“You must be joking. I can’t accept this,” Elliot scoffed.
“No, and you are feigning reluctance to accept it out of politeness. Not all practitioners need wands in this day and age, you know. I’ll be fine without mine. I hardly use it.”
“Really, Carina,” Elliot said as he took the wand. Imp’s bane. A dense, heavy wood for destruction spells. She did always have a thing for pyrotechnics. “I will repay you for this.”
“There’s no need. Really. Just bring it back before the week’s end.”
“Yes. B-but I will do my best to pay you,” he continued. The cramped hallways outside Signica’s Hospital Wing echoed his desperation back to him. Lamps with faelight fluttered in and out of luminance, causing his eyes to look just that much more wide and lonely while he searched her face. Even in the heavy shadows, Carina’s disappointment was plain. Though she was doing him a favor, Elliot had never felt more unwanted and useless.
“It’s best not to make promises you can’t keep, Elliot. Keep an eye on those bruises. Cleric Stirling always misses a spot with healing charms.”
Elliot didn’t mutter her name or try to stop her. The witch had already shouldered her way past him. Her form strode with heavy beats into the darkness, then dissolved into it, consuming even the sound of her footsteps.
She used to call him Shriekie.
A nickname he used to hate. Now the dull, cold ache in his chest asked to hear her say it again.
“Shriek, is it?” Warden Freema glanced up from the papers circling her, then did a double-take at the bruises decorating Elliot’s face. The suspended papers fell to the ground, to which she corralled quickly with a murmured enchantment. “Good gods, boy, I didn’t expect it half as bad.” She whipped off her glasses and sat at the edge of her desk, motioning to the chair in front of it. “Have a seat.”
“Really, Warden. I’d rather not. I’m afraid I don’t have time for any meetings.”
“Oh? We’ll keep this brief, then. Flagstaff brought me the ‘bill’ from our beloved rodents of the Five Scepters. He was none too pleased. But not against you. He knows it wasn’t your fault, of course.”
“Warden? Excuse my bluntness but I expected nothing but unruly treatment from Signica. I thought I’d … well …”
“Mr. Shriek, you were the one who said you hadn’t any time for this. Now you’re stuttering like a cleric on her first day of full body examinations.”
“I thought I’d lose my position as a sweeper.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Money is tight, but we’re not about to betray our own. Signica will handle the incurred debts. And, don’t worry, your position with us is far more secure than you think. Tell me, do you trust the men who saved you?”
“Detained me,” Elliot corrected.
Freema nodded quickly.
“No. Not in the slightest. And yet, I don’t get the sense they had anything to do with it.”
“Who do you think had something to do with it?”
“I don’t know, Warden.”
“What does your gut tell you?”
“I think he’s affiliated with the Five Scepters.”
“But why would he do something like this? He stands to lose just as much as you if he was caught interloping in one of Signica’s districts. Did you have anything valuable that he took?”
“Meaningless,” Warden Freema waved it away, “wands are in every other dead market salesman’s overcoat. It doesn’t add up. Taking the time to move your body to the North District is just insanity, in broad daylight as well …” the Warden chewed on her lip with a furious concentration, then shook her head.
Elliot wasn’t about to correct her about his wand’s value.
“Was there anything else? Anything else at all?”
“Shut the door behind you …”
After Elliot did what was told, Freema motioned for him to sit. This time, mostly from the glare in her black eyes, he didn’t object.
“How keen are you on sweeping?” she asked.
“Sweeping? I have an odd fondness for the work, just wish there was more of it. So long as we’re being plain and honest.”
“Oh we’re being honest all right, just not plain. I can get you work. More of it. But not the sweeping kind.”
“Judging by the shut door and your demeanor, this isn’t because you think somebody is going to get jealous when you speak of my salary openly.”
Freema’s mouth twitched an obligatory grin before she cleared her throat. “Flagstaff and I got to thinking. Signica has a hold on this city like a drunk’s grip on his coin purse in a brothel. We’re blind, Shriek. And this incident is like somebody pulling down our pants while we’re tied and blindfolded.”
“I’m not sure I appreciate where this metaphor is going.”
“Analogy. The point is—you’re part of this now. This embarrassment. That much is painfully aware. The next steps, however, depend on your willingness. You need new raiments? We’ll have a seamstress tailor an outfit for you. A proper seamstress. It’ll be woven within the next few hours. Enchantments, sigils, you name it. Well, you won’t name it—tight ledgers and all—but we will, to some degree of satisfaction. Meals? Taken care of. The next three days, to start. You say that bastard stole your wand? We’ll grant you coin for another. Up to four hundred crowns. Says here,” Freema called forward Elliot’s file with the bounty company and scanned it briefly, “you possessed a willow wand. Oh, goodness, rough childhood huh? Look.” Freema flung the paper backward and bent down until the rim of her glasses were close enough to fall onto the bridge of Elliot’s nose. “You are looking a little worse for wear. A practitioner your age shouldn’t be spending his days sweeping. You want all these things? We can have them arranged. All you need to do is accept your new position.”
“What new position?” Elliot managed not to whisper, torn between being aroused and terrified of Freema’s enthused smile.
“You’ll be fired—openly, of course—by Signica. For all of the bounty world to see, that is. But you’ll still work for us. Oh, yes. As an operative. A torch to shine light on this darkness. Help us get to the bottom of this, whatever the satyr’s shit this really is, Mr. Shriek. Otherwise …”
The door to Warden Freema’s office swung open slowly with a movement from her finger. “You are welcome to accept your firing as both an official and off-record termination.”
There was the Signica that Elliot knew.
The sweeper wrinkled his nose and grimaced through a sigh. It didn’t smell any better than he thought it would, even if it sounded good. New outfit. Food? A wand? He was just waiting for the caveat where his soul was resigned to them forever.
“Where do I sign?”
“Nowhere. We can’t have a trail. Here.” Freema unfurled a note that had been resting on her desk and handed it to him. A loose tie of black lace kept the small parchment rolled. Elliot was about to open it, before the warden smacked his wrist. “Not yet. After you leave here, you’ll be escorted to a barber’s, a tailor’s, and finally, to a wandmaker. Get everything sorted out. Make yourself unrecognizable. Then … go to the address written there.”
“What will I find?”
“The less you know, the better. The note comes with a few words of instructions. You aren’t alone, Shriek. Good luck.”
Elliot finished with the last of his appointments looking like a proper practitioner. You could hardly recognize him. With the stipend supplied by Signica for the dead market wandmaker below the docks of Court Avenue, Elliot was able to secure a wand of satyr’s bow, something on the higher end with a preference for a wide variety of spell species.
Still, he was clutching Carina’s imp’s bane as he called a carriage. Once inside, he showed the address to the coachmen.
“No, no, no. Not there,” he protested. The gargoyle bats with harnesses attached to the carriage huffed impatiently, their wings beating furiously to keep the vehicle afloat.
“Double, then,” Elliot decided, handing the coachman the rest of his stipend. “There.”
Even with the silver already in hand, the coachman muttered, “Crazy bastard,” as he whistled, and the carriage took flight above the street, heading deeper into Moram’s Southern District, even past its boundaries.
The sweeper tightened the restraint on his cloak and raised the attached hood above his head. As soon as the coach had departed, he’d felt the hairs on his neck raise up. Rain was falling, dampening an unruly amount of bodies heaped under blankets, some of them perhaps alive. Just several streets down, there was a kind of gathering around braziers dragged to the center of a marketplace that had long since become a collective of trashed shops, stores, and stalls now serving as ramshackle homes.
“Reaver’s Hollow,” Elliot chocked. He wove an illusory spell to perfume the air around him and continued forward, squinting through a haze of smoke colored thickly by its rank sources—discarded clothing, molded wood, bone.
When approached by a small swarm of bone-thin scavengers, Elliot cast a bright, blazing but harmless incendiary spell. When it ignited at the end of Carina’s wand, he saw the fiery reflection in their eyes like the roar of knowledge transfixing a rat’s animal fear. And as the nearly naked men and women scampered back to their hovels, through holes blasted in alleyway walls, Elliot wasn’t certain if he was staring at people anymore.
The address led him to an apartment with a semblance of order to it. A place only a little worse off than Chapel Way. The windows and doors were still intact—some.
Elliot creaked up the entryway stairs and charmed his way through the first door.
The first apartment was empty. A few bodies, bundled beside a fire that had long since turned to ash, shifted in makeshift sleeping sheaves as he strode up a narrow stairway that seemed to shift the integrity of the building as he ascended. Judging by the faded paint on some of the doors, Elliot needed to reach one floor higher. Throughout the tall, leaning structure was a loud, wet whistling, one that sounded almost as a malicious glee for having captured the souls inside. Moans of the opiate-addled ran up and down the walls. Whispers trailed his every step. Voices that were neither spoken nor imagine. Elliot found himself praying. Something he never did. When the simple charm for diffusing the smell wore off in a sudden flutter, the sweeper had to pause and force back the nausea rising in his stomach.
At last, Elliot found the apartment he was meant to enter: 211
A low but welcoming candlelight made the doorframe glow lowly. The sweeper knocked on the thin door, checking the flight of stairs above and below him, prepared to see the malnourished, hollow expressions he’d encountered on the street. They’d eyed him like starved jackals. He could still feel them looking for him. As if the entire population of Reaver’s Hollow was shuffling toward him, getting closer with every bump and step of his movement.
“Hello, my name is Elliot Shriek,” his voice shook towards the door, “and I come on behalf of-of-of an errand. I bring payment. And I was told you were expecting me. That your skills are very … valuable.”
The sweeper waited thirty seconds. What felt like several agonized hours. He could feel the floors above and below stirring with those who heard his voice. The clear timor of his words and the possibility of another scrap of wealth. Perhaps food.
“Madame Mormug?” Elliot read the name on the paper.
Then, unable to bear the nakedness of the darkness around him, he tried the door knob—unlocked—and eased himself inside the light.
Madame Mormug stared at him through death’s milky sheen, one of her eyes sagging upwards through the loose skin of her skull, cut in haphazard arcs, like the rest of her body. Her hands were pierced with heavy string and knotted to nails on either end of the apartment’s walls. A single nail went between her eyes.
The sweeper turned around and upended the expensive lunch he’d treated himself to.
She was sitting on a chair positioned in the center of the small space that was the ‘apartment’. Herbs and charms of classic variations hung from her ceiling. Household enchantments Elliot recognized from his grandmother’s cottage.
With careful steps to avoid dark, fresh puddles, Elliot took the small envelope tied loosely to one of Madame Mormug’s fingers, finding his own to be trembling horrendously as he did.
Elliot clenched his fist and swallowed an enraged scream. Fear had crawled through his head and eaten up his instincts. If somebody wanted him dead, then, he would’ve been. “You’ve banished bane eaters for mercy’s sake,” Elliot told himself. “Bane eaters. Who does that alone? Come on, you spineless bastard. Open your eyes.” When he broke the red seal, a small circle of smoke snapped out of the waxy symbol and fell to the floor like iron. There, it branded itself in the wood, whereupon a trail of spider legs trailed up Elliot’s spine and clutched onto his head. He stumbled backwards, cursing and fighting back the sensations.
But it wasn’t just his skin.
Long appendages with matted hair jerked and fought their way through the loose corners of the apartment, dragging with them the bulbous eyes of tarantulas with gnashing mandibles.
Elliot sank back into the corner.
“Idiot! It’s just an illusion. A common spell. Hexed seal. Going too fast, overlooking details. Should have … known,” he grunted.
But now there were hands scratching at the door.
The sweeper pressed his back against it, against the low moans of the den dwellers called to the source of light and sound like moths.
"Elas majora!” Elliot shouted with a furious cast to seal the door shut, all the while he read what had been inscribed hastily on the note inside the envelope attached to Madame Mormug’s hand.
“You are out of your element, Mr. Shriek.”