Great Forks was a city of celebration that night. The hum of the festivities and the sweetness of perfumes hung in the air, which made the grisly scene in one darkened corner of the city all the more grotesque.
Midnight Rose did not know why she was allowed onto the crime scene, but she was not about to question good fortune and moved closer to the body of Karreth Doublegift, Great Forks’ Minister of Lore. Behind her, the two drunks that had discovered the body continued to babble meaninglessly, despite attempts by one of the six Enforcers to calm them. As she drew closer to the dismembered corpse, she overheard another one of the god-blooded peacekeepers, a short woman with peacock feathers for hair, sharp features, and a shortbow slung over her shoulder, as she conversed with Alessia, the woman that had let her through. Her words towards Alessia were in curt, but respectful tones, as a soldier might report to a superior in the field.
“-must protest,” the Enforcer was saying, “This is a criminal investigation, Lady Fenrir. We can’t just let anyone we please onto the site.”
“This is as much my investigation as yours, Captain Tercia,” Alessia replied smoothly, “I shall take full responsibility, of course.”
Tercia’s mouth clamped shut, “As you say, Ma’am,” the god-blooded captain then said with the barest of nods. She then shot Rose a glance that the sidereal recognized to be a familiar blend of annoyance and distrust before moving off to convene with her subordinates.
“Did you know him long?” Rose asked Alessia as the blond woman moved closer to the body as well.
“For some months,” Alessia replied reminiscently, a somewhat forced smile curling her lips by just a touch. She then kneeled by the corpse and brushed her fingertips over Karreth’s face to smooth the grimace that marred it. “He gave me a reason to be here and people to hear my words,” she added before glancing back up towards the sidereal, “And you?”
Rose joined the woman in blue silks beside the body, “I only met him yesterday,” she admitted with a frown then tipped her chin towards the corpse, “May I?”
Deep blue eyes, like the ocean, regarded her for a drawn out breath. It was a look that reminded Rose of her Sifu, a level and knowing stare that seemed to lay her out like an open book. But before she had enough time to begin feeling uncomfortable, the woman beside her smiled briefly and dipped her head, “Please,” she agreed.
Balanced on the balls of her feet, Rose leaned over the body, or what was left of it. Just like before at the ruined caravan the wounds were uniformly curved and lined with a glistening mush of melted flesh and acidic slime. Whatever had killed Doublegift was thorough and were it not for those drunks that sounded the alarm, there probably would have been nothing left for them to examine except for a few splatters of blood.
Just like the disappearances that have been going around.
“These wounds don’t have any markings that would suggest teeth or claws did this,” Rose reported. This was not new for her, but she repeated her findings anyway, “Looks to be some kind of acid.”
“Like some kind of attack?” Alessia suggested.
“I don’t think so?” the sidereal said with a shake of her head and pointed at the edges of the wounds, “See this? The lines are too perfect. A projectile would cause some kind of splatter and anything that would burn through quickly enough to do this would have hit the surrounding environment as well.”
“A close-ranged attack then,” Alessia amended with a thoughtful tilt of her head. “Something like that would not be unheard of in Great Forks.”
“Maybe,” Rose murmured unconvinced. She thought back to the first scene, and the condition of the bodies there. Her scarlet hued eyes studied the body in front of her for similarities. And once you start to see the patterns, the anomalies will reveal themselves in short order…
“Look here,” the Chosen of Mars prompted, gingerly rotating one of Doublegift’s arms so that the palm faced skyward. It was marred with scrapes and torn skin, and some of the fingertips had some black grit under the cuticles. “These injuries don’t match the rest. Same with these here,” she gestures to the body’s scrapped knees, “Looks like these were the result of a fall.”
“Or when someone attacked him from behind,” Alessia said thoughtfully, following the track Rose had lain out.
“Right. Meaning this may not be where the attack started,” Rose took a glance around the area. There were too many shadowed areas in and around the courtyard where the ambush might have come from. “I’m going to take a few samples of the damage,” she explained and pulled out her sampling kit from under her jacket. “After that, I think we should have a look around. Damaged bushes, scruff marks on the stones, anything that might give us an idea of what happened here.”
“Piecing together the past by examining the present,” the visiting scholar mused, “I had not thought it possible for events so transient or with clues so inconsequential”
“Everything is connected in one way or another,” Rose explained as she took her samples, this was a good chance as any to do some of the grunt work Oversight had dropped on her, “People, places, things, and actions. A shift in one causes ripples in every direction in a cascade effect. You just got to learn to see the connections.”
There was silence then as Rose worked and Alessia considered her words. “You are a very interesting woman, Ms. Midnight Rose,” she said at last as she looked at her with a contemplative expression.
Rose made a face and raised a brow, “Ugh, stop it with the miss stuff. Just Rose all right?” she retorted gruffly around the strange compliment. “Come on. Let’s see what we can find.”
“Of course,” Alessia replied with a brief smile and rose smoothly to her feet.
As they moved away from the body the Enforcer with the peacock feathers for hair, Captain Tercia, broke away from the interrogating the two drunks. “Find anything, Ma’am?” she asked once she got within arms’ length.
“A few clues regarding cause of death,” Rose said offhandedly, “but we’ve still got some work to do so we can piece together the sequence of events.”
The captain shot Alessia a questioning look and the blond haired beauty replied with a shrugging sort of smile.
“Have you learned anything from the ones who found Mr. Doublegift’s body?” Alessia asked as her eyes shifted to the two drunkards and then back towards the Enforcer.
“Still babbling about jumping shadows and the like,” Tercia grumbled with a sigh. “They’re so high off The Three knows what that I can’t even tell whether they had seen anything at all.”
“Perhaps I can be of some assistance,” Alessia suggested as she calmly straightened her silk skirt then stepped past the captain towards the two men.
Captain Tercia gave Rose an once over and cocked her head towards the only exit out of the courtyard, her feathers ruffling in a nonexistent breeze, “My men are combing the scene as we speak. If anything’s amiss, they’ll find it.”
“If it’s all the same to you,” the Battles replied nonchalantly, “I’d like to have a look around myself.”
“I bet,” Tercia muttered under her breath then shifted her weight from one foot to the other, the leather underneath her lamellar shirt creaking almost imperceptibly, “Just don’t get in the way of my men or I’ll have you escorted off the premises.”
“Right,” Rose retorted over her shoulder, having already passed the god-blooded by. The sidereal paused just outside the courtyard. Out in the open, the bustle of merrymaking once again dominated the atmosphere and she could see more figures wandering about the gardens. The Enforcers’ presence was more than enough to keep the curious at bay, but that did not stop them from gawking from a distance.
The three Enforcers that had arrived with Alessia were fanned out away from the courtyard. Their attention was focused on the surrounding shrubbery and paved walkways. From the looks on their faces however, the Battles assumed that they have yet to find anything of importance. Rose breathed a deep sigh and tried to clear her mind. There had to be something useful here. A shift in destinies had occurred. It was just a matter of picking through the right pieces to reveal the truth.
She dropped to a knee and inspected a patch of soil near the flagstones surrounding the courtyard entrance. There was nothing special about it or the flowers nearby, but one has to start somewhere, she reasoned and idly took up a handful of the stuff. It was moist, as though freshly tilled, and smelled vaguely like the plants around it. She rubbed a pinch of it between her thumb and index finger when a lull in the ambient noise let her hear Alessia’s voice.
Rose glanced in the woman’s direction. One of the drunks seemed to have calmed down enough to speak and she seemed to be listening with rapt attention. Her stance was almost regal, her hands folded neatly over her lap even while standing. Her scarf, a flimsy thing of sky colored silks was draped immaculately over her slim shoulders and made the gold of her tresses all the more apparent. She was leaning forward slightly, barely, but enough to convince a person that her attention was theirs and theirs alone. It was an effective if simple gesture, but one that took the sidereal years to learn and master. Yet the warmth that she exuded was genuine.
There was something familiar about her, Rose decided, which gave her a start. The Hell… She shook her head with a self-reprimanding scoff and dropped the dirt back onto the flowerbed.
If there’s nothing on the ground, then maybe… She turned her gaze upward and examined the low hanging archway then promptly cursed under her breath at the deep shadows that concealed any clues there might have been. Maybe I can borrow a light from someone, Rose mused as she stood up and dusted her hands on her pants. She chose an Enforcer at random then she made her way over, picking at the bits of brown dirt under her nails.
“Jupiter’s Yardstick!” Rose exclaimed with a snap of her fingers and spun on her heel. She ignored the looks the outburst garnered and marched back into the courtyard. Captain Tercia, who had been listening in on the witness watched her with a raised brow, as did Alessia as Rose reexamined the body.
The sidereal checked Doublegift’s hands once more, placing her grimy fingers next to his for reference. Sure enough, the grim under the corpse’s fingers were black.
“Find something?” Tercia’s voice called out accompanied by the sound of armored boots on stone.
“I think so,” Rose replied, not looking back. Instead she got her sample kit out once more and gently scooped up a bit of the material with a swab. Whatever it was, the grains were too fine to be soil or sand. It was almost like some kind of slime. As she leaned in to get a closer look at it, the sidereal caught a whiff of the rank that clung to the sample like a pile harbor refuse. “Ugh! Mela’s tits!” she gagged.
“Pardon?” Alessia asked as she stepped around the sidereal.
“Nothing, sorry,” Rose replied dismissively, “Look, the crap under Doublegift’s fingers isn’t just random dirt. Nothing in the surround area matches it. Smells like rotten fish too.” She offered the swab to the captain, “What do you think?”
Tercia looked skeptical but decided to humor her, “Sewer sludge,” she said almost immediately with a wrinkled nose, “We have storm channels running underneath the main streets to keep them from flooding during the rains. They tend to build up this stuff after a few months before the rains washes the trash into the river.”
“Any large chambers or entrances besides street access?” Rose probed.
“No. The rains usually take care of any maintenance issues. The channels do get larger the closer you get to the outflow vents. The city has three of them dumping any of the collected water straight into the river.”
“When I spoke with the witnesses,” Alessia added, “they mentioned an odor that reminded them of the wharfs. Are any of these exits near the fishery?”
The Enforcer captain nodded once, “One of them does. Do you think that’s where these creatures are hiding?”
Alessia responded with a nod of her own, “I do. Mr. Doublegift was always quite devoted to cleanliness and personal hygiene. There is no doubt in my mind that this,” she gestured at the swab in the captain’s hand, “was obtained during the attack.”
“Wait, what?” Rose interrupted, throwing her hands up, “Creatures? Plural?”
Tercia gave her a glowering look, but the other woman nodded, “We have reason to believe that we are dealing with more than one culprit behind the disappearances that have been happening as of late.”
This time it was Rose’s turn to glower, “Mmm, right,” she let the topic drop and stowed her kit, “Find anything else from the drunken pair over there?”
“It would seem that Mr. Doublegift had fought back against his attacker,” Alessia reported solemnly, “They said that they heard a cry for aid and struggling, which brought them to this place. What attacked him was described as a ‘man as dark as the Princess Magnificent’s soul’ with hands too big to be human. They claimed to have scared the creature off when they bellowed and screamed at it. Rather than attack them, it then crawled up the wall of the Academy like a gecko and disappeared over the roof.”
“Great,” Rose muttered. “Well, let’s get moving. It’ll probably try to lay low for a bit if it’s been spooked. We should be able to catch it where it lives as long it doesn’t know that we figured out its hiding spot.”
“Absolutely not,” Tercia snapped curtly. “This is an Enforcer matter. I won’t have a civilian interfering-”
“Captain Tercia,” Alessia said with an air of authority, “I would like to investigate this lead immediately.”
“Of course, Ma’am,” Tercia replied and cleared her throat, her feathers ruffling in attractive waves, “I’ll assign your usual bodyguard detail. I will report to The Three now and have my squad handle the clean up here. Would that be satisfactory?”
“Indeed,” Alessia said with a charming smile and turned to leave, “Would you like to accompany me,” she skipped a beat, as though having trouble dispensing with the formality, “Rose?”
“Yeah, sure,” Rose replied, finding it difficult to hide the surprise in her voice.
Captain Tercia did not look very happy but said nothing as she followed them out of the courtyard and recalled her Enforcer subordinates. “We have a lead on the preps. Dagger squad will provide security for Lady Fenrir and the civilian during the op. She’ll brief you on the way. The rest of you, keep the gawkers out and call in the morticians. We’re done here. Dismissed.” She then turned her attention back to Alessia, “I’ll try to round up some reinforcements and meet you at the docks. And here,” the captain added and offered her bow to Alessia.
The gorgeous blond dipped her head in gratitude and accepted the weapon and its accompanying quiver, “Thank you, Captain.”
“Just uhh, don’t do anything stupid, Ma’am.”
“Of course,” was the patient reply before Alessia looked to Rose with a brief smile, “Now, shall we move on?”
Getting across the city was a simple affair when you have a squad of Enforcers in tow. The thickest crowds parted as a knife through the proverbial butter as even the rowdiest of revelers knew well to stand aside when the Enforcers came through. Rose quickly learned from Alessia that the Enforcers did this for their benefit, as they possessed some kind of power that allowed them to arrive at any point within the city faster than physically possible. The Battles figured that it had something to do with The Three but the other woman did not seem to know any more on the subject.
It did not take long for them to reach the fishery. Great Forks supported a small fishing industry, which fed the population’s hunger for fresh riverfare as well as provided some of the riches fertilizer in the region for its numerous agricultural concerns. Nestled on the southern tip of the docks, the fishery was little more than a half-moon shaped harbor for a little over a dozen fishing boats, four accompanying warehouses, and a processing plant. The area around the fishery was packed thick with warehouses. Understandable since the entire area reeked of rotten fish entrails and other refuse.
The entrance to the storm channels was located underneath the processing plant, which added its waste to the mix of garbage and rain runoff as it poured into the Rolling River.
It was all rather disgusting.
Fortunately, the plant was closed for the evening, and the lack of rainfall insured that entering the channels would be a simple matter. The trio of Enforcers led the way as they took a set of rickety wooden steps to a long path of planks under the piers that led to the storm channel. The opening was more than wide enough to accommodate all five of them walking abreast, but Rose knew that the tunnel will quickly become almost impassable the further they travel into the city.
One the Enforcers, the same one with reptilian features that had stopped her earlier, produced a small light blue glowstone attached to a sturdy chain, which he then wore around his neck. The light revealed a tunnel composed of small gray bricks that have been polished smooth by centuries of rain. A thin layer of foul smelling sludge covered the lower half of the tunnel, causing loud and wet noises as the first two Enforcers entered the tunnel. The third produced his own glowstone amulet and waited patiently for Rose and Alessia to enter, so that he may cover the rear.
As Alessia moved to enter, Rose caught her by the arm, “Wait. Before we go in there I want to know something.”
“Of course,” the other woman prompted patiently.
“Why the Hell do you trust me with all of this? I mean, you just met me. Sure, I helped you with this that bit earlier, but I came out of nowhere. You have no business trusting me.”
“My,” Alessia giggled musingly, “You certain do not make a very good case for yourself.”
Rose stared at her plainly, “I’m being serious here.”
The other woman giggled behind her smile, “As am I,” then paused thoughtfully, “I do not know why I trust you. I just do.” When it was obvious that it was not an acceptable answer, she hummed and thought breath longer with her cheek cupped on a palm, “I suppose if I had to call it something, then it would be…instinct.” She nodded once, as though reaffirming the idea, “Yes, instinct.”
One of Rose’s shapely eyebrows quickly became higher than the other, “O-kay, right,” she said, turned towards the tunnel, and took a step up into it before looking back over her shoulder, “You’re very odd, you know that?”
As Rose climbed into the tunnel she heard Alessia’s light laughter echoing in the enclosed space. It was quickly followed by an amused, “And you are very interesting.”