Chapter 1:

Prologue: Heap of yellowed prints.

Deus Ex Machinarium

The city of Sheridawn. The king's seat, the Capital, the jewel in the crown of the Kingdom of Cammot. The largest and most populous of the settlements and one of the busiest ports on the Veisa.

The settlement sprung just midway to participate in all the trade on the continent. The lucrative lumber and wheat from the southern provinces, northbound to the seaport of Weidana and further through the Sea of Barrents. Carts with tools and weapons made of excellent Maargardian steel passed eastwards on their way to the Empire and returned laden with luxurious goods and bales of velvet.

The Kingdom of Cammot was, in reality, a mere shadow of itself, torn apart by the aristocrats and nobles obsessed with their competition for power. The current king was both the first of a brand new dynasty and the first one in many years interested in something other than feasts and women. The fact that he had little real influence in the Capital was only compounded by his near-constant absence from the castle. King Sotrier, affectionately nicknamed 'the Ginger', was personally leading the bannermen and hacking the enemies of the realm into pieces almost from the day he was crowned. However, the effects of his great military victories, especially in the case of rich and contested border provinces, had yet to filter back.

Since the coronation and subsequent emergent weak rule of the law, the city became a magnet, and a haven, to all kinds of rogue researchers, unlicensed hexergists, avihrists, rebels, and other shady types. Tendrils of those who might have wanted to fish them out were too stretched out, regardless of whether it was the Church, the Qvorum of Hexergists, or the Collective.

The best was always somewhere else, and whatever was here tended to be accompanied by poverty, crime, misery, and corruption. If they could help it, merchants preferred Isdelburg, a few days' travel west, for its proximity to the Orda and the bountiful Maargardian markets. Scientists and talented hexergists preferred to settle in Tanais, next to others of their profession - not to mention the vast, publicly available libraries sorely lacking in the city itself. People of Faith, of either loyalist or heretical persuasion, congregated in either Graat Koch or Usterl; however, only the latter gave heretics a fair chance to speak. Sometimes even to be heard.

With all that, Sheridawn slowly turned into a cauldron of heresy, free speech, weirdness, freedom, degeneracy, and political strife. Its relative wealth meant that at least some parts of the city were bathing in splendor, while the rest was filled with dilapidated, crumbling buildings, quite often on the opposite side of the same street.

The man sitting at the table in the very corner of the commons was all too aware of all these developments. They were the main reason he deeply hated the place, despite calling it home for over a century.

-" Why ze sad face, Brandt? Ztill no luck? Ja?" - said Sabine, the innkeeper. Brandt looked up from his mug of brown ale, noting that she had almost the same look as any other day: a leather apron over a grey shirt and black skirt. She was very overweight, but for a woman in her fifties running an inn, this was, at least for some, quite desirable. He smiled, pulling himself out of the gloomy thoughts. Sabine happened to be one of just a handful of bright spots in the city. He remembered as if it was yesterday when she was just a svelte sixteen-year-old daughter of a baker, madly in love with a vagabond from far away. He was using a different name back then and had different priorities, and perhaps they would've lived happily ever after if not for the fact that she was an ordinary hoomin while he was an aberrant. She slowly turned into a respectable middle-aged businesswoman while he remained a somewhat handsome, burly, olive-skinned man in his forties. Their story eventually and unavoidably unraveled, and yet Mrs. Mittendorf remained one of the only handful of trusted friends he had in the city.

-"Indeed, Sabine. No luck." - he took another sip from his mug - "I still haven't found anybody that can help me."

The inn was devoid of patrons, as it wasn't open so early in the morning. Brandt was in the common room solely because he could always count on Sabine's hospitality.

The woman threw a foul-smelling rag, which she used to clean the tables, over her shoulder, and sat beside the nord. He scooted over, making space for her.

-"Meine eternal frend." - she said in a motherly tone. Despite living most of her life in Cammot, she still retained her thick, Maargardian accent - "An what iz ze ishue? Maybe I kan help, or kno zomeone who kan?"

-"I don't th…" - started Brandt, but then suddenly stopped and sighed. He very much doubted that she had any means of helping him with his current endeavor. Then, on the other hand, the innkeepers were usually the best-informed people alongside barbers and prostitutes. But he wasn't that desperate to use either of these sources. Yet. He ran his hand through his dark curls - "Actually… maybe you can. I don't know how much you know about ancient Kherrid, I expect not much, but I've spent the last two weeks looking for people who know at least something. And found nothing."

-"Rreelly? Nobody?" - her eyebrows went up in an exaggerated surprise.

The Nord scoffed.

-"Oh, there are people who know this stuff. But they are either clergymen or the kind of people who become suspiciously silent and show me the door as soon as I show them what I've got."

-"Zat muzt bee frustrating, ja? Tell me what iz zat you got?"

The Nord fell silent, considering whether to continue the discussion and reveal any details. It was undoubtedly risky, either for her or for him. Or both. He nodded and sighed.

-"Fine. I have unearthed some old documents. Really, really old documents, and I want to interpret them."

-"How old?"

Brandt looked around, making sure there was nobody near them - minding the 'artifact ban' law issued by the Church and also the heresy charges that came with it - then he leaned towards Sabine and said in a lowered voice.

-"Precursorial old."

-"I… don't kno what zat meanz."

Brandt frowned, trying to think of a way to explain his situation to someone whose knowledge of history was limited to the fact that there was a war somewhere some time ago. Probably.

- "Imagine you found some old books. Really, really old. Before that thing with Hartmann and Dragman 'old'. Before the centennial war 'old'. I expect they are before the First Vhirzug type of 'old'."

-"Ah, I zee." - nodded Sabine, although judging by her expression, he strongly suspected she didn't understand at all.

-"I need to get them interpreted." - continued the Nord in a hushed voice - "But there are very few people who could even attempt to do it."

-"Zo? What iz ze problem?"

He let out an exasperated sigh.

-"Like I said: those people have ties to either the Qvorum or the Church. Or they are straight-up criminals."

-"I zee" - Sabine lowered her voice comedically - "And we don't want zem to know. Zat would be bad!"


-"Why?" - she inquired innocently.

-"Becauze." - Brandt, too, lowered his voice and tried to mimic Sabine's accent - "Qvorum wil take my documentz and give zem to ze Church. Ze Church will confizcate zem and accuze me of herezy." - he sighed and continued in his normal voice - "And this time, I don't have Dragman around to pull the stake out of my arse."

-"I zee." - replied she, this time with all the seriousness she could muster - "And all ze people you tried to talk to fear ze same. Even here."


A heavy silence fell. The aberrant turned the mug in his hands whilst the innkeeper pursed her lips and started tapping them with her index finger.

-"I know of zis one fellah who might help you." - she finally said after a few dozen heartbeats.

Brandt turned to look at her with a frown.

-"I pretty much doubt that. I went to multiple hexergists, alchemists, and researchers in this town. All the legitimate ones and a few of the… well, more discrete ones. But please, do tell."

-"I heard of him from people around here talking, ja? Didn't meet him. Came to ze burgh a year or zo ago. Very zkinny, big head. He iz zome reject from zat island."

-"Tanais?" - the Nord rubbed his chin - "A tanai? Are you talking about that dubious bookshop owner? What was his name? Taras? Artas?"

-"Ja! That'z ze one!"

He made a long humming sound.

-"I did consider visiting him, but after asking around I've decided not to bother. He's some sort of a quack and a hoarder who barely makes ends meet. Difficult to work with on top of that. I don't think it's worth going there…"

-"Ja, ja. I heard zat too. But. You zay you have zoze old dokuments, ja?" - interrupted Sabine, shifting her considerable weight onto the other buttock. The bench protested weakly. - "Zoze people who were talking. Zey were ze more 'preztigiouz' type over here..." - Sabine leaned towards Brandt and lowered her voice - "...if you kno what I mean."

The man looked around the commons of the tavern as if he was seeing it for the first time. It was called "The New Inn", and it had a distinction of being, as the name would suggest, the oldest still open establishment of that type in the city. It was also a place that could be described as "possessing many qualities'', but prestige was not one of them. The people who frequented the inn were mostly the denizens of Pevda, the borough of Sheridawn located on the east bank of the Veisa, which meant the dockers and craftsmen working and living in the neighborhood. However, whilst the labyrinthine alleys and streets, sometimes no wider than a single-horse cart and built with no plan or forethought whatsoever, housed mostly a large crowd of common, hard-working men, it also provided plenty of shady, quiet nooks, crannies, and dead-ends to practice unlicensed hexergy, medicine or any other form of illegal arts out of sight of the Church, Qvorum, law enforcement or tax collectors. Not much 'prestige' in them either, but still… these must have been the people Sabine mentioned. Brandt sighed again.

-"Well, tell me more?"

-"I heard zem talking about zis fellah and about zome old documentz and bookz." - Sabine squinted, trying to recall as much of the event as possible - "From a hundred-year war? Or ze Erste Vhirzunge? Zomesing about oth Schottke and Maargard. Old talez."

The name 'Schotke' did ring some bells, but Brandt could not put a finger on their origin. The word bounced inside his head for a good heartbeat or two, but in the end, the only thing it invoked was a void. It did, however, elevate his interest in Sabine's story. He raised his eyebrows at her.

-"Zat iz it. Not much more. Whatever ze bookkeeper had, made my clientz veery veery happy. Iz wors a shot, ja?"

Brandt nodded, put his palms together, then rested them against the bridge of his nose and allowed himself to get lost in thoughts. Sabine smiled at this familiar sight. She knew that the conversation was as good as over, so she stood up, struggling a bit, then took the rag off her shoulder and moved towards one of the other tables.

The Nord sat, almost unmoving, for some considerable time. For a while, he seemed to be simply watching Sabine preparing the inn for opening time. Then he appeared to ponder cracks in the crumbling render covering the wooden walls before finally settling on leaning back, putting his hands behind his head, and looking at the ceiling. Logically, chasing after the bookkeeper was out of the question. He already had arranged some meetings with seemingly more viable prospective specialists, and rescheduling them risked his entire itinerary and could mean that the said specialist would no longer be available.


His instinct practically screamed back to drop everything and go to the bookstore. Brandt didn't have high hopes for the upcoming meetings, considering that so far he had met several self-proclaimed so-called 'experts' and came away with nothing.

Was this tanai hoarder to be his wildcard or was he just rationalising?

Finally, he decided to roll the dice. He finished his drink, stood up, and moved towards the staircase leading to the upstairs rooms.

"Thank you!" - he said, squeezing Sabine's arm just above the elbow as he passed by. The woman smiled and blew him a kiss.

He didn't look back.