There is an old saying by a people so long lost to history that no one remembers their name, and it goes like this; “He who tickle the Polypoctor, go home blinder than a Billcock”. Much time has been spent debating the meaning of this saying, and very few such debates ever come to an agreement, but one philosopher—an ageing man in the year 8,021 BC—guessed that the people whose name has passed from memory, probably spent too much time in the sun.
He was absolutely right.
Still, knowledge is only passed on when enough people agree that it is, in fact, knowledgeable, and in such a fashion sayings and parables are able to pass from generation to generation, no matter how incredibly nutty they may seem.
This particular saying, changed somewhat by time, is relevant because it is the motto on the coat of arms of an ancient organisation known as “The Brethren”. Unimaginative and generic as their name may be, The Brethren are tasked with the protection of a great secret that, if discovered by the “wrong kind”, could lead to the destruction of the world and all that it contains.
The fact that no one knows what this secret is, The Brethren would say, is a sign of how good they are at their job.
Like all things that can claim to be ancient, The Brethren had changed over time. Much of their history was spent in monasteries, dressed in itchy hemp robes and uncomfortable sandals with matching socks. Somewhere around 1934, The Brethren changed their image once more, taking on the outward appearance of a large accounting firm.
It was the perfect disguise.
Under the guise of an accountancy firm, The Brethren were able to ditch the uncomfortable robes and unsightly sandals in favour of nice suits and expensive shoes. Gone were the cold, draughty monasteries, replaced by carpeted offices and leather chairs. Perhaps best of all was the fact that, being an accounting firm, it was perfectly acceptable to have a large employee base, none of which seemed to be in possession of a job title or description that was in any way understandable to the general public.
Brother Hilfred, however, knew exactly what his role was in The Brethren, and it didn’t have a title. He was one of a small number of brothers charged with the protection of an artefact of great significance to humankind. So much significance, in fact, that it had been hidden away from humanity and guarded by The Brethren for nearly five thousand years.
Brother Hilfred was one of five. It had been five since the beginning, and no one quite seemed to know why beyond the fact it had always been five. There was to be a brother guarding the artefact at all times, and this meant that there tended to be a lot attempts to swap shifts—mostly at the weekends, or when an interesting show was on in the theatre—soon followed by arguments over who should be watching The Artefact on Thursday night and, ultimately, passive aggressive notes and all manner of sulkiness.
Though guarding The Artefact was seen as a honour at first, it soon became a boring, repetitive, humdrum affair, owed to the fact that The Brethren had done such a good job of keeping the artefact a secret. It had been a few thousand years since anyone had even been aware of it, let alone tried to steal it. Brother Hilfred was in a good mood, however, because his service as one of the five guardians of The Artefact was coming to an end.
He whistled an upbeat tune as he stepped smartly down the corridor that lead to the vault in which a locked chest chained to the floor and sealed shut by five separate locks held The Artefact, knowing that this would be the last time he had to do so.
Today was going to be a good day.
He continued to whistle his merry tune, thinking as he did about all the fun things he would do when his last shift ended. The vault came into view at the end of a long corridor, hewn from the solid stone far below The Brethren’s nondescript office building, and the last note that Brother Hilfred whistled held for one long, horrible moment.
Brother Gram, who should have been guarding The Artefact, was missing.
‘He’s probably nipped to the loo,’ Brother Hilfred assured himself, walking on toward the vault.
Which was open.
‘Perhaps Brother Gram is inside the vault checking on the artefact,’ Brother Hilfred said aloud, stepping inside the vault.
Where the chest containing the artefact was sat open and unattended.
‘Obviously Brother Gram was checking on the Artefact and was called away on some urgent matter,’ Brother Hilfred said, his tone flat and unconvincing. He peered into the chest.
Which was empty.
‘Bugger,’ he said.