chapter three, page one The City of Locked DoorsMature

Noir exited the white citadel, jokingly referred to by its inhabitants as 'The Dollhouse", with his uniform and lieutenant's tails thrown over one shoulder. The white guards standing sentry straightened as he emerged from The Dollhouse and tentatively saluted him, sometimes with a murmured congratulation. He returned their greetings with a sweeping glance and continued through their midst.

You should at least smile.

I'm not here to make friends. Noir turned to his right as he reached the Hemomancy grove and advanced unto a wider, more populated road. The white guards remained numerous due to the Dollhouse's proximity, but the number of pedestrians also increased substantially, almost to the amount that generally occupied the thoroughfares. Noir slowed his step to a stroll and entered the mass of humans, his eyes scanning the bisecting roads in search of a suitably abandoned alley.

We may not be here to make friends, but having them be friendly toward us can't hurt whereas having them hate ours guts can.

It makes no difference whether they hate me or not, the result will always be the same. A large group of clustered white guards came into view on their right. They stood on full alert, surrounding a particular skyscraper with all postures of false languor or honest joviality erased. Pedestrians were filing in and out of the building mostly in a solemn silence but occasionally in a cheerful pair or trio.

They don't seem to hate Solomon Doll, they might even like him.

That's to be expected. I haven't seen any of his guards bullying them, and their present on every street. Noir s glanced into the Tithe-House as they passed, noting that at least another dozen white guards occupied it interior. They must have a fairly straightforward contract and Solomon must keep his guards in line.

So, out of curiosity, why did you take the lieutenancy instead of the Proctorship?

Because being a Proctor is too much work and too prominent. Being a lieutenant means there's only one person that technically outranks me and it includes far less work, especially after I start delegating it. Besides, it would be pointless to kill Solomon Doll without Loc to officially declare me the Proctor.

He walked by a second Hemomantic grove, its branches laden with freshly grown Hemomantic fruit and vegetables. A small host of pedestrians wandered through it; raking up the crimson leaves, picking the ripe fruit, and checking for rot. A large cart waited nearby, its trunk half-full with stuffed baskets and its driver leaning against its flank while he chatted with a woman.

I'm sure you'll be a, absolute joy to work for and an inspiration for your inferiors.

Noir snorted. I'm not here to be a joy or an inspiration; if they need somebody to follow, they can follow their Proctor. He took another right, moving deeper into the Doll district and further from the Dollhouse.

Speaking of their Proctor; what do you think of him?

I find it hard to believe that anyone short of Ellis or Harlequin would be stupid enough to want a war with him.

So you noticed it also?

Yeah, he's got a nasty steak and it's not buried very deep. I surprised he hasn't murdered whichever idiot's trying to take over his district. There must be something going on behind the curtains. Noir paused mid-step. I wonder if Solomon Doll has an inkling of the coup and thinks his rival is involved in it. He resumed walking.

That would explain his caution. Whoever his rival is would have to be far more powerful than he is to consider challenging a Tyrant, that or has a sweep of powerful allies. Is there anybody strong enough to challenge Loc?

No. Ellis Madra is the only one who's even close, but he's loyal to Loc and can't use his Hyde effectively. It has to be one of the new Proctors. Noir grimaced. I should have asked Harley who the new Proctors were. He caught sight of a suitably obscure alley and arched his steps toward it.

They alley crouched in the shadow of a temple, its depths pipe-ridden, steam-clogged, and utterly vacant. The temple itself was also mostly empty; the only visible inhabitants were the attending Necromancers and a couple pedestrians who were still recovering from their resurrections. These convalescents occupied the temple's courtyard and, for the most part, were asleep or busy easting. Noir strode past the temple and vanished into the alleyway.

As the steam closed in around him, Noir exhaled and gently pulled on the Shadow-Steel grate underfoot. It yielded to his command willingly, abandoning it density and reverting partially to its original, insubstantial form. He slid down through the floor, his descent slowed by the grate, which had assumed a watery density, and fell into the enclosed corridor below.

Noir straightened and turned, directing his footsteps back toward the Dollhouse as the grate solidified overhead. A stack of pipes ran along the walls to either side of him, their heat filling the corridor even though they periodically released bursts of steam. The shadows swirled around Noir as he walked, forming into the shapes of insects, rats, and a various dark-skinned plants. These shadow-born fauna quickly scurried off into the mazelike corridor of the undercity, the animals phasing through the walls and floor while the plants buried themselves into some dark corner.

So why aren't we just going straight down again?

Because I want to know when they come looking for me. Noir turned down another corridor. The plants began to bloom and extend paper-thin tendrils of shadow behind him. These tendrils flowed into and along the walls, first reaching out toward the other plants and then connecting with them.

Isn't this a little excessive though; and that's a lotus, they grow in water.

Noir shrugged, one hand buried in his pocket and the other holding his uniform. There's plenty of moisture here. A rose bloomed to his right, its black, silken petals glistening with condensation. As for excess, the undercity is huge and I believe in redundancy.

Alright, the undercity is huge and redundancy is good, but do you have to use a different flower every time?

Yes, there is no artistry in a monoculture. The corridor opened up suddenly in a wide room. Pipes still ruled the walls, but valves now decorated their surfaces and stairs interrupted their continuity. Noir glanced around, noting the white banner hanging over or beside the stairs, even those that descend. We should be underneath the Dollhouse now. He crossed to the room's center, the grate floor shifting subtly, but significantly, beneath him. Shadow lines dashed out from beneath his feet, intersection, coalescing and separating again. An image quickly took shape, that of a rose, complete with petals and a network of vines that touched every surface of the room. The image blinked once and stilled as Noir reached its axis, the rose solidifying and mellowing until it looked as if it had always been there.

Noir spun slowly, observing his artistry. This should work. He nodded to himself and phased through the floor, where more blooms, rodents, and insects were already taking shape. He continued traveling downward, phasing through floor after floor as the heat continued to mount. Finally, he phased through a floor and dropped into freefall. There was a moment of weightlessness, then he landed on a massive boiler. The hiss of exhaust pipes, the thrum of engines, and the groan of pressured iron filled Noirs ears as he straightened in the orange light of Umbras's burning heat.

The End

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