Machinations in Mind

An Onisahian Cycle Story

Summary: Aris Davone is a natural philosopher with a polymathic intellect in the Freeport of Onisah. To assist his lover in the City Watch, he navigates the byzantine strings of the criminal underworld to their terminus. In the process, he fears becoming the very thing he loathes.

Aris Davone dropped his body-weight as his opponent shot in towards him. His front leg partially grasped by his adversary, he pulled the larger man's head into his torso. In the maddened tangle of flesh and chaffing coarse garments, he yanked and twisted as he eagerly sought any opening in his adversary's impeccable stance. The champion wrestler stood as strong as the Bulwark Mountains that towered over Onisah and as flexible as the copper cables that weaved under her streets.

Out of the corner of his eye, Aris identified a sliver of rapid movement emerge from the sleeve of a man amongst the spectators. Immediately divining the object from his profession outside the fighting circle, he knew at once the imperative to prevent it from find its destination. He yielded and moved towards the edge of the circle, knowing the victor's more experienced instincts would do the rest. While he disliked yielding without making his full effort, there was no other way.

His opponent shot forwards just as the poisoned dart whizzed over his back and impaled itself on a wooden post denoting the perimeter of the ring. Shoved like a maddened bull towards a precipice, Aris allowed his emboldened adversary to move him towards the edge of the ring and ensure his opponents victory. Mere millimeters from the edge of the ring, he had a change of heart. Instead of passively allowing himself to be pushed over the rim, the burly scholar leapt over the edge himself and allowed his rival to win by forfeiture. A split second later, he bolted over the narrow wooden palisade after the unprepared shooter.

The man who had dared to interfere with his wrestling match was a spindly, lanky spider of a man in a flowing teal robe. He shot for a dagger on his belt, but Aris had already grabbed his hand and tossed the weapon away. Now grasping his torso like he had done to the wrestler, Aris hoisted him over his shoulder like a soldier's weapon. He grasped the arm of the man and hurled him to the ground, over the narrow wooden partition separating the audience from the arena.

Aris vaulted over and crashed onto the man's kneecaps, causing him a howl of pain to escape his mouth. Crouching down, he felt an elongated metal object up the man's right sleeve. He yanked it out to reveal a spring loaded dart launcher, the mechanism that had almost delivered the poison dart into the wrestler early. He tossed the weapon away and then checked the remainder of the man's robe for any other surprises. Finding none, he quickly liberated the poison dart from the wall with a tug and sniffed it. Raising it high in one hand while his foot pinned the man's chest, he addressed the enraptured crowd. From the edge of the wrestling ring, the champion stood with his jaw wide opened.

"This dart is soaked in a mild paralytic and sedative. The launcher isn't terribly accurate, so he had to stand close to hit anything."

Aris tossed the dart away as he turned towards the man who had shoved him out of the ring moments earlier. "This idiot wanted you to lose the match, despite the odds in your favor. I'd say you could start by asking who made the largest wagers on my improbable victory, but I'm sure you can make this idiot tell you everything. He's all yours."

The would be saboteur looked up in abject terror as the victorious grappler took a step forwards with a predatory grin marching across his face. Aris rolled the prone man over with his foot, and the wrestler hoisted him over his own shoulder like the spoils of battle. Suddenly, the jingle of mail-clad footsteps descending the ranks of the audience interrupted the lecture Aris had prepared to give. A squad of City Guard descended the steps, clad in dark turquoise tunics, chainmail, and helmets engraved with fin-like motifs. Their leader was a tall, dark skinned woman of unmistakable southron heritage, in contrast to the pale Polarian skin of her subordinates. They had shaved heads and no eyebrows, as was customary for the civilian Guard to denote their symbolic neutrality and deny adversaries something to grab onto.

"I should have known you would be here, Scholarch Aris Davone," she said, sighing. "Must you turn everything into a spectacle?"

"Of course. How else would I teach my lesson? I'd rather have an honest defeat than a tainted victory. I'm just surprised the guards arrived so quickly."

"Aris, I'd like to see you in your study after my guards take accounts."

"Of course, Neida. I have news for your superior officer on the study he commissioned."

"I'm surprised to see you at an establishment like this."

"A person wears many guises throughout his life, and I've learned not to jump to conclusions."

"That's Reterus the Sly, correct? It's too profound for someone like you to think of."

"Correct again, Neida. I'm impressed."

Neida nodded as she ordered her guards to separate the irate wrestler from the object of his ire, binding the lanky man as they escorted the skittishly man away from the titanic wrestler that made no small sign of his displeasure. Aris recounted his story to an unimpressed guardswoman before returning to the dressing room to change out of the wrestling tunic and into his regular clothing. He dressed in loose, billowing robes of tan and olive green earth-tones that matched his emerald eyes, pulling a hood over his narrowly cut black hair as he left the arena behind him.

Aris walked out of the arena and into the sinuous Onisahian streets. Each of the winding avenues radiated out from the city center, with concentric side-streets weaving a spider-web tapestry of roads. It made the city seem orders of magnitude larger than it actually was, and occasionally as disorienting to locals as to newcomers. Filling the streets were an increasingly cosmopolitan throng of pedestrians, from pale skilled Onisahians with straight black hair and metallic eye colors to dark-skinned southrons of muscular build and ornate dress to fair-haired pygmies of the eastern isles to the sallow-skinned and ornately tattooed visitors from the subterranean safehold cities of the far west. Families of all sorts and loners, the young and the old, and the fat and the thin all included a fraction of the contrasting dichotomies occupying the curving streets at the height of day.

Aris knew it was primarily a defensive measure devised by the city's Polarian founders, allowing the defenders to pour projectiles down upon any invading army with impunity from almost every angle. The current government and its immediate forerunners had largely kept to the Polarian building techniques, given the foul memories of Aglio the Conqueror.

The round green-steel and copper-roofed gray stone buildings of the industrial Anvil District gave way to the angled flat rooftops and alabaster-white marble buildings of the Academy District after heading through a residential neighborhood with houses bearing both architectural heritages. Aris came to a squat building at the edge of a corner and entered the workshop. He eagerly parked himself at a wooden table covered with gears, wires, and lubricants that reeked of a chemical spill. He shoved a stack of unmarked envelopes and letters with the wave of his hands to the side to clear the workspace. Putting on a pair of work gloves and goggles, he pulled two objects from a nearby drawer.

Aris looked his handiwork over with a contented smile. A handheld weapon with six metal barrels glistened like a polished mirror in the light. Two uncocked hammers rested on opposite sides of the handle, just above the trigger. The wooden grip and handle terminated in a metallic butt-cap, so that the weapon could be flipped around to be used as a club after the six shots had been expended. Gloves still on his hands, he cocked both of the hammers and gingerly squeezed the trigger. The alchemical battery in the handle completed an electrical circuit as the piezoelectric thunderstone vomited a spray of sparks into the empty barrel. He tried again with each hammer individually, content that his revolving pepperbox weapon was ready for live fire testing.

Aris slipped a small alchemically-treated leather bladder filled with pressurized gas and a cork into the top barrel and packed a pinch of black powder with paper wadding into the bottom. He leveled the weapon towards a sandbag wrapped in a motley bundle of rags and cocked the first hammer. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if his neighbors would ever accommodate to the relentless stream of explosions and loud noises at peculiar noises at odd hours. He decided they had, leveled the weapon, and pulled the trigger.

The top barrel discharged with a silent hiss and rush of air. The wooden cork he shoved into the barrel flew across the room and struck the center of the makeshift target with a louder thwack than he had first imagined. Cocking the second hammer, Aris braced himself for heavier recoil and the thunderous blast that erupted from the bottom barrel like hellfire. The paper wadding struck where he thought it would. He stopped to examine the smoky wisps smelling of the acrid tang of spent gunpowder, savoring the comfortable familiarity.

Aris' reverie was broken when a powerful and undoubtedly impatient knocking came at the door. Setting the firearm down, he produced a crossbow from the drawer and set it on the table in front of him. He flung the door opened, and he saw the cross face of Neida as she sighed at the untidy jumble before her.

"How can you work and live in a place like this?"

"Tinoth is studying under a magister in the southron lands, so I've claimed his former accommodation as my own. None of my peers complained about it."

"Yet," Neida said. "Now, do you have it?"

"You've arrived just in time," Aris said as he produced a stack of papers from a nearby drawer. "As per my initial inclination, the pump-action repeating crossbow is the best option for reliability, cost, rate of fire, and versatility. The air gun is too complex and fragile, the revolving rifle is too unsafe to the shooter, the spring-loaded launcher is too weak, and the lever-action crossbow is too unwieldy for your needs."

"So, my commander spent a month's salary to hear what he was already going to believe, anyway?"

"Oh, I've suggested some modifications," Aris said as he pulled out his second prototype. The crossbow itself had a metal pump on an a rail terminating before the front sight, a metallic tube below the front sight, and a short dagger protruding from the front like a makeshift bayonet. Despite the accessories added to it, the device's form resembled an aggressive weapon rather than an ungainly contraption. "As you know, the pump cycles a new bolt from the helical magazine while cocking it. I've adjusted the spring positioning for greater speed, added a bayonet lug, and a spring-loaded launcher for flash and smoke bombs or other alchemical surprises."

To drive home the point of his modifications, Aris pointed racked the pump and fired a quarrel into the center of the target from earlier. He depressed the trigger a split second later, burying the projectile deep into the sack as a trickle of sand flowed to the bottom like a mortal wound. Aris racked the pump five more times, placing each bolt within centimeters of the others. His face beamed red with an almost parental pride while Neida stood unimpressed with her arms crossed.

To conclude, Aris pressed a small pin on the metal tube beside the barrel. A ceramic sphere arced across the room before shattering against the ground, releasing a cloud of powder like a miniature simoom. With but one feature left to demonstrate, the scholar unleashed a war-cry that nearly caused the Watchwoman to raise her hands in defense. He charged forwards, jamming the bayonet into the sandbag with an uncharacteristic violence to his previously pacific demeanor. Making repeated stabs, he withdrew the blade as a cascade of sand from the bag formed a dirty mess on the floor. Concluding, he handed the weapon to Neida.

"I made this one especially for you, but the precision can't match your beauty."

"Flattery may get you somewhere."

"Ah, that was Circesa, if I'm not mistaken," Aris said, placing his hand on the woman's shoulders. "You're a virtual wellspring of quotes, aren't you?"

"I wear many guises," Neida replied with a grin, before moving arm down. "But for now, I'm still on duty. I've come to check up on the evidence from the Scavenger case."

"Ah, yes. The pistol you gave me was another fake, a Polarian imitation like the other two. The barrel design was too modern, but otherwise convincing," Aris said as he shifted towards other concerns. "The Scavenger's forgers are getting better with each new batch on the black market, but is someone fleecing criminals really a concern of yours?"

"All crime is my concern, but the Scavenger's only been small time until recently," Neida said, her voice becoming dour and sober with each word. Aris watched concern form on her face as his own eyes widened. "There is a solid lead, partially gleaned from those communications you intercepted, that he wants to purchase something big, perhaps some kind of secret on one of the local merchant families or even Assembly members."

"I see. That might give him blackmail material. Do you have any leads as to the location and time?"

"He's due to meet with a gang tonight in a warehouse in the Harbor District," Neida said. "Other than that, he's a phantom. We do not even know if he is a 'he,' in fact. It could be an alias for an entire group, for all we know."

"I presume the City Watch is intending to move in and arrest anyone you find there, and you don't even know what the Scavenger looks like? I have a better plan."

"Tell me, oh mighty Scholarch," Neida rolled her eyes. "By the Triune, this idea had better be good."

"What if I were to pose as the Scavenger, his agent, or simply another buyer? Do you know if anyone else will be present?"

"No, but I don't like this idea. You'll be outnumbered. The Watch barely has the resources to surround the warehouse, let alone waste rescuing you."

"Luckily for me, I have just the solution for that," he said as he raised his pepperbox pistol. "Since only a third of the people shot die directly from the wound, I've doubled up the bullets to solve that."

"But what if you're still outnumbered?"

"I have other tricks for that. Besides, if you hear gunshots, I imagine a volley of flash bombs would be flying through the windows as your guards storm in."

"I still don't like bringing you along."

"If I'm not mistaken, you complained to me earlier that the Assembly had voted to cut your budget this year in lieu of the Consul's new private venture. You don't even have any black powder specialists left on your full-time payroll, if I'm not mistaken. Considering that I'm working as the Watch's de facto armorer and equipment consultant, I'd like to offer my assistance to you for this delicate operation."

"And what makes you think we need a natural philosopher? If you got injured, I'd never forgive myself. You don't even have the training that we do!"

"I helped design your training regime, my dear Neida. Now, do you know if this artifact is even in the warehouse?"

"Yes, and the Scavenger's agent will examine it."

"See? You just answered your own question. Let me play along, and I'll confirm this. Unless you have a devoted magister or a natural philosopher, I doubt you'll ever find it."

Neida sighed. "Aris, you matter too much to me to die there."

"As I said, don't concern yourself with me. Remember the Southern Necropoli dig? I've been dealt with necromancers and fouler things than petty cutthroats."

"Promise me you'll come back safe."

"I promise," Aris said as Neida's powerful arms pulled him close. He did not resist as her moist lips pressed against his. He felt himself melt into her grasp, merging and wanting more. At the last moment, Neida stepped back.

"I must take my leave, but I will be back in three hours to collect you."

"Then I'll be waiting. I have a few surprises of my own," Aris said. "After all, a man wears many guises."

Neida glowered as she left through the front door, the report and the crossbow in her hand. He observed her leaving through the window before returning to business of his. Loading the full cylinder of his new favorite pistol, he turned his attention towards other matters. He removed his formal tunic and slipped into a soiled, threadbare one that smelt of grease and perspiration. Underneath, he wore a tight garment of densely woven and alchemically treated fabrics, a special substance with protective qualities against stray gunfire and edged weapons. He ruffled his hair with lotion-soaked hands, imparting the same quantities of odor and unkempt appearance of a stevedore or sailor. To conclude the disguise, he donned a pair of goggles with tinted lenses that gave his eyes an insectile quality common among the Harbor District's workers. The instant before he left, he could not help but stare at his collection of mounted spiders pinned within a glass display case. He eyed his favorite, a small one with jade chitinous legs, before skittering outside. With his pistol and a dagger securely hidden under a workman's tool-belt, he left his dwelling behind him.

On the way out of the Academy District, Aris passed down the wide avenue of Liberation Way. Umbrella trees flanked either side of the grand boulevard like ceaseless sentinels. Evocative of the same thick-trunked hardwood that dotted the windswept grasslands outside the city, the trees had been planted a century prior in the wake of Aglio the Conqueror's death. Aris recalled the story by heart, recalling Aglio was a petty warlord from beyond the Bulwark Mountains that trounced the inept Onisahian army of a century prior, he successful forced the surrender of Consul Kwayl the Weak-handed. Despite the unparalleled military feat in Onisahian history, he was ignobly assassinated by one of his brigands over a paltry share of plunder. Following that, armed citizens routed the remnants of his army. Even the trio of powerful necromancers Algio had recruited expended their efforts against each other, nearly destroying the Academy's library and countless irreplaceable tomes within it. The burnt library had never been rebuilt, but was instead selected as the symbolic beginning of Liberation Way.

Aris passed the green-steel statue of an angry mob standing over the corpses of Algio and his treacherous necromancers, a monument to the unconquered spirit of the Onisahian republic's citizens. While Aris knew it was the triumph of a prior generation, such victories were ultimately transcient. The inevitable cycle of the Triune corresponded to the Freeport's political fortunes while lapsing between autocracy under the Tyrant and democracy under the Liberator, with the neutral Observer filling in the gaps and tallying the deeds of each individual. Like the most vigilant of the Triune, the city's High Monastery gave each Consul or notable Onisahian an official title two decades after their term had ended, recognizing fame, infamy, talent, and insanity alike. He only hoped one day to be considered worthy of a title, as he observed the waning activity upon the street.

While the vendors and souk-sellers along Liberation Way packed as the sun began its descent over the distant jokull-capped peaks, he could not shake the unbearable sensation that the cynical and cyclical faith of the Triune would be vindicated sooner rather than later. The sight of two Watchmen on patrol with repeating crossbows he had helped design made him aware of the irony, as he had unwittingly become an instrument in the Tyrant's gradual and inevitable march. While his weapons would be used against criminals today, he was well aware they could be used against dissidents tomorrow. He hoped to delay that futile inevitability by working with the Watch, but he had his own contingencies in place. While not religious, Aris hoped that if the Observer or future historians evaluated his life's accomplishments, they would be gentle.

It was down a side street that Aris saw the wine-dark waters of their entirety, with two fortresses guarding either side of the port entrance as though it were the open legs of a dockside harlot. He reflected that the number of turrets on either fortress had doubled since he was a wide-eyed teenager of a decade earlier. As the people of Onisah sleepwalked into militarization, he believed it was in his best interest to have associates on either side of the law.

A burly man in a gray cowl and hood approached him, brandishing the brace of naval pistols and the cutlass hanging from his belt-sash. Instinctively, Aris' own hands shot towards his pistol, until he recognized the cross-shaped scars on the man's hirsute face. He moved his fingers together to create a rectangular shape, which the cloaked man reciprocated. He saw the taller man's posture relax into a slump and relaxed cadence that matched his own.

"Ah, Parell Koitras, a pleasure," Aris said, knowing that was definitely not the name he was born with. Despite knowing a few other of the shady characters that lurked dockside, he did not want to waste time here with trite palaver. "How's business?"

"Very well. I have the sales records you requested," Parell said, slipping a folded piece of paper to Aris. "Apparently, some clients are Assembly members. Quite interesting."

Aris slipped a handful of coins into Parell's pocket, jingling them to strategically emphasize his munificence. The ruddy-skinned man nodded as he walked off towards a nearby pub. "Anything else?"

"Any activity with the small time gangs near any warehouses?"

"I may be able to recall, for a bit more."

"Ah, here's the perfect prescription for a faulty memory, as recognized by Weilla the Cynic," he said as he slipped another handful of coins.

"Vitros Wreit's Red Iron Gang was moving towards Fleet Street and Outer Quay, but I am not sure."

Aris handed him another handful of coins.

"I thank you for your generosity, but I am genuinely ignorant," Parell said as he grinned slyly. "For now, I must bid thee a good night."

Aris grumbled to himself as his associate vanished down another dark alley. Despite his initial pangs of curiosity, he was savvy enough not to follow. The low part of town still had its innate darkness, despite the civic dividend drastically lowering crime. Not chancing his own fate, he took a circuitious route back to his dwelling that doubled back no less than thrice. He kept the note from Parell tucked within his belt, where it could be readily retrieved upon his return.

By the time he had returned home and switched into more presentable dress, artificial daylight banished the night along the primary thoroughfares. Electric and alchemical lights painted the streets with a sickly yellow light as the last of the sunlight was smothered behind the mountains. While the visitors would marvel at Onisah's banishment of the darkness, Aris had been jaded due to his innate familiarity with the products of natural philosophical inquiry. He recalled the ancient Polarians had separated mage-craft and technology due to tradition, but the Onisahians liberally lumped the two together in complementary ways. The alchemical resin he used to make the invisible ink on the paper appear was one such fusion.

Aris skimmed over the list that his eyes in the shadows had provided. A few common pass-phrases were listed, but the associates were the information he coveted. The list of clients that had purchased, or likely attempted to purchase, wares from the Scavenger had the names of several private collectors, but also the names of two Assembly members. He wondered if they were truly aware of from whom they were buying, or of the counterfeit nature of the goods, but the ignorance of politicians only increased as the Observer yielded to the Tyrant. While such secrets would hardly be of interest to Neida, they would provide a peek at the budding kleptocrats vomited forth by the byzantine cesspool of politics. As minor criminals repeated unpunished crimes, so to would the largest criminals.

As below, so above, Aris thought. Human nature is constant.

Aris was ready to depart when Neida knocked at the door. He eagerly rushed outside to greet the armored Watchwoman as she issued orders with a series of hand gestures to the similarly-equipped officers behind her. She whistled, and a half-dozen plainclothes Watchmen emerged from a nearby alley with the precision of a Polarian mechanism. A jolt of excitement came over his mind as he immediately recognized his own suggestion for a covert screening force displayed to him for the first time. Traveling through the bad part of town undoubtedly drew unwanted attention, hence the civilian disguises over their weapons and armor.

"Aris, the advance team follow you closely. If they can't see you, hear the noises of battle, or judge it sufficient, they will charge into that accursed warehouse."

"And how about you, my dear Watchwoman?"

"Behind them, as I'm not going to take responsibility for your brazen stupidity and imminent demise."

"Ah, since you've already absolved yourself of my death, I may disappoint you."

"Come, for your suicide wish awaits. Proceed down the street towards the warehouse at Fleet Street and Outer Quay."

"I assume you've accounted for civilians, dearest Neida?"

"An undercover patrol already checked. Most fled after Vitros Wreit and a half dozen of his Red Iron Gang marched into the area. The ones that didn't are probably laying low," Neida said. "But rest assured that the Watch under my command will avoid them."

Aris nodded, reassured by Neida's promise. People like her gave him faith in the city's institutions. Any possible departure from the Watch was something he feared for multiple reasons, not the least of which was her safety. He liked to think that his own usefulness to the Watch might one day help the city in ways even he could scarcely envision. At the core of any institution was people, and he hoped to forestall the worst excesses by ensuring the worthy were raised in stature and station.

Aris marched down Liberation Way with the pride of a victorious soldier on parade. While his pageantry was limited to a humble tunic and unassuming garb, he continued his marching cadence with only the occasional glance over his shoulder to ensure the disguised Watch were keeping up with him. Many of them would pretend to talk with each other, read news pamphlets, or simply loiter against the nearest walls to feign organic spontaneity. It almost worked in some cases, as he could neither see their faces nor weapons. They disguised their humorless countenances behind a veil of well-rehearsed behavior and social cues. Given the traditional Onisahian values of privacy and discretion, the few other pedestrians on the street avoided them entirely and did not stare.

Aris' unofficial march to the sea terminated at the dockside warehouse at the intersection of Fleet Street and Outer Quay. Validating the information from both sides of the law, he immediately headed towards the opened wrought iron gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the yard. The structure itself was a ramshackle wooden one with the faded umbrella-tree sigil of the faded Arazi merchant house upon it. Without the resources they once commanded, they could not even hire guards to keep out such small-time ruffians.

In the empty yard, Aris counted at least four Red Iron Gang members acting as lookouts atop the crates. He walked towards the front gate with his empty hands raised and poorly attempting to whistle a tune, doing all in his power to draw the attention and ire of the brigands within. He ceased his walk at the gate, where he spoke to the assemblage of cutpurses before him. He feigned listening to an unspoken command, cupping his hand over his ear before opening his mouth.

"The Scavenger has sent me to examine the merchandise before payment," he said, hoping he could convincingly lie now that his life depended upon it. "For Vitros must respect his interests for this deal to work."

Aris saw the chromatic flashes of crossbows and pistols glinting in the dim light of a nearby streetlight, undoubtedly aware they were being trained upon him. He raised his hands higher and took a step forwards. "Tell Vitros that the sea also rises," he said in a half-whispered tone.

Murmurs went out across the ad hoc guards as weapons lowered. A man that was undoubtedly Vitros Wreit stepped out of the warehouse. His faded teal overcoat was the color of an overcast sky, and nearly matching the graying mane around the edges of his face like an untended garden. He wore a gilded headband with cracks and missing flecks of paint, which adorned his round head like underworld royalty. A Polarian green-steel pistol and snake-like southron dagger by his side were unmistakably regalia used for imitation, undoubtedly acquired by dishonored means from their former owners. With a surprisingly slick and oily voice, Vitros spoke to his underlings.

"Let him in," he said with tone that somehow caused Aris to shiver slightly. "Send him in with me, and we will talk."

Two of the guards opened the rusted gate, and Aris entered without flinching. He immediately noticed the sentries turn their weapons towards his back as he entered their illicit domain. Behind him, the gang locked the gate as he could already imagine the scolding that Neida would have given him for such a stupid maneuver. If he entered the dark, cavernous warehouse in front of him, he knew his chances of walking out alive dropped by an order of magnitude. He saw two previously unseen sentries walking out with a wooden container before setting it down gingerly as though their lives depended on it. From what Aris had heard of the Red Iron Gang, they likely did.

"Come inside, and my gang will talk payment," Vitros said condescendingly to his guest.

"Sir, I am afraid that I must authenticate the merchandise under a natural sky, due to the reflective properties and the fickle nature of enchantments in question," Aris lied as he stopped just shy of the entrance. "As soon as this is done, you shall be paid in full."

Vitros sneered defiantly, obviously unused to any perceived slight. Aris stood impassively, forcing a stoic stare of expectation from the would-be client that would think nothing of snuffing his life like a candle flame. He raised his pistol in the air and pressed it against his chin as he considered. After a split second's delay, Vitros' greed overwhelmed whatever urge being slighted remained. "Bring it out and open it."

"A few questions, if I may," Aris said as he slipped on his tinted goggles. "First, in what state was this recovered?"

"From a beachcomber that owed us money about a month ago. We haven't been able to crack it opened."

"I see. Would you mind opening it?"

Vitros whistled, and an underling tossed him a crowbar. Aris popped the cask with a slow and deliberate prying, while making a mental note of the position of the guards, their armaments, and the crates strewn about the yard. He formulated several plans in his mind, knowing that all of them would not survive contact with reality. Carefully, he bent down to examine the item that the trifling gang defended like a jealous pack of rats.

What rested within laid on a belt of dry straw, unmistakably older than a mere month. The scent of brine filled his nostrils as he identified an archaic style of trade-cant etched in faded and chipped characters on the edge. It was a undoubtedly a sending-box, a waterproof metal container used to hold a ship's log. Enchantments on the box compelled it to unerringly drift towards the vessel's home port in the event of the vessel's loss or destruction. Dents in the metal bespoke of crude attempts to force it open without the proper keys, a task potentially destructive to the contents. He was impressed that a fool like Vitros hadn't simply opted to smash it open, but the Scavenger's offer had been enough to bring him to attempt its sale.

While he was not as familiar with the esoteric language of commerce, he could translate parts of the script with ease. The mention of the Arazi family as patrons was clear, as was the name of the vessel, the Dauntless. His steel-trap memory recalled the merchant house losing a substantial portion of its wealth after the loss of the vessel in uncharted waters, but none within the city knew the specifics of the disaster. Immediately, he knew why such an artifact would have an immediate monetary value.

"So, satisfied? I want my money," Vitros said as his finger inched closer towards the trigger.

"The remainder will come shortly," Aris said as he tossed a coin purse through the air, and it landed further inside the darkened warehouse. Vitros pushed past his two guards to reach it. "Kill him and take the rest from his corpse."

It was the fact that Aris processed Vitros' orders before his minions that saved his life. He brought the crowbar crashing down on one of the thug's heads while scooping up the sending-box with his free hand. Dropping the crowbar as the second gangster reached for his pistol, he swung the metal container into his adversary's temple. A vermillion stain arced across the ground as Aris sprinted behind a nearby crate as the first gunshot erupted in the yard. An explosion of dirt struck where he had been standing, and Aris had little doubt the next projectile would be through his head. He drew his own pistol and cocked both hammers, blasting Vitros in the back before he could react.

Aris could hear crossbow bolts impaling themselves upon his crate, knowing at least four armed criminals would be descending upon him soon. Luckily, he had that many rounds left in his own firearm. He cocked one hammer and blasted a gangster as he jammed the re-cocking lever on his crossbow. His shot missed, so he fired again and hit the second time. Cursing himself for his inaccuracy, he barely heard the man clamber up atop the crate as the muzzle of a pistol poked out towards his head. Grasping the barrel and shoving it away as he rose to his feet, he unloaded his own remaining two shots in the head of his would be assassin, painting the ground with his brains.

Of the two thugs that simultaneously bolted around either side of the crate, one was not expecting to come meet her end by the firearm carried by her former colleague as Aris preemptively charged around the side of the crate. Aris sprinted around to the other side of the crate as a crossbow swung the weapon towards him, only to deflect the weapon with a shove from the sending-box and the Scholarch to cut both sides of his neck and then plunged the dagger deep into his chest several times in a synergistic calligraphy of violence. A moment after throwing up from the adrenaline overdose, Aris vainly attempted to catch his breath.

The burst of blinding white light did not affect him due to the tinted work goggles he wore, but the concussive blast that accompanied it overwhelmed senses, knocking him from his feet. As he stared helplessly into the sky, he saw a stack of Watch officers performing the tactics that he had proposed for securing buildings. After the initial stun bomb, the masked and helmeted lead officer rounded corners as though cutting some invisible pie, while the one after her performed a similar movement along the other wall while the others covered from the entrance. He forced himself to move, despite the ringing in his ears. He waited for them to hoist his sweat-soaked form to his feet, before escorting him back towards the front entrance.

"Sir, are you alright? We had issues breaching the gate, so the leader forced it opened," an officer said in an almost conciliatory tone. Aris was less concerned with an apology than solving the technical problem that had just been proposed to him.

"Holy Liberator! He killed the entire gang himself!" sounded a Watch officer from somewhere in the warehouse behind him.

"I was very fortunate," Aris said to the masked lead officer in between nearly canine panting breaths. "Tell Neida she was right."

"Why not tell me yourself, you wretched idiot? You just can't resist making a spectacle," Neida said as she lowered the mask. She pulled Aris closer before kissing him. The remainder of the night became far more pleasant after that.

Aris awoke as the golden rays of natural sunlight filtered through his window, illuminating the cluttered room and causing his and Neida's sweat-soaked bodies to glisten like burnished bronze. Recalling that Tinoth would at least hog less of the covers, he moved himself closer to her warm and ample chest. The woman he desired to claim as a wife peacefully slumbered before him, providing solace to his troubled intellect.

Aris knew he had survived the previous night's ordeal through luck alone. His gaze wandered towards his spider collection, and he focused on his favorite specimen: the Greenstone Scavenger. He had crafted the entire criminal persona of the Scavenger entirely as a means of gleaning information from the underworld.

As Aris' need for information grew, so too did the range of activities he had been drawn into. He knew that he would be asked to look at the sending-box sometime soon and hoped whatever secrets it carried were worth it. While his conscience could handle the occasional half-truth, the possibility of telling outright lies to the wonderful soul beside him chilled him more. Eager to avoid the disparaging accusations he leaved at himself due to the guises he wore, he returned to the peaceful oblivion of slumber for a while longer.