay, shut up.” he said. It was time to be a leader, and that meant they had to be quiet.

The silence wasn’t immediate, but it was brisk at least. Only Enforcer Deegan chattered on, but a gold coin thrown with sufficient spin and at the right angle can get anyone to pay attention. When they finally settled down, Gorzak had the opportunity to look out over his Enforcers.

Six contingents, for eighteen floors of Kelasho. Gorzak only really thought of them in terms of their leaders. It helped to not have too many names and faces to remember, but he surprised himself by managing to remember exactly that more frequently than not. Melo, Nachrus, Telast, Rel, Mondor and Percival. The Enforcers themselves were a fair slice of humans and half-orcs, a few purebloods thrown in there, and a requisite handful of short things.

He really needed to figure out the difference between gnomes and halflings one of these days. They all wore boots nowadays, so it was impossible to go by the whole hairy-foot thing.

Gorzak had chosen to address the Enforcers from one of the empty shipping crates now that the drop that had just taken place was cleared out. Though the Govak had been forward about their intentions to gain territorial if not direct control over the drops, this one, nestled in the corner of the sixth floor, was still fairly safe. The Blue Glass boys that had been loitering around after the drop were probably unhappy to see the Enforcers arrive. When the entire contingent for the district showed up, they had exited fairly quickly. Gorzak only made a show of yelling at them. They left their shipment of bottles behind, of course, all full. Well, significantly less full now that the Enforcers had gotten into them. The room had the good cheer that most people would associate with the early stages of a party, but there wasn’t enough booze for any of that. Also it would be inappropriate. But mostly there wasn’t enough booze.

It occurred to Gorzak that may be the only thing that was stopping most of the Enforcers. Also they were watching him. Well, it was his Clan, time to get to work.

“A’ight, I’ve been working to keep you all appraised of what we’re dealing with out there. Can’t get to every floor every day, and I know y’all don’t talk to each other because if you did you’d be in the wrong territory, so I’mma try to summarize what the district looks like, uh…strategically.”

Gorzak titled his head to glance at the ceiling briefly, stroking the stubble that grew on his face, thickest around his small tusks. Nobody told Gorzak that his tusks were small, mind you. Mostly because his arms were not.

“The uh, pressure that many of you have been dealing with, especially ‘round Govak territory has a source, and unfortunately it’s one I can’t just go step on because if I could, I would. So here’s what we’re looking at. The Greater Clans have gone and allied again.” he said, raising his voice to start and then dropping it back down when the echo came back. Gorzak was not a public speaker. Well, by profession, at the moment he was.

Groans echoed throughout the assembled enforcers, and hands were raised in the air and lowered in bursts of exasperation. Gorzak did note that Percvial’s contingent seemed more surprised by this than the rest of them. Weird. They were the ones that really caught onto it. Or maybe it was the word ‘again’?

“We haven’t actually identified the problem players this time, though. We’re looking at a few suspects. Vethen, the Govak seneschal has been thrown around a lot, and I don’t think anyone’s gotten in to speak with Seindruc yet?”

Plenty of shaking heads met the question in response. Also a few bewildered gazes, probably from those not familiar with the Govak warlord.

“Well, given they’re the ones that seem to be leading things this time around, they’re the first lot we’re going to go talk to. I’ll be heading over there tomorrow.” Gorzak explained, rubbing the back of one of his hairy forearms across his face, momentarily introspective, he added “I don’t think I’m going to like whatever he has to say. Which is where you lot come in. We’re overdue for a sweep.”

The prospect seemed to excite some of the Enforcers, especially some of those that hadn’t seen a sweep before. Old hands, though, were less thrilled. A street sweep had never been performed, in anyone’s knowledge, without the loss of an Enforcer. The clan’s legends said that the specialist that Brise sent to train the first generation of Enforcers pioneered the tactic, which involved sweeping through a clan’s territory with speed, force, and very little mercy. If a clan was hiding something, or needed to be reminded that Criminals did not prosper in Kelasho, a sweep would flush it out or remind them.

Always seemed to get someone killed, though. Still, things seemed iffy enough to justify it.

“Let’s figure out how we’re going to go about this.” Gorzak said, and the contingent leaders began to speak up.

Which was good, because he didn’t really have a plan to offer.

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Black Wood

Everything had changed once their horns had grown in.

For starters, Perré found herself using Matar’s name far more frequently. Their conversations were rarely the involved, contentious affairs they had undergone when Stell was alive. No more did they argue over appropriate tactics, desperation had refined their interactions. She was eyes, ears and voice, he was merely the hand that carved a path from one objective to the next. Since The City had killed Stell, it seemed like Matar had nothing left to say to its denizens. When it became clear that Kelasho did not mind the occasional death in its halls, so long as they were careful, Matar had taken more than his fair share of lives, usually in those short periods they were out of each others’ sight. When he was vocal, it was clear he blamed all the Idolators for Stell’s death, and Perré had a hard time arguing the point. In their ignorance they supported The City, and in that they were enemies, even if malice did not enter into it. Somehow in Kelasho they had found something resembling allies. They were doing the right thing, trying to fight their prison, but for all the wrong reasons. Arrogance, power, wealth. These creatures were not Aniconists, she reminded herself. They were tools, Perré knew.

And the beak she wore could not treat them as anything more.

Matar was restless with his mask now, as though it itched, and would now remove it when he was out of sight of the Idolators, rolling the damaged wood in his hands, running a thumb along the place where a piece had been scorched off by arcane force. It exposed part of his lower jaw, now, but he hadn’t tried to repair it. He hadn’t discarded it entirely, but still didn’t seek anything to fill the space. The violence in his youthful face was obvious to her, but Perré did not prod at it. The changes in the masks affected everyone differently, the Iconoclast had said.

“Do any of the Trios return from their tasks?” Perré remembered asking of her.

“Some.” the Iconoclast had answered. “There is a point beyond which you cannot return. If faith overcomes you, you will not seek sanctuary.”

The ancient woman had paused a moment, then added “You will create it.”

Perré caught Matar’s eye, and they shared an imperceptible nod. The masks came down, and she was looking once again at his tusks. She no longer saw the uncertainty, the violence or the youth in his features. There was only gently curving horn, jagged tusk and the flat expression that the mask bore, all etched in black wood. They slipped out of shadow and into the light, merging with the crowd of orcs as though they had every right to be there.

Perré briefly wondered if she would die with her mask on, and which face was really hers.

Stell had seemed so certain.

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