Laermont sat across the table from Inillis and watched his fellow demvir. The pair were sitting in the one café that catered exclusively to those of the machinae type. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t welcome elsewhere as it was that this place made it more comfortable for them to interact. There was still some suspicion about the ancient and enigmatic beings in the general populace, so this just made things more straightforward.
Since their unsettling experience with the powers of the Old Ones, the pair hadn’t spent time together, but Laermont thought it was about time that they formulated some kind of plan to deal with what they’d found. He’d gotten in touch with Inillis and they’d arranged a meeting.
Now the quaestor spoke, his optical units meeting Inillis’ own. “I know that what happened at the ruins was a painful experience, but I think we have to consider how we can go about mitigating the danger. What are your views on how we might begin to tackle this problem after having seen it first hand?”
When the informant got Laermont’s message, he dropped everything to schedule the meeting. Dropping everything meant putting off a couple minor enchantment orders, as well as continuing to delay packing up various items. His success in the creation of his phylactery was a welcome distraction from the encounter, but there was no point in avoiding it any further. The memories would only get murkier, the thoughts only darker.
Once there, Inillis fiddled with the collar of his shirt. It was a bit older than his others, and showed some fading of its beige dye. The signature hat was absent. His posture was different than normal; his lanky frame sunk down into his seat and leaned against the wall. When he spoke, he sounded tired.
“I don’t think we’ll make any progress until we neutralize the mental effects. I’m willing to posit that repeated exposures make you more vulnerable. I’m not entirely certain, but I think I remember having slightly less control than you. I would also appreciate it if you could verify some events. If we are going to beat this, we need to serve as reality checks to each other.”
Inillis straightened up, giving him a few precious seconds before asking, “Did I kill anyone? I told a lot of people about that place. The girl, Ailee, was she there because of me?”
Laermont shook his head. “No. You didn’t kill anyone. You could not have realized what a potent effect it would have on you. I cannot impute any blame to you for that. As for the girl, I don’t believe you can take the blame for that either. She is likely to have been drawn to the place just as strongly as you were.”
He leaned back in his chair and regarded Inillis calmly. The process of exploring options and ideas was what he relished. The quaestor took pleasure in using his logical and deductive reasoning skills to solve problems. “I believe that we ought to speak to a colleague of mine. He is a rather talented engineer and scientist. It is likely that he can provide us with a good idea of how to neutralize the effects. What do you think? Do you have any lines of inquiry that might be worth pursuing?”
The investigators words set his acquaintance at ease, for the moment, and Inillis’s posture relaxed. It was also a relief to hear about the scientist. The whole situation felt out of his league, which was not a feeling he was familiar with. As much as he wanted to rise up to the challenge, even just remembering the penetrating noise, just imagining the asynchronous heart, it beat him down. It was, and always would be, beyond him.
“I don’t know how much this is worth,” despite his relief, his voice still carried the same defeated tone, “but I’ve been trying to comb through how mind control was overcome in the past. I’ve borrowed books on the demon Acorax, Chorazael the thousand-tongued, and a vistra known as Orlum. The stories seem pretty unique to each other, as well as the methods used. Hopefully, the diverse sample yields one method close enough to our purposes.”
Focusing on a solution, however hopeless it seemed, at least brought Inillis slightly out of his gloom. There was some energy to his voice as he picked up speed.
“I also had a friend offer a couple unconventional solutions. Lucien Secundus, I trust him enough not to divulge sensitive information. He suggested that the use of demons or drones might allow long-range interaction without the mind-effect. I’d prefer to use undead, which should still apply in the same manner. Next, he suggested that all we have to do is intoxicate some organic with something stronger beforehand. I assume he was implying that he would volunteer, as long as we provide the alcohol. I don’t endorse this idea, but we might not be in a position to be picky.”
The informant gave Laermont a moment to sort through.
“It seems likely, given the power of this thing, that we’ll need a combination of techniques, perhaps every technique we can get.”
Laermont would have wrinkled his nose in distaste, if he actually had a nose to wrinkle, but he settled for tilting his head to the side in a slightly quizzical fashion. “Well that is certainly rather extreme. I would say that either approach is dangerous. This Lucien is clearly not thinking as well as he might about the consequences, The undead are more palatable to me, but they have their own risks when it comes to control.”
He sighed. “My friend Professor Craxtus is in possession of documents that supposedly explain how the machines transmit mental energy. It is why I suggested him. If we have to use Lucien’s method or the undead, very well, but we can start there.”
He continued, “I will also have you bring the books that you borrowed. I’m quite sure Craxtus will be pleased to have your research and input. It is best to formulate an appropriate response before we try to strike.”
The solidly build demvir regarded his companion with unblinking ocular units. “Shall I give you some time to prepare before we visit the Professor?”
“Alright, I just have to grab those books. I can be there within the hour.”
Inillis was late. It was an hour and a half when the demvir struggled out of the cab, balancing three books under a flimsy canvas sheet meant to protect them from the downpour. They were large enough that setting them down made a satisfying thud, loud enough to make a librarian blush. At least it started raining before he made it out of the Sapientia Coetus, it would have been a pain to have to turn around.
It was coming down hard enough to leave streaks of water down the glass of his row of eyes. He staggered up the wooden steps to the door of the inn. Frustrated at his lack of extra hands, Inillis tried to knock with his elbow. It was barely louder than the rain drumming against the windows from the numerous rooms along the second story. He resorted to give the door a single kick.
Thankfully, someone opened it. There was a rush of warm, dry air. The demvir thanked the patron and stepped inside. The first floor mostly consisted of a gathering hall, with a bar and several tables that were recently moved to circle a hearty fireplace. The tables were stuffed with people, some of them as soaked as Inillis. He scanned the crowd, looking for Laermont, although he figured it was likely the detective was upstairs, in whatever room the professor was staying in. Setting his books down on the bar, he asked the innkeeper for Craxtus’s room number.
“They're expecting me. You can ask them if you’re worried about it.”
The innkeeper stared at him. “Craxtus? We don’t have any Craxtus here.”
There was a momentary pause and Laermont stepped up next to Inillis. “It’s alright, Timothy. We’re expecting him. Come along, Inillis.”
The quaestor guided his fellow machina up the stairs and down the hallway to Craxtus’ room. He gave a complex rap of knocks on the door and it opened to reveal the wiry, tall form of the Professor. His keen green eyes flicked over Inillis and rested on him for a moment as he ushered them in and shut the door.
He stuck his hands in the pockets of his vest, peering out of his wild nest of white hair and through his half-moon glasses at Inillis. “So this is him eh? Well sit down, sit down. We have a great deal to discuss!”
Craxtus’ sharp eyes cut across Inillis again. “So Laermont here tells me you’ve been reading up on breaking mind control. Tell me, what have you learned? A summary will do. I’ll share my own theories after that, but new knowledge is good.”
He held up a finger. “One more thing - how’s Secundus these days? I haven’t seen Lucien in ages. Is he still keen on self-experimentation?”
The professor’s last question caught Inillis off-guard.
“You knew Lucien? I always wonder what kind of trouble he used to get in. He stays elusive about his past, and what little I catch leads me to presume he’s put many things behind. I don’t know what kind of self-experimentation you mean, but he currently sticks to his machines and a little bit of harmless thrill. He recently found a new passage in the ruins under the Arcanum.”
Craxtus may have looked like he was crumbling, but the sparkle in his eyes and the keen way he looked at Inillis indicated that there was nothing decrepit about the brain between his ears. “He and I taught together yonks ago in Repertum. Even then, I didn’t know much about his past, so he probably had a bloody good reason not to talk about it. As for self-experimentation, he always said he’d rather try things on himself than let any other Vis-damn fool kill themselves. At any rate, enough about him!”
The informant finally sat down, relieved to put the oversized books on the floor in front of him. He wasn’t sure what to do with the dripping canvas, and eventually just folded it up and shoved it aside.
“The first book speaks about the demon Acorax. The first few chapters are about the history of the town it allegedly appeared in, with plenty of commentary about people the author didn’t like. There’s actually a skillful build of mystery as more and more people start changing their behavior, accompanied by a few chilling first-hand accounts. When Acorax is discovered, it’s described as a shapeshifter, able to seamlessly glide between a number of forms from a beautiful Laicar woman to an unassuming raven. It was said to enthrall people over the course of a conversation, and its victims often showed delusions of power or outbursts of anger afterwards. The spell was ultimately broken by a pair of enchanted goggles said to dispel all lies and illusions.
I’m not sure how much of this is relevant. Laermont mentioned you know how the machine works? Does any of this have potential or should I skip to the next book?”
The professor looked pensive as Inillis spoke about his research on Acorax. He tapped his fingers against the wooden desk before turning his sharp gaze back to the demvir. “Oh I think it’s got a lot of potential. Acorax sounds like the usually creepy Outsider construct.
It’s possible that there was a device nearby that helped it generate the power necessary to project the illusions on a large scale. I do wonder what the glasses are and where they came from though.”
He paused again and continued after a moment’s thought. “The machines work by taking thought energy and screwing around with it. Basically they can distort it, amplify it and project it. Those Outsider contraptions can magnify and send those energies, but they can also mess with your noggin until you don’t know where your own arse is at.”
His gaze bored into Inillis now.
“Laermont’s told me about the way the machine scrambled your noodle. I don’t want you to relive painful things, but it’d be quite helpful if you’d tell me about what you felt when your mind was manipulated. Are you willing to talk about it?”
Inillis was impressed.The book made no mention of this; as far as the author was concerned Acorax was a real personality, with charisma and unpredictability. If it was a construct, it would have had to be very intricate, but it did explain a few other parts of the story. There was the one part where the demon stopped in the middle of a sentence, and a couple instances of it not leaving the city when it should have.
“If Acorax was an outsider construct, as you describe, that does sound similar to our current machine. Within the book itself, the goggles are described as a powerful artifact left by the Vis. There’s a couple chapters where the author prays and is led to some ancient hero’s gravesite as per the usual overdrawn narrative.
My best guess is that it’s an enchantment on the goggles that heightens a certain kind of perception. The author described it as seeing through all lies, but one of the people who wore it mentioned being aware of the reality around them. They could hear intentions behind voices and see outlines in the shadows.”
The informant took the book off his stack and leafed through a couple sections as he spoke. Acorax turned out to be more useful than he thought.
“Now, it’s good that you bring up how being manipulated felt. There are some similarities, the anger, the pride. There were thoughts that that twisted and echoed back, but all of this was only after I started fighting it. What snapped me out of it, though, was a thought that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, couldn’t have been an existing thought, it was completely foreign.”
Inillis gestured toward his companion.
“I can’t speak for Laermont, but as long as I went along, it felt peaceful. It felt right. It was hardly painful at all, in the moment. There was a comfortable energy to it, like I was coming home after a long journey. The painful part is knowing how easily I was manipulated, and having to second guess everything. That’s another difference. Acorax never clouded or replaced actual memories.”
Craxtus looked annoyed. “The Vis frustrate the hell out of me! They leave us all this stuff, but we have no idea how to use it really or what to use it for! They coulda at least left some sort of manuals behind.”
He sighed, drummed his fingers on the desk and looked from Laermont to Inillis. “Why did one of you feel a slight effect from whatever it was and the other one go completely loopy? You’re both demvir, so there has to be some difference that’s not obvious.”
Laermont chimed in. “All I can say is that while the effects certainly did exist for me, I was able to dispel them by reasoning. It was as though the reasoning part of Inillis’ brain was shut off by the device.”
The professor nodded thoughtfully. “I wonder...well for now it doesn’t matter...I think that by the sounds of things, you two need to find the goggles. Does the book tell you anything about the location of the goggles, Inillis?”
“Well, the book is frustratingly sparse about this, probably intentionally so. Give me a moment to find the passage.”
Inillis continued rifling through the pages until he found a particular bookmark, a scrap of an old enchantment invoice he forgot to send.
“It took days, but I fortunately had an answer to my prayer, revealed to me by a gut feeling and a confidence in my heart. I was drawn to a small swamp under the 3rd star of Spera. It was there I came across the tomb, whose name was lost by the weathering of acrid waters and scouring from fibrous muck.
I hadn’t determined yet what star he’s referring to, that’s probably our biggest lead. The author eventually gets around to describing the tomb;
Like marble, but with a harder, yellow-tinted rock laced throughout. The erosion of the softer marble occasionally left finger-projections sticking out, as if the structure was a curious form of coral. The entry to the tomb was taller than I could reach, and extended into the peat two stories before resting on the bedrock.
So if we can decrypt the star, that gives us a general direction and a unique stone layer to work with, right? This seems doable.”
Craxtus grinned and rocketed to his feet, much more quickly than anyone would expect given his scrawny, elderly legs, he charged across the room to where he was keeping his books. The inn had been kind enough to accommodate him with a bookshelf. It had taken a day to move the books into the tightly packed shelf, but he returned with three thick tomes on astronomy, thumping them down on the table.
“Here. In one of these books, I’m sure we’ll find the answer!”
Handing one book to Laermont, one to Inillis and taking one for himself, Craxtus began rapidly leafing through his tome, mumbling to himself. He looked up sharply as if some independent thought procedure had also been going on. “There’s geology that sounds like what you’re talking about in Paludis! I’ve read about that before. This business of acrid waters and fibrous muck sounds a hell of a lot like the bogs they’ve got in those jungles.”
Laermont held up a hand as a thought occurred to him. “Is the third star of Spera an actual star? My astronomy isn’t very good, so forgive my ignorance. I just wondered if perhaps it could be something else, something not literally a star.”
“Wait, if it’s in Paludis then… actually, I know this.” Inillis offered, “It’s an archaic enchanting term, used to denote sources for materials. The stars of Spera are said to be hidden within mountains, revealing themselves only at the right moment, erupting with all of the heat and power of Caesar. We’re looking at a swamp at the base of the one of the volcanoes of the Southern Cluster. Admittedly, I don’t know which one is ‘the third,’ but to my knowledge Laicar activity in the region was tied to Hursag-Sesro until the recent demvir outpost connected it to Eruditio.”
Inillis left out that he knew that because he was thrilled by demvir expansion. The Hursag-Sesro outpost was a decisive counter to what little influence the Laicar had on Paludis. He doubted Craxtus would be as excited.
The demvir’s tone deflated, and he faced Laermont directly.
“I don’t have the funding for such an excursion. While I’m confident my information so far has proven worth some compensation, as agreed, I don’t expect it to cover the entire trip. I would be forced to ask for advance pay.”
Laermont would have smiled if he could have. “I don’t believe that funding will be an issue. I’ve got the full backing of the Terminus Quaestorii and all the funds that come with that backing. We can justify this as part of my wider investigation into TorBru and their involvement with the Outside Ones.”
He paused and looked over at Craxtus. The professor was grinning. “This will be a tremendous opportunity to learn as much as I can about the Stars of Spera. If you guys go, I’m coming with you! There’s no way you’ll leave me behind.”
The quaestor looked over at Inillis again. “Would we be alright with the Professor tagging along? I certainly have no objections, but you are part of this mission too, Inllis so you need to give your backing. Regardless, we need to start preparations for this journey sooner rather than later.”
Inillis hesitated, but only for a second. He wasn’t sure how dangerous the swamp was, and how much of a hinderance the professor might be. Despite that, this was a chance to see if the old laicar had any surprises in store, as old laicars often do. What better way to push Craxtus to his potential than to bring him along? If it became neccessary, they could always split up and leave him somewhere.
“I’d be glad to have him along. The addition of Craxtus makes us somewhat of a full-fledged team. Welcome aboard.”
The informant picked up his books, and draped the tarp back over them.
“I don’t have any current enchantment orders,” he lied, “when’s the soonest both of you could leave?”
Laermont, as always, had a minimal amount of preparation to do. Craxtus on the other hand was another story. The professor was always trying to figure out which devices he needed and which could stay behind. He scratched his head for a minute before he looked to Inillis and then to Laermont. “Give me two days! I won’t need more than that.”
The quaestor nodded. “We will convene at The Spinning Cog in two days before we depart for the airship station. I will book us a passage. Is this acceptable to everyone?”
Inillis gave a short nod. Two days it would be.
Edit: the number in the corner is not a wordcounter, fixed wordcount