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[P] Discovered; Ioann
Topic Started: Sun Sep 10, 2017 7:28 pm (539 Views)
♥Cordelia Brooks
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The Balefire Historical Society doubled also as a library and an archive. Centuries of records occupied the vast shelves of the gothic building. Over the years, the copper spirals of its high towers, along with the copper railings along its front steps, had oxidized to a green patina. The vast front steps were laden with indentations where most people walked. The building itself was austere, old, and through its windows, Cordelia could see that inside it was lit by hundreds upon hundreds of carefully placed lanterns.

Gods forbid it catch fire, she thought.

When she returned to Balefire two years ago, unaware of her history and the weight of blood on her name, the constables chased Cordelia out of town with their dogs in hot pursuit of her scent. Having narrowly evaded an arrest which would have resulted in her execution, she vowed never to return—but circumstances had changed. Magic surged within her now, ripe as a summer peach and velvet as midnight ink. With magic she was invincible—and if, like other places in Balefire, the Historical Society employed anti-magic paraphernalia, the dagger hidden in her belt could protect her.

The anti-magic risk was one she was willing to take. Before entering the city she had altered her appearance just enough so that she did not fully resemble the wanted posters. Her face was rounder, softer, the sharp edges of her cheekbones softened by cherubic cheeks; her hair shorter, cut close to her scalp; her eyes silver instead of blue; her nose smooth instead of crooked. With the hood of her cloak down, Cordelia darted up the stairs and in through the front door.

A woman sat at the front desk.

“Hello,” Cordelia greeted. Her voice was lighter in this magically transformed body, too. “Do I need permission to look through the archives?”

“Just sign your name,” said the woman. “The paper is protected by magic. Can’t be ripped or stained by the oil in your fingers.”

“Magnificent,” said Cordelia. She scribbled down a fake name, Yelena Dolokova, and maneuvered around the desk into the stacks. As she moved farther from the entryway, her visage shifted bit by bit into her natural features. The short cropped hair grew long and black as she passed by the shelves of historical records from the town’s founding. Her angular cheekbones and hard jaw returned as she passed by records of Balefire’s history with the ethereal plane. The ice blue eyes, the crooked nose, returned just as she found her way to more recent history.

On each shelf sat strings of lanterns. It was assumed, in Balefire, that residents either had impeccable night vision, or were accustomed now to viewing everything by the orange hue of a candle.

Most of these papers were organized by year. Cordelia began searching for around the time before she disappeared—at least fifteen years ago. There were so many drawers, cabinets, shelves; she hardly knew where to begin than to choose at random. Opening a drawer, Cordelia began to rifle through the files of newspaper clippings, looking for anything that might indicate an article about her own self.
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It was really more of a clerical quirk that official documents in Balefire used parchment in perpetuity. Some hundreds or thousands of years ago, before paper and printing presses, treatises, writs, and other official documents that intended to last forever were scrawled in ink onto the treated skins. If change was necessary, the hide could be scraped down a snub further, the edits made, and all would go about their day. The tradition had stuck, and magistrates, constables, and gangsters demanded vellum for official documentation even now. And even though parchment was more painstaking to create and far less cost effective. Supposedly it made alterations more difficult.

Ioann sighed, dusted the document with a bit more pumice powder, then set to work scrubbing again. It did make alterations more difficult. A sheaf of papers containing his primary copy was stacked carefully before him, black and viridian and cinnabar ink drying in the too-still air of the Balefire Historical Society. Dusty motes swirled around his practiced movements as he removed centuries-old writing from the original parchment, his work lit only by the dull orange of a lantern at his feet.

The particular piece of history he was erasing concerned the original deed to the Gloomfyre Manse. Now in the hands of a group of political reformists, the Manse was ideally situated three blocks south of King's Cross, the broad avenue that defined the north limits of Balefire's Morozhen District. Viskovien had eyed the estate and found it a suitable location for a new gambling and whoring den. 'The Pleasure House,' he'd started calling it, no doubt already imaging himself and a generous cut of the coin and flesh earnings. That Red disagreed fundamentally with the upstarts' political ideology only made his hunger for acquiring the property all the more insatiable.

'Change the old deed and give a minority share to one of my ancestors. Nikolai Viskov, ya? Far enough back that it's not suspicious, but near enough that the line of descent is still clear,' he'd said with a malicious grin, convinced it would give him enough leverage in the Courts that the current owners would either abandon the site or run out of money before the case was over.

Perhaps it would, perhaps not. Ioann needed to concern himself only with copying the document, adding a few words here and there, and returning it to the Archives. His patron and counselors on retainer had already drawn up the suit and awaited only Ioann's completion of the task to file it. So here he was, as he had been the last countless hours, rewriting history. He already copied the deed in total, then started erasing the original, but would have to recopy the whole document from his primary copy afterwards. It was laborious, but smaller edits could be seen - and his work discovered - unless he was thorough.

The regular pattering of soft footsteps a few aisles down made him pause. With great care, he shuffled the half-desecrated parchment in the recessed shadow beneath his table and rolled his personal copy of the original into a long wooden tube. He dragged a few strategically placed books, opened to random pages, to the front of the table and pretended to study them intently.

It was not a moment too soon. An ancient clerk shuffled out of the aisle behind him. Wan orange light heralded a journey beset by the woman's sporadic, guttural coughs.

"Finding everything you need?" she croaked.

"Yes, thank you."

"You might have more luck investigating the mating habits of the crystal drake if you looked in a zoological reference, instead of a botanical one," she gestured at the books in front of him, drawing her own conclusions about his erratic selection.

"Um, yes, thank you," he mumbled. "...though my research does require a certain degree of ecological breadth," he added lamely.

The clerk harrumphed, then turned and limped away into the darkness. After a few heartbeats, Ioann let out his breath, then looked at the books in front of him again. A graphic inkplate of draconic mating habits sat before him, while the next closest described spore patterns on the Debon plains. A lopsided smile settled beneath his mustache.

He would have to be more careful around this old crone, wouldn't he?
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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The first drawer she selected offered nothing. Undeterred, Cordelia sought though a second one. Again finding nothing, she moved on to the third, where she found what began as a promising lead and ended in disappointment. The vampire discussed in the article was not herself, but another. Plenty of her species lurked in Balefire, seeking refuge from the sunlight of Imythess’s untainted provinces. She was not unique here.

Despite her numerous crimes, she could find no mention of herself in any newspaper article. Even her family—the forgotten husband, the abandoned son and daughter—eluded reference in written text. As she closed the seventh drawer, she pursed her lips and squeezed the metal handle with burgeoning panic. Only now did it occur to her that in a previous era, Balefire kept little record of crime. Once, long ago, this had been a city infested with criminals—run by criminals—and murders, disappearances, robberies, arsons, and all other manner of legal offenses were unlikely to be reported.

“Shit,” she hissed under her breath.

Removing her hands from the metal handles, Cordelia pinched the bridge of her nose and drew a deep breath. As she closed her eyes, she tried to formulate another strategy. Perhaps the archives of Taras, or Cascadia? Certainly there she would have more luck tracking down notorious criminal Cordelia Brooks. Then it struck her to look in more recent history. As she walked down the aisles, she overheard a short exchange between a man and the clerk.

Cordelia smirked. Ecological breadth my ass, she thought.

In the drawers of more recent history, she did find a single article about herself, complete with her portrait. Snatching it from the file, she read it quickly, but it offered nothing she didn’t already know.

Known criminal Cordelia Brooks appeared in Balefire after supposedly dying years ago. Known for multiple murders, she is highly dangerous, and must be approached with caution. Please note that she is zakona, and wanted dead or alive.

Thrusting it back into the drawer, Cordelia barely restrained herself from slamming it shut. Drawing on the stores of her patience, she closed it slowly, lest the clerk return to shush her and recognize her face. She stood for a moment after the latch clicked, considering her options.

The man concerning himself with “ecological breadth” sat at a table not far from where she stood. He was within her sight. Turning her head to look at him, she narrowed her eyes, and decided to take her chances that he was equally unscrupulous. Despite the Taming, people like her remained in Balefire still.

Cordelia walked toward him. She leaned against the table at an angle where she could look down at him. She looked down at the books scattered around the table, but whatever he was doing was of little interest to her.

“Next time, tell her you’re studying the possibilities of interbreeding the crystal drake with the harvest drake, which is native to the Debon Plains, and your story will come together better,” she said.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find the population census, would you?” she asked. “Hate to bother the clerk.”

In other words: Can’t risk some old lady recognizing my face.
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"I... um... okay?" Ioann responded, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

I really will have to take more care with the books I select next time. Who would have thought two texts on Imythessian naturalism would attract such attention?

"Population census?" he asked while his mind whirled. There really was very little time to be dabbling with strangers. Red Viskovien wasn't known for his patience. On the other hand, this sharp-featured stranger had overheard the clerk. No telling what else she'd observed before sauntering up.

Best to play nice.

"You know, I've spent a fair amount of time in here, over the years. I can show you. Just... let me collect my things?"

The defaced parchment was crumbled into a heap at his feet. Cursing himself silently for his earlier carelessness, Ioann mimed looking around the table with his face locked in concentration as if he'd lost something of great importance. After a great pause for effect, he ducked his head under the table to grab the old deed.

"Aha!" he exclaimed with faux surprise. As he withdrew it, he rolled it up tightly.

"Thought I'd lost this. Heh..."

It was a shallow act, one that Ioann hoped his acquaintance would approach with disinterest. As he gathered up the wooden tube holding the primary copy and the rolled parchment, sharp terror seized him.

The deed!

It was rolled inside out... Nearly erased scrawling text and some long-forgotten judge's signature were plainly visible even in his lantern's dull orange glow. Slowly, ever so slowly, Ioann rotated the parchment about so the evidence faced him and prayed the woman hadn't noticed.

"Um... shall we?"
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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Cordelia smiled as if indulging a child's fantasy. Leaning comfortably against the table, she watched with practiced patience as he collected his things. There was perhaps some need to make haste, for the risk of discovery increased with each passing moment. Despite this, no urgency moved her. Balefire was no friend to her—but she was no friend of Balefire, either. It seemed impossible that anyone should desire the census at this hour; if she were careful, she could escape tonight without interacting with anyone more than this man.

As for him:

Sometimes a farm-cat will, while attending to its own needs, pick up its head toward some curious sound from the other side of the field. Instead of running off toward the incident, prompted by nothing but an insatiable desire to know everything, much like a wagging dog, the cat will determine the degree of danger, then promptly return to licking its paw as if nothing else in the word deserved its attention.

This was Cordelia’s precise reaction to his arrangement of books and the deed rolled with its ink facing her. Though she did not know the exact nature of his dealings here—and did not plan to learn—she had some inkling of what could be done with a deed whose information had been altered.

“Whatever it is you’re up to,” she said, “I don’t care.”

She leaned down closer to him.

“This is Balefire. It still belongs to us. I shan’t tell on your forgery so long as you don’t tell on me.” It was clear in her tone that this was as much an extension of reassurance as it was a threat. If he recognized her at all, he could ruin her with a mere yelp. He didn’t seem to know her face, but applying the features of a wanted poster’s portrait to a person could take some time. At the very least she could bring him down with her, if he chose such an inadvisable path.

“Lead the way.”
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As he led her through the dusty, labyrinthine stacks of the Archives, Ioann wondered at the stranger’s frankness. Her comment played at his growing paranoia. Surely his skulking about for days had attracted the attention of more than one curt clerk with a passing expertise of drakine mating habits. And surely someone had decided to brush up on old historical deeds for no reason at all, then happened to notice the particular, unexplained absence of one Gloomfyre Manse, and naturally, decided to contact the Constabulary to investigate at once...

“Should be right this way,” he murmured, interrupting his own thoughts.

He descended down a spiraling metal staircase to reach the basement of the Archives. Ahead of him, a vast open space was spread. Hundreds of shelves lined the periphery and stretched into the gloom, like wood-and-paper sentinels, their innards lined with books of every shape, size, and dimension. The floor here was tiled with exquisite grace in deep browns and burnt yellows and warm oranges, a refinement of late Revival-era Balefiren fashion. Sconces and lanterns gave the entire basement a subdued, autumnal glow.

Only a few other patrons were about, none sparing them a second glance. Ioann walked with steady, sure footsteps across the vast floor and into the forest of shelves. While he knew the Historical Society had a system to maintain the mountain of documents they held, he could not fathom it. Texts on vastly disparate subjects, many in languages long dead, could be found nestled against one another as if their authors had shared both name and subject matter. Works from centuries old could be found by those written only a year prior. Even the color of the spine or shape of the tome seemed no influence on categorization.

He did know, however, that census data was on the ground floor. At least it had been the last time he’d used it - in that case to alter a few figures so Viskovien and his men were conspicuously unaccounted for - so it seemed as good of place as any to start. And he needed only to point the stranger in the right direction, then slip off to a quiet corner to finish his deed. As he walked through the stacks, his eyes scanned spines and titles and any stray words he could comprehend in passing.

“Excuse me, sir, madame? Do you need assistance?”

Blast! Another clerk!

This one appeared from nowhere, a shabbily dressed man in the trim, gray jacket of the Archives, though one that had seen better days. From above thin-rimmed spectacles, the fellow’s rheumy eyes seemed only moments away from drifting into a very long slumber.

Unfortunately, this particular clerk was one that Ioann had met some three years ago, when he had last been looking for the census records. Most unfortunately, this slow-moving, disheveled frump had caught him changing said data, forcing Ioann to flee the scene with haste and in some disarray. In fact, that very episode had prompted him to shave away what was coming along to be a very well-cultivated mustachio, in favor of the bedraggled, uneven stubble he now sported. He hoped the change had been enough to prevent recognition.

“Ah, no sir. Thank you. I believe I know where we are going.”

The clerk held up the lantern to his face, measuring him up and down in the orange glow for a long, uncomfortable moment.

“Haven’t I seen you around before, sir?”

“No, I don’t believe I’ve ever been on the ground floor before.”

“Never?” the man’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Then however could you know where you are going?”

Ioann opened his mouth to speak but found he could think of nothing intelligible to say. Instead, he gulped, cracked a wry smile, and shrugged.

“Hmm... you do look quite overly familiar to me, sir,” the clerk began again. Then his face cracked a revelatory smile. “Could it be you are looking for census data?”
Edited by Ioann, Sun Sep 17, 2017 12:33 pm.
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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It had been her belief that confidence could keep the clerks away. What need was there to help someone who had a clear idea of their destination? Following the man closely, Cordelia mimicked his certainty, and did not look curiously at the abundance of shelves that soared with volumes of ancient tomes and recently published research. To look with too much interest—too gaze with awe—would attract attention, and so she kept her expression bored, a little impatient, as if she had been here hundreds of times and in visiting so often wore away the wonder.

Her belief had been wrong.

He appeared from no where. Brows bending with a measure of frustration, Cordelia stood quietly to Ioann’s side. With each wasted moment her impatience grew, then transformed into a deep feeling of failure. The instinct to flee surged uncomfortably within her, but she quelled it. It would be impractical. She could not turn away from the man she accompanied without drawing attention to herself. Already she could hear the clamor of confusion that might ensue: Why is she leaving? Who is she? Where is she going? Stop her!

Even if she disappeared easily, her absence could not go unnoticed, and getting out of the building—and Balefire itself—would prove more difficult than it needed to be. It was too late now to readjust her appearance. Permitting the spell to wear off had been foolish and premature. Enlisting the help of a suspicious man, about whom she knew nothing, was perhaps the most terrible decision she had made to date.

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

In one swift, fluid movement, Cordelia unsheathed the dagger hidden in the belt at her waist, took the clerk by the collar, and pressed the blade to his throat. She pulled him into one of the stacks, taking refuge in the dark and lonesome corridor of books, and pushed him against the shelf.

“The census data is precisely what we’re looking for,” she said. When she spoke, she pulled her lips back to reveal her fangs, sharpened to a knife’s edge and curved for better gripping. “And you’re going to escort us, quietly, aren’t you?”

Caught off guard by the sudden attack, the clerk’s rheumy eyes opened wide. His spectacles fell forward on his nose, and when he lifted a hand to try and fix their position, Cordelia moved the dagger just a fraction closer to incision. He took the hint not to move.

“You’re… her,” he said.

“I can shatter your bones with a touch of my hand,” she said, “and I’ll do it if you so much as say my name loud enough for anyone to hear. Do you understand me?”

The clerk looked between her and Ioann.

Do you understand me?”

“Y-yes,” he said.

“And not a word about him, either,” she said. “He’s with me.”

Cordelia shifted her gaze to look at Ioann out of the corner of her eye. He hadn’t known who she was, but now he’d seen what she could do. She didn’t know if she’d made the right choice, but she knew, at least, that she wasn’t afraid now. The instinct to flee had dissipated as soon as she reminded her body that it was no longer powerless, as it had been for far too long.

“I saved you,” she hissed to Ioann. “So for that, you will come and keep watch.”

She eyed the clerk. “You will lead us.” She tugged him away from the shelf. Releasing him, she pressed the tip of her weapon to his back, urging him in the correct direction.

“All three of us are to head toward census data. Without delay.”

The clerk began walking, with Cordelia behind him. Her cloak billowed with each step, swallowing her; she walked like a menacing shadow.
Edited by Cordelia Brooks, Tue Sep 19, 2017 8:27 pm.
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The old clerk led them through a maze of shelves and cabinets and stacks, winding left then right, circling back, and turning round at dead ends, muttering all the while about indignities suffered and joints aching thusly, but otherwise seeming to wake from his torpor. As he followed, Ioann was reminded of the unnerving feeling that the ground floor of the Historical Society was far larger than it had appeared upon descending the spiral staircase. It certainly hadn’t taken this long to locate the files three years ago.

With a sidelong glance at his self-proclaimed savior, Ioann murmured to the clerk, “Sir, is this really the way to the census data? It seems somewhat... inconvenient to locate.”

Without breaking his increasingly vigorous pace, the clerk responded gruffy, “Listen, I don’t tell you how to alter documents, jarkman, do I?”

He admonished Ioann’s look of astonishment with a disappointed sigh.

“Of course I remember you, you little forger. At least you had the courtesy to run away instead of threaten me, no disrespect to the madam. But to your question, the Archives down here like to rearrange themselves and play little games with patrons. With the clerks sometimes too, especially the new ones. But I know how to track down what needs finding, even if we need to take the long way to get there. And speaking of, here we are...”

With a broad handsweep, the old man stopped and gestured toward a vast bookshelf. Packed rows nearly vomited their overstuffed assortment of tomes and scrolls and loose sheaves of paper. Stuffed in the middle was a deep brown door with a bright brass handle polished from use. In stenciled gold letters emblazoned at eye level, Ioann read with silent, but growing, curiosity:

Richard B. Kleinman

“Looks like you came on just the right day for this. Now then, if you’ll be so kind as to disengage your blade from my back, I shall be on my way. Up-pup-pup,” he added, wagging his finger with false good humor, “don’t you worry about me and my discretion. If I reported every patron who threatened me with a blade, the Historical Society would be very nearly out of patrons, never mind the Taming.”

He rapped twice on the door, then opened it wide for both of them.

Ioann stepped inside a cramped office overflowing with disorganized stacks of paper and parchment. A dozen naked candles of various height burned dangerously atop them, casting the room in bright flickering light. Behind a stout desk, a gray, leathery figure with limp wings held one candle up to a vellum scroll. Its tiny flame was poised only a few hairsbreadths away and crept closer with each exhale.

The creature looked up from its work at Ioann’s approach, adjusted a pair of thin gold-rimmed glasses on its beak, then flicked its eyes back to the document with disinterest.

“I think that operating procedures have changed from when I was last in the Archives...” Ioann began.

“Of course they’ve changed, the Archives' old system was completely archaic,” the creature replied in deadpan. Then it added by way of monotonic explanation, “We’re in the process of upgrading our records.”


“Yeah, we’re in the imp-formation age now...”

“The - what?”

The creature, apparently resigned that Ioann’s intrusion would persist unless directly confronted, set both candle and scroll down on its desk.

“That was a joke,” it explained without inflection. “I’m actually an auditor from Karstoff’s office. Lucky you, you get to see our new government in action.”

Without further explanation, it picked up the scroll and candle and went back to reading.

“And lucky me, I get to show it to you,” it muttered with clear disappointment.
Edited by Ioann, Thu Sep 21, 2017 12:58 am.
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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Richard B. Kleinman. Cordelia didn’t know the name. Squinting, she lowered her blade from the clerk’s back and returned it to the sheath at her belt.

“Remember what I told you,” she said. Her voice was low, with the slight snarl of a threat accompanied by a modicum of disinterest. A clerk was such a small trifle that she hated the idea of wasting her time with him further, but he could present a larger problem despite his promise of discretion.

Entering the office, Cordelia shifted her body weight so as to avoid knocking over piles of paperwork. Disappointment and further irritation pulled her mouth downward, furrowing her chin with small dimples. Leaving Ioann to keep an eye out as she’d instructed him to do, Cordelia began leafing through a high stack of parchment, but it had everything to do with organizing species data and nothing to do with her family’s name. Humans, gargoyles, imps, vampires, werewolves—presented anonymously, numbers and percentages without names attached.

As she redirected her attention to the overwhelmed, put-upon imp, Cordelia chewed the inside of her lip in a moment of contemplation.

He works for Karstoff.
You’ve come too far to turn back now.
Since when has Karstoff ever frightened you?

“I’m looking for data pertaining to a family with the last name Brooks,” said Cordelia. She tried to speak with a measure of disinterest, as if this endeavor were purely of an academic nature. She thumbed through another nearby stack, but this, too, yielded unsatisfying results: fisheries, and how much or little was produced of certain species.

“I’m looking for the names of those family members, and where they might have lived,” she said. “It’s a fairly common surname, I understand. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what region of Balefire the Brooks I’m looking for may have haled from.”

Cordelia peeked at another pile. Gender division in each of Balefire’s wards.

Rolling her eyes, she added, “Surely the three of us searching might make this go faster.”
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The imp sighed and put the scroll on its desk, giving it a look that resembled a forlorn apology, or perhaps one of dejected futility, then turned to face its tormentors.

“Please stop poking around my work,” it began, with such resigned hopelessness that Ioann couldn’t help but feel both a little sorry for the creature, and more than a little depressed. “I only just finished with all of those documents. They were all in order...”

“In order?” asked Ioann. “I’ve been glancing at them. They’re in no order at all!”

“They were,” retorted the imp without enthusiasm, “but now they’re all... trifled with.”

Ioann could feel the creature’s dour mood smother his own sinking spirits.

Do I really need to fix this deed? What’s the point? Viskovien will just give me another impossible task next week...

The imp sighed morosely.

“It doesn’t matter anyway. Just... get on with it. Set me back another year... What do I care?”

But Ioann could tell the creature cared very much, even if its flat affect suggested otherwise.

Why do I go through all this work? Why bother at all?

“It’s not like this rehab and reentry program matched me with a suitable job anyhow,” the imp complained.

Ioann didn’t respond. It just seemed like too much effort, and not at all worth it in the end. He pushed aside a candle and sat down on a stack of the creature’s papers.

“You two look like you would’ve heard of it. The Inmate Rehabilitation and Reentry Program? Well, it’s nothing but a cruel joke. As cruel as everything Karstoff’s administration has done to a magically brilliant Underworld sage like me. I have an IQ of 348, and here I am, rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship... Oh bother...”

The creature’s gloomy, monotonic words drained Ioann’s will to sit. He slid off the stack and curled into a fetal position. As his consciousness started to flee into the void, he had the curious feeling that his very emotions were being drained away by some external force.

“Anyway,” the imp continued with unequaled melancholy, finally coming round to reply to its intruder’s queries, “I did read about some Brookses. A few hundred of them. You probably don’t even care when. Or how long I’ve been at this, but I read about them. I put a few of them in that pile, by the door, and a few more over by the filing cabinet, there.”

The imp cocked his head in a distinctly avian manner, then let out a long sigh.

“Your sleeping friend must have knocked over a candle. He’s lit your stack half-full of Brookses quite on fire, I’m afraid. If this whole room goes up, they’ll probably make me start all over again.”

It sighed, but made no move to put out the quickly spreading flames.

“Life is so unfair...”
Edited by Ioann, Fri Sep 22, 2017 2:01 am.
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What she wanted was a simple answer.

What she got was a miserable imp who wanted to ramble about the difficulties of life.

The imp’s palpably morose spirits permeated the room. Even Cordelia sensed the weight of a deep, calcified sorrow. For a moment she was almost moved to pity, but it was a brief moment, not quite long enough for her to approach the capacity for sympathy.

“Why not just leave Balefire?” she snapped. “If you’re so smart you ought to have figured out that you can go somewhere else.”

She’d heard only a little of the rehabilitation program, but its apparent failures did not surprise her. While the imp continued to speak, she began peeking at other piles, where she began to find other family names, but not her own. At last, the imp mentioned her name, and she glanced at him with hesitant interest; she felt, with a certain degree of certainty, that it could get derailed at the simplest juncture of conversation.

And then she smelled the smoke.

Whirling around, Cordelia spotted Ioann, slumped over beside a candle.

NO!” she shouted.

Whipping off her cloak, Cordelia leapt for the flaming pile. To do this, she had to dive over Ioann, but the office was so cramped she ended up kneeling on top of him, her knees probably digging into rather uncomfortable places on the man’s body. She slapped at him once, for good measure—“Idiot, YOU IDIOT,” she yelled—before throwing her cloak over the orange tongues of flame. The fabric of her cloak billowed as she forced it over the papers, trying to snuff out the fire before it could spread.

“NO, NO, NO!”

The fire had begun to spread beyond what her cloak could encompass. It traveled quickly, filling the room with light and smoke.

“I just want to know who my family is!” she yelled. Something akin to burgeoning despair lifted her voice into a high shriek.

“Get water! Both of you! Do something! I can’t by myself!” She slapped at Ioann again, wanting to make sure he was awake, wanting him to do something useful.

Of course, it would be difficult for him to get up when she was still very much on top of him.
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Ioann woke to a knee in his groin and his right cheek red and prickly with pain. Smoke stung his nostrils and eyes. Atop him, his cruel savior shrieked and hissed at the destruction of her prize.

“You-” he squirmed out from beneath his captor, addressing the imp, “-what did you do to me?”

His voice was still flat, eyes inexplicably dull, barely even an inflection in the accusation. His voice sputtered to a rasp as the pall of smoke thickened in the tiny chamber, strangling them all with its acrid breath and greedily feeding tongues of fire.

“I needed to feed,” it shrugged, “But honestly, your emotions tasted just terrible.”

Ioann coughed into the crook of his arm. Tears dung canals in the soot accumulating on his face, and his lungs convulsed, crying out for clean air.

“My emotions?!”

Anger bled into his voice, making it stronger despite the smoke.

“My emotions are not on the menu!”

He fell purposefully to his hands and knees and crawled toward the door. The brass handle was flame-hot, and Ioann swore as his palm sizzled on contact. With a grunt, he shoved the door open and let his momentum carry him out. He staggered to his feet, covering his face as smoke poured out after him in waves.

“This was your doing, imp,” he asserted, “PUT IT OUT NOW!!”

Blinded by the conflagration, Ioann could only wait for a response. After a heartbeat, perhaps two, heavy gusts of wind buffeted him, carrying heat and haze and a whirlwind of singed, burnt, and blackened scraps of paper. Ioann found refuge beside the door, away from the maelstrom. Finally, after far too long, the rhythmic winds ceased. Thousands of paper fragments littered the narrow row between the stacks like dusting of gray-black snow, inserting themselves between the tomes across and scrolls all about.

Ioann peered around into the chamber, unsure of exactly what he would find, and what would be left.
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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Admittedly, Cordelia knew little about imps. I needed to feed, it said. While she continued in vain to stifle the rising flames, those words stuck in the back of her mind. I needed to feed. And the emotions of her comrade had bored the vile creature. Had he fallen asleep because the imp had drained him of emotional energy?

Or had the imp permitted the fire because Cordelia’s anger would taste far better than her companion’s indifference?

A rage as hot as the office’s inferno swelled in her chest. Although uncertain now whether her emotions might be hunted, she could not help the deep fury cutting her open like a freshly forged knife. As much as she wanted to stay and try to salvage the papers she sought, it was pointless now—and as the door open, Cordelia bolted out through the threshold, landing in a heap on the ground beside Ioann’s ankles.

A burst of hot, smoky air shot from the office. Cordelia bowed her head against the floor and covered it with her hands to protect herself. The blast settled, and strips of singed paper floated downward toward the floor like black, dismal snowflakes. Lifting her head, Cordelia watched the fragments of her family float over the tomes, little flickers of ember still igniting the edges of each scrap.

Standing deliberately, she turned to look behind her, into the office. Gusts of wind scattered stacks of paper all about the small room. If there had ever been an order to their categorization, it was likely gone now. The imp hadn’t wanted to make more work for itself, yet now it did for the sake of—what? Feeding?

The imp wasn’t the only creature in the room that could feed. Her fangs felt heavy in her mouth.

Her family. Her history. Gone. Gone in her memory and gone in paperwork. Like none of them ever existed.

She looked at Ioann with murder in her eyes. Then, without word or gesture, the imp’s flesh would begin to fall away in pieces from its body, in no one particular place—little bits of flesh, the size of paper fragments, crumbling away to the ground. It was one of Cordelia’s favorite spells. When she walked back into the room, snarling, her fangs were prominent in her mouth.

“I should have been clear from the start about who you were dealing with,” she said. “Any ‘brilliant Underworld sage’ would know to behave better around Cordelia Brooks.”

The transformation of her hands into claws was instant. Black talons emerged from the tips of her fingers where her nails had been a moment ago. She advanced on the imp, one claws hand reaching out for its throat.

“You looked through them recently,” she hissed. “I want their names. I want where they lived. You stupid [removed]er—”

“Mr. Kleinman!” The stern, commanding voice of a woman resounded outside the door, just beyond the nearby stacks. The woman was not so close as to be able to see inside the office yet, but she would be soon. “Mr. Kleinman, it was my leniency that employed you here. What in Chaon have you done now?”

Edited by Cordelia Brooks, Wed Sep 27, 2017 10:36 pm.
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From his years in Balefire’s underworld, Ioann knew well the sound of trouble. He darted into the office, sparing only the briefest glance at the desquamating imp, before located the wooden tube that held the deed’s primary copies. Locating the original would be fruitless, as it was undoubtedly in ashes, but he knew the rough dimensions of the vellum and could recreate it by cutting down another ancient document. He heard a sharp POP! and then the distinct smell of sulfur was in his nose.

The imp was gone.

“Mr. Kleinma-- oh dear. You foolish little creature.”

And gone too, was Ioann’s chance for an unnoticed escape. The imp’s handler stepped in front of the entrance to the office, hands atop her hips, an expression of deep disappointment easily read in her face.

A face that was distinctly, improbably, indisputably Celestial.

She was statuesque, with smooth, alabaster skin that seemed to glow from within with beatific, golden light. A perfectly cut gray suit accentuated a form so divine that it could never have resulted from the baseness of mortal birth. She regarded Ioann and Cordelia quizzically, a single, well-manicured platinum blonde eyebrow arched with what seemed more consternation than true anger.

“We do try so hard to reintegrate them. But it seems one can never truly raise a demon to be a productive member of society. Now then,” she looked the two of them up and down. Ioann squirmed under her gaze like a schoolboy caught red-handed. “Who are you two?”
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♥Cordelia Brooks
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Within moments, all that remained of Mr. Kleinman was a pile of his fragmented flesh that resembled flecks of ashes. Cordelia hadn’t meant to kill him, but now that he was gone, in life and in body, a great relief washed over her. A great fury still throbbed inside her, but it had been quelled. He’d destroyed her chances of finding her family. In return, she’d destroyed him.

“‘Magically brilliant’ my ass,” Cordelia growled.

It all happened so quickly. There ought to have been more time. In the midst of vengeance, the woman’s voice had sounded so far away—everything had been so far away, except for the object of her violence and her own instincts. Now the woman stood, blocking the doorway. The first thing Cordelia thought was that she was beautiful—and then, second, that she was terrifying. Such was the trend with Celestials: they were immaculate, born of divine perfection. Creatures of their sort were so blinded by their own holy glow they could not discern they were abominations.

With her jaw set in a visage of defiance, Cordelia flexed her taloned fingers and looked at Ioann out of the corner of her eye. I know the way out. She tried to communicate this to him with a stern look, but whether or not he understood this she couldn’t know.

“Hard to get Celestials to do anything proper for society, I’d say,” said Cordelia, “but what can you do. We’re all mongrels in our own ways. Some of us at least have the decency to know we’re monsters.” A mocking grin spread across her face, revealing rows and rows of sharp teeth. “I haven’t got a clue who this gentleman is. Found him forging upstairs and thought I’d pull him along for a ride.” She offered an exaggerated shrug and threw her hands up, black talons curving toward the ceiling.

“Hate to run out on you after just meeting, but, well, you know how it goes. You’ll the entire government of Balefire that Cordelia Brooks sends her regards, won’t you?”

At once she reached out, caught Ioann by the forearm, and leapt into the shadow cast by Mr. Kleinman’s desk. Beneath the shadows they were surrounded by a shifting darkness that moved and glinted with hints of light. A moment later, they emerged, far away from the office on a different side of the Historical Society. They were still on the ground floor, but there was a decent amount of distance between the two of them and their Celestial would-be captor.

The stacks of the historical society had repositioned themselves. If they’d been in this part of the building earlier, upon first descending the stairs, it looked nothing like it had before. The clerk had spoken about how things suddenly disappeared and reappeared. This would probe problematic for escaping, but they could make it work in their favor.

“If you stay close I can pull that shadow trick again,” she whispered harshly to Ioann. “But we’ve got to get out of here. I’m zakona. They’ll kill you just for being found with me. It’s too late for you to be just a jarkman. Now you’re an accomplice. Run!”


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