The dingier streets of the South District of Moram appeared tidier this early evening than they did just yesterday night to Elliot Shriek. Perhaps it was because the skies lacked the overflowing clouds which recently flooded the canals and ushered excrement from the city's shallow sewers. Or was it because the pungent waters had receded back to their rightful place, like some reverse regurgitation of a great, all-powerful gutter god? More likely, it was because the alleys of Chapel Way were finally exorcised of moss imps.
Elliot whistled a rhythmless tune as he purveyed his work. A wand of Dread ivory peaked outside his coat sleeve as he sidestepped over amorphous mounds of homeless. Like an attentive accountant checking ledgers, he muttered apologies and ‘excuse me's without a downward glance, checking all the while for any telltale signs of rebellions from the imps he'd been beating back with banishing rites for weeks.
No algae. No moss. Elliot began to muse what it might cost these days to get a freelance enchanter to weave some protection barriers into his coat. ”Another day, another pithy amount of pay," he murmured to himself, though he couldn’t deny the sense of satisfaction that brought a wan smile to his face.
“Spare some change," someone muttered behind him.
The request was spoken as a command. To someone of Elliot's admittedly lacking economical status, this was not a remark to be taken lightly. "I beg your pardon," Elliot chuckled as he turned around, “but you're hardly in the place to ..."
“You're out of your element, sweeper,” the stranger said, his voice changing to a much deeper, guttural kind of hiss.
Elliot was stumbling backwards before he could catch a look at his attacker’s face. The loud, wet smack of a hex hitting his skull had turned his hearing into one, long drawn-out wail. His fingers found a hold on the brick wall. Another spell hit his chest, slamming down in a hammer’s blow.
Before he could even slide his wand into position, his vision had fled him and his head drooped forward, the angle dangerously suggesting that the rest would follow. The smell that engulfed his senses was familiar to him. Sweat-soaked iron. An intoxicant curse. Common, but strong.
“Is that ... all you can ... muster," Elliot drooled, wand sliding from his sleeve as he crashed headfirst into a pile of newspapers that seemed to have been reincarnated as a form of toilet paper. As his consciousness winked out, he made a note to reconsider renewing enchantments on his clothes.
The figure’s expression was mirthless.
He bent forward to pick up the fallen wand and placed it away in his own sleeve. "A crown for each of your silences," the stranger in the long, black coat promised those around him as he picked up the unconscious sweeper from his ankles and, not minding the boy's face, began dragging him through the narrow stretch of the alleyway. All the while, crowns were jumping one by one out of the stranger's coat pockets like gilded insects eager to escape, dazzling the derelict whom awoke to an interaction they could neither comprehend nor explain.
But there was coin, enough, to keep them from caring much at all.
Elliot came to as one in his position might only suspect: to the distinct smell of excrement. A few flecks, he surmised, had lodged themselves along the rims of his nostrils. He didn't want to move. Not just yet. His captors were murmuring amongst themselves and he wanted to listen in while it was still unclear whether he was conscious or not. There were only two. Still, the room felt cramped and stale.
“Shriek. Son of banshees."
“Banshee. Singular,” the other voice corrected. “Somebody of pure descent wouldn't be human, first off. More important, he wouldn't be groveling for such gutter work under an order like Signica."
“A deviant, then. What’s he doing this far north of the line?”
“Who’s to say. Can produce quite the scream, though. It's in their blood."
“We'll keep things calm, then. Don't startle him. I don't feel like paying for broken window panes."
After several minutes of idle talk concerning breaks, preferences for coffee and annual raises, Elliot couldn't withstand the torture anymore and emitted a loud, conspicuous groan to announce the sudden stirring from his unconsciousness.
“Quick, get the water.”
“Wait!” Elliot protested.
A mug of half-frozen water was thrust upon the sweeper's face. The chill shot down the layers of his clothes and ran along his chest.
Elliot opened his eyes. He squinted through gaslight which, due to the aftermath of the curse, appeared like several suns burning in his vision. What he was able to make out was the silhouette standing in front of him, currently speaking. Behind him, another sitting at a desk. By the long, draping trails of their uniform coats and the oak smell of their standard protection runes, Elliot knew his company. Somehow, through the tsunami of information and the invisible blacksmiths hammering his skull, he managed another slurred response without vomiting.
“I was already awake you bastards.”
“Mr. Shriek. You'll forgive us for keeping you in this manner, though we suspect that, given the time and population of Moore Avenue where we found your body, that the Signica Order had no intention of retrieving one of their own personnel. Thusly, in the interest of keeping the Quiet, we did their work for them. Here is the bill for services rendered while you were unconscious." Elliot felt an envelope stuffed into the inner pocket of his coat.
"Other pocket," Elliot mumbled.
"That pocket ... has a rather large hole," Elliot admitted.
“Oh. We have ... made it out to you. Suffice it to say we hope you can find an agreement with your company to have them pay for the injuries you surely incurred on their behalf."
"Services rendered? Injuries? You mean ... knocking me on my ass while I was on a bona fide job for Signica? From the back, too." His hands were bound. "Oh, and you've kept me captive."
"Mr. Shriek. I know it is hard, but try to think clearly. We assure you we had nothing to do with your current state. The bindings, now, are for our own protection. We cannot know how an individual suffering from a curse will act upon awakening."
"You ... you are punishing me for acting within my own rights for Signica. This isn't 'services rendered' this is an attack! I understand that business is business but this ... this is assault. You can't be serious."
"You are saying you were attacked on Moore Street, Mr. Shriek?"
“No you idiot, I just thought it would be fun to curse myself! Wait ... you found me on Moore Street?"
"Yes, Northern District of Moram, well within our juris--"
"I understand what city I am in!" Elliot shouted, regretting his own outburst as the volume shot back at him from the close walls of the small room. He swayed in his chair and swallowed bile.
"Then you, too, understand that you were acting in the Warlocks of the Five Scepters' jurisdiction. It was within our rights to have you removed from the streets where you were found."
"My assignment was not on Moore Street," Elliot seethed.
"Then why," the silhouette from the back chuckled, lighting a sheaf, "did we find you there?”
Elliot gulped down another dry insult. The rope binding his hands weren't just to protect them. It was symbolic. They may be jovial and good-natured but there was malice behind their careful words. Somebody from the Five Scepters wanted him off the streets and, as Elliot realized with a subtle shake of his sleeve, was in the interest of stealing his wand while he was at it. That would mean months of scraping together money, six at the least. And not honest work, either. Whoever did this, he wanted to frame it as Elliot's own fault.
"Shit," Elliot explained.
"I beg your patience, Mr. Shriek. I understand you are still discombobulated by the hex. We asked you what you were doing in Moore Street at the time.”
"You don't understand. Look at me."
"Yes, we are ... well aware of your current condition. It doesn't take a blood hound to know that."
“You don’t need a blood hound, you need a pair of glasses. There is no shit on Moore Street. Even in the worst back alleys of the Eastern District, you can eat off those cobblestones. The homeless are nonexistent there. Back on Chapel Way, you can't take two steps without catching something black and unsavory on the back of your heels."
"I don't understand how this is relevant," the interrogator in the back said.
"Mr. Shriek proposes a good point,” the other said. “Our streets are clean. Examine his face. Unless he was at another location to incur such a ... stain, we have to assume that his attacker did this to him. But nobody within the Northern District would act in such a manner. Surely, one of our own wouldn't do such a thing, not even to an interloper."
Elliot allowed himself a breath of relief. This didn't mean he had to show the rest of his hand, though. Not yet. Not if he wanted to catch who did this. "Whoever attacked me had their reasons to drag me to Moore Street. That is as far as I can divine," Elliot settled.
"Are you insinuating that one of our own contracted practitioners did this to you, Mr. Shriek?" the smoking warlock in the back asked. His eyes burned a curiously pale color. "That is a serious accusation. Casters of the Five Scepters hold our Order's stature with grave solemnity."
"No," Elliot lied, "I do not suspect so in the slightest. All I request is that you do not file my location as a grievance against the Five Scepters on behalf of Signica. Please. You understand how it is for us sweepers. These jobs come sparingly but we take what we can. Moss imps. Grave goblins. Gorgons. Not pretty work. But it’s humble. It’s honest. Acting outside of my jurisdiction for a few extra crowns isn't worth the penalty. So why would I do it? I’ve been doing this for three years. Go check Chapel Way. I can show you exactly which pile of shit I had the pleasure of falling into after I was attacked."
There was a long silence.
"Whoever it was, they could cast and cast well," the smoking warlock said. He put the cigarette out between his fingers and lit another with a low summoning of ember light. “It could be competition within your own company, Mr. Shriek." At that, the bounds from Elliot's hands slipped off at the command of a murmur from the interrogator standing before him. "We'll keep this incident quiet. For now. Until then, consider this bill a cordial warning to both you and Signica to conduct your ‘jobs’ more carefully. The Five Scepters can't afford to be the only organization upholding the Quiet to adequate standards. This behavior is simply … unthinkable.
“If Moram’s High Council caught wind of higher magic being cast in its city, and at such an economic scale to boot, there would be a blood bath.”
“Yes,” Elliot said, “nobody needs to be reminded of that. Not after what happened.”
As Elliot was standing to leave towards a rectangle of blinding light which he deduced was a doorway opened for him, he stopped and squinted toward the interrogator.
“Something else?” he asked.
”When you found me, did you happen to find a wand of ivory make?”
“What style of ivory? Out of curiosity.”
“Dread ivory?” the warlock, who was intent on looking through a stack of papers, dropped the forms immediately and exchanged glances with his colleague. They stared at each other, then at me, sharing both astonishment and, in their stunted reply, a hesitant condolence that made Elliot's heart ache. "If we'd seen such a wand, Mr. Shriek, we'd have it conducted immediately into the Templar Museum in London Under. Such artifacts are too precious to our history to be wielded by modern practitioners.
“More pressingly. If somebody of lesser virtue did happen to find such a wand, it would be gone within the hour. With the fortune it would fetch … one can only imagine what kind of greed it would impress upon a man.”
"I understand," Elliot whispered. "Of course. How silly of me.” Though he was too distant to feel it, an exhausted tear slipped from his eye. The reality of what he’d just lost was sinking in. Of course, he’d felt it when he realized it in the chair. But it was numbed—the impact of a bullet. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, he felt the agony of it.
All of it.
After a pause, the question was posed. One so ridiculous to consider that both warlocks had been waiting for the other to say it first. "Was the wand … in question ... perhaps … your wand, then, Mr. Shriek?"
"No," the sweeper lied, "must be the hex speaking. The Five Scepters have my thanks for intervening at a dark hour. Should you need to correspond with me, you know to reach me through Signica’s offices. Consider myself in your debt.”
“Not at all, Mr. Shriek. Not at all.”
At that, he left the room and felt the wintry air of an early October afternoon glide through the holes in his coat, in the empty space where his wand used to reside, in the hollow residence that was all of his pockets save for the bill requiring four hundred crowns he didn’t have. Though he could feel none of it. None of it, save for a fury that seemed to blind him of everything.