Morning sun breached the closed shutters and peeked inside. Nai woke up in a bunk bed under a heavily dented wood frame. Wataru snored blissfully above. She took her belongings, stepped over carefully folded chainmail and slid down the stairs. The main room was empty, a hint of smoke and burned meat came from the kitchen. She bent down and entered through a low frame. The kitchen was packed with all kinds of utensils and dried food hanging in every nook. A short slim man was ferociously scrubbing a pan and mumbling under his nose.
“Morning', is that our breakfast?”, Nai pointed to the charred bits in the pan.
“Should’ve been, but the cursed messenger came this morning searching for someone. Spent almost half an hour explaining to him that no one by the name he mentioned is in the tavern. And burned a fair deal of meat because of that. Curse those officials. And their ignorance.”
“Maybe I can help you?”
“Oh, he is already gone, and I don’t think you want to get involved with any of that.”
“Ah”, the man raised his gaze to meet Nai’s eyes, “Sure thing, I have a bunch of eggs, slice some ham and veggies on that counter.”, he returned to scrubbing, then stopped for a moment, straightened his bent back. “Thanks.”
“No problem, as long as we get to eat”, Nai smiled and began to chop the ingredients.
“So, did you all had a good nights sleep?”, Nai asked placing steaming bowls on the round table.
Shinigami rubbed her red eyes, “I slept like a tiny demon!”
“Whatever that means”, Wataru scratched his trunk, which now had red inflammation on both sides, and dug in the bowl he was handed.
“Any thoughts on what we are going to do today?”, Nai sat at the table with her bowl.
“Why, we are going to the festival!”, Shinigami whistled a tune, “Spectacle!”
The table remained still while Rakdos girls whistled her “song” to an end.
“Maybe that is not a bad idea. I could use some distraction after yesterday’s loss.”, Wataru said with a sigh.
“We should think where we could get more money to patch up our losses.”, Nai was moving her food seemingly without an appetite.
“Iosif had contacted me earlier. He promised a hefty reward if we took care of the Cult of Life for him.”, Katrille looked at Nai expectantly.
“What do you mean ‘took care’?”, Wataru’s ear twitched as he scratched another inflammation behind it.
“Well, he seems to be on bad terms with the cult. Presumably, because they are interfering with his research. He simply needs the cult gone.”
“Gone? So you are suggesting we go on and kill a bunch of innocent?”, Wataru stopped scratching and lifted his ears a bit. “How much exactly is the ‘hefty reward’?”
“Two thousand gold pieces.”, Katrille smiled while looking at the inflammations on Wataru’s body.
“That is a large amount of money.”, Nai stated. “But the task is not trivial.”
“Yeah, we should be sure we are not doing a devil’s work here. Why should we join with Simic on this matter?”, Loxodon pondered aloud.
“Instead we could give Iosif some incriminating information about the cult. He put a twenty platinum bounty on that.”, Katrille continued.
“If we had any. Currently, we know only where they are and who their leader is. If only we would have kept, what was his name… Zikmund for a while longer.”, Nai looked judgingly at Rozhe.
“I was not the one to let him go!”, she defended herself, “And they did say we could meet them any time in the church!”
“What’s done is done.”, Wataru stopped the elf from speaking in vain.
“Maybe let’s give Neirius a visit? I think he mentioned he will need our help tonight…”, Nai looked at Wataru for support. He nodded.
“Ok, we have to be sure we get to Gore House before the sun reaches the spires. I have to prepare for my act.”, Shinigami was balancing on her chair.
“I think we should be able to visit Iosif as well, perhaps we could get some more information from him. It would be nice to know him more if we are going to start an all-out war with Selesnya.”, Nai laid out her plans.
“Don’t get me wrong, I really could use the money, but getting involved in a fight between two guilds seems a bit too deadly to me.”, Wataru finished his meal and was now leaning back on the small chair.
“Maybe we can get this whole situation sorted out without killing?”, Katrille proposed, “but I don’t have any ideas how. Yet.”
“Ok. Let’s go, there is no time to waste sitting and talking.” Nai stood up, “Thanks for the roof and the food!”, she smoothed out a wrinkle on her cloak and walked out of the “Rainbucket Inn” into the sunny morning.
A small boy, around six years old hugged surprised Loxodon’s leg.
“Please protect me, master of Thunder, it is going to kill me!”
Wataru barely regained his balance after Shinigami, who was sitting on his shoulders, bent over his head and shouted “Scramble human-rat!”.
“What happened, Jack?”, Nai kneeled next to the boy in the middle of a street, “Who is going to kill you?”
“The scary water monster!”, Jack had bruises on his arms and legs, his right eye was swollen.
“You mean the ‘Wet Slayer of Blistercoils’?”, Rozhe walked closer.
Jack did not answer, just pressed himself to the strong leg.
“Come here and tell me what happened”, Nai took the boy’s hand and led the party to an alley between two shops.
Jack rubbed his eyes, which were about to cry, “I followed this man from the church, he ran with something in his hands, then a monster appeared and engulfed the man.” The boy cleared his throat from the building up tension and continued, “Then it turned it’s face to me. I ran ever since, but it keeps finding me. I can’t stay in one place for too long. I had to sleep on a merchants wagon.”, finally his composure gave way to tears, which dripped over his dirty cheeks.
“Shh, you are safe with us…”, Nai tried to calm the boy who was sobbing uncontrollably now.
Suddenly something chilling slammed into Nai’s neck. She reflectively rolled on the ground and jumped back up. A water column formed out of a puddle under her feet. It shot a slimy outgrowth directly at Nai’s torso, she took the blow and bent over from the pain.
Shinigami leapt on her feet, still standing on loxodon’s shoulders, somersaulted between the monster and the boy and slammed her scythe into the formless pillar.
A face formed out of the slimy substance. A mouth opened unnaturally wide and engulfed the head of Rakdos girl. Water began filling her mouth. Rage flickered in her eyes as she exhaled an infernal spell with the last air she had left in her lungs. A bright red fire engulfed the creature and the liquid began to steam and bubble. Moments later magic that held this creature together dissipated and the watery substance splashed down on the cobblestones.
Nai walked over Shinigami, tapped her on the shoulder, “Not bad.”
“Slimy weakling.”, Shinigami hissed at the puddle.
“We should report for the bounty”, Rozhe looked at the puddle of murky water, which just moments before attacked Nai.
“It will be hard to claim it without a body”, Nai took her waterskin, emptied the contents of it nearby and scooped up some of the murky water.
Shinigami was swirling the puddle with her finger as if expecting for something to happen. Then she tasted her finger. It was sour and with a strong scent of iron. “Blood”, she said quietly, “like in a spiders tummy”.
She stood up and went to the boy, who was no longer crying due to Nai’s efforts. “Show me your hand”, Rakdos extended her thin pale palm and gripped small dirty hand. In an unexpected move, she sliced boy’s palm with a knife that appeared in her hand out of nowhere. Then, before the boy could retract the injured hand she squeezed some blood into her palm and let the hand go.
“Ow!” the boy looked with confusion at his palm, then at the Rakdos girl, who used the blood to paint something on the wall nearby.
Nai opened her mouth to scold the girl, but seeing as the painting started taking shape of the watery creatures face simply sighed and ripped a piece of cloth from her shirt. “Here, let be bind your hand, Jack.” While putting the cloth on the fresh wound she leaned over to his ear and whispered. “Do you have the book, Jack?”
“Where is the book now?”
“I am young, but I am not stupid. I hid it.”, he looked around as if someone could be listening to him. “I will tell you where it is for 20 gold.”
“20 gold??? That seems like a lot for a book.”, Nai bargained.
“I know it is worth something. It has gold trims around it. And it is heavy. And a man was killed for stealing it. I am not stupid. 20 gold.”, Jack held his ground.
“What will you do with that much money?”, Nai curiously asked while reaching in her pouch.
“I, well, me and Mary are going to learn. I want to join Izzet and Mary has her dreams too. I will give half to her. We don’t want to live with Matilda for the rest of our lives.”, Jacks voice turned serious as he explained his plans.
Nai produced two platinum tens between her fingers and placed them in Jacks healthy palm. His eyes lighted up. “Let’s go, I will show you.”
Jack seemingly instantly forgot the monster and his hurt hand, “I hid the book far from the church. I heard there is magic to find things, but if you hide it far enough no one can find it. I may be small, but I know things already.” His voice was full of pride.
A dozen minutes later, after arranging with an Azorius guard, Oto Balan, how will they collect the bounty once the official investigation on the remains of the Wet Slayer of Blistercoils is done, the party was travelling in the Foundry District. Jack stopped in front of an abandoned building between a couple of busy workshops. He led the group to the second floor. A small hideout made from debris stood in the corner of the room. The boy slid inside and in a moment returned with a gold-bound tome in his hands. He passed the book to Nai.
“Can you lead me back to Matilda’s? I don’t feel safe carrying so much money around.”
“Yeah, no problem, we are going the same way.”, Nai nodded inspecting the Orzhov symbols encrusted on the tome. Confident that this was the tome she was tasked to find, she placed it her bag, under other equipment she had.
After leaving Jack in Matilda’s Orphanage, the party came to knock on Neirius Lab’s door.
“Yes?”, a goblin in a clean jumpsuit stood behind the door, “Ah! Neirius is waiting.”
“You are quick!”, Neirius looked at a weird contraption on his arm, “And it is before the arranged time too. Those messengers sure are quick, are they not?”
“We must have missed the messenger altogether, why did you request us though?”
“We are going to the festival tonight!”, Neirius stepped aside and revealed a rusty metal cage behind him. The bottom half of the cylinder-shaped cage was filled with machinery, metal tubes and tiny glass vials. Above the intricate machinery, a metal stem ended up in a dark metallic flower. A magical black and green mist oozed between the petals. Strands formed from the mist and then dissipated again in a hypnotising dance. Top of the cage ended in a thick metal ring.
“Spectacle!”, Shinigami growled in deep abyssal accent.
“As I mentioned, payment will be involved. Does 20 gold each sound reasonable?”, Neirius continued.
“What exactly are we supposed to do in the festival?”, Wataru inquired.
“I need to perform a mana imprint calibration. A relatively simple and safe process. The only caveat is that I need to place Artificimana Siphon in the highest mana concentration locale. Which, by my calculations, would be the dead centre of the festival.”, Neirius explained.
“You want to place this device among the rampaging Rakdos artists and the berserk crowd?”, Katrille carefully checked.
“Yes, that is precisely correct. And obviously, I need you to fend off the aggressive ones while I finish the calibration.”
“How long will this take?”, Nai joined the discussion.
“Not much. At most an hour.”
“Can’t you calibrate using safer methods?”, Katrille proposed.
“Yes and no. The last calibration happened on natural pace, it took almost a week in low mana zone. I need to see how my device performs under active strain. So you can say that we will be doing a couple of experiments at the same time. Efficiency is key now. Time is running short.”, Neirius had a smug smile on his face now.
“I think 20 gold is not enough for risking our lives like that.”, Nai looked at other group members, who nodded in agreement. Apart from Shinigami.
“How about 20 now and if the experiment is successful, another 20 later?”, Neirius agreed after pondering a little.
“You got a deal”, Nai extended her hand.
“Thank you, friends.”, Neirius took and shook it. “We have a few more hours before we leave, you can rest upstairs if you want to.”
Nai and Wataru looked at the open book of debts.
“Lots of names”, Wataru whispered.
“Let’s look for Neirius.”, Nai flipped over the pages.
They flipped the book back and forth until they found the date when Neirius borrowed the money. It read “Neirius, 143098 Zinos 44 Zibs, Transferred to afterlife payment”.
“Let’s look for me.”, Wataru flipped to the end of the book.
“Wataru, 312 Zinos 18 Zibs”
Apart from the clean entries in neatly organised columns, there were no other writings or markings. Some of the values were silently counting up.
“This book creeps me out. I hope I never end up on its pages.”, Nai’s voice was met by a cold hard stare from yellow Wataru’s eyes.
The four goblins in matching jumpsuits carefully placed the cage in an alley.
“This is as far as our payroll gets it. We will not go to the festival. Too dangerous even for The Mizzium Brothers.”, one of the goblins said while rolling up his sleeve.
“This will be fine, we can handle it from here. Thank you and please watch over the lab while we are gone.”, Neirius nodded to Wataru, who was carrying Shinigami on his shoulders again.
Wataru picked the cage under his arm.
“Well, Shinigami, lead the way”, Nai gestured Wataru forward.
“Onwards!”, Rakdos girl simply pointed to the main entry.
“You are late! Quickly go downstairs and dress! This whole delegation is with you?”, a muscular man standing in front of the Gore House commanded Shinigami. “Quick, you know the way!”, he barked and then returned to admitting gathering crowd inside.
“Leave me in the dressing rooms, and you can go to the underpits. They are directly under the arena.”, Shinigami pointed Wataru through a door directly into backstage chambers.
After leaving the girl to her preparations, the group went deeper in the underpits. Wataru placed the cage in the centre of a large square room. The ground was covered in sand. Huge cogs were hanging on the walls.
“What do you think this place is?”, Katrille asked looking around.
“Don’t know. Maybe some sort of torture chamber?”, Nai checked adjacent rooms for any clues. Out of four exits, one led back to backstage dressing rooms, one led to a decorated antechamber of some sorts, with two doors with glass mosaics on them, another one to a metal door with a sliding panel for security inspection from the other side, and the last one led to a bathhouse with a water pool.
Nai returned to the middle of the room.
“What now?”, she asked Neirius.
“Now we begin”, he answered not lifting his head. His arms were fiddling with something inside the cage.
Suddenly a tangible pressure fell on everyone in the room. Upstairs music got louder and they felt every drumbeat with their bodies.
“Stay close and protect me if anything happens.”, Neirius commanded.
“Sure thing, doc.”, Nai walked to one of the cogs and started inspecting it.
Suddenly a metal door opened, and a voice shouted from one of the corridors. “What are you doing here?”
A small man in red robes ran up to the device.
His eyes rolled over as he pulled out a decorated dagger and lunged on Wataru. “Die!”
Behind him, two ogres came out of the corridor. One had a human-sized cage in his hands and other a wooden club. As they approached the thunder cleric, Katrille threw her owl into the fray. The bird flew above loxodon’s head and exhaled a cone of fire.
While the party was fighting Neirius did not lift his head from the device, he just kept mumbling “More, more, yes, more!”. Even when Wataru blasted an ogre back into the tunnel it came from. Even when the whole room jerked and started raising through the now opening ceiling. Even when a wet feathered blob plopped next to his feet. He kept tunning the device, seemingly undisturbed by all the chaos.
The ceiling opened and the room they were standing in lifted up from the underpits. The crowd parted as metal plates moved under their feet. Loud music died out slowly. Hackrobats stopped juggling for a moment. Lights concentrated on the stage, where, sitting on a simple stool, Shinigami lifted her flute to her lips. Her tune started softly. Her seemingly fragile frame was wrapped in a light white dress. She stood up and effortlessly glided forward. Her feet lifted above the ground and she flew. Her figure rose up together with her music. She soared across the arena, her white dress flailing in the wind. As her music builds up the tension she climbed higher and higher in circles above the stage. Suddenly her song stopped. Flames burst out all around the stage. Drums and other instruments started playing loudly, forcing the crowd to gasp. Shinigami tore her dress from her, revealing a red leather outfit which barely covered her body. She landed on a chain affixed above the crowd. The music soared over the audience as they watched Shinigami perform somersaults on the chain. More flames shot from the spiked decorations around the stage. Shinigami jumped off the chain. Crowd gasped. She spun quickly and stopped moments before hitting the ground. An invisible rope stopped her fall. She gracefully landed on her feet.
With flute back in her hands, she played Azorius march as two demons came in from the far side of the scene carrying a pig adorned in Azorius uniform. They marched around the perimeter of the scene making faces and squeaking the pig. Their walk was followed by laughter from the crowd.
“An opening toast to the authorities!”, Shinigami raised her hand above the pig. A scythe appeared in her hand and sliced down in a quick motion. Blood spilt from the cleaved head covering the pale girl.
Demons turned the pig around and squeezed the lifeless corpse to gush out another stream of warm blood on closest spectators. A cheer came from the crowd.
“Enjoy yourselves and the spectacles that you are about to see”, Shinigami raised her hands and the music washed over the arena. Flames shot from the edges of the scene. At least four acrobats jumped on the lines suspended above the arena and juggled burning swords above the crowd.
Spikewheel acrobats came rolling through the crowd, lucky ones managed to move out of the way, unlucky ones were rolled over. Their shouts drowned in the loud music coming from all sides.
“Welcome to my act”, Shinigami bowed to the party members, who were now standing in the very centre of the arena.