Witches and thieves," Branko thought as he studied the line of Golgari prisoners.
He gripped the handle of his stun-baton. He wanted to scream, batter down the walls of the Azorius Detention Compound, and flee into the sunlight. He wanted to be away from them and their strange mutterings and savage glances.
"Keep your baton out," he whispered as he passed Gebris, a novice guard who was still in his teens. Gebris thought too highly of himself and was mean-spirited even on his good days.
"I'll do my job, you do yours," Gebris mumbled, which was made no sense because they had the same job.
Branko wanted to smack some sense into him. The Azorius Arresters had raided Golgari territory earlier that night. But once inside the Detention Compound, some of the Golgari overwhelmed their captors and gained control of the first floor. Maybe more floors were lost by now. Branko wouldn't know. He'd been stuck down here in the basement.
"Witches and thieves," Branko murmured again as he paced along the corridor, just inches from men eager for the chance to gut him.
They'd been shut in the stifling corridor for hours. So far, the prisoners had been contained, but they were getting restless. Kneeling with your hands tied behind your back would be hard for anyone. As the hours passed, Branko pitied them. But the rest of the guards, like Gebris, were more agitated than sympathetic.
Most of the prisoners were grubby humans with fragile-looking skin that probably had never seen the sun. A few of the larger humans were shackled with wooden harnesses and glow-cuffs. Scariest of all, there was an emaciated gorgon who had been bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Her hair was loose, and those writhing tendrils made Branko's skin crawl. Even her compatriots shied away from her. She knelt alone near the barricaded door, looking oddly regal despite the grim circumstances.
Watching her, Branko realized he had to face the truth. They were too few guards in charge of too many prisoners.
"Rot crawler," Gebris shouted suddenly. He loomed above a sickly looking man with sunken cheeks and the faded clan tattoos of an ex-Gruul. The man said nothing, just stared back with hatred in his red-rimmed eyes.
"Now, that's a rat face," Gebris taunted. "Maybe they flushed you at birth? Down into the arms of Mama Golgari?"
Branko wished there was a superior officer with them. But during the initial chaos after the Golgari revolted, their superiors had shunted the remainder of the prisoners to the basement. They ordered the guards not to move until relieved and sealed the exit with barricade-wards.
No one in. No one out. Not until their betters said so.
"You love filth so much, how about this?" Gebris took the toe of his boot and shoved it against the man's face, cracking his head against the wall and holding it there. All along the corridor, the Golgari began hissing. It rose into an animalistic growl that reverberated off the tiled ceiling.
"You'll be cited," Branko warned Gebris.
"So?" Gebris scoffed. But he dropped his leg. The man's lip was bleeding, and he didn't look up again. The hissing stopped, but the prisoners' lingering anger felt almost tangible, as acrid as if smoke hung in the air.
"Calm down," Branko whispered to Gebris. Branko laid a hand on the shorter man's shoulder, but Gebris shrugged it off angrily.
Since they met a few months ago, Gebris took an immediate dislike for Branko, who stood more than seven feet tall. Besides being tall, Branko was as broad and muscular as a blacksmith. He sensed that it was his size alone keeping the situation in check.
"I didn't ask for this!" Gebris stormed. "The bastards planned this."
"Who, Zivan?" Branko asked. Arbiter Zivan had ordered the Mass Arrest, which had been touted as the ultimate clean-up of the Golgari.
"No, you idiot," Gebris shot back. "Them, the rot crawlers. They let us arrest them, so they could come back and kill us here."
Branko didn't reply. He didn't like talking in front of the prisoners. He could feel their eyes on his back, tracking his every move.
"Let's take them through the exercise yard," Gebris urged. "We can lock them in the pens in the South Block."
Branko saw the logic in this. There was no exit through the South Block, but at least the prisoners would be contained by something sturdy.
"What about the sunlight?" Branko asked. There were strict protocols about the transportation of Golgari prisoners and exposure to sunlight was forbidden unless the proper forms had been approved.
"I don't care about sunlight," Gebris shrieked. Branko quickly nodded his agreement - Gebris was in a dangerous state of mind.
After they'd roused the prisoners, Branko waited with the main group inside the door at the end of corridor. He sent two at a time across the sunny yard. Gebris met them on the far side. They'd only moved half the group when the man with the bloody lip reached the front of the line. Branko motioned him out in the sunlight, but he refused to budge.
As Branko reached for him, there was a ripple of motion among the remaining Golgari, who stood up en masse and surrounded him. Branko could see over the crowd, and two prisoners were leading the gorgon toward him. One of the prisoners had freed himself from his bonds and was reaching for the gorgon's blindfold. They were going to use her as a weapon.
Boxed in by bodies, Branko couldn't make it to the door. They kicked at him, trying to break his knees. Righteous indignation swept over him, and he attacked back, slamming their spindly bird bones into walls, shattering skulls with punches, snapping spines over his massive knee.
The gorgon - now unleashed from her bonds - was about to enter the fray. Branko didn't like fighting in these close quarters. Unless he wanted to become a granite block, he had to take her down first. Closing his eyes, he charged at the gorgon. He latched his massive hands onto her bony shoulders and lunged for the open door, dragging her with him.
The sun was burning hot as they tumbled into the sandy yard. Branko landed partially on top of the gorgon, but managed to keep his eyes closed. She hissed unfamiliar words and clawed his face. Swinging blindly, he smashed his elbow against her again and again. Her body grew still beneath him. But as he started to stand up, fingers tore at his ear. He heard a ripping noise and screamed in agony. Branko rolled away from the gorgon, his eyes inadvertently opening on the chaos around him. Prisoners were running freely through the yard. They'd lost control.
His eyes flicked toward the gorgon, who was crouched on the ground. Pain was making Branko nauseous, and his ear seemed to be dangling down by his neck. The world tipped sideways as crimson light pulsed around him. Branko knew he was about to pass out.
Beside him, blood gushed from the side of the gorgon's head. Her head lolled to the side and flickering light engulfed her. Branko's hands dug into the dirt as if to keep the balance he'd already lost. When he looked up again, the imprint of her body in the sand was all that remained. The gorgon was gone.
It was a straightforward case: The eighteenth floor of a tenement collapsed, killing four people, including two members of the Lapt family. Mr. Lapt was asking for compensation.
Arbiter Relov started to dip his pen in the inkwell and then thought better of it. He re-read the complainant's handwritten testimonial at the end of the Application:
The wooden floorboards had been soft for several weeks. I beleive[sic] there was a leaky pipe. I spoke to the landlord about it twice, and he did nothing.
Believe? The more Relov looked at that word, the more annoyed he became. The first ten pages of the Application were in order. The Submitter had cited the correct statutes and his pathwork of legal justification was sound. There were no Invisibles to worry about—the landlord was a guildless slumlord with no underworld connections that could spell trouble for the Azorius at a later date.
Relov considered the teetering stack of documents on the corner of his desk. Well, he would teach this man a lesson. Learn to spell, Mr. Lapt, and stop wasting my precious time. With that, he slid the Application to the bottom of the stack.
Relov turned his attention to the other piles of paperwork on his desk. He enjoyed the meticulousness of legal language—assuming it was well done—and the afternoon passed pleasantly. Relov approved a fine on those arrested in proximity to a riot, even if it couldn't be proved they participated. Next, he gave his approval for a new statue of Grand Arbiter Leonos. It had taken months of argument to agree that it would be placed near (but not next to) the main entrance of New Prahv.
He just finished his written arguments against funding an anti-cult initiative when a clerk appeared at the door of his spacious office with another stack of documents. An Arbiter's work was never done...
"There's a rattling noise in the ventwork that's distracting me," he said to the young woman. "Can you see to it?"
"I can submit a request for a Steward," she replied slowly. It wasn't a clerk's job to fill out the Request Form, but they were tedious, and a clerk was bound to have more spare time than an Arbiter.
"I appreciate your kindness," he said with a winning smile.
"Yes, sir," she said. She laid two sealed letters on his desk. "These arrived by courier."
His smiled soured. He could reprimand her for not presenting them immediately, but decided to let it pass. He needed that Steward after all. He signed the Document of Receipt and she disappeared into the maze-like corridors of the Azorius guildhall.
The first letter was an urgent Application for Immediate Use by an Orzhov enforcer, who wanted access to detention spheres. The request violated twelve statutes, but when Relov saw the pale pink number printed at the bottom, he signed without hesitation. He ran his thumb over the number, smearing the amount that would soon be deposited in his account at Vizkopa Bank.
The second letter was from Javy, a Boros investigator and one of his oldest friends. Years ago, he'd spearheaded a joint venture with the Boros known as the Failsafe Initiative. Now defunct, it rescued children from the Gruul or out of the pauper prisons and placed them in either the Azorius or Boros academies. Javy had been his most ardent supporter. In those days, they were young, idealistic, and more than a little foolish about the possibility of changing things for the better.
Relov had grown more astute over the years, but Javy had never lost her idealism. Then, a year ago, Javy and her partner had been attacked in a warehouse in the Smelting District. Both of them were beaten severely, and only Javy survived. Relov had heard the rumors—supposedly the Orzhov wanted them silenced—but he hadn't talked to her since the incident. He cracked the wax on the seal. An address was jotted across the top of the page, and then her familiar scrawl:
What is the culmination of a life of words? Buckets of blood. Come now. -Javy
Javy's cryptic note led Relov to a disreputable tenement building. Fourth floor. East End. Javy was waiting for him in a dim corridor that smelled of rat poison. Despite the sordid surroundings, she looked as immaculate as always. Her Boros uniform fitted her as if it had been sewn by the best on Tailor's Row.
"Javy, so good to see you," he said. He kissed her on her cheek. She smiled faintly and then punched him lightly on the shoulder. She looked thinner than he remembered, but there were no other signs of the ordeal that had kept her in the healing wards for months. He was relieved to see that her face hadn't been scarred in the beating.
"Any word on the executions statute?" Javy asked.
"Not yet," Relov lied. At Javy's request, he'd suggested stricter limitations on executions, but his proposal had been killed by Grand Arbiter Leonos a year ago. He hadn't the heart to tell her.
Javy motioned to the room behind them. "See if you recognize him."
The windowless room was worse than the building itself. Gray mold streaked the walls and the cracks crisscrossed the ceiling. A gilded bed frame almost filled the space, which smelled like rotting potatoes. The hump in the middle of the bed was almost unrecognizable as a corpse. In life, he had been a fat man. In death, he looked deflated—marooned—like a fish washed onto unfamiliar shores. Large puddles of sticky blood dotted the uneven floor.
"I'm not going in there," Relov retorted. Javy thrust her hand-lamp in his direction.
"Stay to the edge," she said. "And pay close attention to the skin."
Relov muttered something unkind under his breath and entered into the hideous little room. He tiptoed to the bedside and peered at the corpse. The skin looked splotchy, but in a strangely mathematical way. Despite his disgust, he leaned closer. Words had been magically imprinted over every inch of the dead man's body. The words were tiny, almost too small to decipher. But they were deep enough for blood to empty through the open wounds. The victim's skin sagged disturbingly but Relov could make out a few words: law; judge; proof.
"Buckets of blood indeed," Relov said when he returned to the corridor. "That's horrific."
"His name is Zivan," Javy said. "An Arbiter like yourself, or so I've been told. I was hoping you could give me something on him."
Zivan had been a legendary legislator, but Relov only knew the man by his reputation. Once, Zivan had talked for sixteen hours straight, just to stonewall a request for refugee assistance. Relov had heard rumors of Zivan's fall from grace, but this was, well, humbling.
Later, Relov sat with Javy on a bench in the Transguild Promenade. Light streamed through gaps in the ceremonial archways and a cool breeze rustled the trees along the footpath. It was a workday afternoon, and pedestrian traffic was light. Relov loved the promenade, where the bustle of the city was muted by Azorius noise wards.
Javy listened attentively as he recounted everything he remembered about Arbiter Zivan, which honestly wasn't much.
"He was well respected in his day," Relov finished. "An exquisite debater with sound legal reasoning. But he squandered it in Rakdos pleasure houses and hasn't been one of us for quite some time."
"You don't know which pleasure house, by any chance?" Javy asked.
Relov laughed. "Not my area of expertise." He had no interest in what Rakdos offered.
"Did you ever work with Zivan?" Javy asked.
"Not directly," Relov told her.
"Are you sure?" She opened her document case and handed him a faded parchment. It was an old Mass Arrest Order, dated from when Relov had just been promoted to Arbiter. His own signature was among a handful of his peers, including Arbiter Zivan's.
"I sign hundreds of documents a day," he explained. "That doesn't mean I knew him personally."
"Read the rest of the names," she said. "Notice anything about them?"
"No, should I?" Relov asked with irritation. He hated the feeling that someone knew something he didn't.
"They're all dead," she said. "Except for you."
Relov looked more closely and saw that she was correct. They were all deceased. Two of them in the past year alone. "Some of these gentlemen were quite old..."
"This document authorized a sweep of the Golgari Undercity," Javy interrupted him. "It was the largest the Azorius had ever attempted. It turned violent and nearly a hundred were killed, many while in custody."
Relov thought hard. "I remember it. There was a public outcry over a couple of guards. They were accused of butchery or some such nonsense."
He noticed that Javy was clenching her fist. In the sunlight, the back of her hand was a spider web of fine white scars. She closed her eyes and tipped her face toward the sun. He waited for a few moments, but she didn't move.
"Javy, how have you been since the attack?" Relov asked bluntly. "I heard the perpetrator was released on a technicality."
Javy whipped her head toward him and bared her teeth, like a little dog about to tear into the meat of his leg. "If by 'technicality' you mean 'bribe,' then yes, yes he did."
"Now, Javy..." Relov said soothingly.
"Someone is killing Azorius," she said calmly, her face again a mask of professionalism. "Someone with a grudge against you, specifically."
"Why do you think that?" Relov asked. "Based on this document? How did you find this anyway?"
Javy shrugged. "I didn't. It was provided to me. I'm investigating a series of murders."
"What murders?" Relov asked with alarm.
"Someone is... slaughtering people in the manner in which they lived their lives," she replied.
Relov looked at her with exasperation. "Try to be less vague, will you? Meaning what?"
"If they were selfish, then they die of that urge. If they were vicious, they face that judgment in death. You see what I mean?"
"No," Relov said honestly. "I really don't."
"Well, last week a man was hung from a pillar in the forum. I'm told he loved the public eye. The week before that, a judge's heart was removed and sent to the victims he denied justice. Or your Mr. Zivan. He lived by the power of words, and died of the same. "
"Well," Relov said. He'd heard nothing about this, and felt a little rattled. "I appreciate your warning."
"Watch out for yourself," she said, brushing against his arm with the back of her hand.
As soon as Relov got back to New Prahv, he filled out an Application for Constant Protection.
Branko One-Ear left the Azorius after the raid. With the help of his father, he purchased a rickety tenement near Keyhole Downs. Over the years, the building became part of Rakdos territory. People only lived there if they could afford nowhere else. Even after the Rakdos moved on, Branko showed no interest in fixing the broken Izzet heat-pipes or cleaning out the rubbish from the stairwells.
A tenant found him propped up against the cornerstone in the filthy alley behind his tenement. The top of his skull has been neatly removed by magical incision. His brain removed and placed in his lap, and there it sat, like a pet dog. The empty skull jammed full with worthless coins.
"A fitting end," Javy mused, casting a quick glance around Relov's library. It was dark outside the great glass window, or else she could have seen the new house-garden he had recently commissioned from Selesnya.
"Gruesome," was Relov's reply. "But what does it have to do with me?"
"That's it, isn't it?" Javy said quietly. "Everything is about you."
Her comment annoyed him, but he held his tongue. It was near midnight, and somehow she had convinced his doorman to let her into his townhouse. She wasn't in uniform tonight. She wore loose black pants and a tunic, like a commoner. She had arrived bearing a strange collection of emotions, of which he couldn't quite decipher. So he sat behind his enormous mahogany desk and waited.
"He was one of the guards during the Golgari raid. He should've faced trial and been held accountable."
"So, he's another in your series of murders?" Relov guessed.
"Tell me about the raid," Javy said.
"I don't know anything about it," Relov told her.
"You ordered it," Javy reminded him.
"That's not entirely accurate," Relov protested. "I just signed the paper. And I wasn't there. I've never been to the Detention Compound in my life."
"When you put your little mark on one of those edicts, do you ever think about what it means?" Javy demanded. "There are people on the other end of them, Relov. People's lives are affected terribly by your signature."
"Of course I think about them," Relov retorted. But even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true.
"You used to," Javy agreed. "But not anymore. Do you remember those people we helped? Ever think about them? Wonder if you're just killing them now, instead of then?"
"What do they have to do with anything?" Relov asked. "We have rules. The Boros have rules. I suppose even the Golgari have rules. Rules are not the problem."
"So what is the problem?" Javy asked.
"I don't see a problem," Relov said pointedly. But he did. And it had barged uninvited into his home at midnight.
"No, not from your pretty mansion, you wouldn't," Javy said sadly. "She was right about you. I disagreed at first, but she was right."
"Who, your guildmaster?" Relov asked. He'd heard rumors that Guildmaster Aurelia was radicalizing her Boros soldiers, and if so, the Azorius couldn't let it stand.
"I have found a new teacher, and she eclipses my work with the Boros," Javy told him. "She holds the truth. Life into death and death into life. It's an eternal circle, and those who disturb it with their own ambitions must experience a profound death."
Relov stared at Javy and decided she must have lost her mind. "A person's existence cycle should be punctuated by the nature in which they lived," Javy continued earnestly. "Only that will incite reiteration in the darkest roots."
"You're scaring me, Javy," he told her. He disliked metaphysical nonsense, but coming from one of his oldest friends, it was downright repugnant.
"Am I?" she mused. "For the first time, I feel no fear. You sign away people's lives like they're rats to be exterminated. You cozy up to men like the one who... hurt me. Yet you're safe behind your endless wall of words. At least you think you are."
There was a loud thud outside in the hall. He jumped to his feet. Javy didn't move.
"That will be your doorman falling dead to the floor. Next, your door will open. And you'll see the face of your judge."
"Don't look her in the face," Javy ordered Relov as the gorgon swept into the room.
Relov backed away in horror, keeping his eyes on the floor. He'd never seen a gorgon before, but every child in Ravnica had heard horror stories of what they could do.
"You should be honored," Javy said. "Of all the killings I've done in her name, she's never wanted to be a part of one before."
Vraska grabbed him by the throat, and he squeezed his eyelids tight. Her face was so close to the side of his head that he could feel her cold lips against his ear. Her voice was a strange guttural growl.
"Just before your 'guard' would have killed me, I was torn from this world. I was cast into a dark tomb with no way out."
Relov tried to protest. He knew nothing of the raid! Nothing of tombs or anything she was saying. But she was choking the breath out of him and whispering words only he could hear.
"It felt like lifetimes before I learned how to escape, to slip the confines of a world. But during the eternity I was trapped, I resolved that all should receive the death they deserve."
The gorgon placed her thumbs on Relov's eyelids. "Javy. Name a profound death. It's yours to decide."
Javy didn't hesitate. "Inaction," she said.
The gorgon smiled thinly. "Perfect."
By morning the new statue had already been installed near the main gate, much to the surprise of the Stewards, who weren't expecting it for another week. There was some kerfuffle among the Arbiters, who said it didn't really look like Grand Arbiter Leonos. See the unpleasant gaping of the lips? And there was entirely too much hair. But the craftsmanship was exquisite, so the chatter ended soon enough.
No one looked long enough to see the uncanny resemblance to the missing Relov or the terror in his unblinking eyes.