The mountains surrounding Terminus cast long shadows on the city; the eastern-most reaches felt the brunt of it, catching only a scant few hours of sunlight each day, with most of it blocked out by the tall buildings. The Specula Sorcere, seat of the Arcanum, climbed high into the sky, the tallest point in Terminus, a shimmering blue beacon visible from anywhere in the grand metropolis and miles beyond its edges besides. Though not reaching as high as that iconic spire, the most affluent of the citizens of Terminus all sought to catch their own little bits of Caesar's light, either building tall towers of their own or climbing up the steep slopes and ridges of the northern mountains.
At the time of the Cataclysm, some of the most intact remnants of the ancient bastion in those expansive lowlands were mostly clustered in the northernmost reaches. The standing ruins would later become the foundation of the Grand Metropolis and so the district was dubbed Solum. Over time, the most affluent citizens of Terminus flocked there, each trying to climb higher than their neighbors, building elevated roadways and cable car lines leading back into the city proper. The richest among them could even afford small airships. Railways climbed up the mountain slopes, bringing supplies up to the estates and mansions. The Solum District was a display of the wealth and success that Terminus promised, the excess of its high-minded elite.
It was also the home to some of the city's poorest citizens, disenfranchised or delinquent, living literally in the shadow of their betters. While Terminus grew in size and population, with each new district popping up, the foundation of Solum became the refuge of self-perceived victims of displacement, and with each new bridge or raised roadway erected to serve the affluent, average citizens below were left in greater darkness. While those above basked in sunlight and sat in front of warm braziers, those below suffered the northern chill and huddled around what fires they could conjure. It was by all rights a slum district, the worm in the proverbial apple. Already filled with the embittered elderly, younger people continued to flock to the district, hopeful to find work with the many building projects always underway, but just as many were drawn into the frequent gang-on-gang violence that plagued the lower reaches. While the Conexus patrolled the upper district regularly, enforcing a clean separation between rich and poor, they rarely walked the streets of Lower Solum. The sight of the blue uniform drew scornful jeers, sometimes even drawn weapons. The machina people were similarly shunned and violently turned away, an old hatred without a purpose in the modern day.
Over time, the efforts to clean up the lower distract waned; it was a necessary evil in the city, brushed over and forgotten.
It was wending toward evening when Keydis made her way into the lower reaches of Solum. Aches still filled her body and her face was already beginning to swell; the cold air bit hard against her skin. Dozens of eyes followed her as she walked down the dusty street, with the unconscious Niketas Leon still thrown over one shoulder. She felt the burning judgment as she strolled on to the meeting point. Lower Solum might endure frequent violence, but the district had its own pride. Unlike Lupanar, they weren't accepting of criminal activity, especially not brought in from the outside. Keydis did her best to ignore the stares. She would be leaving again soon enough.
A muffled groan came from over her shoulder. "What's going on? Where am I?"
She slapped the slaver's thigh. "Just be still, you'll be gone soon enough!"
Leon was tied at wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles, with arms behind his back. He wasn't going anywhere. The slaver himself hadn't put up much of a fight to begin with, even if he could get himself free. "Who is that?! Wait! I know you! You're that bounty-hunting bitch!"
"And you're the child-slaver bitch with a glass jaw. Now shut up!" They had reached the designated meeting point, what had once been a park. Now it was little more than an empty lot with one dead husk of a tree and piles of unwanted junk. It was only a few blocks into the district. Keydis watched as some of the residents pointed at her and talked to each other, gradually gathering together.
The slaver protested a few more times but soon turned to bargaining. Keydis dropped him off her shoulder but ignored his pleas to use the bathroom, offers to cut a deal, and threats that he would be back on the streets in a week. Her mind was on other things. The situation didn't feel right to Keydis; normally she would have taken the scumbag straight to the Conexus, turning him over to the proper authorities to collect her reward. Instead, she was waiting on Naevius to arrive and take Leon away; she had even brushed off the offers of passing guards to help bring the man into a station, assuring them she knew the way. She had her credentials as guildmaster to support her story, and the officers hadn't questioned further, just congratulating her on a job well done. The legality of not turning the slaver over to proper authorities was questionable, but Leon was wanted dead or alive, so even if Naevius had plans to torture the man to death, would it really be wrong? After reading the list of crimes and knowing what he had done to families and worse, to children, Keydis felt sickened just being near the man. She wouldn't shed any tears over Leon. The problem was that she didn't know the first thing about Naevius, didn't know if he was on the up and up.
Before she could come to a definite decision on what she was going to do, he was there. Naevius walked up, wearing the same white lab coat as before, with the name stitched onto it at the breast pocket. The wild-crested enlil flashed her a toothy grin as he approached, eyes hidden behind dark round glasses even in the dreary light of Solum. "Hard at work, Miss Lysistrata?" he asked with a cordial half-bow. The feral nature of his smile belied the professional air of his words, and Keydis found herself doubting the wisdom of the exchange even more.
"Who is that? Whoever you are, help me and I'll make it worth your while! This vagabond has abducted me, but I am a man of means!"
"Niketas Leon?" Naevius asked, raising one bushy eyebrow.
"The one and only," Keydis replied. She was caught off-guard when the enlil apparently didn't recognize the slaver on sight. Her assumption that he wanted revenge was suddenly in question. The brunette stepped in between the slaver and Naevius. "Before we do this, I have to know what your plans are. I know that shit wasn't part of the deal, but I have to know."
After a surprised pause, Naevius nodded. "I see. You're not a run-of-the-mill mercenary. You have ethics. Unexpected, but admirable." Keydis felt herself bristling at the insult, but held her tongue… for the moment. The alchemist nodded and reached up to pull down his shades. His eyes were bloodshot, the irises a brilliant orange color. Looking right into her eyes, Naevius explained, "I assure you, I will not bring any harm to the man, nor will I set him free into the world to harm others further."
Keydis folded both arms. Leon sat dumbfounded in the dirt, trying to figure out what was happening.
"However," Naevius conceded immediately, holding up his talons placatingly, "it is possible, even probable, that unfortunate things may befall him…."
"What? Don't waste my time with tricky phrasing. What are your intentions?" Her fingers tapped impatiently on her arm.
Naevius frowned but put his dark glasses on again with a heavy sigh. "I am acquainted with a survivor. He brought the bounty notice all the way from Boreas. I intend to leave Niketas Leon at the mercy of this youth, in exchange for services he has already performed for me."
Keydis paused her finger-tapping, not expecting such a direct answer. One bushy eyebrow raising, Keydis asked, "And is the kid merciful?"
"Listen, you're making a mist--!" Leon started to protest before Keydis planted a boot under his ribs. He grunted and fell silent.
The chestnut-feathered enlil tried to keep a straight face but finally grinned. There was a sadistic edge to his voice as he answered, "I don't expect so."
The brunette felt something of a chill run down her spine. She wasn't naïve, she had already suspected as much, but hearing it said so plainly and gleefully made her skin crawl. She wanted to cancel the deal then and there, but in her discomfort, she settled one hand on the hilt of Promoveo for mental support. In that moment, with the hilt in her hand, she thought of what the sword represented, thought of her single-minded drive to hunt down and destroy the vistra that had taken her parents from her. If Naevius' client was a survivor, like her, didn't they deserve a resolution? Keydis understood that need perfectly.
Clenching her teeth, Keydis finally stepped out of the way. The greasy-haired laicar was dressed in a business suit, rumpled but not badly torn. Both eyes were puffy, black and blue, and his nose was bent at an odd angle, but he was unmistakably the man on the bounty poster. The burn scar on one side of his face made for an easy identifier. "Get me away from her! Call the guards, she's a mad woman!"
"Really?" Keydis asked incredulously.
Leon shuffled up to his knees and looked at his would-be rescuer and stopped yelling, an uncertain recognition in his eyes. "Wait, do I know you?"
"To my everlasting pleasure," Naevius answered with a sardonic bow, "you do not."
Keydis slammed a boot between Leon's shoulder-blades, shoving him into the dirt. "I've got my end of the deal but I don't see yours." In response, the enlil reached into a hidden pocket and came back out with a ring, flicking it casually to Keydis. The ring seemed to have a reddish-gold auritium band at its core, with fragments of glimmering ebony embedded all over its surface. "What is this? You were supposed to build me a machine."
"I'm no engineer. I'm a chemist, one who dabbles in the teachings of Cantatus." Naevius smiled. "The ring is enchanted. Your mind is far from sharp enough to understand the details, so I won't waste my breath. You've an enchanted sword, so you at least know how to awaken an infusion. Try it." The smile widened, fangs showing. "Try it and think twice before doubting me."
"I am not a package to be passed around!" Leon protested from the dirt, which Keydis responded to by slamming her boot down harder.
Keydis slid the ring onto her finger, eyeing it and then Naevius suspiciously. It fit comfortably, which was a surprise in and of itself, but as soon as she put it on, Keydis felt warmth, like she was holding a ball of sunlight. It was gentle, only noticeable because of how cold everything else was. Bending down, Keydis grabbed a piece of scrap metal from one of the nearby junk piles. Thinking to how it felt when she activated Annora's enchantment on Promoveo, Keydis tried the same with the ring. At first, it seemed like nothing was happening, but then Keydis realized the metal bar in her hand was changing color, taking on a reddish glow. Shocked, she threw the bar to the ground. It hissed as it hit the dirt next to her captive's head, drawing another sharp curse from his lips.
"The hand wearing the ring won't get burnt," Naevius promised. "But do be careful, the rest of you is still flammable." He curled his lips back in a wide smile. "Exactly as promised, it will allow you to forge green and blue and it should fit in your workshop."
"What's going on here?" A small crowd had gathered and approached while Keydis was distracted with the ring. She bit back a curse; she had been watching for something like this but had gotten careless.
"They're abducting me!" Leon shouted immediately. "If you free me, I've got money! Tons of it! I'll make you rich!"
The speaker, a gruff-looking enlil with dusty orange feathers, laughed harshly. "What do you think, boys? Anyone want to get rich and fat and live up in the sky?"
"Not on your life. Never been keen on hiring someone to wipe my arse."
"What? Ain't we rich enough for you already? You feeling uncomfortable, rich boy?"
"He's probably never seen this much dirt in's whole life!"
The first speaker smiled and folded his arms, challenging. His eyes lingered on Keydis, measuring the visible injuries on her face. "So? This booj telling the truth?"
Before Keydis could respond, Naevius laughed harshly. He pulled an apple from a pocket, so fast that the gathered thugs jumped back, lifting fists defensively. He crunched into the apple and loudly chewed before he answered. "You're welcome to strip search him and help yourself to anything you like. I bet you that striped suit would look so baller, you'll get bent over a table before you know it!" One of the group chuckled nervously, but the others just glared, not sure if Naevius was mocking Leon or them. "This little fucker was rich. Made his coin on the backs of men like yourselves, and their women… and their children." As eyes narrowed, Naevius flashed a wide smile and snapped another bite of the apple. "My friend here was kind enough to invite him here so I could have a chat with him."
"He's screwing with you, I don't know what he's talking about," Leon protested shakily.
"Selling men into forced labor. Selling women into forced prostitution." Punctuating each sentence, Naevius snapped a bite of the apple. "Selling children." He didn't say for what, but there were no good options. "And for all that he's done, you know what the blues are offering for his capture? Two prophets."
The orange-feathered enlil dropped his jaw. "The fuck?"
"I can pay better than that, if you get me out of here," Leon shouted, but Keydis gave him another sharp kick.
Keydis spoke up next. "Seems all his victims were pretty poor. Doesn't make a big enough fuss for the Conexus to care." She had grown up wanting to become a guard with the Conexus. The idea that someone like Niketas Leon could fly so far under the radar disgusted her and made her ashamed that she had wanted to be part of that.
More Solum citizens had gathered to see what the commotion was. With another loud crunch, Naevius finished off his apple.
"Why'd you bring him here?" another man, half-velen, asked. "We don't want nothing to do with that here. You think you can drop your garbage here?"
"Our business is finished, little lady," Naevius said first, casually waving Keydis away. She bristled, considered punching the chemist, but with tensions so high, everything might explode. "You, my new friends, I thought might want to talk with the slaver here. See, from what I've heard, he doesn't just acquire merchandise from the jungles in Boreas. Know anyone that's gone 'missing' around here?" Slowly, the men's eyes widened and they started looking at one another, whispering back and forth. Taking that as a 'yes,' Naevius offered, "I have someone who would like to 'speak' with Niketas Leon, but as long as you keep him alive and talking, I would like for you to show him some hospitality for a day or so. If it will sweeten the deal, I believe the bounty on him is good dead or alive. When my client has finished with him, you can turn in what's left for the reward." Naevius flashed his toothy grin again. "Sure won't the blues love the idea of dishing out coins to you lot? Just picture their faces."
The men started warming to the idea the more Naevius spoke. Finally the leader smiled, flashing an equally toothy grin at the chemist. "Come on, boys. Let's make our friend good and comfortable."
Leaning in, Keydis whispered to Naevius, "How much of this did you plan?"
The chemist was gnawing on a piece of jerky he had produced from somewhere. "All of it. Before I hired you, I considered trying to lure the man here for a meeting to discuss 'business.'" The smile widened, chunks of meat stuck in between the sharp teeth. "If you failed, I would have offered information on who sent you to try to get him here. The only thing I worry about is that he might not survive until my… client arrives." The smile disappeared and Keydis saw an angry look behind the dark glasses. "The bounty poster really doesn't do justice in telling his many crimes. The people here will likely find a great many things to say to him. I only regret we can't cart him off to Boreas, as well." Turning to Keydis, Naevius pointed at the ring. "The ring is legit and of excellent quality. Never doubt my work, regardless of the reason. Make good use of it."
Keydis could only offer a nod. The crowd had snatched up the slaver and were dragging him away as he screamed. Naevius followed after the crowd without another word. The brunette frowned, questioning whether this was the right thing to do. In the end, she decided it wasn't her business to get involved further than she had. Niketas Leon would reap what he had sown, and that was between him and those whom he had wronged. She looked down at the ring on her finger before finally turning to leave, trying to wash the whole ordeal from her mind.