Chapter One: Dreams of the Dead
Minerva threw open her bedroom windows to greet the morning, but was instead assaulted by the stench of the city. She grimaced and pulled them shut once more. The city had a few fine points, but she truly missed the countryside. It was not as if she had much a choice in the matter - the Imperium wanted to use her gifts to ‘serve the people’.
It was a simple fact that what the Imperium wanted, the Imperium received without question.
She left her bedroom and made her way down the creaking stairs to the parlor of her home - only tripping over her bustled skirts once this time. The strange fashions of the city - and the necessity of image - was another droll point for her. Just as she cleared the landing her servant, Johanna, rushed to her. The smile on her face stretched from ear to ear and she stuck out her hand to present a small parcel wrapped in twine and paper. A small envelope peeked out from the twine on the side.
“When did this come?” Minerva asked, taking the package and giving it a gentle shake next to her ear.
“It came in the night, m’lady,” Johanna said, her smoky accent still sounding quite foreign and strange, “no name on the letter, I’m afraid.”
Minerva pulled her ever present knife from the folded fabric of her dress and sliced the twine. The box within was dark wood, inlaid with light pine in a brocade pattern. She opened the box, revealing a jewel of glittering light that was nestled in a swirl of silver. It was impossible for her to resist the smile that crept onto her face. She placed the box down and flicked open the envelope, revealing a neat, spidery script: “The light of the moon and all the stars pales before that which dwells in your dark eyes.”
“Who’s it from, m’lday?” Johanna asked, standing on her tiptoes to peer over Minerva’s shoulder, “is it a secret admirer you’ve gone and got?”
Minerva pulled the letter close to her chest and answered only with a raised brow, which stopped Johanna’s tittering instantly. She placed the ornate jewelry around her neck, catching her reflection in glass face of her clock. “Oh, vexation,” Minerva swore, “It’s half past seven! Did you prepare breakfast?”
Johanna’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head, mouthing “no.”
“Well, no worry,” Minerva said, “I’ll run to the bakery on my way to the Hall.” She pulled on her black long coat from the rack and buttoned it. “Do at least try to have supper - or something - ready when I return,” she said.
“To be fair, your admirer ought to be taking you to dinner,” Johanna shouted as the door closed. Minerva turned back to give her a level glare, which quickly shifted into a mischievous grin. She was quite thankful for the house servant she had been assigned. Many were quite droll and tiresome. Her contemporaries considered the relationship they had garnered to be quite improper for ladies of their two very different stations.
The sudden shouting of a coachman snapped her back to reality. She leaped back from the cobblestone street and folded her arms across her chest, raising her chin at the carriage as it rattled past her. Ah, the glorious city of Iondra, where a woman couldn’t step foot outdoors without being run down.
She voyaged the perilous morning streets, stopping only by the bakery for a sweetroll, which she folded in parchment and placed in her bag. The small, fountained courtyard that preceded the Hall of Inquisitors - her assigned office - was quiet as it typically was. Most proper people avoided the Emperor’s Inquisitors - either due to fear of the dark magic that some employed in their quest for truth, others due to the fact that being seen simply conversing with an inquisitor could set loose all manner of scandalous rumors.
The heavy wooden doors of the hall creaked open as she put all of her weight into them, spilling light - as well as herself - into the dimly lit lobby. Her fellow inquisitors and the archivists looked to her in consternation, some openly snickering or shaking their heads. She could feel her cheeks darkening as she picked up her bag and hurried to her office, closing the door behind her.
She pulled a small lever by the door, activating the gas lamps that illuminated the small space. A clutter of notes and arcane paraphernalia dominated her desk. Her office did little more than house her records and give her a comfortable place to sit when she was not keeping to her specific duties and using her natural gift - the art of Necromancy.
Murders were the focus of her work, as being able to peer into the memories of the dead and commune with their spirits made more investigational work rather pointless. She dropped into the high backed chair and pulled out her leather notebook, wiping the crumbs of her crushed pastry from the cover.
One recent death, however, was proving itself to be an enigma. A body was found just two days past with a series gashes in the flesh. There was a strange resonance of magic that she could feel, but it was unlike anything she had encountered. She opened to the page that held her sketches of the injury and sighed. There was - perhaps - one who might have some insight into the mysterious wounds.
She picked up her book and walked towards the office of Connor Smithson, an artificer of no small skill. His crafts and creations were the pride of the Hall of Inquisitors, most recently, that of a revolving pistol. Before, simple muskets and the pistol allowed those without magic close to the destructive capabilities of an elementalist’s fire-darts.
Of course, the emperor kept such weapons free from the citizens, reserving them exclusively for the Royal Guard and Glorious Legion.
Minerva turned a corner, then stopped short, nearly colliding with one of her colleagues - Inquisitor Seville.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, his tone as oily as his slicked hair. “I heard about your incident with the doors earlier. As much as I loathe to see women in the workplace, I suppose we’ll have to install lighter doors if we acquire any more - or perhaps you would like your own entrance in the back?”
Minerva could only smile and cock her head to the side. “Or perhaps I may need a big, strong to help me,” she said placing her hand gently at his shoulder, “you could help me, and I wouldn’t have such trouble.”
“I’ll see what can be done,” he replied, “Perhaps I may be able to assist you tomorrow.” He gave her an appraising look, then stalked down the hall in the direction which she had came.
Her smile deepened into a sincere one as she looked to the stray hair she plucked from his coat. While she was a necromancer by nature, anyone with proper license and training could practice the shadowy arts and hexes. A fever to draw the strength from his muscles might be fair trade - the she would see who would be the one holding the door open for the other.
She knocked at Connor’s door and was soon greeted by him. “Oh, it is a privilege to see you again, Lady Atramentous,” he said, “might I interest in you some tea?”
“That would be delightful, thank you,” Minerva said, pausing to look at a whirring contraption of metal rings and gears on a nearby display, “I fear I am here to discuss matters of business.” The entire office had a sterile sense to it, perfectly clean with all manner of creations neatly arrayed on pedestals and shelves.
Connor tipped his kettle into two cups and placed the well stocked tray on the desk before her. He sat across from her, furtively smiling beneath his curled moustache. “Well, when you are involved business is always a pleasure… That is… I enjoy working with you very much,” he said, stumbling over his words. He was a modestly handsome gentleman, and well groomed. She could not deny that she was flattered by the fact that she could make him lose his thoughts.
“I would like it if you could read some notes of mine,” she said, opening the book to its most recent entry and offering it forward. “Can you think of any weapons - or magic - that could result in an injury like this one,” she asked, “I fear it has been puzzling me for quite some time.”
“Deep lacerations with minor excoriation around the edges,” Connor muttered in reply, “resultant avulsion injury to arteries and muscle tissue, evidence of magical contact due to sensory detection… severe blood loss.” He shook his head and closed the book. “I’m honestly quite puzzled, may I copy these notes and show them to some colleagues?”
“That may be most prudent,” Minerva said, hiding her disappointment, “If I could figure out what weapon or magic could have caused this, I may be one step closer to finding the murderer.”
Connor retrieved the paper and ink pen from his desk before looking up at her. “I have full trust in your capabilities,” he said. His eyes fell upon the jewel that hung from her neck, and he grinned.
“Well, as it may be, I thank you for your assistance,” she said, standing, “Good day, Artificer Smithson.”
Minerva returned to her office and rummaged through the cabinets for the tools of magic. She lit the wick of the candle in the gas lamp’s flame, placing it on her desk. She hummed a Litany of Torpor as she held Inquisitor Saville’s hair over the fire. As she reached the final notes she lowered the hair, which unleashed a flurry of sparks and a puff of near black smoke.
A sudden rapping at her door caused her to jump, nearly knocking the candle over and onto her notes. She quickly blew out the flame and stashed the candle in the drawer of her desk. “Yes, please enter,” she said solemnly. A knock at her door only ever meant that someone was found dead, and her services were needed.
“Miss Minerva, you have been summoned to the Necropolis,” said the balding man who stuck his head through the partially opened door. Gregor used to serve as an investigator before Minerva made him more or less obsolete. She could tell that he took some delight in the fact that she was finally perplexed by their current case. “I fear that another has met same fate as our current mystery. Perhaps this fellow may have seen more?”
Minerva thrust a blank journal into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “It is a shame,” she said, “I fear this may be the work of a madman. Who knows how many more he may claim?”
“It may be the case,” Gregor replied, holding the door for her, “we will have to work fast, and use every tool we have at our disposal. If this threat is not removed quickly, there may be more deaths.”
They stepped out of their poorly lit headquarters and into the crowded midday streets. “I remember hearing a short statement in some foreign language,” Minerva said, squinting against the sudden contrast, “it was harsh, guttural. I have heard nothing like it, however, no familiar accent or words.”
“Well, I know some of our archivists are also linguists,” Gregor replied, “we can speak with them, perhaps they will recognize it.”
A sudden chill crept up Minerva’s spine, making her heart skip a beat and staggering her steps.
Gregor paused and looked back at her, puzzled. “What, did you come to some grand epiphany?” he asked.
“The dead, beneath us,” Minerva whispered to her companion, “this was an old graveyard, before the necropolis.” Iondra is a modestly sized island of stone, tethered to the mainland by a single massive bridge. Not only is it the heart of the empire, it is arguably one of the most defensible pieces of land. However, due to its small size, the parks and plazas were being lost in the name of industry. The graveyards were the first to be repurposed. The interred dead were to be relocated to the necropolis, but many were found to have been left behind.
As ancestral worship was one of the founding principles of the empire - the revelation caused the last great revolt before the coronation of Emperor Cecil.
Gregor rolled his eyes and continued walking. “Back in my days, we had to watch out for chamber pots being emptied,” he said, “and no matter what you say, I am sure it was much worse.”
“Not everything must be made into a competition,” Minerva replied as she hiked up her skirts to catch up with him, “Though you are correct. Judging by the faint odor, you were the target of many such pots, no?”
“In my day, everything was a competition,” Gregor said, turning back to give a wink.
They approached the towering structure that enshrined the many dead of the city - those of which were not sent to graves in towns outside the capitol. It was a place she come to frequent when engaged in her macabre work. The architecture was grand, but it cast a heavy shadow upon the neighborhood.
Brackets of candles lined the labyrinthian corridors, casting strange shadows along the walls. The constant shuffling of the Keeper’s arthritic steps echoed around them. The chamber of farewells was empty - a most depressing circumstance to see. The man found dead was a ruffian, and had few family or friends to send him away.
“Where was he found?” Minerva asked.
“By Morinth Plaza, not too far from here,” Said the men leaning against the wall. By his ceremonial sword and breastplate, he was an Exemplar - one of the emperor’s ‘secret police’.
Minerva stepped forward and took the dead man’s head in her hands. She took a deep breath and focused on the deathly miasma. All magic was strengthened by the atmosphere of which it pertained to. Her necromantic powers flourished in graveyards, or in the presence of implements associated with death.
“Spirit, I bid you into the living world once more,” she said dolefully, “heed my words and awaken.”
The candlelight stirred, and the two men in the room leaned forward in curiosity. She was the first of her kind known to the Empire in nearly two hundred years. While it granted her no small measure of social intrigue, the only things that she could learn from were dubious historical records and forbidden manuscripts. It was, of course, only with the empire’s blessing that she was even able to access such writings.
A swirling fog lifted from the ground and coalesced before her, taking form of a young man in the earlier stages of his adulthood.
“What happened?” the spectral lad asked, “where am I?
Minerva did her best to give a comforting smile, but the deed had yet to become easy. “Listen and obey,” she said, seizing his attention, “I bid you to not feel sadness, do not feel pain or grief, only joy. I beg you, do not cry.” It always broke her heart to see them come to the realization they were dead. It was no small measure of relief for her that she could command their emotions.
The spirit’s features shifted from confusion to a cheerful demeanor. “As you wish, mistress,” he said.
“Tell me who you are and what was the last thing that you remember before you died,” Minerva said.
“I’m not dead,” the spirit replied with a chuckle, “you’ve had a gin too many, the name is Alfred - or Alfi.” He looked around the room, and his gaze fell upon his broken body. His beaming smile twitched. “I… suppose I am, would you look at that.”
“Think, please,” Minerva insisted, “we must find the one who did this to you.”
Alfi furrowed his brow. “It was a man… but not,” he looked up to her and shook his head, “I don’t know what I saw, I thought I could mug ’em, make a few coins. Boy, was I ever wrong.”
“That was a great lot of help,” Gregor said, stepping forward, “the boy has been clearly knocked out of his mind on Adder-Root.”
“I’m too poor to buy Adder-Root,” Alfi replied, “I was more sober than I cared to be. Scared the ancestor’s grace right out of me. I tried to run but they… they… there was light and pain and -”
Minerva closed her eyes and released her hold over Alfi’s spirit, causing him to collapse inward in a swirl of silver smoke. “Fie and vexation,” she swore under her breath, “perhaps it was a man with a deformity, or even a mask that he had seen?”
“There is one way for use to know,” Gregor said, “take a look and see for yourself.”
“I suppose I have little other choice,” Minerva replied with no small measure of resignation. Peering into the minds of the dead directly was not a perfect art, and more often than not she was left with visions that lingered for weeks. As another matter, the whole process felt intrusive, a violation of one’s most private space. “Give me a moment to prepare myself”
Minerva positioned herself at the head of the stone slab and placed both of her hands at the side of Alfie’s head. She took a deep breath while squeezing her eyes shut, clearing her mind of all other thoughts, all other sensations. It was a meditation used to test for Seers before they had their every sense magically numbed. Of course, their techniques worked only on the living.
The echoes of consciousness were faint, but she could almost see it in a tangible form. She refined her meditation, focusing on the glimmering memories until they flooded her mind and mingled with her own.
A young woman - Tessa - shouted at her, the girl was with child and there was hardly enough money for their own mouths. There was so much shame, so much guilt in her heart. They had not married, and when Tessa’s family found out, they would no doubt disown her. Minerva turned to the cold streets, dodging the golden circles of lamplight to shield her presence. Her eyes were darting, seeking someone - anyone - who might have some money. It was within moments that she spied the furtive figure looking over his shoulder as he dashed into the plaza. He bore the Imperial sign on his coat, carrying something, and by his movement she knew that he did not want to be seen.
She crept closer, measuring her steps to keep her footfall silent. Her prey ducked behind a tree, then wove his way through the columns. There was something about his behaviour that set her on edge - or maybe it was her adrenaline. The man stopped, nervously fiddling with the bag in his hands. She pulled her sabre from her belt and dashed forward, brandishing it in a threatening manner. “Hand over your coin, good man,” she snapped.
“Please, leave,” the man said softly, “this is a dark place, it is hardly safe for you. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you, boy.”
She frowned and thrust the blade forward. “Do you think I fear the ghosts of this place?” she asked, “don’t be playing, hand me the bag and you’ll leave here alive.”
The man beckoned behind him, but she was too smart for such a foolish trick. “I said, give me the bag, or I’ll bloody gut you!” she said in a near shout.
“Tell me, do you seek to claim what is mine - for yourself?” said a strange voice, its tone inhuman like the rattling and skittering of thousand insects. The accent was halting and clipped, touching on vague memories. Her blood ran cold, and her limbs froze like one of the statues atop the columns. She heard the steps behind her as the mysterious speaker stepped into the lamplight. It was a horror unlike anything she had seen. Mottled flesh clung to an emaciated frame. It’s eyes were like flame and it’s mouth was lipless, baring all of its teeth. It was clothed in a foreign armoring of golden plates and twisting wire. It raised a strange staff, tipped in crystal.
She tried to run, but there were no more than three steps before searing pain bore into her back, and she found herself falling the ground, then into darkness.
Minerva gasped and staggered back, her hands breaking free from the dead man’s head. “Fie and vexation!” she cried out, “Fie! Vexation! Ancestors bless me!”
Gregor paled, looking at her in askance. “Lady Atramentous, manners,” he said, his nervousness betraying his attempt at levity, “what did you see?”
“Something… I think I… I don’t know,” Minerva replied, “this is official business, please leave us.” She gestured at the Keepers and the Exemplars, and they begrudgingly shuffled off. They hated being ordered about in their own hall, but it was foolish to not heed an Inquisitor. The Exemplars did not fall under her authority, but they had little business in the matter.
Gregor stepped beside her and leaned in. “What did you see, Minerva,” he said, placing a hand on her arm. For all their shared jibes, there was true sincerity in his concern.
Minerva opened her mouth, but found herself unsure of what to say. “I saw an Imperial Agent - possibly an Exemplar,” she said cautiously, “he was carrying a bag, and some papers that I believe to be maps.”
Gregor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If the Exemplary is involved in with these murders, that is a strange sign indeed,” he said, “did you get a chance to see how it had happened?”
“Yes,” Minerva said, “though I fear you would doubt my sanity if I told you such.”
“I’ve already been contemplating having you thrown into the sanitarium,” Gregor said with a wink, “Can’t be anything you can say that will change that.”
Minerva nervously fingered the chain of her necklace, still trying to understand what she had seen. It was nearly impossible for her to think of the proper descriptors. “What Alfie’s spirit said was true,” she whispered, “it wasn’t human, nor was it goblin or faerie.” She pulled out her journal and charcoal sticks, hastily sketching out the fiend that she had encountered in his memories.
Gregor scratched at his fringe of greying hair and cleared his throat as she placed the finishing touches of her depiction. “Well, this is a mess,” he said after a moment, “this agent - with whatever he had - was it clear that he was there to meet this… thing?”
“Yes, I have no doubt,” she replied, “in fact, it all seemed rather conspiratorial.”
A gentle scraping was heard outside of the door, catching both of their attention. “It’s too bad you didn’t really see anything,” Gregor said loudly, “Let’s get back to the offices and hope that we find a new lead.”
“A wise idea,” Minerva muttered.
The sun was setting as they approaching the courtyard. “I should return home,” Gregor said, “my children are waiting for me. They guilt me for neglecting them, you know? The little shits make their eyes all large and teary - breaks my heart, it does.”
“I’ll be staying a little later myself,” Minerva replied, opening the iron gate, “I need to put these memories to paper before they fade.”
Gregor nodded solemnly. “Don’t worry that I’m slacking,” he said, “I’ll be in early next morning to start pulling on my contacts.”
They bid their farewells, and Minerva crossed the courtyard into the hall. Few Inquisitors lingered, as they were often made uncomfortable by the strange appetites of the Nocturnal Watch who were due to arrive soon.
She placed her journal on the desk and prepared her ink pen. The accursed thing splattered like mad, causing her no end of frustration. The fervency of her writing made it far worse than normal. As she finished her detailed recollection, she placed the book in the drawer at the bottom her desk which shared a key with Gregor’s, allowing them to both access documents or objects of interest.
She left her office, avoiding eye contact with her nocturnal colleagues. They looked to her in curiosity, the incandescent shine of their eyes betraying their wicked nature. The streets of the city were dark, but on this night the shadows seemed to shift and conspire. She could not shake the vision of the strange beast she had seen from the forefront of her mind.