"By Divine Emperor, if I ever see that oven fork on the floor again, I'll summon the Inquisition!" Stein grabbed the offending appliance, over which he had so carelessly stumbled a moment ago, and hurled it across the room, spear-like. By the stroke of luck, the oven fork narrowly missed the bird cage hosting the Headquarters' pet raven, and landed straight in the wicker basket with important secret scrolls. The raven expressed his disapproval by loud cawing.
Nicolette looked up from the ancient books she was studying at her desk. "Actually, Chief, it might be not our fault."
"Whose fault is that, then? The Temple?" Stein picked up a pair of old boots and stuffed them into a wooden crate with various odds and ends. "Is it that hard to keep your workplace in order?"
"We need to talk about it, Chief." Nicolette shut the book and stood up. "No matter how many times we clean the place.... Listen, have you ever experienced deja vu?"
"Yes, yes and yes. I see this cursed mess every damn day."
"I don't mean the mess. Well, not just the mess. Have you ever had this feeling of doing the same thing over and over, or talking to the same person and discussing the same issues again and again, in the exact same words?"
"Definitely. And if you keep treating the office like a rubbish dump, we'll keep discussing this issue until the Vine dries up."
Nicolette pouted, but before she could make another attempt to stray from the topic of office clutter, Fabricio, who was tinkering with some complex mechanism in the corner, piped in.
"Now as you mention it, Nicolette... I seem to be working on the same devices over and over, but somehow, they are never complete, even though I clearly remember finishing them."
"Yes, something of this kind." Nicolette pointed at a stack of amber plates on the table. "These old chronicles... I'm getting more plates every day, and yet, their total number never increases, and all the new stories sound as if I've read them before.
"The ancients wrote loads of hogwash," said Stein, but his eyebrows converged in a deep frown.
"Please, Chief," insisted Nicolette, "you know what I'm talking about. You feel it too, don't you? It all has started with the arrival of a certain person."
"Right," nodded Fabricio. "Everything seems to be about her."
And all three of them said in unison: "De Ver."
"But de Ver is one of us," said Stein. "Cursed blood, lost her memory..."
"Yes, and she suffers a great deal from her amnesia," said Nicolette. "But what if the Temple invented some kind of a virus to mess with our memories, and planted it in her, to spread to every cursed blood in town?"
Stein was unconvinced. "Why would they break the status quo? And virus infection is uncontrollable, it's not like them. But we can investigate; we should ask around."
For the start, the team gathered in the tavern. Stein and Fabricio were fuelling their investigative zeal with George's homebrew ale, while Nicolette cuddled the fat black cat who kept trying to reach the jug with milk, so temptingly left on the table.
"Watch out for this moggy, George," said Stein, "before he wreaks havoc with your place." Actually the tavern looked much less of a pigsty than the Headquarters, but a paragon of order and cleanliness it was not.
"Cats are God's creatures," replied the one-eyed bartender, "they bring luck. Anyhow, no cat can wreak as much havoc as your apprentices, Stein. Constantly ransacking the place for lindars know what, starting fires, breaking into my secret cache! No day ever passes without a few of them mucking around."
Stein focused his piercing gaze, slightly out of phase after a liberal amount of throat-burning ale, and stared at George. "Can you name anyone in particular?"
"Sure, that would be de Ver, and..." The bartender fell silent, scratching his bald head.
"De Ver and who else?"
"Damn if I remember. I could swear there was a whole gang of them! But that de Ver is trouble, that's what I can tell you."
George was an ordinary human, as well as Fabricio, and yet, the "de Ver curse", as Stein started to think of it, affected them too. Trouble, with the capital T, the capital R, and in all caps overall.
The investigation branched out to encompass everyone even halfway suspicious in Stein's eyes. That included Fausta Pinto Carisso, the shopkeeper and a girlfriend of notorious Basil "the Thief" Alvarado Saavedra. Fausta complained that she was practically out of business, but refused to back up her claim with the accounting ledger, insisting on the customer privacy, until Stein hinted on certain shady deals perpetuated by her and Basil, however well-known and well-documented in the Headquarters, just waiting for the right moment to be exposed.
The list of the orders was dodgy indeed. According to it, Fausta's shop was sponsored almost single-handedly by de Ver, although the transactions appeared to come from all around the world, and in the end, the money was passed over to some offshore company with an unreadable name. Judging by the total amount of amber and crystals spent on merchandise, de Ver could've bought the whole Cannaregio and donated it to charities over breakfast, without making as much as a dent in her fortune. Yet nothing in her behaviour ever betrayed that she was rich; on the contrary, she was always ready to go an extra mile for a few drops of amber. Perhaps that was exactly how you become a financial magnate, but... no, it didn't make much sense.
As for Basil, he readily admitted his flourishing friendship with de Ver and joint treasure-hunting expeditions to the dungeons. But he was vague about the details and increasingly nervous, in stark contrast with his usual cheerful and carefree demeanour. He kept twitching and glancing over Stein's shoulder, as if haunted by a ghost. In the end, he blurted "I don't want to hear this name every minute of my life" and disappeared in the maze of the twisty little cobblestone-paved passages.
Questioning other citizens revealed that de Ver had been pestering everyone on a regular basis, especially the Emperor's coach, whose horses switched entirely to the Vizhenze apple diet. But despite asking an infinite number of repetitive questions, she rarely divulged any personal information, claiming amnesia. Nobody was even sure about her first name (or "his" first name, for that matter). Stein himself could never recall it clearly, and somehow, the documents listed it differently every time. It was something simple yet elegant... something like Sadiqa, or Tijana, or, perhaps, Bonnie or Gisele...?
At any rate, the investigation hit a dead end. The Headquarters' members wandered around, sleepless, exhausted and plagued with recurrent visions of doing the same tasks over and over, not bothering anymore about the piles of junk accumulating in their office, while de Ver hopped from one errand to another, happy like an amber-powered bunny, seeming to be in several different places at once.
Until the morning when Stein found a blank envelope on his table, sealed by a sign that could be only broken by the addressee. Inside was a short note in familiar handwriting: angular and scratchy, almost illegible, because it's hard to write when you have bird claws instead of hands. The note was from the infamous cultist, Roch de Virot, a.k.a. the Raven. He claimed to have all the answers; he didn't mention to what questions, but Stein had a strong hunch that these were exactly the answers they had been seeking. However, the Raven didn't offer to share them with Stein, but demanded the presence of the whole Headquarters' team. As the cultist would never set his foot in the town again, this involved an expedition deep into the dungeons, to the Amphitheater.
Anything related to the Blood Cult was bad news. But it was the only thread that held any promise; and Stein grasped onto it.
Finally, they arrived at the Harp. Fabricio, pale and sweating, had to wear a rare, insanely expensive amulet that allowed non-cursed bloods to stay in the dungeons without putting their lives in mortal danger. It did not mitigate the pain; but at the moment, Fabricio didn't care about the pain, gazing in awe at the grand, elaborate instrument, and at the sophisticated mechanical spider perched upon it. He held out his hand to touch the strings.
"Go ahead, human. Chevi does not bite."
The harsh voice startled the mechanic and he jerked his hand away. The man in the black beaked mask stepped out of the shadows, with a dark-haired girl by his side.
"Long time no see, de Virot." Stein's voice was even but tense.
The Raven acknowledged the greeting with a slight nod. "Time is not what you think it is, Stein," he said.
Stein winced, remembering the cultist's annoying habit of talking in riddles. "You said you have the answers. We are here; speak."
"You're obsessed with de Ver, Stein, but she is not the source of your troubles - our troubles - but rather, just a side effect. The clue lies in the history of our people."
"History?" Nicolette perked up.
"You all have heard about the Exodus," said de Virot.
"Of course! Our ancestors escaped the caves to live under the open sky," reported Nicolette, while Eirun, the dark-haired cultist, simultaneously replied: "Humans descended to the dungeons to wield the power of the Vine."
The women glared at each other, while de Virot continued. "Neither of these legends captures the true essence of the Exodus. The world of our ancestors is fundamentally alien, as different from ours as, for example, human beings are different from music."
He approached the Harp, motioned Eirun to join him. Ten fingers and ten curved talons plucked the strings. A simple melody, haunting and sad, filled the air, reverberated around the hall, beat against the walls like a trapped butterfly, again and again.
Nicolette and Fabricio instinctively moved closer to each other. Stein stood with arms crossed over his chest, impassively regarding the musicians. But he, too, let out a sigh of relief when the music ceased.
"When the music is heard by several people, does the melody become different?" asked de Virot. He continued without waiting for an answer. "The sound waves multiply, travel through time and space to reach their audience, but it's still the same music, even in its multiple manifestations. Does it remember having been played before? Is it aware of the musician? The melody may think that it unravels by its own free will, but in fact, it is played and replayed, recreated over and over, as long as the musician wants it."
Stein snorted. "Are you saying that we are music, and de Ver plays us like a Harp? What a load of horseshit." Obviously years of living underground finally did it to the cultist's brain. Well, that was to be expected; but it was worth a try. "Thanks for the entertainment, anyway," he added. "Now we must be off."
"Wait," said de Virot, softly but it sounded like a command. "You still don't see it. The world of our ancestors is neither above nor below. It's around us. It's imperceptible by our senses, but I know how to break into it from within."
"Yes. All of us are trapped in an artificially created bubble, poisoned by multifold reflections which we are not supposed to perceive - but we do, since the residual information accumulates and creates new pathways, new connections. And as we come into the awareness of the nature of our world, we can break free with the united power of our minds, as our thoughts are driven by the same energy that keeps this world alive. We must create a paradox."
Stein resigned to hearing one more insane theory - but just one.
De Virot continued. "Let me tell you a story. A true story from the time of our ancestors. No, don't write it down," he addressed Nicolette, who had produced a quill out of nowhere, and eagerly waited with a notebook in her hands. The archivist blushed and stuffed the writing utensils back into her sleeves.
"Once a group of cursed bloods: men, women and children, pursued by a legion of Templars, barricaded themselves in a fortress. They were out of weapons, out of food; the defeat was imminent. To escape the torture, humiliation and slavery, were they to be captured alive, they decided to commit suicide. But many of them were not strong-willed enough to kill themselves. So they entrusted their fate into the hands of one man, their leader. He killed everyone who didn't commit suicide, but only those who were unable to kill themselves. When the Templars broke into the fortress, they found only a pile of corpses."
In the dead silence that descended upon the dungeon, the cultist concluded. "And now, tell me this: how did the leader die?"
"Obviously he was strong, so he must've had committed suicide, like the rest of them," said Stein.
"Think again," said de Virot. "He only killed those who didn't commit suicide. But if he killed himself, it would mean that he did commit suicide. Do you see the contradiction?"
"Then somebody else killed him," uttered Nicolette.
"That would mean that he didn't commit suicide. But he was the one who killed everyone who didn't commit suicide; it's still a contradiction."
"That was bloody stupid!" exploded Fabricio, his hands clenched into fists. "They had to fight! Where's the honour in dying without taking at least one enemy with you?"
"It's not our job to judge them," said de Virot. "It was their choice and their responsibility. It had already happened, a long time ago; it can't be changed. Just answer my question. How did the leader die?"
"Could he have survived?" asked Eirun hopefully.
"No," said de Virot. "When the Templars entered, they discovered nothing but corpses. And to preempt your next question, he did not die by natural causes. Think."
And they thought. And thought. And thought. "He killed himself, but he couldn't kill himself, but he did... and he didn't... and he did..." Fabricio paced to and fro; Nicolette rolled a quill between her fingers; Eirun bit her lip, and a trickle of blood was running down her chin, but she was oblivious to it. Stein was staring into space, seeing nothing but corpses scattered on the hard stone floor, stacked together like a mosaic, but one piece kept flickering in and out. He did... and he did not...
Suddenly the lights went out. The fireworks of blue sparks that smelled of burnt rubber and smoke erupted all around. In the flickering blue light, a transparent crystal wall materialized at the Amphitheater entrance, towering all the way to the ceiling. And from the other side of the wall, a giant human face looked straight at them.
"Here is your de Ver," said the Raven, pointing his claw at the face.
The face flickered and oscillated, its features constantly in flux. The skin turned dark and then light again, the eyes changed colour and shape, the nose grew and shrank; it was not a face of one person but probably thousands, all merged together, warping from one to another. But all of them shared one thing in common: an expression of shock and anger. A flock of luminescent arrows swarmed within the wall, frantically darting between the edges. Then, words started to emerge inside the crystal. Stein didn't recognize the writing at first, but then realized that it was in a mirror script, and he could read some of the words, but they still didn't make any sense. "General protection exception", "Segmentation fault", "System restart"...
The air grew scarce; he gulped for breath but his lungs ruptured. He collapsed on the floor, face down. A harsh chord sounded from above and behind him, followed by a loud crash. A thought flashed through his mind: "Is there music if no one can hear it?" Then, silence.
"By Divine Emperor, if I ever see that oven fork on the floor again, I'll summon the Inquisition!" Stein grabbed the bane of his life, the oven fork, and was about to throw it across the room. But instead, he froze, trying to catch a shadow of a thought - eerie, disturbing.
"Maybe it's not our fault, Chief," ventured Nicolette, raising her head from the books. "Fabricio, have you ever noticed..."
Stein cut her short. "Back to work, both of you. I'm tired of listening to your bickering. It's deja vu over and over again."
He shoved the oven fork onto a cluttered shelf. The metal clanged against metal; an echo of a sad, haunting melody whispered in the room, and died. He flinched at a momentary glimpse of an image within his mind: a dark stone hall full of dead bodies. "Did he kill himself, or didn't he?" muttered Stein under his breath.
"Who, Chief?" asked Nicolette nervously.
"Never mind," he snapped.
His today's agenda was full and bursting at the seams. Keep the Temple out of their hair. Scramble to meet the budget. Collect enough artefacts to send to the Divine Emperor. Welcome the new cursed blood, de Ver. Send de Ver to collect some artefacts. Answer de Ver's questions. Watch what de Ver is up to. Talk to de Ver. Stay sane.
Just another ordinary day in Cannaregio.