The Eight Crimes of The Iconodules

Copperhome

“…and not while you have those damned bells!”

It was the consideration of Aris Gammond that dwarves liked to punctuate points by hitting things. There had been, for a diplomatic meeting, quite a bit of physical violence compared to what she was used to during such proceedings. Usually there was none at all, or the entire thing had devolved into a fight by this point. Instead, the violence kept appearing, but it was always directed at objects rather than people. Aris wondered if this was merely the dwarven way of making sure their surroundings were stable. She would certainly want to check on a regular basis if she lived underground.

Aris righted her goblet before responding, hoping the care with which she did so would instill some shame in the dwarf. It did not. “I understand. You aren’t the first to raise these objections. That demand isn’t easy to reconcile. The orcs, for one…”

“Should be slaughtered while you have them all stunned, like anyone with a lick of sense would do. Y’recognize they’re a problem, and you refuse to act on it.” The dwarf’s surname was Feldspar. First name…Akar-something? Mentally, Aris just thought of him as Whitebeard. She wasn’t totally sure his beard was white, mind you, but Darkvision did strange things to people that were used to light.

“A poignant point and one that you could certainly express just as well in Council in Brise. We are more than willing to move a sizable proportion of your nobility…”

“Yeah, the ones you pick? The ones you think’ll cause the least trouble?” Whitebeard asked, his eyes narrowing as his expression crunched inward. It was like the entirety of his face was trying to implode. Or perhaps hide behind his copious facial hair.

Damn dwarf was shrewd. Yes, that was exactly it. “Ridiculous. We just have limited space-”

“Because you’re sharing it with monsters. Listen, tart…” It was Aris’ turn to have her expression sour. She made only brief attempt to hide it. “You promised this was going to be a trade meeting, not another one of your damned attempts to drag us into your prison.”

Annoyingly shrewd. Aris felt Navion stir behind her and waved him off, only glancing behind herself long enough to see him shrug and turn away. This was as much information gathering as it was diplomacy. “Nobody is trying to imprison anyone, mister…Feldspar.” Damned if she couldn’t remember his name. “We’re trying to minimize casualties from the migration. You aren’t exactly working with us.”

She referred, of course, to the catapults. Siege weaponry was one of the first things being outlawed by the fledgling councils of Brise. What was the point of destroying the last building materials the world would ever see? What would be the point of uniting in the face of a last, great threat if anyone could just end that threat with a few iron-clad flaming balls of pitch? The City couldn’t endure another fire. Not after the last two.

Whitebeard nodded his head. “Listen, that’s because whatever nation you’re representing, girl, you’re not our allies, formal or otherwise.”

“Because you won’t…”

“I said listen. You’ve come here five times to ask us to give up weapons, move around, give you control over where we make our homes. When you weren’t given that control, you took it with your bells and walls. I don’t know why we’d capitulate for a second to your demands if this is how you do your discussing.” Whitebeard was angry. That was something. He paused for a moment to catch his breath. He was old too. Aris knew she’d outlive him. Knew it. It was a strange thought every time it came up. Could even grow to be as old as Nav.

“You’re listing your own reasons as to why you should capitulate, sir.” She had fallen back on ‘sir’, now, having run out of polite ways of addressing the dwarf.. “We’re trying to give you the way that you can carry on your way of life with a minimum of trouble. The world needs to change if you want to survive in peace with the rest of us. That means no more sieges, no more isolation, and no more slaughtering your ancestral enemies just because you’ve done it forever.”

“Wrong, lass. We don’t have to change. Never have. Don’t need to join just because you’re putting pressure on. You know what pressure does to my people?” Whitebeard said. Aris wondered briefly how she had gotten so far without some sort of geological metaphor. “We just get tougher.” And the metaphor fell flat on its face. Navion looked at the ceiling, trying not to smile. Okay, maybe he won this one. They’d use his plan.

“Fine.” Aris said, standing. Behind her, Navion’s fingers snapped, the noise travelling unnaturally, as though it were a mosquito hum which buzzed past their ears and up the tunnels. “Then I don’t think we need to move on to trade agreements.” She ignored the instant flash of anger across the dwarf’s features. Her fingers slipped inside her belt pouch, drawing out a single flask of gray substance, sighing as the memory of its taste invaded her thoughts.

Whitebeard scowled at the potion. His guards, who looked to be his sons, lowered their halberds, taking a few steps.

In concert, Gammond and Dran’amir threw back their heads, downing the foul substance as the first note of the Peace Bells rang across the world.

Strangely, what stood out most to Aris on that day was not the re-location or sabotage or rout. It was the fact that she never could remember his name.

Which seemed fair, because he had never seemed to figure out hers either.

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Fireside

“How often are you wrong?”

Then question, when it came, had paralyzed Ondras.

His mind, as it always did, blossomed with fractal possibility. It was being asked because he had done something wrong? Improbable. A flicker of irony in that response to his own question. The reason behind the question was unimportant? No. It was certainly important. Ondras received so few questions like this. And the nature of the question! It played to his arrogance (admitted), his competence (vital) and even picked at the extent of his memory. What possible reaction to such a question was there other than to be impressed by the questioner? He was trapped in an instant, in social fabric that he had, moments before, manipulated with little more than a few commands.

Outside Ondras’ mind, another few seconds ticked by.

A social response was expected, certainly. A joke would deflect the question, but then Ondras would possibly lose respect, and that conflated too easily with competence. It was vital that he was viewed, at all times and places, as competent. But answering the question honestly gave that away instantly. Lie, then? What gain was there in lying? He hardly needed the practice.

Ondras scratched the beginnings of a beard, setting his face in wizardly stoicism as he stared into the wood fire. The scene would have had quiet dignity had Aris not been snoring nearby. The other’s face was unreadable, flat and expressionless. He certainly never had to trade a falsehood for a moment’s compliance.

Higher processes analyzed lower ones. Why was he delaying? Why hadn’t he produced a solution to a simple question yet? Fear, something said. Then, after another second’s thought, it added: Fear of being strange. Impossible. Ondras thought he had outgrown that. Apparently not. And there was the truth: if he spoke truth to this question, he feared he would be found as strange.

Then again, this was the company for it, no? And the time, he supposed.

The full ten seconds he had given himself to consider the question having passed, Ondras moved on to his response. “Not often.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t have a number for me.”

“Approximately two out of every hundred educated guesses are fundamentally flawed because of something I didn’t know over overlooked.”

“Nice of you to bundle an excuse in the answer. What’s the split between those two? Usually overlooked? Usually didn’t know?”

“The unknown does more damage than my distraction.”

“When do you overlook things?”

So it was a question of competence. “When I am distracted, the same as any man.”

There was the dismissive snort. “‘The same as any man’.” echoed back to Ondras, and with it the full weight of his alienation. Their alienation. “Not sure any of us would be cut for this if that were the case. You distracted now, conjurer?”

“Yes.”

“By what?”

“The unknown.”

“Not just being ironic there, are you?”

“I wish.”

“Lots of wishing going on these days.”

The two of them sat in silence a while longer. The fire burned down, but Ondras’ companion grabbed a fresh log with one hand and threw it onto the fire, ignoring the sparks that splashed back.

“It’s got to be done.” said the First Iconodule. “I suspect you just want to see if it’s possible, though.”

Ondras nodded his assent.

But how did he know?

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The Old Master

Vellius felt like a shelf, sometimes.

Well, most of the time. At least half the time. He was a shelf for papers, mostly. Occasionally heavy objects, in the rare circumstance that Master Mintay actually needed something heavy moved, but couldn’t be bothered to let the Menagerie handle it. When Vellius was a shelf for books it was a nice mix of paper and weight that let him exercise the two core focuses of his training. Carrying heavy things. Carrying books. There was plenty of practice, then, for being introduced to carrying new objects, keeping them at slightly higher than floor level for extended periods of time. At the moment that object was a large rodent.

Those with an aversion to rodents would likely be upset by this particular task. Vellius had no such aversion. He did not take offense to rodents themselves, though certain breeds with their pinkish, writhing fleshy tails reminded him of his old job, and made him quite happy to be holding the furry, sedate bundle. Its luxurious brown fur was glossy with freshly washed shine, carefully groomed so that it all flowed in one direction like a chocolate river. The creature’s expression of calm majesty was only compounded by the fact it wore a small amount of cloth barding, like a warhorse dressed for ceremony. The barding was the sort of deep blue that had been eyeing the side of the spectrum labeled ‘black’ but hadn’t quite worked up the boldness to jump the gap. A pattern of grape leaves in ivory adorned its flanks. At least it had no tail.

“Capybara.” Master Mintay had said, as though the single word would explain everything. That had been early on, when Vellius was still new to the whole program. “All the other ones are extinct, as far as I know. Vale may have one in reserve. I have not bothered to check.” Vellius, younger as he was, imagined the rodent had given him a long look of world-weary disappointment. Which was ridiculous, of course. It was a pet. “Its name is Coal. If it has any needs, you will handle them.”

“Is it a he or a she, sir?”

Master Mintay had responded with a shrug, and Vellius, when he had taken the opportunity to check in his master’s absence had been rather painfully bit. The creature’s teeth, though flat rather than pointed, were not insubstantial. Vellius concerned himself instead with keeping it fed (the staff had been appraised of its diet and it apparently had a private menu) and making certain its linens were placed in the wash when they got too covered in long hairs. As near as he knew, the creature had no bowel movements to speak of, and therefore required no strict cleaning up after. It also, Vellius suspected, had been trained to wash itself, and one of the staff confirmed that she had been instructed to draw a bath at a specific time each week, to one-quarter height of Master Mintay’s private porcelain tub, and to empty it an hour later without comment.

It had been trained well. Vellius’ curiosity about its behavior had ended suddenly one day, however, when upon attempting to follow it (to see if it was actually bathing itself), Vellius turned a corner to find the rodent staring at him, its large, dark eyes fixed on his until he had backed, uncertainly, out of the room.

So there was an awkwardness to holding the capybara as he now did. It had given him a look of disappointment (how was this thing so expressive?) as it had settled into his arms. Master Mintay had given his final instructions then. “I know you have experience here, including dealing with the creature yourself, but if it addresses you, you are to remain silent.” Vellius nodded his understanding and the…administrator (Wizard? Politician? Lord?) continued. “Likewise, do not address anyone you see within, regardless of whether you remember them. They may remember you, but they are not who you believe them to be.”

“Why are we here, Master Mintay?” Vellius wasn’t traditionally bold enough to ask questions like that, especially because the master’s answers, if they even came, were meandering and Socratic enough to make one want to punch the man, which was at the very least a career ending decision.

In the rarest of circumstances, however, the master would do what he now did, grinning in the limited light of the tunnels beneath Brise. This state came over the man infrequently. Vellius had only seen it a handful of times. After fights with the Dreamer, or when exiting the Binding Chambers after being within their soundproofed walls for a day and a half, or when they visited the Vaults, long after when Vellius and Tanner had made their trip. Though the master had not emerged from the vaults…happy. At the moment, however, his grin flirted with madness.

“We are going to raise the dead.”

Wizard, then. The master was definitely being a wizard today. This was a ceremony. Diplomatic contact with a monster. The worst of all monsters. Master Mintay adjusted his gloves, placing both hands on the thick, steel door (locks on the outside, Vellius noted) and shoved.

Golden light flooded into the tunnel, reflected off a dome of shifting coins, an army of torches. The dozens of robed individuals, blank-faced and blind to the wealth they walked upon, froze as wizard and apprentice entered the chamber. A voice vibrated the walls as it spoke from beneath the gold, which shifted and spilled as it rose. “Conjurer of the Obsidian Cage…” Master Mintay’s athamé was already out, the narrow silver blade held horizontally before him as though it would be some good against what stirred below.

“I have come to make an offering, Nezket.” the wizard said.

“I have no more need of this world’s gold…” came the voice again. The vibration it caused was unnatural, leaving a pain in the teeth and throbbing in the ears. Vellius much preferred the voice of the dragon. He tried not to look down, all too aware of what was moving below.

“I do not offer gold, Nezket.” Ondras used the name again. Did it have some power? He often directly addressed servants by name, especially those he summoned with magic.

The shifting in the piles of gold had now become a roil, and pieces of what was rising became more apparent. First, the segmented, pinkish limbs that spread like giant worms out across the surface, writhing as they sought purchase on the walls and pillars of the chamber. The servants of this creature knew their place, standing calmly against the outer walls, the passing of a disgusting, fleshy tendril barely ruffling their electric blue hair. Ondras straightened himself as the body of the creature, round and fleshy, tinted with the pale rust of its once-glossy chitinous armor, emerged from its trove.

“What have you brought, then, Conjurer?” Vellius’ old master asked his new.

“Flesh.” the wizard said, and with a gesture ushered in his other servant, and the corpse it carried. “Stronger than any before.”

Vellius had seen the Old Master eat once before. He turned his head away.

Ondras and the rodent looked on, unfazed.

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Ymaka

It was generally quiet in the small compound that was attached to Dramanaks’ council halls. Once, ostensibly, this building had been a stable. Horses had fallen out of use with all but the most terribly rich (that is to say nearly every Councilor but Iso and Sariya. It wasn’t hard to convert the building into something that the Hunters were used to. They were, after all, products of Rast, which was not a place that put great emphasis on comfort. Quite the opposite, usually.

The hunters worked (that is to say, slept and did little else) out of the building. Ymaka had, tactically, selected the room farthest from the entrance. This was half to give herself plenty of warning and half to inconvenience anyone that bothered to come looking for her. Ymaka did not like to be disturbed.

Heavy footfall on the wooden planks of the hallway outside implied she was about to be.

It was Emanuel Shavrem that opened the door, which explained how someone who walked that loudly got past the mercenaries she had hired to secure the door. Ymaka straightened her mask as she looked up. It tended to slip when she was alone. Probably some metaphorical thing.

“Your lantern is lit, Shavrem. Official business, then?” Yamata asked, trying to be nonchalant. Eman was smiling, and that alone gave her some pause. Normally he was so…unhappy. She could understand it. Ymaka certainly didn’t want his job. “I am not going to give you your quickfire back, if that’s why you’re here.”

“It isn’t. New orders.” he shot back, brandishing a sheaf of papers. The stationary was Brise. Dramanaks had difficulty keeping paper so crisp and white.

“For you?”

“Yes.”

“Nice of you to share.” she said, sarcasm evident even with her mask. “But what you watchmen are doing doesn’t concern our work here, except so far as you stay out of it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Shavrem said, stepping into the room and dropping the papers onto her work. The small pile of bones she was carefully marking with her symbols, damned if she knew where she learned them, was scattered. Ymaka recognized the aggression was just to unnerve her and took the letters in her gloved hand, leaning back to read them.

After a few minutes she looked up. Eman couldn’t make out any anger in her features. The mask, and all, but he could certainy hypothesize. “You are going to get my people killed.” she said.

“Better than all the citizens that have gone missing while this problem has gone unresolved.”

“Don’t pretend to understand what it is we do.” Ymaka’s words took on a dangerous edge. “You realize he isn’t giving permission for any of your people to be briefed. You’ll still be in the dark.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“Fine, send two of them down here whenever pleases you. Try to make sure they’re not idiots.” she said, handing the letters back. “And I’ll be writing letters of my own to encourage this interference to end, and that you do the same.”

“You saw why his mind changed, right?” Eman said. He was still in the room. It was growing harder for Ymaka to not attack him. He probably didn’t deserve it, of course, but who did deserve what they got?

“No.”

“Because you confiscated the quickfire. You may be trusted to handle matters sensitive to this city, Ymaka. I’m trusted to keep the people of this district alive. Keep that in mind before you complain about interference again.”

“I will.” She smiled, knowing he couldn’t see it, and watched the watchman stomp his way back down the hall and into his district. The smile fell the moment he was gone. She knew enforcing the council’s decision was a mistake, but it had to be done. It was on their welcome that she was even there.

It was cliche to complain about politics ruining everything, but Ymaka certainly felt like that was the case here.

With a sigh, she returned to carving her bones, dusting the etchings with silver and running a gloved hand along the patterns. They reminded her of something, but that part of her was locked away now. Broken by Rast’s conditioning. She didn’t mind. It was undoubtedly better this way.

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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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