Lieprecht’s office looked like a museum. It was so chock full of display cabinets, glass boxes and things hanging off the ceiling that it was remarkable he had even fit his dark wooden desk with the intricately designed brass knobs in there. Clearly, the man had a hoarding problem. It was hard to breathe at the smell of dust, varnish and formaldehyde in this room.
Among the things he displayed were tiny Ancient Egyptian boats that looked like they were stolen from a grave somewhere. There were daggers and various iron prongs and strangely shaped ironcast tools, maybe used for leatherwork. The one thing Lieprecht pointed his well manicured finger to, sitting inside the corner, hidden in plain sight were three links of a dark metal chain.
“Innocent-looking, isn’t it?” said Lieprecht.
The man had the strangest look in his eye. Like somebody who was equally greedy and scared, not knowing whether to grab something or to run away.
Joachim leaned in to get a better look. There were no magic symbols engraved into the chain. The links weren’t even particularly well made, their structure crude and irregular, the way medieval tools looked.
“Excuse me if I don’t follow,” said Joachim. “How is this the most powerful weapon in existence?”
They sure had their touch of melodrama. And/or never heard of nuclear warheads.
“How much do you know about Vessels?” said Lieprecht. “About the work our guild does?”
Joachim shrugged. Better to play stupid and get more details in the process.
“There are several states of existence that a human being can enter,” said Lieprecht. “Its initial state is that of a corporal being, in entwined with its nascent soul. Brain and soul exist in perfect harmony with each other, in the way that the soul shapes the complex neural networks and in turn gets shaped by them. It is a kind of symbiosis that is impossible to achieve on this level of sophistication ever again.”
Joachim took this in. They were certainly taking care to merge their beliefs with science. Joachim sort of had to respect them for that, even if he feared that all of this he was telling him was hogwash.
“At the death of the biological body, the soul separates. Unless it is claimed by the Powers Above, it will drift into the underworld, Hell, as we Westerners call it. The human being in question is now a being of pure magical energy, free in many ways, less so in others. Earth does not have sufficient amounts of magic to sustain it and all but the rarest soul has the capabilities to exert influence upon it.”
“Wait,” said Joachim. “Are you saying Hell is a physical place? Just somehow… more magical?”
“Hell is very much a physical place,” said Lieprecht. “Somehow more magical, however, would be a gross oversimplification.”
There was something there. This piece of information connected to something else. Joachim just wasn’t sure what yet.
“As you might have gathered,” Lieprecht continued, “there are certain factions in Hell that very much wish to exert such influence. This is where the Fleshcrafter’s Guild comes in. It is our noble calling to once again restore the gift of a self-sustaining biological body upon the disincorporated souls. If you consider this for a moment, I think you will realize what sort of position this puts the Guild into.”
Joachim had been aware of this before. Nevertheless he whistled appreciatively.
“Between a heap of rocks and a huge, well-sorted collection of hard places,” said Joachim.
“Well put,” said Lieprecht. “We have put a lot of effort into keeping the process anonymized. Not even the Lord Guild Leader could easily find out when a certain body was created and which House it now belongs to. These structures are the results of many hard won lessons, many periods of time where knowledge, experience and skill were lost and rediscovered and developed. You will have to forgive me if we seem a bit harsh. Any discourtesy inflicted upon you was in a way nothing but the means to our continued survival.”
Joachim took this all statesman-like with a stern nod.
“So what about the chain?” said Joachim.
“It is simple,” said Lieprecht. “In a period of… less refined artisanship, the delicate balance between a soul and a freshly created brain were hard to achieve. Instead, bodies were created that were sort of universal, with chains to bind the soul into the vessel, forcefully keeping it from escaping.”
That had been the missing pieces. Inside Joachim’s head, several things clicked into place simultaneously.
“This makes it possible to steal a body!” said Joachim. “You could take it, unmarked as it is, and go anywhere without your House knowing where you went. A… rogue agent.”
Lieprecht nodded enthusiastically.
“That is the problem precisely,” he said. “Luckily this hasn’t really happened all that often. Herr Zayenkovic is a pretty notorious example, certainly. Also, the mechanisms of aging are optional, at least on a biological level. There are many treaties in place now that make it mandatory for enhanced camouflage and so forth, but I won’t deny that it benefits us greatly.”
“Not only could they steal the body, they could… live forever?”
Lieprecht smiled an evil little smile.
“That is the advantage and the curse. As long as the chains are in place, the soul will not leave the body, no matter how much trauma is inflicted upon it. Any wound will heal eventually, provided you keep eating. It is my personal theory that some of the modern myths about the undead stem from this very fact.”
Joachim remembered Andrej driving a truck through a portal and then through the wall of a cabin in the woods, reportedly having a grand time all the while. He remembered his driving style a couple of days ago. It fit.
A third alternative.
Faust wanted Andrej’s body. Perhaps he thought he could replicate the process.
The arm in the laboratory. Of course! One of the fugitives had cut off their arm to get rid of the mark. Joachim wondered if that worked. And if he would have the guts to do it to himself if necessary.
“The Great House of Hades,” said Joachim.
“What about them?” said Lieprecht.
“That is where he went. They were trying to negotiate something and things went sideways. They didn’t come back out.”
Lieprecht tilted his heads to each side, considering this.
“That is valuable information,” he said. “Thank you.”
“So that’s it,” said Joachim. “Our bargain is fulfilled? Just like that?”
“Herr Schwartz, you may well be lying,” he said. “Should you be foolish enough to try to deceive one of the most powerful guilds in the cosmos, you will soon learn your lesson. It might not be today, it might not be twenty years from now, but immortality gives you nothing if not patience. We do tend to have a long memory.”
He didn’t feel comfortable at all here. Were the walls closing in a bit?
“I can go?” said Joachim.
“You may go,” said Lieprecht, “I do have another question for you. Just something that is of personal interest to me. If you will indulge me?”
Joachim took a deep breath and braced himself.
“This fugitive you sold out must be capable and probably has some friends. Who are you allied with? You have no standing. Why do you involve yourself in infernal politics?”
Joachim felt resigned all of a sudden.
“There are some things too evil to be allowed to exist,” said Joachim. “And I have the feeling that if I don’t stand up and do something about them, nobody will.”
“You are doing this alone?”
“If I have to,” said Joachim. “I have a grant deal or whatever with somebody out there. Other than that I have no one to trust, which I think is probably not a bad thing.”
Lieprecht seemed taken aback at this. He went to the antique swivel chair in front of his desk and sat down.
“Are you trying to shoot for a place Above?” said Lieprecht.
Joachim shook his head.
“I already refused one.”
Bile rose up in Joachim’s stomach just thinking about it.
Maybe you should do your own research about what happened to the people inside the garage.
…violate the Covenant of Eden…
There are some fairly powerful individuals making sure that the Silence will not be broken.
Joachim wasn’t sure. Maybe this was propaganda. Maybe this was a subtle little head fake to turn him away from them. The feeling in Joachim’s gut, the way Hadraniel had behaved, all of it steered him towards another direction entirely though.
“Oh my,” said Lieprecht. “Oh my. Would you mind showing me the mark of your grant?”
Joachim shouldn’t have. There was no point in revealing more information than strictly necessary to anyone in a hostile environment like this one.
He did anyway. If only because he was curious.
Lieprecht had warm fingers. His hands were surprisingly soft for a man his apparent age. He carefully inspected the moving tattoo on Joachim’s arm.
“So what’s the verdict?” said Joachim.
“I want to apologize for the discourtesy I have given you,” said Lieprecht. “Please forgive me. I am unworthy.”
Lieprecht was trembling. Joachim pulled his arm away.
“What did you see?” he said.
Lieprecht shook his head.
“If you don’t know, I cannot divulge the information,” he said. “You will learn when you are supposed to learn. Please leave.”
Considering that moments ago he had wondered whether they would let him walk away at all, he was only too happy to oblige him.