The streets of Moram's Southern District were choked by a smoggy deluge rife with odors of rot, mold, and soured goods. That stench festered under the oppressive fumes of coal exhaust blackening the sky.
With gas becoming a widespread replacement of faelight to keep cities illuminated at night, a revolution of industry sprang up with it. Now businesses and factories didn't have the excuse of not being able to hire practitioners to keep orbs of silverglass filled with faelight. More importantly, they couldn't afford to ignore the alternative. Oil was cheap. Ubiquitous. Cities like Moram never seemed to sleep anymore; the nights rose out like the deranged personality of a schizophrenic with two halves. Half-dead laborers slumped out of their beds at sunset to strike at iron, stoke the fires, keep the gas stacks breathing that horrendous smog. And in places like the South District, it was the late nights that brought out the denizens' true natures as opposed to their lesser halves.
But this was the heart of Signica, and nobody knew its streets better than the sweepers that kept them clean of Gehen's pernicious demons.
Layla led Elliot and Reema to Lamplayer's Road, where a few casters from Signica were guarding the scene left behind by Angalin and Sora, what was now only a few puddles of blood. Now that their unconscious bodies had been dragged away, the crowds which had been clamoring around had long since dwindled to a lazy curiosity.
“Freema, I don't like the feeling of this," Elliot said, “we shouldn't stay here long. It's exactly where they'll expect us to be. Just like Mormug."
“We'll make it quick," Freema whispered. “Have you seen anyone? Anything suspicous?" she asked the casters acting as a barrier for the crowd.
“Warden Freema? What are you doing out here?" one of them replied.
“Sora and Angalin were here on my orders. Their consequence is my concern."
“But what business did they have with Carina? Why were they here to begin with?"
“Never mind that. Answer my question."
“We found this. A man gave it to us after we'd arrived. Said you would know who it was for."
Freema snatched the parchment scrap from the caster's hand, not bothering to read what was written there. "And you didn't try to stop him?"
“He wasn't exactly tangible," one of them interjected, "it was some kind of figment. An illusion."
“But he held the note, didn't he?" Freema pushed. "It doesn't matter how strong the illusion might have been, something physical had to hand the note to you."
“Believe us, warden, we did what we could. When we tried to apprehend him, he dissipated. As if his body was made of smoke."
Freema seemed to lose focus on the conversation, examining the ground as if it might provide answers. The dim light from a swaying gas lantern above casted the shadow of their brows long against their faces, shrouding their eyes and suspicions in dirtied gold. A drizzle began, making it feel as if the five of them were being pushed together, and nothing existed outside of them and the dark, crimson puddles slipping into the cobblestone.
“Freema," Elliot said, "we can settle whatever's on that note somewhere else. Please, let's get out of here. There’s nothing left to see."
The warden passed the note to Elliot, and as she turned back towards the three casters, she kneed one of them between his legs. As he keeled over, she snarled hexes at the other two. Black plumes gusted from both of her hands into their faces, emitting a fungal stench that made Elliot choke. With eyes turned into their skulls, the remaining casters buckled. Freema crouched over the one still groaning on the ground and snatched up his wand.
“Have you lost your mind?" Elliot shouted.
“Look at him. He's not surprised. Well, maybe a little," Freema observed with another kick, this time to his head. “That nonsense about the illusion was too much to believe. And did you notice when I told them why I was here? They asked ‘what business I had with Carina'. Nobody knew I had assigned Sora and Angalin to protect Carina. Only Layla did. And she ..."
Freema and Elliot looked back towards the alley from where they'd come from.
“Rigor mortium," Layla flung the spell at Freema. Her onyx wand twitched with the muddied, grey light directed from the base of her palm.
The Warden fell to her knees then onto her side, bones and muscles constricting inwards like a dying insect.
Elliot moved for his own wand but Layla struck the sweeper with a spell that gashed his wrist. Blood dripped onto the walkway.
“I'm not afraid to cut deeper," she said.
“Nor do I doubt it," Elliot's voice shook. “But this isn't about Freema, I assure you. Whoever's paying you for this, they don’t want her dead. There is no need to kill her." The sweeper was trying to recollect just how quickly the situation had turned from casually alarming to surprisingly waist-deep in satyr shit.
“Surprisingly enough, you're not wrong. And no, no they wouldn't. This won't kill her, not before somebody finds her. Not that she deserves to be saved. I always liked you, Shriek. You're humble. You stand up for yourself. You have to understand this isn't personal."
A strangled pain came out in croaked gasps from the warden, her mouth and eyes stuck open in a paralytic hold.
“You don't know what this is about, do you?" Elliot asked.
“He said you stole something from him. I told him, 'Why should I care'? That's when he offered me coin. That got my attention."
“It was good of you to resist the temptation for so long, but you should know he's lying. The only thief here is him."
“We're all thieves this far south, Shriek. You know better than to tell yourself otherwise."
“I am not a thief!" Elliot shouted.
“Now now, sweetness. This isn't the time for that."
With her wand trained on Elliot, Layla crouched over the warden and said, “You always left your sweepers hungry and yet you continued to ask for more. Did you really think you could get away with paying so little? Why do you think the Five Scepters has Signica under its heel?" Then it was Layla's turn to deliver a kick while she was down. “And if I see you start to drift off, little ghost, to that place you go to before you scream, I will silence you. Not a hesitation. And I cannot promise what particular spell will come to mind should the moment arise. Quickly now," Layla said, glancing at the unconscious heaps, "we should make our way to your next appointment before anybody else from Signica gets curious."
After Layla had confiscated his wand, she gripped Elliot's arm, dragging him into the blackened streets which swallowed their silhouettes with ease. As they ventured deeper into the throats of Moram, the sweeper caught a look at the piece of parchment clenched in his fist. The same handwriting which marked the other.
One mistake at a time, Mr. Shriek. That is all I require from you.
“If it wasn't an illusion that handed over the note, then that means whoever did this is nearby. Or was, at least," Elliot thought aloud to Layla. The half-sprite chuckled and flicked back a dirty blonde curl that had fallen in front of her eyes.
“He doesn't like to be seen outside of his chamber, from what I hear. But you're right. He's nearby. Probably watching us."
“Those casters worked for Signica for almost a year. I recognized them."
“He's a man who likes to plan ahead."
Elliot let the note fall to the ground and watched it become trampled. “How had they gotten there so quickly?"
“Who do you think took care of Angalin and Sora in the first place?" When Elliot didn't reply, Layla continued, “Moram deserves a better community of sweepers. Signica isn't healthy for that culture, Shriek. Preying on low talent practicioners to give them a chance at making something of amateur magick and banishing spells. There's real work to be done for real casters. It may not be Five Scepters, either, but it should not be Signica. Never."
“And what about the practitioners who've dug themselves off gutters like Chapel Way? Casters too poor to be accepted into organizations like the Five Scepters? That was you, once; that was your beginning."
“Not anymore," Layla said. “We're outliers, Shriek."
“And yet here we are at the center of concern."
As Layla guided him through the crowds, she made frequent glances towards his hands and eyes. She had tucked Elliot’s wand between her trousers and her belt, and the sweeper was trying to conceal his obvious intention to make a grab for it as soon as the opportunity arose.
“We're almost there," she said.
“On Crux Court? Not exactly the kind of place for a diabolical madman. Or … perhaps just the kind.”
“There's a waypoint nearby. Concealed, of course. It takes us to East End."
Along the walkway, outside a butcher's shop with daily cuts hanging from its open windows, Elliot spotted somebody whose clothing denoted a promising opportunity. As they passed him, the sweeper stuck his hand into the gentleman's pocket. The sweeper reached passed the pocket watch and snatched one of the coins. Layla caught the movement, but the victim was faster.
The man whirled, grabbing Elliot by his collar and striking him between his eyes. The signet of a silver ring cracked Elliot's nose. The sweeper began apologizing profusely and offering the coin he’d filched, but that only enflamed him more. The man lit into the sweeper with a string of profane insults to match.
Layla strode in to intervene, shouting her own threats.
“He's with you, then?" the gentleman asked, fist posed for another punch. Elliot breathed through the steam rising out from the cut on his nose and watched Layla intently. She moved toward the man, wand slipping into her hand from her sleeve.
Elliot made a scramble away from his attacker, causing a tumble as the man dived for the tail ends of his jacket. Elliot slammed into Layla as if to dodge the movement haphazardly, snatching his wand from her belt in the process.
Layla's suspicions were prepared. She ignored the gentleman and loosed a spell at Elliot. He matched her pace with a deflection. The attack made a tearing crraahck! as it caught on the arm of a passerby watching from behind Elliot, rending apart bone and flesh alike to the horror of the small crowd that had gathered around the scene.
“Get back!" Elliot warned those around him. “Incindiaras!"
The satyr's bow accepted the sweeper's first spell with glee and aided in summoning flaming gouts that cast Crux Court’s marketplace in blazes of roaring light.
Behind a spell shield, Layla was gritting to push back the flames. At the edges of her protection, her clothes and hair were catching fire. No longer able to see what was at the other end of his spell, Elliot stopped casting, a part of him cringing at the thought of her ashes laying before him.
Layla dashed through the smoke, snarling the same word that cut like razors.
Elliot's silver projection to absorb the projectile was a breath too slow; the attack embraced four fingers of his left hand, slicing through them with ease.
Seeing the maimed fingers on the ground beside him, Layla dared the sweeper with a laugh before throwing another curse. The shock, the rage, it made Elliot feel a murderous pang he'd never had to resist before. Not knowing what it was, he couldn't.
Layla lit into him with three attacks like the one that had severed his fingers.
He deflected each. In the back of her mind, even Layla sensed that his demeanor had shifted. There was a coldness he’d stopped repressing.
On her fourth cast, amidst the return of his deflection he snapped, “Aritras obakus!"
The killing blow flitted through the air in a way that spells so seldom do. So strangely that Elliot watched it more than Layla's brief, mortified reaction. The words themselves seemed to wrap chains around her, tightening her arms to her sides, her feet to the ground. The spell wasn't just death. It was banishment for mortal souls to Gehen; a timeless interval of torture unless the individual finds a way out.
If they can.
It flew, batlike. Chaotic, uncertain, dark and swift. It arced here and there briefly, as if sniffing out the plethora of viable victims around it, before finally latching onto its target, letting into her in a flurry of serrated blades. Thousands of tiny, infinitesimal teeth gnash at her from all sides, devouring her in just seconds.
Elliot stared at his wand in disbelief. At the sparse stains where a human had just stood, at the skeleton so perfectly cleaned of its substance that it would strike a fine sale with an anatomist. Her clothes, satchel, and leathers had been devoured. Belt loops and rings remained. And her wand, now rolling towards the nearest sewer.
The sweeper had never heard Moram sleep before.
Never heard the streets so still. You could hear a ghost's whisper.
But the air wasn't still. It was vibrating with tension, the pressure of nearly a hundred onlookers, and the inevitable tearing of that impossible silence from a word that carried in tolls, cascading through the onlookers by the dozens within moments: