Maeve sat on her bed. She had just woken up, drunken water, and washed her face. Without her usual makeup on, her skin was pocked, sickly pale, and her angles were flat. She licked her lips, sat up again and washed her face. Again.
When she looked up at herself, she remembered a name.
She slipped on a warm hoodie and walked out of her dormitory. That’s why her dorm felt so lacking. That’s why there seemed to be some ghost that walked about the room, a restless shade trying to sleep next to her. It was the ghost of Thackeray in the deepest recesses of her mind.
She made her way through the cold Ascending air, all the way over to the separate building where the Dean stayed. She walked past the Guards, past the Librarium, through the Tasspaths and eventually, back to the double wooden doors.
Maeve balled her hands into fists, raised them, and knocked.
The door opened, and the Dean wasn’t there.
Frowning, she turned around and left as fast as she could. As she walked away, she saw a familiar face walking down the hallway. “Professor Ivahl!”
Ivahl paused, and turned around. As always, he wore that gray waistcoat that he never seemed to remove, never seemed to let go. He whipped his silver hair to the side. “Hm? Oh, De Laqua. Congratu-”
“Have you seen the Dean?”
Ivahl paused, and then stared closely at her. After a moment, he licked his lips and shrugged. “He has left, it seems. I’m assuming you’ve walked up to his room, yes?”
Maeve tsked, looked around her, as if she hadn’t heard what Ivahl had said. “Have you seen Thackeray?”
“Thackeray…?” He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, you mean Navarre! I did not, as a matter of fact. Isn’t he always with you?” A gust of wind buffeted Ivahl’s hair, leaving as quick as it came. “Don’t you have other friends you could try asking?” He plucked out his palmnode, checked the piece of glass, and then returned it.
“Eyth.” And with a rekindled flame of hope burning from the bottom of her spine to the crevice of her heart, she turned and walked away.
Ivahl watched her walk. She’d always been that kind of girl — the one that took initiative. He chuckled softly beneath his lips, shook his head, and then turned around. Another gale rushed past, and Ivahl was gone.
* * *
Quinen walked into a diner, grimacing as he forced his new body to comply to his Will. “This is going to take some getting used to…”
The front bar was mostly a granite slab painted gray and red, with wooden stools in front of the counter. Dining tables were arrayed against the front window of the shop, curving, as it was at the corner of a street. “And you?”
Quinen looked up. The man that asked for his order scratched his stubble. “Heh. You look like shit.”
Quinen waved a hand. “Give me breakfast.”
“Mm.” He nodded and scribbled something. “Pick one — pelagum bacon and grimu eggs, or stacks of waffles with chairotnyan cheese?”
Quinen licked his lips, looked down at his pocket, and found that he didn’t have enough money for both. He sighed. “Gimme a minute.”
He turned around and buzzed up Kasu’s frequency. Midway through the first buzz Kasu picked up. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Quinen snickered. “Calm down, Mom.” He turned back to the man taking his orders. “Do you take Data-Transfers?”
The man nodded. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be right back.” He turned around, shoving the notepad and pencil into the pocket of his apron and walked back into the kitchen. Quinen put the palmnode up to his ear again.
“I need some money on this node.”
There was a silence on the other side. Quinen’s head throbbed, but it wasn’t debilitating.
“How much you need?”
He finished the two plates quick enough. He raised his palmnode and tapped the Data-receiver of the waiter: a thick slab of aquamarine glass that showed information in the form of numbers and script. Light motes of data siphoned out of Quinen’s palmnode and funneled themselves into the Data-receiver.
“Transfer finished.” The waiter pulled the slab away. “Have a nice day.”
Quinen finished his third cup of coffee, smiled, and then turned around. “You too.” He walked out of the diner, turned right on the curb, and walked down the block. He had some people to visit.
* * *
Maeve hopped off of the brown cab and walked into the crumbling walls and galvanized steel stacks of the Dirah Ward. Of Slum City. It was the same as last time they’d come here, although this time the Daystar hung low, about to sink underneath the walls of the City. The tenants of these scabs of the wall brought out crude lamps with flickering lights within them. Some of them were the passable, usable alchemical luxes, others were the less bright orange-light luxes. Most of them carried around rods of neon for light instead, or used the sole palmnode they were able to scrape from the bottom of a dumpster as their light source.
Maeve arrived at the cul-de-sac where Eyth lived above the anzu woman. Lady Yalla, her name was?
She saw that the room above Yalla’s was dark and unlit. Maybe Eyth wasn’t home?
Without thinking, Maeve’s hand moved over to her sceptre, which hung within a little elongated leather pouch, and hovered over the revealed pommel. She saw Lady Yalla trudge out into the porch of her small home, her eyes heavy-lidded and half-closed. The anzu turned, reached for a rune on the side of the galvanized steel house, and she tapped it. It lit up with an orange light, and a bar of neon buzzed to life, casting a cool orange and blue glow over the anzu.
“Miss Yalla!” called Maeve as she walked closer to her. Yalla turned around to her, paused when she saw her, and then hung her head. She just stood there, hanging her head the entire time, weak and unmoving.
“Lady Yalla?” Maeve slowed her walk and leaned down to look at her levelly. The hunched over grandma anzu looked up at her, and Maeve fell on one knee. Her eyebrows arched downward. “Are you okay?”
Yalla shook her head. She walked closer and then butted Maeve softly.
That was a traditional anzu gesture. It had the same function as hugs.
Maeve’s shoulders slumped.
* * *
Gharth, Sersha, and Captain Urie arrived in the Southern Entrance of the floating Collegium, parking a few ways off from the Celestial Lions that guarded the Portal. One could see the many people walking about the sidewalk in front of the Portal, as well as the spacious clearing that acted as some sort of park.
The two senior officers walked behind the Captain of the Naphli HQ in the Spires. “Captain,” spoke Gharth. “Naphli Detective Kotoro Lumis is here.”
Urie turned to see the detective, outfitted in a stylish waistcoat and pants get up, overshadowed by a boring hoodie jacket. He grinned as he walked up to them, palmnode in hand as if he were just looking at it when he saw them. “Ah, Captain,” Lumis began. “I got the warrant. What’re you here for?”
“Some interrogation of our own, Detective,” the Captain replied. “They’ll be notified once you tell them you have a warrant. I have some authority in there, and I have to speak with the Dean. I’ll signal you when you can come inside.”
“Alrighty!” he paused, and then looked behind him. “Huh,” he said. “Have you seen Sahnie anywhere?”
Urie raised a stern eyebrow. “Sahnie? Namana? The other Detective, yes?”
“Yeah…” Kotoro looked down at his palmnode again. “I sent her a frequency text but she hasn’t replied. We usually go together on important cases like these. She hasn’t told me what she found yet, other than what the Senior Officer Gharth here told me.” He turned to the anzu.
“I’ll let HQ buzz her in,” said Urie, just as he connected to the HQ’s frequency and relayed that exact order.
* * *
In a dark room, far within the Western Ward, where many buildings abound, where run-down buildings revived into living places. Where warehouses stocked with refugees and homeless people. Where the cheapest rent could be found, at the expense of your privacy and health…
In a dark room in a five storey tall brick apartment, a palmnode buzzed.
A bed fit for two people leaned against a wall. A simple, adequate bathroom had its door open, and there was a small space fit for a stove and counters and a drawer. The only source of light was the buzzing palmnode, flashing intermittent turquoises.
On the bed lay Namana. Her coat hung on a hook hammered onto a slightly opened door. Light bled in, casting shadows upon the face of a man standing above the Detective. Her eyes were wide, afraid, her irises large, trying to take in as much light as they could. She struggled and flailed, but could not move underneath the man’s gigantic strength.
The man pinned her with only a hand. He raised a wicked long, single-edged blade in another, and clenched his fists. The carbon steel blade heated up, and it burned a bright orange-red.
A crimson flame.
Namana gasped as the man’s hand tightened around her neck.
The blade fell.
The palmnode buzzed once again, and beside it the intermittent turquoise flashes cast a light upon an emblem: which showed three swords crossed, pointing upwards, and wrapped by a laurel.
* * *
Quinen walked up the block and turned right into a small alleyway, ending at Minada’s Ink Shop. Through the glass front, the Warlock could see Minada sipping on a tall mug and tpying on the scriptboard of her lapnode.
The Warlock walked ahead, into the alleyway that had moss and grass growing out of sides, creating a makeshift path that seemed to paint the Inkers’ shop in a fairytale light. Of course, the scent of cigs and the buzz of flies and the husky, depressing smog from everything else didn’t really help strengthen that particular image.
Quinen removed the cigarette from his lips and dropped it nonchalantly. Quinen licked his lips, and the cig burnt up immediately as it hit the pavement.
Minada blinked, and she looked up at Quinen through the glass front of the Shop. She raised an eyebrow. With a wave of a hand, the holographic display of her lapnode dissipated, leaving only the large, slim slab of turquoise glass on her lap.
She stood and walked over to the door and pressed something. A holographic image that said “CLOSED” lit up.
Quinen smiled and walked in. Minada scowled and ran to the bar counter on the far right. There was a pop of power as Quinen’s Soul registered. A bell chimed.
“Who are you?” Minada slung out a slugpiece from under the bar counter. The transmogrifier in the grip-cartirdge activated, power whirred. Quinen raised his hands. “Only Quinen could get through my wards unharmed.”
“Yeah well that should give you an idea,” said Quinen, looking down at his new body. Slightly taller, definitely a lot more fit and aesthetically pleasing. “Like it?”
“Adon’s Fiery Spit,” she gasped. “What have you done this time, Quinen?”
Quinen licked his lips. “It’s a long story.” He gestured at the comfy leather chair set in front of a wooden table and another leather chair.
Minada bit her lip, and her eyes only flickered to the chair. Then she nodded, but kept the slugpiece trained on him.
Quinen smiled and took the seat, groaning as he sank into the leather of the chair. Then, he explained. No preamble.
Minada listened, yet kept the slugpiece trained on Quinen at all times. The Collegiate Symbol that glowed on the side of the barrel was one of protection. For three times a day, Quinen knew, that every slug that exploded out of that barrel would be magickally protected — counterspelling and unravelling any spells used against it.
Minada herself was covered from top to bottom with ink. Her skin was naturally dark, a trait of most Zirrinae humans, which she came from. She wasn’t wearing her eyeliner today, but her hair was still tied way too tightly behind her head, in a ponytail. She had those ear fixtures that widened your lobes, and a nose ring shimmered against the white alchemical light above.
“And that’s why this happened.” Quinen finished the story quick enough, avoiding alot of the unnecessary details. Minada was the only person Quinen had told about the truth of Chrysanthemum — that she was Siddivata. She was the one that created her Binding Inks, after all.
“Shit, Quin,” said Minada. “Godshit. You were technically dead.”
“Wasn’t a fun experience,” said Quinen, shrugging. “If Avalon was the afterlife I was going to then, heh, I’d rather choose hell.”
Minada shrugged. She kept the slugpiece, but her shoulders relaxed, tension unravelling from her like a turning coil. She sat down on the chair across Quinen, and picked up her lapnode again, which she had placed on the table. “So I’m guessing you want a new batch of Inks, eh?”
Quinen smiled and nodded. “Yeah. Um, and presumably one for most of the Fields that I can do now, because I might not always have them.”
Minada glanced upward, thinking. “But if your Soul is a bit, ah, flimsier now, that means Shell-Changing is possible for you–”
Quinen waved his hand. “Let’s not think about that right now. I need an Ink Array — one for Energy, one for Matter, and then one for Death.”
“How many Workings have you cast?” She asked, rising to her feet.
“Not much. Easy ones. Not enough to break Limit.”
Minada walked over to a spot in the cafe where a thin veil of black and purple covered an opening the size of a doorway. “Alright, you have a time limit this time?”
Quinen rose to his feet as well. He walked over to the opening and was surprised he had to watch his head for once. He slipped through, and on the other side was a chair that resembled a hospital’s surgery room way too much. On both sides of the chair were wooden tables that showed different wands and steles and scepters for the act of Inking. No windows in this square room, although there a very bright alchemical light shone a bright, clear white.
“Uh, it’s not going to take more than two hours, right?”
Minada walked over to the tables and bit her lip, standing with her hands akimbo. “I guess, yeah. You want interlocking Symbols?”
“Well,” she pursed her lips, and then tsked. “For a hundred Eagles and a drop of Tass? I’ll make it two hours, yeah.”
Quinen nodded. “Deal.”
And Minada set to work.