The Chief of the seekers’ Headquarter is a regular guest of the underground city, particularly at times when there is turmoil upstairs. He comes down to the Sphere and the Axis to keep an eye on those working there, to make sure nobody gets into trouble on the occasion the templars decide to descend into the labyrinths of the semi-abandoned dungeons. Nobody ever asks any questions as to why he is there; they merely greet him and move on with their business. Leave him to observe and, in case of emergency, protect them. As long as Stein Beckers has their back, they have nothing to fear.
Right now, it would be just the time for him to go about his emergency routine, were there any workers down here. Alas, he is not here because of the diggers currently slumbering peacefully in their beds at the tavern or the Headquarter.
At night, the Central Axis is a strange, spooky calm place. There are no sounds of pickaxes to interrupt the silence in the corridors, no conversations of the seekers wandering about at the top and looking for a convenient place the amber comes to the surface on its own instead of waiting to be dug up from the rock walls. Even animals on lookout for careless prey during the day disappear into their caves and the lower tiers when darkness sets in. Shadows appear to grow longer – a mere joke of Stein’s eyes, or perhaps a response of the vine to the cool nightly breeze that finds its way into the dungeons of Cannaregio through the old well. Even water drops from the ceiling slower, and the waterfalls appear to slow down, as though afraid to ruin the setting.
Stein leans over the side of the Axis, holding onto a statue that the time had ravaged greatly even before the first diggers descended into the underground city forty years ago, and scouts the abyss for a while.
Down there, darkness swallows every single ray of light from the world above. Down there, there is a different world – even from the upper layers of the city. Down there, no cursed blood in their right mind risks an entry. Down there is a world that belongs to somebody else. A scary story the devil’s blood residing in Cannaregio tell their children on dark autumn evenings.
- What do you want here?
It has been long since he heard that voice the last time. A long time that now feels like a small eternity. And, by the Divine Emperor, has Stein hoped never to have to hear it again. Even being in his near still earns anyone a death toll, signed by the Great Inquisitor himself – no questions asked, no answers wanted. Thus, Stein repeats time and again, his warning to young cursed blood ready to descend into the dungeons for the first time: avoid the owner of said voice by all means, lest you want to land in the cellars of the Temple. Of course, when he is telling his scary stories he does not believe anyone would ever see the man again. Everybody is dead, Stein reminds himself time and again.
Everybody is dead.
And then, one day, de Ver starts going around, asking questions. At first, Stein thinks she has found the name in an old letter. On a list. In a diary. On a scrap of paper. In one of the books the Temple let them keep. But soon it becomes clear she knows a bit too much for it to have such humble origins. And Stein gives the same advice to her that he always does to newcomers.
What good is an advice, if he cannot follow it himself?
- Can’t an old man come down here simply to enjoy some peace and silence one last time before all hell breaks loose?
Neither of them believes it necessary to greet the other. In Cannaregio, you do not greet old memories.
In Cannaregio, old memories can get you into trouble fast.
- Perhaps,- the tall, masked figure agrees, -but the old man wouldn’t climb all the way down here for that. Particularly at night. Particularly when Amato is coming closer to the city as we speak.
- Hm,- Stein shrugs, more for the sakes of a reaction than continuing the conversation. The Chief of the Headquarter has to admit, however, that the cultist is truly well-informed about the current affairs of those dwelling upstairs – for somebody who can no longer show himself above the ground. –Perhaps,- he begins in a while when it is clear the dark figure is not inclined on leaving. Stein knows – something extraordinary has to happen for somebody tied to the Headquarter to come down here at this time of day. –Since you are informed about that, you might perhaps know of something else, then? I am looking for somebody.
- People go missing in the dungeons daily,- the cold voice sends shiver down Stein’s back as the cultist approaches, tracing one claw along the surface of the railings. –It is hardly a reason for you to come down here during night.
- A woman,- Stein instinctively retreats when the cloaked figure comes too close for his liking; the cultist notices this, for a grin flashes across his lips when he passes the lightning lamp on the wall. Four years here have left very little of the boy Stein greeted at the door of the seekers’ Headquarter the day the Templars brought him to Cannaregio. –I think you know whom I mean.
- Why would you risk your skin and your warm place under the Temple’s wing for somebody who poisoned one of your people?
- She’s alive, then?- Stein clutches the railing with one hand. There is only one person in the city who could have told him this – the one who still believes she succeeded in the deed.
- What if she is?
What has been intended as mere chuckle, soon turns into laughter as every emotion Stein has been holding back is now washing over him in a matter of seconds.
Now there is one seeker who does not do as they are told.
He has come here to find her body. To essentially do what neither the city guard nor the seekers were able to. Now it turns out there is a reason for their failure.
By the Divine Emperor! A thought flashes in Stein’s mind for a second that it would be better had the Raven appeared to lead him to the remains of de Ver.
The Raven merely waits for the old man to be over and done with laughing.
- What do they say; who helped her escape the guards?- He asks once Stein has silenced.
- Why?- Stein has had the suspicion that what the diggers whisper to each other in the safety of the Headquarter or the tavern are merely rumours invented by people with nothing better to do.
One truly has to have a wild imagination, supported by the fear of the unknown, to assume the dreaded underground monster is involved in the seeker’s escape.
- She was alone. Yet keeps talking about this... Adrian. Asks about him constantly. Worries he might have fallen to his death from the Axis because of the vine.
- That is the strange part,- Stein rubs his chin, pondering how to convey the explanation better. –Nobody knows who helped her. Every seeker and guard present at that moment – and even George tell us about a man, but, when they have to describe him, make no sense. One says he’s tall, the other talks about a small figure. According to some, he’s scrawny, and some say muscular. Black hair, red hair, blond... Green eyes, blue eyes, brown, grey... There are as many descriptions of him as there are witnesses. The city’s abuzz. We sought through the Sphere and the top of the Axis, but we found nothing. The Templars decided she either drowned at the Sphere or fell to her death here. Adrian... as for him, the young man swears by his and his parent’s life and the Divine Emperor Himself that he had no hand in the events. He’s scared like a rabbit, that the Temple might accuse him of treason. If it wasn’t for the quarantine, I’m afraid he would have been out of here by the first sunrise. *
The cultist snorts, then mutters something a little too silent for Stein to hear the exact wording, but the overall idea is clear.
- So, she is here... I mean, she’s with you... or,- intuition tells Stein he should not continue the conversation on this topic any longer. –What is your interest in her, Roch?
- Interest?- The cultist spits out the word, clearly displeased about somebody meddling into his affairs.
- I know you well enough to know that a regular seeker could have hardly interested you enough to save their life. One time, maybe. But two?
- Follow your own advices, old man,- de Virot is clearly not in the mood to keep the conversation going for much longer. –You came here to find her body. Now you know she’s alive. And that is all you need to know.
Using the moment Stein appears distraught and overwhelmed by the new information he has received just now, the cultist turns on his heel and heads back into the same direction he emerged from earlier. The Chief of the Headquarter stares into his back.
- And Reinard Meyer?- As the Raven is about to disappear into the shadows, Stein hurries to ask one last question. Roch slows down just enough to hear and answer it. –He wouldn’t happen to be somewhere down here, too?
- Follow your own advices, old man.
- Then at least tell Lyra** she didn’t quite succeed in poisoning Basil. Or whatever she was trying to do there. He’s at the mercy of the Temple’s healers at the moment, but he’ll be fine. That is, if she wants to-
- Out of the dungeons, and straight onto the pyre; is that what you want for her?- De Virot interrupts him, and the cultist’s voice is full of poison and disdain. –I won’t have it. I need her alive and by good health.
- And what?- Stein’s heart is climbing up his throat. Is this going to be the story of the Blood Cult all over again? More deaths? Amato will not have it when he finds out – and he will find out, for there are always people willing to hand in news, rumours and even their fellow man to the Temple for a reward. –What’s the become of her, Roch? What will she do? Become one of you?
- She has been one of us for a long time, old man.
- Amato is coming to Cannaregio, and probably because of Reinard!- Stein raises his voice, with that causing the cultist to turn. Unpleasant shivers run down the man’s spine as he feels the Raven’s eyes on him even as they remain hidden behind the mask. –He’ll search the dungeons. What then?
- Let him come,- Roch’s voice is cold and void of emotion. –I have been waiting to meet him in person for a long time.
Something tells Stein that he does not mean it in a good way.