The evening crowd was thick. A heavily panting young boy was pushing through it looking for someone. His eyes blinked quickly while filtering the faces in the crowd. Suddenly his gaze fixed on a loxodon at the side of the street calmly browsing through some merchandise.
“Here you go sir”, the courier said under his breath and pressed a piece of paper into thick elephant hand.
“Mhm”, murmured the loxodon and motioned with his large elephant-like head hinting the boy to leave. He broke the Izzet seal on the paper. His ever calm face darkened as his eyes went over the note:
Please meet me at my laboratory in The Blistercoils, between Sullemand’s and Sunnix’s before the sun sets tonight.
I beg for your help,
The loxodon turned westward and started rowing through people as another figure bumped into him. The elephant-man dropped an angry look at a small humanoid who snapped with frustration in a womanly voice:
“Watch where you’re going!”
“I am going where I need to go, move!”
“Excuse my clumsiness”, she complied with a change in her temper and motioned for the loxodon to pass.
The large beast-man absentmindedly checked his pockets to see if anything was missing. His pouches were where they supposed to be so he hastily moved through a side street towards Neirius lab in The Blistercoils. It was getting dark, and there was not much time till sunset. The unusual words sat uneasily atop his mind. What could have happened to Neirius to send him such an urgent notice?
He rushed through the busy streets and dark alleys between them submerged in thought. Somebody sneezed behind him. Turning around he saw a shadowy figure lurking by a corner he’d just passed.
“Who’s there?” His low voice trumpeted in the alley.
“Hello. Again.” The dark figure answered slowly moving in from the shadows.
A soft smile was visible under a deep blue hood. It was the same human he’d bumped into in the crowd. He took a better look at her. Her cloak was worn and had seen better days, but her stance indicated that she was not a usual street urchin.
“What do you want?” the cleric asked with a clear discontent.
“Listen elephant-man, I know where you’re going, and believe it or not, our paths did not cross by accident.” she shifted and moved a bit further towards the centre of the alley, “I am going the same way you are.”
“And where would that be?” her words did not seem to convince the loxodon.
“We have a friend in common, and he needs our help, do not waste time arguing and let’s settle the questions while we move.” she pulled her hood back revealing long dark hair, partly tucked behind her cloak.
“Who are you talking about?”, the beast-man in Boros uniform asked the slim human still not believing a word.
“Neirius, who else?”
The loxodon nodded and was about to take off as someone repeated the exact words mimicking his voice: “Who are you talking about?”, followed by a nasty cackle. “Neirius, who else?” another voice, this time similar to the cloaked woman’s, came from behind them as a red dextrous creature darted across their path. Loud cackle filled the alley. Suddenly, out of nowhere a demon leapt on loxodons’ neck, biting deep into his flesh. As the cleric gasped in pain, an arc of pure lightning slammed between the two horns growing from the side of its head. Cackler fell on the ground muddying his well-kept smoking, which looked comical on the red demonic shape. Seconds later another demon leapt from behind the crates, galloped on all fours in what seemed like a tattered wedding dress and swung his spiked chains at the big elephant-man, harmlessly ricocheting from heavy Boros issued plate armour the cleric was wearing. The third demon leapt from his hiding place behind a pile of junk in the other side of the alley, shook his head with one missing horn, laughed maniacally and swung spiked chains at the woman in a blue cloak, tearing through her clothes and cutting into the skin.
The fight ended as quickly as it started. The elephant was bitten into his knee pit, releasing another powerful arc of retaliating magic. The suited demon had its face smashed in by a clerical hammer. One-horned demon received a dagger into the left eye and was sliced in half by cloaked woman’s shortsword. Even in death, its upper half exhaled a mind shaking laughter which echoed for a while in the woman’s mind. The knee-biting demon was the last to die. Ragged, presumably once-white wedding dress became red from blood as rogues’ sword slid down demons spine, piercing it top to bottom. Even though the creature laughed in its horrific dying laughter, its appearance was too pitiful to do any harm to either loxodon either human minds.
After the last cackle faded the woman spoke up:
“Nice moves elephant-man.”
“Thanks.” mumbled the loxodon.
“Nai is the name.” rogue introduced herself with a graceful bow.
“Wataru”, the elephant-man replied explicitly stressing the last vowel.
Just as the introduction was over, a conjurer wearing red-coloured leather straps adorned into something vaguely resembling a piece of clothing stepped into the alley.
“What have you done? You ruined my show! You have slain my act!”
“Move out of the way”, loxodon asked with tangible frustration in his voice, yet the conjurer refused and looked angry.
“Just let us pass, or the same what happened to your act will happen to you”, Nai said removing the sword from the remains the demon, wiping off the blood into the side of the wedding dress.
Rakdos Beastmaster was not impressed, nor appeared intimidated by the two. He raised his whip aggressively and pointed one long-nailed finger at Wataru. Arcane words got stuck in his mouth as a powerful bolt of pure light hit him square in the chest. Elephant-man returned still shining locket with an engraved fist emanating with spikes back to one of the pouches.
A crowd started moving towards the explosion of light with ovations and applause, thinking this was just another of Rakdos performances. The loxodon and the human pushed through thickening crowd and disappeared in another alley before anyone could gather what had happened.
Soon they reached a street in The Blistercoils, where a small building was trying it’s best to stay upright squeezed between towering laboratories of Sullemand and Sunnix. That was Neirius’ lab.
The wooden door was smashed open and hung helplessly by one of the hinges. Nai and Wataru climbed down the stairs and entered the dark lab. Fire from their torches revealed a well-equipped laboratory in complete chaos. Broken Izzet equipment with weird liquid still seeping out from small pipes, heaps and heaps of paper with schematics and tiny handwriting scattered across the square room, silent humming of smashed mana chambers and shattered glass from numerous flasks and vessels covering the floor made it obvious that someone put a significant amount of effort in destroying whatever Neirius was building in this lab.
Wataru noticed a shifting shadow under one table. He reached under and grabbed a little creature. Elephant-man lifted it and placed on the table. It happened to be a little girl, around five years old, and she looked scared. But as soon as she fell Wataru’s grip lighten she jumped off the table and bolted through the door. Nai tried to grab her, yet tripped on some debris and face-planted on the stairs just inside of the broken door with no chance to catch the little one. While they were distracted another kid appeared from the shadows and also managed to squeeze away by running between the elephant-mans legs and jumping over the still dazed Nai.
“Let them go, we should find Neirius,” Wataru said to Nai, who stumbled up the stairs to at least see where the kids disappeared. Nai looked at her new companion a bit ashamed and turned her gaze to the ground where she had slipped. There was a pile of dirt and glass clustered together by something approximately human-sized being pulled across the floor.
“I think Neirius left not on his own” Nai picked one glass shard with a smear of blood on it. “Any idea where and who could have taken him?”
“No.” Wataru looked around the ransacked lab. “Let’s check upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” Nai glanced around the square room with only one exit. “I did not see any stairs outside.”
Elephant-man stepped behind a large brass cylinder-shaped device and pushed a part of the wall sideways. Behind it, a narrow wooden stairway led up.
The upstair room had no windows, the ceiling was uncomfortably low, Wataru had to bend a little not to brush his ears against the roof. A small bed, a study table, several racks of books and a bedside table were the only furniture here. Given the size of the room was the same as the laboratory below it looked very under-furnished, yet it did not look empty. Remaining space was occupied by open books lying on the floor, stacks of paper, few articles of clothing lying in the corners. The farthest wall from the stair had sheets of paper pinned on it. Sheets were covered in formulas, schematics and scribbles.
Most probably the scientist living here spent all his waking hours trying to describe the universe. Or at least that is what Wataru thought.
After searching through it they didn’t find any clue where Neirius had gone. But they did stumble upon a money pouch containing 20 platinum Orzhov minted coins. Wataru suggested to share it and Nai accepted, after all, the place will probably be robbed by someone else, so there was no point in leaving anything there.
When they walked out of the destroyed lab outside, the sun had already set and the street was laying in shadows extending from the ghastly night torches. A small book shop with a worn-out signboard stood directly across the laboratory. It had warm light shining through tall windows. Behind them, large bookshelves were filled with books and various trinkets. A man was sweeping the porch. Nai approached the elderly human.
“Welcome to the Souldbook shop! How can I help you in this late hour?” grey-haired human stopped sweeping and leaned against the broom.
“We were wondering if you saw anyone dragged from the lab over there?” Nai asked directly.
“Old Karel saw no such thing today. Would you like to come inside my little shop and look around? I have quite the collection of books…”
“No, we should be going. Goodnight old man.” she turned around and saw Wataru crouching a bit further in the street. “What have you found, big guy?”
Wataru showed a handful of glass shards that seemed hand-selected from rubble in Neirius lab, most of the pieces had interesting shapes or looked like gems. Nai took them and hid in one of many pouches under her cloak them.
“We should see where those kids ran off to. They might know something about our friend.” She looked down the street towards a distant Orzhov belltower. “Maybe we could find those kids at the orphanage over there?”
A darkened stone house stood peacefully in the night. A small sign announced that this is “Matilda’s Shade”, a home for orphaned children. A small stone fence surrounded the yard with an old tree in the centre. Even now, in the shimmering street lights, kids were playing and working in the yard.
Pair of adventurers entered through a small wooden gate and knocked on the door. A child, at most four years old, opened the door and pointed to the elderly but still a lively looking lady. She introduced herself as Matron Matilda and welcomed the strange guests inside.
“We are looking for two kids, about this big, with eyes and ears, human,…”, Wataru began to explain but was cut off by Nai, who precisely explained how the kids looked and why they are searching for them.
“This is a large house, full of children. I shelter them and give as much love as I can, but I do not track them at all time. This is all I can do for them. I would be very grateful if you could spare some coin for the orphans. It is hard to keep all of these kids at bay.”, Matilda swiftly transitioned to the business side of things.
Nai and Wataru opened their pouches and gave 5 gold each. The eyes of the matron lit up with happiness.
“Why you are too kind! We don’t have much to offer in return, but please stay with us for dinner. It is about ready. Come, my children, give your thanks to these noble guests!” as Matron called out a horde of kids came and touched and hugged both Wataru and Nai.
Kids started talking what will they do with these riches. Maybe they will buy some new toys or perhaps some cloth. Or they could even buy some fruits to spice up their bland food rations. This chattering bunch moved to the dining room and sat at a large table, while older kids brought in the mushroom porridge, obviously taken from Golgari food farms. Usually, food from Golgari is barely edible, but love and maybe a bit of spice made the porridge, one would say, even quite tasty.
While kids were eating, the pair, boy and girl from Neirius lab, entered the room. They instantly recognized the adventurers and froze looking at them. Nai slowly took off her hood revealing her dark shiny hair and a kind face. She reached her arm into her pouch getting the glass shards from the street and extended her arm towards the kids at the door, hinting it might be theirs. The girl approached with hesitation. Nai took the girls hand and poured the pieces into it.
“What is your name?”
“You found these in the laboratory, right?”
“Sit, let’s eat”, Nai moved a bit to one side making just enough place for the girl to squeeze in. “We are sorry if we scared you, we were just searching for our friend.”
“Yes, his name is Neirius and he works in that laboratory. Have you seen him?”
“Will you tell him about the gems?”
“What? Oh, no, you can have them, I don’t think he needs them right now.”
“Is your friend in trouble?”
“I think so. Have you seen him?”
“Large men came to his laboratory today. We saw as they dragged him down the street to the church. Then we went inside and saw all of these beautiful shards.”
“Can you tell me more about these men?”
“They had black clothing with gold trims. And they looked very strong.”
“This porridge is surprisingly tasty. What have you added to it?” Nai switched topic after she got enough information.
Meanwhile, Wataru carefully approached the boy, who sat down a bit further away and tried to talk with him.
“Boy, what you did in the lab?” elephant-man trumpeted.
“I,… I was searching for lightning… I will be a mage one day!” the boy proclaimed.
Suddenly elephants tone changed, he looked deep into the boys' eyes and continued with tenderness:
“Good good, did you find any lightning there?”
“Yes…”, the boy took out a piece of mizzium, which seemed like taken out from a particular apparatus in Neirius lab.
“I see, you will make fine lightning with this thing. I am a bit of lightning mage myself…”
“You are?” the boy asked with wide eyes and quickly hid the piece under his clothes, “I am called Jack, what is your name?”
“Wataru, Thunder Cleric”, elephant proudly introduced himself. “Did you see what happened in the lab?”
“Group of large guys from the church nearby came in and smashed the door, then they took someone and dragged him back to the church. There was some sort of magical pillory on the white-haired man, he seemed very tired…”
Adventurers talked a bit more with the kids and had a filling meal. They thanked matron Matilda and left in a hurry.
Through the dark street, they moved towards the church which stood several hundred paces away. The large single tower reached towards the sky, heavy reinforced wooden door was closed shut, pale light was flickering through stained glass windows. Nai snuck through the shadows to the inner courtyard and looked around. Two thugs were carrying lifeless bodies from the church to a crypt not far away. Nai waited for them to get in the crypt and took a peek inside the church’s back door. What she saw took her by surprise: a priest was performing a ritual to separate the soul from the flesh. A helpless figure was lying on the sacrificial table and waited for demise. Two goons stood nearby and kept order in the small pack of ghosts which were freshly made.
Nai thought that it could be Neirius among any of the living or already dead, so she hastily came back to Wataru and made a plan. Nai went to guard the back door and Wataru went inside the church. The elephant went in, looked around and sat in the front row. An Orzhov pontiff at the altar was reading a list of depts following numbers. He monotonically chanted:
“… Year 10095, borrowed 3000 zinos, repaid 976 zinos. Year 10096, repaid 1222 zinos. Year 10097, overall dept - 134764 zinos, on current terms estimated repayment in 260 years, give or take. Please sign your name here.”
A thrull appeared with a gold quill and passed it to the man in front of the altar. The man took the quill, stabbed it into his palm and wrote his name in blood.
“Thank you and please hold a great and long service to the Orzhova, you may go.”
Thrull escorted the man to the back chamber in the church. The line of condemned people now consisted only of two figures. The last one in the line was magically shackled Neirius.
The Boros cleric pondered for a moment and decided to take action. He summoned a cloud of fog around the pontiff and grabbed Neirius with one hand and sprinted, as fast as his thick legs could, out of the church. He pushed the heavy door with his free hand and disappeared into the night. Nai luckily heard the noise of a door being forcefully opened and ran towards the front of the church. She saw the loxodon charging into the night and trailed closely behind, making sure they are not followed. They regrouped quite a way further in a dark and silent alley. Wataru put Neirius down and investigated his condition. It wasn’t good. He was bound by a nasty Orzhov enchantment, called “The Pillory of the Sleepless”. By Wataru’s calculations, Neirius had around 6 hours to be dispelled or he would die or worse - forever drown in madness.