The Eight Crimes of The Iconodules

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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Kelling

In their more lucid moments, the paladins would sometimes consider the past.

The word ‘paladin’ had died ages ago, of course. The advent of the Idols and the Edge ensured that. They did not agree, among their imperfect memories, which had come first. Kelling was adamant that the Idols had come first, but Percival simply did not remember a world that only contained one or the other. They were old souls, whose careers had been consumed by suspicion, turned too frequently to their own kin for trust to come easy. There was a silence that fell over a spirit, once the twin chains of ethics and evidence led them inexorably to those they had once called ‘friend’. Perhaps in an ancient forest or city these men had been hopeful, kind, servants of their societies whose humility and tenacity were inspirational. Maybe once they did not watch people the same way they did now, with flickering gaze that sought out wrongdoing, interpreted cruel actions as nature and not circumstance, and judged every step of the way, looking for that final piece of truth that would demand action. It was exhausting, but a soul could learn to endure anything, even the impossible dream that it demanded of itself.

That was what had drawn them together. Try as hard as they could to judge, minds locked in endless inquisition, they saw nothing in each other that was worth punishing, and in that found something unique, and worth preserving.

Kelling had come through the chaos of the Exodus, those camps and wagons that spread out across the plains outside of The City, before the walls were sealed entirely. It was suspicion, of course, that had drawn them to watch each other. The human was tall, but lanky, his expression carefully neutral rather than the desperate greed of the rest of his kind that moved among the Exodus’ camps. Where they sold trinkets, asked the elves to deliver letters to the world outside, offered aid or gouged prices for food, Kelling merely wandered among the camp, avoiding blocking anyone’s path, his chin set behind the strap of hair that circled it. When they noticed each other, the armor was most apparent. When was a paladin without their plate? It wasn’t long before they spoke, and it was not long before conversation turned to commiseration. Surprise was the first response. “I had not expected to find another.” they said. “Are we the last?”

Whatever disagreements they had, concerning Revenance, appropriate force or culture were set aside. It was good to have someone to not be suspicious of.

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Value and Complexity

Vellius had been trained with the long, hooked staff that he carried. Through a series of instructions, holistic exercise and repetitive practice, he actually was somewhat skilled in its handling, able to roll the smooth oak across his body and catch it anywhere on his form with a snap of motion. The suddenness of such a violent maneuver was intentional, of course, serving to strike at hands and hilts, twisting wrists and breaking fingers to disarm anyone that may threaten him. Ostensibly, according to his teacher, the entire affair was part of some “Soaring Winds” school, an ancient discipline that only the most dedicated could master. When Vellius, remembering his oath, was recalcitrant about learning how to shatter sternums and stop a man’s heart with one motion, the training had ended. “Limitations are only in your mind.” spoke the half-mystic teacher on the day Vellius abandoned the training outright. It was a strange sentiment when the limitation was a self-imposed ethical imperative, Vellius thought.

Still, the limitation was there, and Mintay had been adamant that Vellius had become too valuable to lose to simple violence, and so therefore must learn to defend himself. The fewer resources spent watching and defending his apprentice and therefore investment, the more resources could be devoted elsewhere, helping others. Again, remembering his oath, Vellius agreed. Still, defense and disarmament was all he would tolerate. The city, Vellius argued back, did not need more people with the ability to kill.

“Quite right.” had been the master’s response.

Perhaps his favorite part of the instruction he had received was the staff he was allowed to keep, a gift from Mintay. Formed of Valan wood (Chestnut!), straight and smooth with a careful polish, a relic hand-worked by someone who had love of beauty and the feel of a solid tool, one that spoke to the owner of sturdiness and reliability, the sort of thing that one would pass to their descendants.

It was for this reason that, when the man burst through the doors to Mintay’s office, Vellius found himself confident in brandishing his staff from a nearby table. The man was screaming, had already worked his way past the guardians downstairs (that terrifying one-eyed monster included), and was armed, a long, cobalt blue rapier cutting a strange, soapy path through the air as it was raised against Vellius’ master. Perhaps the young man’s plan had been to save Master Mintay from an early grave with an act of heroism. The sturdy staff in his hand, he brought it up to intercept the man’s blade with some force, to push it back and into a position where it would threaten nobody.

It was heartbreaking to see the blade flicker away from his strike and bury itself in the hard wood of his heirloom. It was worse, even, to see the way its polish was ruined by the sudden cracks that ran through its beautiful, chestnut surface as the rapier split Vellius’ weapon in two. Vellius was not composed in the face of this, his mouth opening in disbelief. Luckily, a quick death by the same weapon was not forthcoming, as Vellius staggered backward away from his melting, broken treasure.

“We don’t gamble with irreplaceable things, Mintay!” the man screamed. It was a poised, composed fury. One that spoke of the fury as a weapon smoldering in the intent spoken by the tip of that weapon where it hovered in slow circles pointed at the master’s breast. That strange film floated in the air in its wake, a field of slick iridescence, like an oil spill on stone.

Master Mintay was, as always, unfazed. Many times, his certainty had surprised Vellius, comforting him in the case of decisions that perhaps didn’t seem to make sense at the time. Now, though, with an ostensible armed assassin in the room, it seemed almost insane to be so blasé. “Vellius, this is Navion Dran’amir , the ruler of this City and I do not believe a threat to your or my life, before you attempt anything else. Navion, do you mind sparing this talk for someplace else? The boy is quite innocent.” Mintay said, dropping the tools with which he did…well, whatever it was he did with colored sand every morning. Not all his master’s habits were transparent to Vellius. Still, ‘innocent’? That was a new descriptor. And ruler?

“Don’t patronize me for once, Ondras. I don’t care what secrets you’re keeping from him. Nobody in your company-…” the ruler began, then his reproach faded as he inspected the end of his own weapon, still dancing in air. In one fluid motion it was sheathed. Anger shifted to impatience in the man. He looked so young for a leader! How did one come by the position, anyway? That question paused Vellius, and as he worked at it he paid half an ear to what was implied to be a private conversation. One of many that Mintay would hint that he should forget, no doubt.

The two men came together in the floor, arms folded in mirror of each other. Master Mintay looked so much older than the man he ostensibly served, the stark, minimalist black of his dress contrasting sharply with Dran’amir’s embroidered white and gold. “It was a strategic move, Nav. There’s little to nothing left to threaten the stability of this city on a strategic scale beyond her. Things aren’t stable, but short her collection of indoctrinators, nothing is going to ruin the big picture.”

“Why this way? Why didn’t you tell me?” Navion returned, his stance implying that he intended to loom. It may have worked, too, if Master Mintay didn’t have a full two inches on the shorter man. His ears…elf blood? Strange that he didn’t partake of the Exodus like the rest.

“You would have interfered.” came Ondras’ clipped response. Not many people spoke the master’s name. Familiarity with the man was not something that Vellius had seen before, and they slept only a wall apart most nights.

“Of course I would have. You could have made some other sacrifice for this plan.” Vellius was running down the list of cues he had been taught to look for as Dran’ammir spoke. Tightening lips, the briefest of tics in the brow, the way his hands lingered towards his weapons. Why in the world did the master feel safe?

“Nav, I am sorry. If you had known you would have stopped me. It had to be a prize big enough that she would risk for it. Risk trusting one of us again, but a prize we could afford to lose. That means you, me, the madman, we’re all irreplaceable. You said it yourself, you know the answer, knew it when you walked in the door. ‘We don’t gamble with irreplaceable things.’ We agreed on that, and I acted on it. I don’t like it either, but this is the best way to get close. She won’t trust anyone else. We’ve tried too many times.”

The Dreamer’s tongue ran over his teeth as he considered that, then his back straightened, his arms unfolded, tossed wide. “Fine.” was all he said. Then, “Let me tell you something too, Mintay.”

“I have given everything I can for this city. I field a thousand complaints and the begging of powerful minds with weak morals. I am in three districts a day trying to assuage the hundreds that think they should rule just to hide from them the fact that there is no throne. We don’t eat. We don’t sleep. I am as propped up by magic-…” the word came with the Dreamer holding up his left hand, upon which sat a ceramic, orange ring, presented to Ondras’ unmoved gaze. “…as I can be. There is little happiness left to find in this City we’ve made. It helped, I will tell you, to know that somewhere off in the world, she still lived and prospered doing the work she once loved. Now that’s all been given up, so we have a chance at killing the one person that could bring her back. That, Ondras, is a high price.”

“The price is worth it. The world is ending.”

Vellius saw the ruler of the city, the man named Navion turn and show his back to Master Mintay. He was, admittedly, somewhat stunned. A candid exchange like this one was not frequent in Master Mintay’s presence, but for the moment the two men seemed to have forgotten he was here. Crunching through the remains of Vellius’ staff, Navion spoke his parting words without turning.

“I suppose we keep dreaming, then.”

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The Periad Temple

Fresh off their (ostensible) victory at Adigan Alley, the Periad Inspectors had time to attend to the business of their own district. Unfortunately, Southwest Periad had grown desperate with the loss of a food shipment that had gone missing in the adjacent district of Kelasho. Because of this loss, the Eight Hand Hall entered into rationing, which lead quickly to a violent altercation between the proprietor, Veld, and a man who was apparently late to the distribution due to overwork. The Inspectors managed to keep the peace, but only just, as with the lack of resources more than a few citizens seemed on edge.

Though the outcome at Eight-Hand was hardly ideal, the Inspectors didn’t have much time for reprieve. News quickly traveled to them of a woman claiming her daughter was kidnapped by an Idol. Worse still, the Idol in question turned out to be the healer Galin. Inspectors Leroux and Voke, though unpracticed with dealing with the public Idol, immediately made their way to her compound, where they found the distraught mother outside. Her daughter, she claimed, entered the compound earlier that day but had not returned, and as the curfew was coming up, she was terrified that she would be caught on the streets. The Inspectors were surprised to find the gate to Galin’s compound was closed, as in all other instances they had passed by it had been open and welcoming. Exercising executive privilege and entering the compound, the Inspectors rapidly found that the compound was bustling, as volunteers (well, Voke wouldn’t call them volunteers) were busy filling barrels with some sort of bluish paste. A brief conversation with Galin found the Idol more than willing to relinquish the assistance of the woman’s daughter, as Galin did not want to be known for keeping anyone against their will. Questioning the Idol, the Inspectors also determined that the substance she was hoarding was manna, an otherworldly foodstuff that Idols are known to occasionally produce. It occurred to the Inspectors that in the light of rising concerns over food, citizens were likely to flock to the Idol, but they took no action against her for now. The mother was happy to be reunited with her daughter for the evening. The daughter less so.

Finally, the Inspectors were summoned to Central Periad and briefly interrogated by Inspector-General Gammond to determine if they had any involvement in the murder of Tychen while in custody. Determining they were not involved, the Inspector-General tasked the party with determining the truth of that murder. Briefly encountering the blowhard Inspector Bold on their way to the basement, Inspectors Flint and Leroux rapidly determined there was some manner of tunnel operating under the garrison. Relaying this information, the Inspectors were given the objective of investigating the tunnels, eliminating the Aniconists inside and retrieving an object they were using to move through the district. The Inspector-General seemed to have a considerable amount of understanding of exactly how the Aniconists were operating, but was unwilling to share. When Flint pressed the point, she found herself berated for operating out of her jurisdiction, placing the Southwest Inspectors on thin ice.

In the sewers beneath Central, the Inspectors eventually found a concealed passage that lead to a magically-formed stone temple, rife with spectral lights and, though at one point occupied, now abandoned. Pressing into the temple, however, they found it to still have active guardians, both otherworldly and undead. The temple presented the Inspectors with trials (likely not meant for them), but also stories-in-writing, carved into the walls, which hinted at things long past. In the depths of the temple, however, the Inspectors found the strangest thing yet: a statue of a bloated woman, carved of solid stone, with one green eye. Worse, the Aniconists themselves.

Though not denying their crimes, the Aniconist leader, Stell, made impassioned argument to the Inspectors that the city was inherently corrupt, that its existence is abominable, practiced on the uncomprehending. Claiming it was within the Aniconists’ power to bring back the Old World, but unwilling to expound on the plan beyond it involving the destruction of Idols. Some of the Inspectors seemed swayed by his arguments, especially where they intersected with the laws of the city, which were themselves arguably unjust. Without asking for any violent intervention on their part, the Aniconist offered an opportunity to align themselves with his cause, delivering a fake gemstone to Inspector-General Gammond, claiming it is the Mital. This, he claimed, would allow the Inspectors to interact with the Aniconists again peacefully. While considering the offer, Inspector Voke made the decision for the others, trying to gain some measure of control over the cultists. Disappointed, the Aniconists fled, but not before leaving their fake Mital, and summoning some sort of spirit into the giant statue of the temple, with the express intent of killing Inspector Voke.

Luckily, Inspector Shiel was having none of that, using her prodigious strength and considerable endurance to pin (and later survive the crushing attacks of) the statue. This bought the other Inspectors time to destroy decorative stones powering the statue’s magic and destroy it with physical attacks. Left covered in dirt and holding only a small, fake gemstone for all their effort, the Inspectors were forced to decide how to proceed. It turns out they chose honesty, telling the Inspector-General exactly what happened, though leaving out their serious consideration of the Aniconists’ offer. Still, their failure riled the Inspector-General, who passed the fake gemstone off to Velius, a young man representing Brise in the matter, and proceeded to pull the Inspectors’ jurisdiction back to only Southwest Periad for now.

Not that, given what they now knew, the Inspectors were likely to listen.

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Leix

As she was, sunken in cushions, draped over the side of her overlook, eyes half-lidded, it could be said that Leix was not keeping good track of her small legion of alchemists. Since the last accident had resulted in punitive measures, the goblins had not been making the same punitive mistakes. She had not touched them, of course. There were laws against that, and a good business-entity won by playing by the rules. Resorting to illegal measures was the mark of evil, or worse: bad business. No, Leix chose to run her business according to the laws of Periad. Though, as she thought on the contents of the basement, she had to admit that she occupied certain grey areas.

In business there was “perfectly legal” and then there was competitive.

A shattering of glass and flash among the cubicles that populated her emporium’s second-floor work-space drew the Yuan-ti out of her reverie. With a sigh her arms unfolded from opposite sleeves of her green blouse. Uncurling along her long body, the snake-woman raised to her full, prodigious height of nearly eleven feet on her coiled tail and spotted the flickering motion that flames made among the work-space.

By the time Leix arrived, the goblin had already put out the flames, to his credit, and was working on cleaning up glass shards with a speed that only suggested that she wanted to be done before the master alchemist appeared. Unsuccessful though this hopeful plan was, Leix said nothing for those first few terrified moments as the smaller creature stood before her, trembling, her apron full of glass and uncertainty stretched across her features. Leix smiled. What in the world was the point of hitting people to make your point?

She had not become a master alchemist for having a poor memory, and Leix quite thought that it intimidated the goblins further to hear their names spoken aloud. “Do not worry too much, Gazre.” she said, slipping into the cubicle briefly so that it filled with bright green scale and dangerous muscle, leaving her employee flat against the wall lest one of them unintentionally break the law. Leix gave the bench the briefest of glances. She spoke slowly as her hands flickered over the remaining glass and boiling compounds: “Working on alchemist’s fire, aren’t you? Trying to replenish our stock after our big sale? Good, good.”

It was entirely a dance. The goblin was mesmerized by having her employer so close, and every motion was threat. Grey areas. It was not Leix that had started the rumor that she had unhinged her jaw and eaten an entire goblin out of raw fury, but it certainly didn’t hurt. “It is very difficult for Alchemist’s Fire to burn down a building, Gazre. You will not ruin my business with such weak mixtures. There are compounds remaining in this world that could do such a thing, but they are locked away safely in hands steadier than yours.” The master alchemist’s lightly scaled hands had no problem resetting the retort, pouring out the congealed liquid inside with only a little assistance from her Mage Hand. She began to reset the entire workbench, speaking all the while. “Alchemist’s Fire does not burn too hotly, barely as hot as a wood stove, and only rarely does such a stove set fire to a home. No, to get a conflagration one can only use Alchemist’s Fire as a catalyst. Even in great quantity, it burns its fuel too quickly, at temperatures too low to be dangerous to well-constructed buildings. Or,” she said, knocking on the table “well-constructed furniture.” There was little to indicate the accident had even happened except for a discolored mark on the desk. Alchemists had long since referred to those marks as ‘progress’.

“As you were, Gazre.” Leix said, letting the trailing end of her long tail linger in the goblin’s cubicle as she removed herself from it. As the coils slid out the door, becoming narrower as they went, the terrified creature could only stare at the very tip of Leix’s tail, waiting in silence until it, too, slipped out of the cubicle and left Gazre alone.

Then, at last, she could let out her breath.

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