Author Topic: Got You Under My Skin  (Read 9531 times)

Offline Bons

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Got You Under My Skin
« on: February 21, 2005, 02:34:38 PM »
Disclaimer: This is Domi's fault, really, posted at the Attic for the current quiz topic that stole my brain. I repost it here so that you may all suffer. While I have ruminated over a good chunk of the morning the depths to which I dislike the end result of my work, the time has come to let go of this little fanfic burden and promise faithfully to never do it again.

Pinky swear.



Got You Under My Skin


        The pounding on his door came before dawn. One of the advantages to heading the district guard was supposed to be a full night’s sleep. Night patrols were for the militia fresh from the training garrison, not for the experienced authorities. At least, so he’d heard. “Deduction,” Pandor Aegisfield muttered as he edged groggily from bed, “is best served at sunrise with a full breakfast.”

        He opened the door without a word. In a glance, Aegisfield saw an ugly picture painted by the guard’s stark eyes. “There’s been another. It’s... it’s bad.”

        Pandor arched an eyebrow. “Good news doesn’t yank me out of bed in the dark hours.” He ushered Mandiq inside. “I’ll be but five. If the Lieutenant is reduced to walking the streets in his loincloth, you know you’re definitely in the wrong part of town.”   
        True to his word, Aegisfield donned his full uniform, working the straps as he peppered his subordinate with questions. “How many?”

        The guard hesitated. “One... we think.”

        The Lieutenant sat down with a non-committal grunt and began to pull on his boots. “Witnesses?”

        “Two.” This answer was offered more brightly, but with a moment’s reflection, that confidence deflated. “They may not be reliable.”

        What murder witness ever was? Pandor thought. “For example...?”

        “One of the local beggars, sir.”

        Aegisfield wanted specifics. “Which one? Janna? Rampah? Vessic?”

        The young guard had the good sense to look embarrassed. “I... I don’t know, sir.”
   
        Aegisfield erased the shortcoming with an abrupt wave and stood: dressed, shod and ready. “I’ll find out soon enough. Who’s the other witness?”

        “Rose Bouquet.”

        Aegisfield stilled for a split second. Mandiq wouldn’t have noticed, but Aegisfield knew he’d faltered for that moment, recognized that he’d let a name mean something more than fact to him, mean a feeling, and he understood that was an unsupportable weakness in a man of his position. His duty was to care about the bottom line, the whole, not the individuals factored into the equation.

        The Lieutenant was also sharp enough to notice the young guard had no trouble remembering this witness’s name. He’d said it with a lascivious tinge, with foregone conclusion. And isn’t that what a girl like Rose is? Pandor wondered. A guaranteed commodity?

        He changed the subject to escape that thought. “Who found the body?”

        “A street urchin. Fa...” Mandiq returned to grasping for names. “Fa-something.”

        “Faraji. That would be Faraji,” the Lieutenant supplied as he reached the door. “Let’s go. I’m ready.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        You’re a fool, Pandor. No one is ever ready for something like this.

        He examined the severed head, first studying the glassy eyes and slack mouth, then the jagged line of flesh trimming the victim’s throat. It was the one cut that lacked precision, as if the killer had lost patience when victim had cried too loudly, forcing his voice to be silenced. Or maybe, the inspector thought, the head was getting in the way of his other work...

        The victim’s body was splayed to the side in a patchwork of gristle and sinew. Skin remained on the corpse, yes, unblemished around the joints, groin, hands and feet, but the torso had been cleanly peeled away to reveal the mechanics underneath. Blood pooled in the street, deeper where the cobblestones were uneven. The victim had been alive when the cutting began, horrifyingly aware of his fate as his life seeped away in red rivulets.

        In his years serving the watch, the Lieutenant had borne a multitude of crime scenes, many of them violent and explicit, but never one that defined a motivation beyond madness. This killing had a deliberation to it, an orchestration. The murderer had completed his job with pride, destroyed the flesh with a purpose. Aegisfield had witnessed the effects of a berserker's rage after it had ripped a body apart. He'd seen the cold calculation of a knife in the back, a poisoned dish of mutton or a garroted throat. He had dissected these crimes in the past, formulated a motive for their perpetration - sex, rage, avarice - but this melding, this premeditated mutilation spun his reasoning in a whirlwind.

         Releasing a heavy breath, Aegisfield turned away from the scene. "Take the body back to the garrison," he commanded the guard, "I'll have to study him in greater detail."

        "Do you recognize him, sir?" one of the soldiers asked with disbelief.

        Pandor nodded. "Aye. A merchant out of Calimshan, Tarif el Nadir. He's been running shipments for the Farrahd Estate a good two years now." Glancing beyond the bloody pavement, the Lieutenant considered the assortment of wagons and crate parked along the retaining wall. "Come to think of it, we'd best confiscate that cargo by order of the city, until I have a chance to verify if Nadir had delivered."

        As the soldiers of the watch moved to complete his commands, the Lieutenant scanned the small crowd congregated behind him. Most were curious onlookers, concerned and thrilled by the macabre spectacle. Central among them were the newest guards in his patrol, Mandiq and another fellow named Durstan, ostensibly in charge of keeping the citizens from gaining too close of a look and retaining the witnesses on scene until the Inspector had a chance to speak with them. They performed their task a bit too roughly, both quick to shove the common folk back if they stepped too close. Between them stood a boy with thin arms and saucer-wide eyes, a ripe candidate for trampling.

        Aegisfield cleared his throat, observing how the child shivered as authority approached. "Faraji." He tried to sound gentle, but the years of issuing orders had taken their toll, and the name erupted from his throat like another clipped demand. He saw the boy flinch, and he wondered at the worth of becoming a respected figure of the law when the very people he was dedicated to protect regarded at him with fear. Traits he had always held dear - knowing every name, recognizing the individual face, considering each life equally valuable - these qualities seemed to have faded in the months since his last promotion, and the devolution troubled him. Pandor resolved to do better, commencing with this anxious child.

        "Faraji," he repeated awkwardly, this time managing a softer tone. He crouched, meeting the boy's level, and clasped one tiny shoulder in a gauntlet-clad hand. "You are uninjured?"

        "Yessir," the boy mumbled quietly, then courage seemed to overtake him and he pleaded, “I'm not in trouble, am I?"

        "No, Faraji. You are not in trouble."

        "Are Ma and Pop?" the boy said.

        "Where are your parents?" the Lieutenant countered gently.

        Faraji scuffed his bloodstained footings against the street as he deliberated the correct answer. While Pandor mused how the ruined shoes would need replacing, the boy replied, "It was pay day, so Ma and Pop went to the Five Flagons. They like to celebrate havin' money," he explained, his expression falling slightly as he added, "but they don't want me around for the celebratin'."

        "So your parents asked you to sit outside the tavern and be a good boy?"

         "Yessir, and I was! I didn't talk to no one or do nuffin' til..." Faraji's eyes darted shyly. "Nature called me. I know I shoulda gone inside for a piss pot, but -"

        Children speaking of piss pots - what has this city come to? Aegisfield hid his distaste as he patted the boy's shoulder reassuringly. "I understand, you didn't want to risk interrupting your parents' celebrating. An unacceptable public act, yes, Faraji, but I take it you were relieving yourself when you discovered the body?"

       Suddenly the boy was shivering again. "Yessir."

       "Did you see anyone else in the area? Anyone suspicious?"

       "I don't think so," the boy said slowly. "Rose said she did, though! Ask 'er!"

       A figure stepped up behind the child. Feminine fingers ruffled through the boy's hair as a candy sweet voice murmured, "I'm sure the Lieutenant will, Faraji. It's his job, and he’s a man who loves his work."

       Aegisfield cursed himself for another of those split seconds, this one lost in spell struck study of a woman's delicate hand. He clenched his teeth, then straightened to his full height. His mind focused upon dignity, duty and confidence, while the rest of his senses scrambled at the nearness of her.

        Rose Bouquet. The name fit her blooming cheeks. In the afternoons, when she first surfaced in a crisp cotton dress to begin her day, she would always smell newly scrubbed with rosewater. In the afternoons, she could have been one of any number of lovely, young innocents buying staples for their supper in the market. In the afternoons, she would laugh like a girl when the pie seller had fresh wares out of the oven, her hair loose and shining golden in the sunlight. In the afternoons, she was a miracle that made a man's heart feel open, light and full of dreams.

        By the end of her night's work, Rose lost her sweet scent. She smelled of sweat and smoke, coupled with the unmistakable musk of sex. At the end of the night, she wore one of the garish silk costumes favored by the local courtesans; the garment did nothing to conceal the raw spots on the side of her neck or the bruises littering her arms leftover from overly enthusiastic customers. At the end of the night, she looked soiled and used, like day old bread crusts ready for the bargain bin. At the end of the night, Rose Bouquet was a woman who made Lieutenant Pandor Aegisfield ache with such longing and disgust, he had to catch his breath.

        “I am dedicated to the safety and well-being of every person who lives on the Bridge, Rose,” he said. “There are worse things I could do for a living.”

        She pursed her mouth in irritation. “Not everybody can afford to do what they love.” Her lips were swollen and flushed. A score of images flickered through his thoughts, calculating what she might have done to create that wanton mouth.

        “But decent folk find a way to do what is right.” The words had escaped, poison arrows of morality, and Pandor watched as they struck home. Rose covered her hurt neatly, allowing just one startled blink to betray her before she assumed a blank smile, but it was the Lieutenant’s job to see such things. As she had announced, Aegisfield loved his job dearly. “Is there something you would like to tell me about what you witnessed, Rose?”

        She shook her head slowly. “No. I didn’t catch anything useful. Just a man in a hood. It was dark.” Her gaze flashed defiantly. “Men are all the same in the dark.”

        Mandiq and Durstan murmured and snickered between themselves. Dark thoughts quickly stung the Lieutenant - had they paid for Rose’s company? He pushed the disturbing image away, though his voice grew unmistakably cold. “I see. In that case, I have no further questions for you.”

        Aegisfield turned, eager for a respite from her proximity, but she protested, seeming to sense his change in mood. “No, wait! I didn’t get a glimpse of the man’s face or anything, but there was something else. I caught a whiff of... of a familiar smell.”

        Intrigued, the Lieutenant moved closer. “What was it?”

        “I’m not entirely sure. I think it was... guril berries.”

        Aegisfield studied her earnest expression and experienced a tightening in his chest. She would be familiar with the scent of guril, but only because it was the main ingredient in a cure for intimate afflictions that was popular among the courtesans and their clientele. His voice lowered to an urgent whisper. “It wasn’t the berries. Speak no more of it, Rose.”

        “But it was!” She wanted to help, and she forced the idea, her tone growing louder and more insistent. “I smelled guril berries on the man!”

        The guards were chortling openly now, laughing at the ignorant streetwalker crying wolf. Pandor wanted to shake her silent or cover her ears, anything to stop this folly. He settled upon taking a step back and silencing the whispers of his troops with a penetrating glare.

        “That’s enough! Thank you, Rose. I need no more information from you.” He knew it was giving into a weakness, but he succumbed to the temptation of one more question. “I hope you are finished with your... activities... for the night, under the circumstances?”

        “Yes.” Her face looked resentful, and he wondered which annoyed her more - that she’d earn no more coin this night, or that he’d dwelled upon it. “I thought I’d take Faraji home with me. He can’t stay here, and I peeked in the Flagons. His folks are passed out upstairs from the drink.”

        Aegisfield hadn’t considered the boy might be left in the street until his parents sobered. It humbled him that Rose had needed to point it out, yet at the same time he was frustratingly aware that she was the distraction responsible for his shortsightedness. “That will not be necessary,” he said with assurance, determined to make amends for his failure in responsibility. “I’ll see that he’s fed and has a place to sleep.”

        Her fingers tousled the boy’s hair again. “What? Am I not good enough?”

        Her voice was casual, but brittle. Aegisfield wondered that there wasn’t more to her question than exasperation at his authority, but dismissed the idea as a fantasy. “It is simply not your duty. It was a gracious offer, however. The garrison thanks you.”

        “The whole garrison,” she repeated, then shot him a saucy wink. “Lovely.” Rose bussed Faraji enthusiastically on the cheek and wished the boy safe dreams.

        Watching her swaying hips disappear into the darkness, the Lieutenant cupped the boy’s face, lightly stroking the spot that her lips had touched with his thumb. He glanced down, and saw Faraji looking up at him with hope and trust. It was an infectious look, and, suddenly resolved, Aegisfield barked a new, curt, order to Mandiq. “Make sure the lady reaches her home safely.”

        The guard was startled into a protest. “But she’s a -!”

        “She’s a citizen of the Bridge, soldier. They are all worthy of our protection. If you think differently, I can instruct you in the matter on the training field come sunrise.”

        Mandiq lowered his chin, chastened, and he followed the courtesan as ordered. Aegisfield measured the remaining crowd with a glance, then focused on the final guard. “Durstan, you let Rampah wander off. Track him down. It is crucial that I speak with him. Here.” The Lieutenant pulled his coin purse from his belt. “Take this. A few coins will improve Rampah’s disposition. Use it as you need to find him.”

        The young man’s eyes burned with resentment. “But, sir! How am I supposed to find one stinking beggar among them all?”

        Lieutenant Aegisfield took Faraji’s tiny hand in his own, offering him his best attempt at a reassuring smile before answering the scowling soldier. “Try speaking to them. And soldier, for every day you don’t bring me Rampah, as safe and as sound as he gets, I’ll dock your wages. This is an important task, one I expect results on, or I shall want to know the reason why.”

        Durstan started to argue further, but apparently thought better of it. Pandor nodded as the man saluted, then the Lieutenant gave Faraji’s hand an encouraging squeeze before leading the child back to the garrison.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
   
        With little sleep, patrolling in the heat of the day made Aegisfield feel as though he was an ox with an overloaded cart lashed to his yoke. Discipline brings its burdens, he thought, sparing a rueful glance at the merchants and shopkeepers camped beneath their awnings, making brisk work with their palm fans as they sipped wine and amiably greeted their customers.

        He'd taken it upon himself to canvass the entire bridge during the day, offering warnings to the citizenship to keep indoors after dusk until the madman was apprehended. The early morning had been split by the discovery of more bodies, a pair identified as members of the Shadow Thieves by their garb. After issuing orders for the corpses to be taken back to the garrison, Aegisfield visited the local Temple of Helm. He arranged temporary overnight shelter with the Watchers for the homeless willing to suffer a few prayers in exchange for their safety, despite the impoverished tending to resist such obligations of charity. Hopefully, he would convince a few souls to take advantage of the offer when their lives were at stake.

        Thereafter, the Lieutenant’s time was spent making contact with the people on the street, warning them of the current threat and prompting new witnesses to come forward. Once word began to spread through the locals of his visits, Pandor also earned complaints from Thunderburp and Calbor, both worried about the continued health of their establishments if they had to depend on their customers being able to afford a room as well as a pint because of caution preached by the guard.

        Aegisfield kept an eye out for Rampah as he made his rounds, but the old man proved wily. He had low expectations for Durstan faring any better with his purse, but the Lieutenant decided the street populace could use the influx of a few coins, even if it profited little information. The novice guard also needed this chance to prove himself - he'd been given a difficult task with an unjust ultimatum.

        He hoped the young man would use the opportunity to finesse a better approach to dealing with the locals than shouting and kicking them from the streets. Perhaps Durstan would even learn a touch of humility as Mandiq had done. The latter had sought out the Lieutenant to express regret for his behavior as soon as he’d returned to the garrison from his escort duty. It was a sign of maturity in Mandiq that he was heartened to see in a new soldier.

        Mid-afternoon, Pandor caught a glimpse of Rose, buying apples off of Bel the merchant. He watched as she closed her eyes, smelling the ripe fruit with a peaceful smile before handing over her coin. The ranks of citizens shopping at the stall swelled, and, for a moment, he lost sight of her. Instinctively, he stretched, sifting the bobbing heads of townsfolk for the one with blonde curls.

        The crowd parted, and Rose stood there, staring straight at him as she nibbled one apple and juggled the other lazily in her free hand. “If it isn’t the defender of the populace!” she announced as she strolled closer.

        Her attention unsettled him. He scowled briefly, eyeing the passing figures to see if anyone had noted him gaping like a fool over her approach.

        Only Rose. Her gaze followed him, her mouth twisting as she formed her own conclusions. “Should I not have called so brazenly? Or...” She feigned a gasp. “I hope there isn’t a fine for talking with my mouth full. I’ll be a pauper!” She tossed him her second apple, and Aegisfield caught it in self-defense. “More than I am already,” she added frankly.

        His tongue felt like sandpaper. “Greetings, Rose.” He nodded briskly at the fruit gift, “Thank you,” then took a bite for lack of comfortable words.

        “Greetings, Inspector, “ she mimicked. “You’re always so formal.”

        He swallowed thoughtfully before replying, “It is my responsibility as a figurehead of the law.”

        “I know,” she said quietly. “You’ve been shaking the pike today, haven’t you? All the talk on the street is of you making the rounds, warning folks of the danger around us. Instead of shaking in their boots, everyone seems to be placing bets on how soon you’ll hang the fiend outside the garrison.”

        “While I am touched by their faith in my abilities, I am not so confident. I have had little time to investigate. The general safety of the citizenship must be secured first.”

        “The citizenship,” she said. “We’re all to be equally defended and avenged. That’s how you see us, isn’t it?”

        “Of course.”

        Rose nodded absently, then took a sharp bite out of her apple. “I treated Faraji to a noon meal. You made quite an impression with him, too. He chattered incessantly about drills and protocol: ‘The Lieutenant said this,’ and ‘The Lieutenant said that.’ I drew the line when he began to speak of slaying dragons.”

        “He is an enthusiastic child,” Pandor agreed, “with an imagination as big as his appetite.” She quirked an eyebrow, and he offered an explanation. “I had a noon meal with Faraji, as well.”

        “That boy had a busy hour.”

        “I doubt he is used to such attention. Naturally, he would take advantage.”

        “Naturally,” Rose agreed. “I... I don’t like his parents. I don’t approve of how they ignore him.” After a pause, she dimpled wryly, “But fair’s fair. Who’d approve of me?”

        “I do,” he replied without thought. To cover his carelessness, he added, “In certain circumstances,” but he only felt more awkward when Rose smiled.

        “Be still my beating heart,” she trilled, saluting him with her apple as she departed “I’ll leave you to your preservation of the general safety of the citizenship.”

        The afternoon had become a blur of pounding sun and familiar faces until Aegisfield circled back to the northern arch bounding the territory of the Bridge. There, he spied a motley crew of four gaining their bearings. His first conclusion was to brand them mercenaries - the pair heading the group was ominous: a mountain of a man in full armor with a tribal tattoo splayed across his shaved head walking in tandem with a tall, armed woman, newly-healed scars marking her face. She held her spear with both hands, as though she expected a merchant to attack her with a hairbrush at any given second.

        Details soon allayed his initial suspicions of a threat. His first clue was a twitch of movement about the shoulders of the warrior. A small rodent bobbed along for the ride, tipping its nose so its whiskers would tickle the man’s cheek. Aegisfield observed the behemoth smile down at his furry companion, then rub its head gently with one sausage-like finger.

        Another pair of figures came into view, and the lieutenant marked their garments with relief. The second woman bore the seal of Lathander - surely no cleric of those ranks would threaten the peace? At her side was a man with striking red hair, wearing blue robes of the style favored by those who frequented the trading circuit.

        Ultimately they were an approachable group, but Aegisfield was uncomfortable with the thought of well-meaning vigilantes adding to the local uproar. He felt obligated to make his presence know and share a word of caution. "Greetings, citizens,” he called. “I trust you'll be keeping your weapons at your sides. I should hate to have to run you by the garrison if anything should happen."

        The smaller of the two women stepped forward, asserting the voice of the group. "I'm sure there are more important things than me for you to worry about." Her tone was soft, but firm, giving the impression that she had traveled a long way to be standing before him, and saw no reason to turn shy from her goal.

        "Without question,” the Lieutenant replied patiently. At closer inspection, he noted recently healed scarring on this woman’s face, as well. It was a disturbing trend; one that made him sense this group had troubles enough without the violent mysteries of the Bridge with which to contend. “But I'm making it my business to warn everybody on the street tonight,” he explained, assuming a helpful tone. “With all your gear you might look a rich target to the wrong person."

        The tattooed behemoth rumbled. “Heroes of goodness need no warning!  Where we tread, evil trembles in our wake!” Aegisfield heard a faint squeaking echoing this declaration as the rodent on the warrior’s shoulder rolled its paws.

        "I'm warning everyone,” Aegisfield repeated, trying to not be bemused by this strange sight, “so as to get the word out that there are guards on the streets. We've had a... a string of killings, and I don't want any more happening."

        Their leader looked defensive, and the Lieutenant noted that she pulled her cloak over the flail that hung from her belt. "People die all the time. This is a dangerous age we live in."

        This stranger had seen violence, yes, but the caution in her manner caused Aegisfield to suspect that she had not been the instigator. "Dangerous enough for people that look for trouble, but when innocents... This is different. Murder, unlike any I've seen in years. There's a disgustingly sick person out there and I simply don't have the manpower to protect everyone.” The Lieutenant allowed a hint of frustration to seep into his tone. “He's been killing paupers, sometimes in the alley where they sleep."

        The redheaded merchant spoke, his voice concise and significantly disgusted. “So. Killing just to kill, and brutally.” The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he mused, “I doubt that even if they had coin it would save them from that sort of monster.”
 
        "He kills when the opportunity comes up,” Aegisfield agreed, glad that someone accepted the threat. “Recent victims were poor, but one was middle-class. Do not dismiss this,” he urged the cleric. “You do not want to end up a victim. He flays them... alive. There has been blood all over the area. Little Faraji, a local urchin, found the latest victim. I hate to think of a child seeing that."

        The taller of the women had been observing the others’ exchange in silence, but the mention of Faraji caused her to shake her head. She pounded the base of her spear once on the cobblestones to pull their attention. ”The confines of the city do much to chisel at the sanity of its inhabitants, but I wonder if there is some other force at work.” She gave their leader a meaningful look. “We had best be wary, Verlaine.”

        On the whole, this group seemed suitably prepared to proceed with care, save perhaps the man with the rodent. Hopefully the others were as capable as they seemed and would keep the strange one in check. The Lieutenant had too long a list of tasks to complete before the sunset, and talks such as this made the time run river-swift.

        "Enough of this,” he said “I must go about my rounds. If you find any information about the murders, be sure to let me know. Don't go looking for trouble, though. I have enough problems with walkers and beggars.” He paused, for these circling thoughts were enough to make a man dizzy. “Old Rampah was damn near killed, and a street woman in the area, Rose, was plain lucky.”

        Lucky. He’d managed to avoid contemplating it until now, banishing the anxiety from the time Mandiq had woken him in the night and first breathed her name. Rose had witnessed a man in a cloak, had been close enough to imagine his smell. Had the monster seen her? Had he recognized her face? Was the madman passing his day, consumed with the same questions, debating just how much Rose had seen, and what to do about her? Pandor’s stomach twisted, recognizing that he had a dark night ahead.
 
        Full of these troubling images, the Lieutenant offered the quartet a final, solemn warning. “Don't be like them."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Newt had always suspected that people who regularly used the word "community" were using it in a very specific sense that excluded him and everyone he knew.

             --Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, "Good Omens"

Offline Bons

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Re: Got You Under My Skin
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2005, 02:55:26 PM »
Gee, I really miss posting plain text on a listserv right now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        Aegisfield returned to the garrison to find his junior officer pacing, distraught over the dead Shadow Thieves that had been carted to the morgue. “What are we going to do? The Chief Inspector must be told!”

        Pandor stifled a sigh. Jerred had tendencies to fret, count copper, linger over reports, and remain within the confines of the garrison proper rather than engaging in action. He also invoked the name of the Chief Inspector at frequent intervals, most likely because he was the man’s nephew. “Calm yourself. Panic makes us no progress. I have spoken with as many of the locals as possible, and made what arrangements I could for their safety tonight. Let us attempt to pass another night unscathed, and I will seek a word with Brega in the morning.”

        “You are thinking only of the dead merchant, and the beggars before him,” Jerred said. “I beg your pardon, sir, but don’t you see that they are a local issue? Dead Shadow Thieves concern the city.

        “We are the local garrison,” Aegisfield countered. “Rogues killing each other is no less a crime, I grant you, but it is an inherent part of their livelihoods. Let the Inspector of the Docks worry over it.”

        “But, sir! The Thieves carry a great deal of power in Athkatla!”

        “Power with no respect for the law,” Pandor said. “I am decided. I will examine the bodies of the rogues for further clues, but make no mistake, disposing of the sick ‘skinner’ roaming the Bridge is this garrison’s first priority.” Seeing the worrisome frown remain on his junior’s features, he added, “But if you have priorities different from that of the garrison, by all means, Jerred, go visit your uncle for supper.”

        His junior flushed - clearly he’d been planning to do just that - and shuffled off without another word.

        The Lieutenant made his way to the morgue, musing over the conflict of interest. Perhaps his ranking of issues would not enhance his career in the city militia and magistrate. After all, the next soldier promoted to Chief Inspector would need to prove his dedication to the concerns of Athkatla proper, not just his favorite corner. Pandor felt it was a betrayal to the people of the Bridge, though, for his duty, first and foremost, was to guard their safety. The political ramifications for his career created an unwelcome tightrope, balancing the locals against the bigger picture. He would not be able to continue running the garrison his own way indefinitely without providing a concrete success soon.

        Success inevitably had its groundings in unpalatable, difficult work. Pandor surveyed the three bodies awaiting him, gave a small allowance to Jerred’s complaint, and decided to inspect the thieves first. Their wounds proved small, superficial on the neck and over the heart, and he found little bruising and no broken limbs to justify they’d been beaten with a blunt weapon or had suffered internal injuries. Examining the skin and measuring the condition of the flesh underneath, both men appeared to have experienced an enormous loss of vital fluids, bleeding to death, yet with incidental signs of actual bleeding. It was a peculiar contrast to the flayed merchant, and the Lieutenant frowned over the implications.

        Rather than raw violence, he suspected the thieves’ murders had involved some form of magic, whether arcane or the manifestation of a deity’s sinister gifts, he could not tell - the mechanics of such power were beyond his experience. For all of his junior’s fretting, Aegisfield was savvy enough of recent event in Athkatla to recognize the popular consensus was the Shadow Thieves were being challenged by a new, rival guild. If the culprits were wielding dark magic, he wondered if he should not step forward and make the Cowled Wizards aware of his suspicions.

        Pandor pushed the possibility to the back of his thoughts. He liked dealing with the Cowled Ones even less than city politics; an audience with Brega would be the more palatable option.

        Finally, he settled before the remains of Nadir, the trader, flipping back in his logbook to recall the details of the previous victims so that he could make comparisons. The executions seemed similar, but there were exceptions. The merchant had been beheaded and flayed thoroughly and precisely. The beggars had been stripped of skin from their backs only, and in more of a mauled fashion, suggesting great urgency.

        If the killer was after the skins, if the flaying was an important part of his need to kill, the Lieutenant conjectured that the killer had graduated from the beggars out of prejudice. The trader had been a corpulent man, his skin of a different condition than the malnourished forms of the homeless. Aegisfield reasoned that no one was safe, but perhaps certain targets would be more satisfying for the madman.

        Pandor made notes of this new theory, then shifted his deduction to his most persistent questions: why had no one heard any of the victims screaming, and why were there never signs of struggle? The Lieutenant could admit the district was rough enough that a shout for help might be ignored, but he could not grasp how a man could be flayed alive, yet not fight his attacker.

        He’d considered various premises: a spell of paralysis, or perhaps a poison that prevented movement as it slowly killed its victim. Pandor had performed numerous tests already, searching for familiar components, but had come up empty thus far. He repeated the sequence again with samples from Nadir’s remains, working well into nightfall, only to feel his frustrations mount, as his experiments confirmed nothing.

        Taking a brief meal, Aegisfield returned to the streets, intending to make another circuit of the district. Though dangerous, Pandor found it hard to respect superiors who hid in their quarters, and he expected the same demand from the soldiers working under him.

        “Inspector!” He was passing Delosar’s when a voice he couldn’t quite place hailed him. He tensed with a hand on his sword, relaxing only when he recognized the cleric Verlaine approaching with her three associates. “Ah, it is you. I don't suppose you've heard anything about our killer? Not that I want you poking around, but you might have heard the odd thing.”

        “We couldn’t help but make inquiries as we were meeting the locals and growing acquainted with this part of town,” Verlaine confirmed with a mild smile. She was soft-spoken and carried a taint of gravity in each word. Pandor found it an odd demeanor for one of the Morninglord’s followers, which made him begin to wonder how serious the woman’s recent troubles had been.

        “I talked with a small boy that seemed to think a Missus Cragmoon did it,” the cleric added.

        The Lieutenant recalled Faraji’s boastful imagination and chuckled. “Oh, that's just children-talk. She's a bit older, a bit eccentric, so they say she's a witch. You know how kids are. Pay it no mind.”

        “Ah, but I talked to her,” the cleric said. “Turns out she is a witch like they say. She's a mage.”

        “Old Missus Cragmoon?” This was surprising news, and it gave Aegisfield pause. He’d know the woman for years, yet she had never breathed word of any arcane dabbling. Perhaps the silence was because of his position in the guard, but the Lieutenant also knew that he had never demonstrated himself to be an anti-magic zealot.

        Deliberate concealment, however, always made him suspicious. “Hmm, she hides it well,” he said. “All right, I guess I will let the Cowled Wizards know just to be safe. They will make sure she's on the up and up, and I already had cause to meet with them. I hate dealing with those people, but if word got out that I knew Missus Cragmoon was a spellcaster and didn't say, it would be my job.”

        Pandor grimaced, realizing that last sentiment would sound like shallow self-interest, but it seemed foolish to try and explain his hopes for the district to practical strangers. “Thank you, I guess. They will check it out.”

        Verlaine had brightened with interest as he talked, and her companions began to whisper among themselves. “I've a question...” she said tentatively. “A friend of mine was taken by the Cowled Wizards. If you’re going to report to them, do you know where she might be?”

        No wonder she was cautious. He’d just been speaking of exposing illicit spellcasters; no doubt she feared persecution for knowing one. Still, Aegisfield considered it a brave act to ask a dangerous question, even when the issue seemed an unwelcome subject. “The Cowled Wizards keep their own counsel on that matter, I'm afraid. They keep their own prison, I imagine, but its location is kept a secret. If your friend was taken it must have been for using magic in the city. A clear crime, though not worthy of indefinite imprisonment, in my opinion, but the Cowled Wizards keep their own opinions on that, too.”

        There was little he could offer as hope, but he tried to make his voice sound encouraging. “My only suggestion is to speak to my own superiors at the main building in the Government district. Either Chief Inspector Brega or Magistrate Bylanna Ianulin may help, but even they have limited influence over the Cowled Wizards. It's just the way it is. Justice in Athkatla is not a perfect system, my lady, but some of us do our best.”

        The cleric clearly looked disappointed in his answer and turned to leave, but she suddenly snapped her fingers in memory. “I cannot believe that I almost forgot. I just spoke to the 'professional' woman that you mentioned. She smelled tannin on the murderer.”
 
        Tannin, the Lieutenant calculated, the oak bark derivative used to cure leather. “So you think it was Rejiek the tanner?” Pandor scoffed. “I know of no one else that would have such a substance. Still, it's not much to go on.”

        He knew he should have been more gracious for this new clue, but all Pandor could think of was Rose and her guril berries. If this cleric had just spoken with her, she was out on the street, a defenseless target. “Something else could smell like it,” the lieutenant snapped.

        Realizing he was expressing anger to the wrong party, Aegisfield made an effort to sound appreciative. “I will need more evidence if I'm to accuse an established businessman of a crime like this. Thank you, but keep looking if you can. Keep out of trouble, though.”

        The quartet bid him farewell then entered Delosar’s. As soon as the door closed behind the group, Pandor set to marching double-time toward the inn’s competition. Just as he dreaded, he found Rose loitering outside of the Five Flagons in her garish silks.

        “What are you doing out here?” he demanded.

        His abrupt appearance startled her, and she wrapped her arms across her bare stomach as if suddenly taken by a chill. “Good evening, Inspector. What do you think I’m doing?”

        “You, more than anyone, should know how dangerous it is to walk the streets tonight alone!”

        “But I’m not alone, handsome, ” Rose cooed. “You’re here.”

        Pandor clenched his fist, torn between hitting the inn wall and dragging her indoors. He chose neither, bellowing, “Don’t treat me like one of your customers. I may have given up on your decency, but I still believed you had the intelligence to engage caution when the circumstances called for it!”

        Rose flinched at his raging, but she quickly recovered with a fury of her own. “Don’t yell at me like I’m one of your foot soldiers! It’s fine and dandy for you to preach all day that everyone should lock their doors and hide under their beds, but life goes on, with or without your approval. It costs money to live, so unless you want to pay me for my time, deary, why don’t you leave me and my lack of decency alone? I’ll take my chances with the madman.” She shrugged one bare shoulder fatalistically. “If I run into him, at least I won’t owe rent in the morning.”

        He could beg her to go home, to implore that she do it for him and save his peace of mind, but he couldn’t bear the thought of her laughing away his pleas. He considered buying her time as well, but his pride rebelled despite his fear for her life. She didn’t want to be helped. She valued the money more than her own life, and in doing so, crushed the faint hope he’d carried that she wasn’t some kind of foregone conclusion, a woman who counted clock movements in coin.

        He stepped backward, suddenly afraid of how much he wanted to be her shadow and guard her every move. With a force of will, he resumed his military bearing, bid Rose farewell with a “So be it,” then made a stiff about-face, rounded the corner, and entered the inn.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

       “Whoa! Slow down there!”

        Pandor had nearly barreled a woman down on his way to the bar. She wobbled to steady herself, though he suspected she was half-barreled-over from the drink already. “I beg your pardon.”

        She offered him a cheery smile, hugging his arm as if he was her new best friend. “All’s forgiven. You look like you’ve a lot on your mind, aye? Tell me, maybe I’ll make it into a story.”

        The Lieutenant disentangled from her grip and declined. “I’m not the sort of man pretty girls tell stories about.”

        “A tragedy, then. ‘The brooding Inspector walked in to the bar and said... Ow!’ Heh!”

        Aegisfield stepped around her, sternly ignoring the woman’s attempt at humor.

        “Heh, he- Hey!” In a flash, the woman reappeared in his path. “Okay, I tell terrible jokes, but I am a premium grade storyteller. I’m Keto! Keto Riven! Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’m a bard of, dare I say, minor renown. Some of the people who speak of me? A few of them, I don’t even owe them money!” She narrowed her eyes, studying him intently. Spontaneously, Keto nudged him with her elbow. “You look like you could use a drink.”

        “I am not here to indulge.” He frowned. He’d entered the first establishment he could think of to clear his head and escape thoughts of Rose. The killer, the victims, and his job: he should refocus on these three, not field nosy, if gregarious, questions from a bard.

        “Come on! Don’t tell me you’re here for the playhouse? Trust me, the lead actor is so overrated.”

        No, he should not think of Rose anymore. She was one in a multitude that he was responsible for protecting. “No,” he said. “I am on duty. It’s a breach of protocol and dangerous to keep the watch under the influence of alcohol.”

        Keto nodded sagely. “Sure it is. That’s why you came into this tavern, and why one of your helm-head cronies has bought the last three rounds on the house!”

         “What’s this?” Aegisfield broke from his heavy mood, taking a full survey of the Five Flagons’ patrons. “Durstan!”

        The young guard was carousing at a table on the other side of the bar, a serving wench bouncing in his lap as he took a long draft from his mug of ale. In the middle of that table was the Lieutenant’s purse.

        Wrath at the guard’s irresponsibility roared through him. “DURSTAN! On your feet, soldier!” Pandor stormed across the tavern, adjusting his gauntlets as he moved.

        Keto let out a mournful yelp. “Aw! Don’t hit the guy buying the drinks!” She sank onto one on the barstools, propping her chin dejectedly on one hand as she watched the fracas develop. “Me and my big mouth.”

        The serving wench swiftly scrambled out of the way of trouble, but Durstan was too besotted to do more than fumble to his feet. “S-s-sir?”

        “You abandoned your patrol in favor of the drink, I see.”

        “Sir... sir, I - I...”

        Aegisfield straightened his spine to tower over the young guard as much as possible. “I see. And where did you get the coin for this entertainment, Durstan?”

        The guard’s eyes strayed tellingly to the Lieutenant’s purse on the table.

        “Using someone else’s funds for a purpose other than they intended,” Pandor said as he stepped menacingly closer. “I could lock you up for thievery, soldier.”

        It was a sobering threat. “I’m no thief!” Durstan shouted. “You’re the one stealing my wages! You wanted to throw all that money away on beggars! The street people are nothing but whores, criminals and lunatics. They’re the ones that should be locked up, not me! I’m not going to risk my skin for a single, filthy one of them!”

        The last word exploded from Durstan’s lungs, for the Lieutenant had punched him in the gut, quickly following it with a left hook across the jaw.

        As the young man sputtered and coughed, Aegisfield twisted Durstan’s arms behind his back and forced him to face the staring tavern patrons.

         “Look at them! Look at them! You had better pray that they have more charity in their hearts than you do, boy.” He dragged the struggling youth to the entrance of the Flagons and kicked the door open with one booted foot.

        “You are no longer employed by the garrison.” Pandor struck him again, relishing the bite as his gauntlets crushed into his knuckles on impact. “And now...” he added, heaving Durstan’s body over the threshold, “You’re consigned to the street.”

        The Lieutenant slammed the door, then clenched and unclenched his fists to ease their stinging. He raised his eyes to find the Flagons’ patrons gaping in his direction. Samuel Thunderburp broke the silence. “He didn’t break anything that didn’t need breaking. What’re you fools staring at the Inspector for? Drink up!”

        The bustle resumed, and Pandor assumed the chair formerly occupied by the other guard. He sat laboriously, breaking his quiet once with a weary sigh, but appeared to be lost to the world in deep thought.

        Keto pulled up a chair. “I take it you aren’t usually that emotional.”

        Aegisfield shook his head absently.

        “Right. Everybody looked pretty shocked.” She picked up Durstan’s abandoned mug, sniffed curiously at its contents, then took an enthusiastic gulp.

        “Don’t drink too much,” Pandor warned.

        “Ha! I can hold my liquor,” Keto assured him, “as well as the share of anyone careless enough to leave it behind. Don’t you worry.”

        He gave a faint smile. Her brash assertion reminded him of... “It is my obligation to be concerned about everyone’s welfare in the Bridge.”

         “That’s a very nice sentiment, especially coming from an Inspector of the Watch, one I hope never gets the fancy to kick my kit and caboodle out of this fine establishment.” She nibbled her lower lip for a moment, fiddling nervously with one of her earrings as she considered her words.

        “But people... some muddle along just fine without an extra worry. Some need to be taken down a notch, and some... Hmm. The heroes in my stories are never looking out for everyone’s welfare,” she said. “It’s too general. What matters in people’s hearts are the specifics. The hero has to care for somebody, has to make that leap that there is one soul they will risk their lives for. To protect, to defend, to save! In a story, that kind of stuff is a foregone conclusion.” Keto sighed and waved dismissively with one hand. “Don’t mind me. I’m just working on new material. Folks don’t seem to appreciate my tale of the Firewine Ruins.”

        “A foregone conclusion...” Pandor repeated. He could not escape thinking of Rose, yet he could not forsake his duty like some childish wet soldier. He was overdue in resuming his patrol of the streets, yet his lingering concerns had him paralyzed in his chair. “How good are you at telling a story?” He picked up his purse, rolling its weight in his hand as he considered taking the risk.

        Keto grinned and said, “I’ve been making a living at storytelling for more years than I can remember.”

        Aegisfield shook his finger at her. “That’s an unlikely tale, not a good one.”

        “But it’s true! And think: if I can make you disbelieve me with just one sentence, imagine the stuff I could make you credit given half the chance!”

        Staring at his purse, Pandor began to speak in a quiet, but intent, tone. “Around the corner from this establishment, you will find a woman walking the street who goes by the name of Rose Bouquet. I do not care what story you tell her. Just make sure she spends the rest of the night indoors, out of harm’s way.”

        “Wait a second.” Keto downed another gulp of ale. “You just want me to talk to this woman? This specific woman?”

        Pandor nodded emphatically and tossed her his purse. “You’re an amiable sort, and you fib well enough.”

        “Uh-uh,” Keto said. “I tell stories.”

        “Yes, you’re very convincing. You seem earnest. People tend to trust that.”

        “I am trustworthy!”

        “Exactly. Use whatever necessary out of that coin to convince Rose, and you may keep the rest.” The Lieutenant extended his palm. “Do we have a deal?”

        “Normally, I’d expect a toast, but...” Keto shook hands with Aegisfield enthusiastically. “Sure!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        The Lieutenant left the Five Flagons with the bard, though they headed in opposite directions thereafter. His next pass outside the inn confirmed that Rose had gone, and Pandor held onto his hope that Keto had done as she had promised.

        He continued the watch, uneventful hours traversing the Bridge broken only by a raging fight between two local swains over the hand of their beloved. Aegisfield sent them on their way, keeping silent counsel on follies of the heart, and continued his marching until the first hint of the dawn edged the horizon.

        Pandor returned to the garrison, taking brief reports from his men, then roused Jerred from a comfortable sleep. “How is your uncle?”

        “Fine, fine,” Jerred replied drowsily. “He was most concerned -“ The junior officer blinked the sleep from his eyes. “Did you just come in from the streets? By the Just! Such toil is meant for the common guard, Aegisfield! Why must you persist in this pedestrian pretence that you can communicate with these people on their level? You are a Lieutenant. You and I should lead the garrison soldiers through our wise and experienced example, not rabble about dark alleys looking for murderers!”

        “Yes, I recognize that you feel that way, Jerred. That is why I trust you will lead the men through their morning drills with your wise, experienced example while I get a few hour’s sound rest.”

        His junior was mulish at the idea, but when presented the alternate task of seeking out the Cowled Wizards in Pandor’s stead, Jerred quickly became resigned. The Lieutenant offered him a quick outline of the duties he expected, then he returned to his own quarters.

        His rooms were dark, though the embers of a small fire shimmered in the grate. Someone had put forth an effort to make the place warm upon his return.

        Pandor set aside his helmet and stripped his gauntlets first. He then began to loosen the fastenings on his spaulders as he approached the hearth, intent upon stoking the flames, but a faint sound caught his attention.

        Someone was there, moving carefully, but his sight had yet to readjust to the darkness, and he could tell no more. “Who goes there?”

        He heard the scratch of flint, and there came a flare of light, his lantern coming to life. Rose appeared in its glow, seated in his chair. She wore one of her afternoon cotton dresses, her feet tucked under her like a girl. “Just me.”

        Pandor stared at her dumbly. “Rose?”

        “I met a bard,” she said as she stood, “who told me the most incredible story.” Rose lifted one hand as she came to stand before him; Pandor recognized his purse dangling from her fingers. She shook the strings once, causing the coins inside to jangle. “Why did you do it?”

        “To get you out of harm’s way,” he said quietly.

        Rose began to pace the floor as she spoke her peace, her tone growing more fervent the more she said. “I used to think that you never looked at me. You looked over me, through me. I believed it was because you thought I was beneath you, a courtesan, and that you were another one of those smug householders who assumed they were better because they’d never gone hungry, or had to beg, rob or pander for their next meal.”

        “But I would observe you, Inspector,” Rose said. “Turnabout’s fair play, and, as time passed, it became very clear that you tried your best to be fair to them all. You would shake hands with the dirty street monger and tolerate the pestering of the urchins. It was just me. I was the one you avoided. I’m the one you’d never touch. I’m the one you wouldn’t stand close to, or look in the eye. I’m the one you’d watch when you thought I wasn’t paying attention.” She stilled, sucking in a staggered breath. “I pretended that meant something. It was our secret, a mystery we’d yet to unravel.”

        “Rose...” He reached for her, felt the softness of her hair graze the back of his hand, the ends still slightly damp from bathwater. Pandor tentatively trailed his thumb over the bloom of her cheek, saying, “Let me look you in the eye.”

        Rose resisted at first, but she finally lifted her gaze, revealing how her lashes glittered in the lantern light. She started to weep, and when she spoke, she spoke with a lingering stubbornness, struggling to keep the tears out of her voice. “I don’t want your money. I never wanted the coin,” she repeated emphatically, tossing his purse aside. “I wanted...” Rose caught her breath and shook her head. “It would have been lovely if you had come to me tonight and just said that it mattered. Not come to me raving about sense and decency and the well-being of the populace. All I wanted to hear was that I was more than a duty. That it mattered whether I lived or died, not just because it affected the Bridge, but because it meant something to you.”

        “I... I am at a loss for words. I usually am when you are near,” Pandor confessed, burying his hands into her hair, “I never touched you, because I am supposed to be a disciplined man, Rose. Where you are concerned, my control crumbles, and I become a dumbfounded schoolboy.” He carefully wiped at her tears, his voice mesmerized. “You knew that I was watching you.”

        Rose nodded then wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her forehead against the plate armor banding his chest. “Yes. Sometimes I would linger outside, waiting for you to notice me.”

        “Every day, I would see you in the sunlight,” Pandor said, “and I would fall in love with you again. Then, I would see you at the end of every night, and my heart would break. People who care for one another should not bring such longing and misery.”

        Rose lifted her chin, her tone pained. “Or embarrassment? Would it be a humiliation or a boon if the others found out you had a whore hiding in your quarters, begging for attention?”

        Pandor shrugged. “I do not know.”

        Rose straightened, pulling away a token amount. “Then I should leave.”

        “I want you to stay.”

        She sighed, her spirits flailing. “But -“

        “Rose, let me say it: you matter more. I will continue to do my duty protecting the Bridge as I always have, as long as I am able, but I will not consider setting you aside for the sake of it. I want you to stay,” he repeated, risking a hint of a commanding tone.

        She wrinkled her nose pointedly, then smiled. “You always sound so formal. I want...” Rose tugged at the remaining straps on his armor, freeing the spaulders then his chest plate. She leaned her head so that her lips hovered near his ear. “I want you to kiss me,” she whispered. “Kiss me...” She pressed her soft mouth against his jaw, taking in his raw scent. “Like a girl who’s never been kissed...” Her lips trailed a path to his chin, and he pulled her body closer, hugging her tightly into his warmth. “By a man she loves.” They sank into each other, tangled limbs, breaths mingling. “By the only man she misses once he’s gone.”

        His turn, he whispered into her ear. “So be it.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

« Last Edit: April 23, 2005, 09:18:19 PM by Bons »
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Offline Bons

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Re: Got You Under My Skin
« Reply #2 on: February 21, 2005, 02:56:10 PM »
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        The noon bell rang and became a memory before Aegisfield left the garrison, the burden to visit the Cowled Wizards in the Government district growing heavy. He indulged in one last errand enlisting little Faraji’s aid, taking the boy with him to visit Bel, the merchant.

        Most men would perhaps showers their lady in flowers, but Pandor had other ideas. “We shall fill your basket with apples, Faraji. The sweetest, prettiest ones of the lot.”

        “Then we’re gonna use them in target practice?” the boy asked hopefully.

        “No,” Pandor explained. “Then you will deliver them to Miss Rose for me at the garrison. Afterwards, you can seek out Mandiq. He has agreed to demonstrate the bow and arrow for you if promise to mind his instructions faithfully.”

        “Inspector! A blessing to meet you like this!”

        It was the cleric from the day before. “Greetings... Verlaine, was it?”

        The cleric nodded. “We ran across a beggar who said he found a piece of thick leather by one of the crime scenes. Bel has just identified it as elephant hide.”

        “Elephant hide? If it had been that alone, I would have considered questioning the animal tamer from the circus, but with the tannin you discovered yesterday...” Pandor measured the evidence, feeling his blood quicken as the pieces fell into place. “Likely only a tanner would have both such things. The fluid is of little use to the average citizen, and I know of no one else that might have elephant hide.” He gave a triumphant nod, certain they had finally made a breakthrough. “I'll make a personal trip to the tanner's and check this out. Thank you again. Perhaps we can work together again sometime.”

        Aegisfield checked Faraji’s progress, commended the boy for his assistance, and paid for the apples. The cleric had yet to leave, but mingled with her companions as they murmured in low voices.

         “He’s certainly in a brighter mood than yesterday,” Verlaine observed. “Don’t you think, Jaheira?”

        The other woman’s voice was doused in caution. “I'm not sure the Lieutenant should go alone. We have evidence of the culprit, but we know nothing of his ability. There may be danger we are not aware of.”

        “There’s always danger we’re not aware of, Jaheira. We’re overdue for a meal, remember? A crust of bread, at least, then we can check out the tannery.”

        Aegisfield watched as the group wandered in the direction of the Five Flagons, still debating among themselves. The older woman had made a good point about the potential for danger. With such gruesome murders involved, he could easily justify storming the tannery with a full battalion. On the other side of the coin, he knew Rejiek Hidesman fairly well; the tanner had supplied the garrison with a healthy amount of equipment over the years. The evidence pointed to questioning him thoroughly, not destroying his reputation out of turn.

        The tanner’s shop was unlocked when he arrived, yet Rejiek was not present. “Hello? Hidesman!” he called. “It’s Aegisfield!” He heard no answer.

        Pandor estimated the last time he had spoken with the tanner. It had been a full month, before the killings had started. Odd that he hadn’t considered it before, especially when Rejiek had made a habit of calling on the garrison every tenday to inquire about new orders. Such was the way of the trade, dependent on a consistent flow of business.

        He walked among the shelves, examining the stock on display. Wiping one hand over the shoulder of a cuirass, he found his fingers caked with dust - another peculiar occurrence. Rejiek had always taken meticulous care of his goods, oiling older pieces to keep them in prime condition for sale. The shop felt as if the proprietor had abandoned it.

        The Lieutenant continued toward the stairwell, pausing with one hand on the rail. Hidesman could have been on the level below, too far away to hear his earlier call. Pandor looked down the stairs, feeling something ominous about the dim landing beyond. He should shout the tanner’s name, call to Rejiek as a harmless acquaintance seeking information might, but some instinct stilled his tongue.

        He began a cautious descent, moving with quiet deliberation so that his approach would remain as silent as possible. He could hear his own breathing, the steady drum of his heartbeat amplified by his headgear. Suddenly his helmet made him feel closed in, cutting off his vision, so he ripped it off, clasping it under his left arm, while he rested his favored hand on the hilt of his weapon.

        Halfway down, he began to pick out the smell, an odor of decay that he recognized. The morgue back at the garrison carried the scent, despite a thorough scrubbing after each body was taken for burial. It was as if the sour stench of rotting flesh took root in the stones, keeping a record of the lives taken out of sequence as surely as his logbook.

        There was death here. Pandor knew it, heard the toll of warning in the back of his mind that he should turn around. He should flee to the garrison and return with a heavily armed file of soldiers. Pandor reasoned, planned and nearly gave in, but he had reached the bottom of the stairs. He was at a blind corner and had no idea what could be waiting around the turn beyond the ripening foul smell. His choices were limited: he could slowly retreat the way he had come, or round the bend, his sword at the ready.

        The merciless silence made up his mind. The stench of the tannery harkened too strongly of the garrison morgue. It was a smell of old crimes and forsaken victims, of lonely endings and killers long gone. This stubborn idea pushed at him, burrowed and festered.

        Aegisfield turned the corner.

        The scene was a shock at first glance. Whatever he had imagined, it couldn’t sink to the level of carnage that had infested the tannery. He closed his eyes, risking one heavy pause to test his vision. When he opened his eyes again, it was all still there. Real.

        The wooden floor that he could see was stained a deep rust, blood soaked into the boards like watered paint. The walls were bloodstained as well, but selectively: smeared handprints and violent splashes of crimson. The blood alone made a distasteful panorama, bit it did not begin to match the bodies.

        They littered the floor, one after another, each stripped of its casing. Unlike the victims he’d encountered from the streets, these pour souls had been scalped, their very faces carved apart. He could not recognize them.

        The state of decay varied from body to body, even from a distance. Some were bloated from the buildup of gases as the flesh began to break down. Others lay like limp dolls of desiccated tissue stretched between bones. One body, though, looked freshly skinned, giving Aegisfield another faint tremor of foreboding that questioned if he was really alone. He saw another flight of stairs leading downward, debated momentarily, and resolved to not venture down them without reinforcements.

        The Lieutenant gave the newest victim a second look, calculating how long it might have been since the victim’s death. A recent killing, for certain, but within the past eve?

        It was the corpse closest to Pandor, just a few steps to his left. He approached with steady care, weighing the condition of the victim as his view improved. The skinned flesh had an unusually moist appearance, brimming with a deep, red sheen. The floor was stained underneath the body. Blood had been spilled here, but it had long since dried. The Lieutenant recalled the flooded cobblestones surrounding Nadir - the blood would have remained pooled there yet had it not been washed into the sewers with buckets of water.

        Aside from the shortage of newly spilt blood, a peculiar feature of this victim’s hands captured Pandor’s attention. The nails were long and curved, with a blackish tint to them. He knew that hair and nails sometimes appeared to grow even after death, as the skin and flesh began to dry out and pull away from the root, but this instance bore a faint resemblance to talons.

        Pandor glanced at one of the neighboring corpses, comparing its condition. Intrigued anew, the Lieutenant set aside his helmet and gingerly lifted one of the body’s hands for a detailed study. He scraped the nail along the reinforcements of his gauntlet, jumping slightly as the sheath snapped. It deposited a dust of fibers on his glove, coupled with a dark, oily substance. Pandor checked it for a scent, but detected nothing.

        He turned his gaze back to the broken nail. It looked to have a hollow cavity with a residue of the same oily substance. He studied it for a long pause, wondering if he could get a better sample for the sake of testing.

        Pandor unsheathed a small dagger from his boot, turning the victim’s hand palm side up so that the trimming would be easier from his vantage point. Delicately, he began to slice through a second nail, trying to not spill any of the mysterious fluid. The wrist, a stringy amalgamation of sticky tubing and bones lay on the periphery of his focus.

        Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the pulse.

        Strangely, Aegisfield did not freeze instantly, he did not leap to his feet and attack, and he did not drop the hand out of shock. He continued to work with his dagger, his eyes wide as he caught onto the rhythm of the vein pounding slowly, just beyond his grip, and accepted that it, too, was real.

        He did not blink. He did not look away from the corpse, but, slowly, torpidly, allowed his gaze to drift toward the victim’s face.

        Its eyes were open. White. The mouth opened next, the pulpy crevice spreading unnaturally as it screamed.

        Aegisfield shouted a curse as the creature leapt at him. He sank his dagger into its back, and the fiend shrieked in pain. It reacted spasmodically, gouging its claws down Pandor’s face, and he felt a burning, stinging as they drew his blood.

        He spun with his full force, throwing the creature off of him as he unsheathed his sword. The Lieutenant assumed a defensive stance, ready for the next attack, but the creature paused, watching him in macabre glee.

        “You should not have come here,” it hissed, its gurgling voice faintly resembling that of Rejiek Hidesman. “You cannot stop my work.”

        Aegisfield realized too late that the creature was toying with him, a cat with its mouse. He should have taken the attack the moment his sword was free to cleave the fiend in two. He should have...

        He swayed, his arms growing too numb to support the weight of his weapon. The blade clattered to the floor, his hands dangling uselessly at his sides.

        “No!” Pandor tried to shout the word, but his throat produced nothing save a faint wheeze.

        The Lieutenant collapsed onto his side, twitching as he struggled to crawl, to move away.

        “Yes, you cannot stop my work,” the creature said, casually trailing bloody footprints to the workbench, “but you can do me a service.” It held up a short, curved blade, a tool meant to cleanly peel the hide from an animal.

        The creature rolled Aegisfield onto his back. The Lieutenant was now no more than a wide-eyed puppet, aware but paralyzed, as the fiend began to unfasten his armor, baring his torso to its carnal scrutiny.

        The creature shivered feverishly as it raised the knife. “Let us see what you have for me!“

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        The pounding on his door came before dawn. Rose woke with a start, disoriented as she scanned the still-foreign room.

        The mattress shifted, and Rose looked down at the dozing Faraji, still clutching a half-eaten apple to his chest like other children would hold a stuffed bear. She gently eased the fruit from his grip as the pounding resumed.

        Rose scrambled off of the bed, adjusting her gown with one hand as she padded to the door. “I wanted you here,” she muttered groggily under her breath. “Pandor, Pandor, it was inevitable someone would raise a fuss. Confrontation is so much more difficult alone.”

       She opened the door. In a glance, Rose saw an ugly picture painted by the guard’s stark eyes. “Mandiq! What is it? What happened?”

        “The Lieutenant... They found the Lieutenant. He’s dead!”

        Rose faltered, the half-eaten apple tumbling from her grip to thump crisply on the floor. “Where is he?”

        She moved to brush past the soldier, but Mandiq blocked her path. “You cannot see him.”

        “I have to! You don’t expect me to just believe...” She shook her head, protesting the inescapable thought. “Who found the body?”

        “A group of adventurers: Verlaine of Candlekeep, Kelsey Coltrane of the Deepwash, Minsc, a warrior from Rasheman, and a druid named Jaheira. She wouldn’t give her origins, only said that we had more important tasks at hand than geography lessons.” The soldier shifted uncomfortably at the recollection. “Oh, and there was a bard. Ke...” Mandiq returned to grasping for names. “Ke-something.”

        “Keto. That would be Keto,” Rose supplied, her voice breaking. “She... she once told me... the most incredible story.”
   
         Rose gave Mandiq a plaintive look. “Please. Can I see him?”

        The soldier appeared distraught. “It’s a terrible thing, my lady.”

        “I know. I know,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “Let’s go. I’m ready.”


FIN
Newt had always suspected that people who regularly used the word "community" were using it in a very specific sense that excluded him and everyone he knew.

             --Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, "Good Omens"

 

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