Like most things in life, this story starts with a woman. But not just any woman, oh no. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that she was probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Hair like spun gold, long and luxurious as it draped down her back in amber waves. Eyes the color of a clear country sky at high noon. Skin that seemed as soft as a newborn baby, with that healthy tan that meant she must have spent a good amount of time outside this smog-covered city. And the types of curves that reminded me of something sleek and dangerous, like a panther: you know you shouldn’t touch, because you would just end up hurt, but you almost couldn’t help yourself. Yup, she was amazing.
Sighing, I stood up and released the spell by snapping in half the ceramic clockwork gear I had used as a focus. Swallowing hard, I wiped my right hand on my pants, making sure to get all of her blood off of my palm. And with that final motion, the hazy picture I had conjured up of this once vibrant young woman faded away into the ether. In doing so, I saw this unfortunate female human as she was right now: naked and spread out so all of her limbs hit a compass point in the circle that had been inscribed in chalk on the alleyway floor. Oh, and headless, which is why I had to do the spell in the first place. Kind of hard to identify the victim when they don’t have anything to identify them with.
Clear signs of torture marked her corpse, along with a hole in her chest where her heart should be. Whomever had done this had taken their time, and she hadn’t died quick or easy. No matter how many times you see it, it never gets easier seeing someone murdered. It makes you realize how fragile we all really are. I sighed once more, and then turned to face my partner.
“Were you able to get a good look?” he asked, holding his breath in anticipation.
Nodding my head, all I said was, “Yeah.” He put his hand on my shoulder and gripped it once before releasing me. Dorf knew that it wasn’t easy for me, but he also knew that I did my job no matter how difficult it was. Being detectives wasn’t for the weak-stomached, that’s for sure. It also helped if you viewed each death as a personal affront to your morals and values.
Dorf has been my partner since I made detective almost three Cycles ago. In fact, he was the one who vouched for me when all of the other detectives said I wasn’t fit to do it. Of course, since I had a reputation for a temper, none of them were brave enough to say it to my face, but they still all thought it, and they voted nay in the selection process. Only Dorf, this scraggly looking human with his permanent bristle on his cheeks, sunken brown eyes under a deeply lined forehead, and jowls from too much ale and greasy food, had seen through my Orcish features and realized that I would make a great detective. The Chief must have agreed with him because he also vetted me. I hadn’t forgotten that, and I did my best every day to prove them right.
To be fair, I was only half Orc. The other half was human, which was probably the only real reason I had even made it onto the police force. Most Orcs were feral savages; the ones who fought against their bestial natures and made it into the city usually ended up on the docks as loaders or on the janitor staff -either for the city or for some private business- cleaning up all the shit and doing all of the work that nobody else wanted to do. Hey, it was an honest living.
Unlike my partner, who was going bald and still tried to pretend that his muddy brown hair hadn’t receded from the front of his head like it was trying to escape, I still had a full head of midnight black hair and kept it tied back in a warrior’s tail. I also never wore a hat, preferring that nothing block my vision. Plus, a big part of it was vanity, I’ll admit. Standing in the rain pouring down on us like the Gods themselves were crying over this woman’s death, I envied Dorf’s thick brimmed bowler hat and the fact that he had a dry face while mine was soaked.
His name wasn’t Dorf, that was just my nickname for him. To be honest, I don’t know why he allows me to call him that, but since I am the only one he doesn’t lay out when they do, I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Waldorf Pennywhistle the Third was his full name; besides being the third Waldorf he was also the third generation police officer, and the first to make detective. He came from old family, not noble or well off per se but one of the oldest families in this wonderful melting pot of a city we called home. It was said that if you couldn’t find it in Aerendor, then it couldn’t be found. Since everyone said it, I guess it made it true.
Coming back from all my woolgathering, I realized that Dorf was waiting on me to give him something to go on. Even though he had no magical talent whatsoever, he knew enough to know that those kinds of spells, like the one I just cast, take a lot out of you. Ignoring him for just a little bit longer, I reached down and pulled out my waterskin, taking a long draw off of it before tying it back to my belt. I knew that if I had asked him, he would’ve let me take a drink from his flask, which he always kept full with the cheapest whiskey a detective could afford; but, I needed all my wits about me. Drinking to forget her face could wait until I was home alone.
“All right Dorf: the victim was human, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. No markings or tattoos on her face, which probably means Old Blood, since they instill in their children at a young age how to look proper and all of that. The body is just starting to cool. There were no signs of a struggle here in the alley, which means that she was unconscious when she was tied up. Probably drugged, since her wrists and ankles show no signs that she tried to free herself, and the markings on her body would have taken several minutes to complete.”
“OK, we can pass out some sketches and make some calls to see if any of the Old Blood are missing a daughter or niece. But, if this took a few minutes to do, how come nobody saw anything? It’s Sixthday night, which means that these streets would have been packed a few hours ago.” Dorf suspected what had happened, but he needed me to say it. There was a reason that detectives were paired up this way, one mundane and one caster. A system of checks and balances that brought out the best of both worlds.
If you are mundane, this may be hard for you to accept, but it’s the best explanation I can give. Have you ever crossed your eyes, so everything goes all hazy and your vision seems to double? Yeah, using arcane sight is kind of similar to that, if that makes sense. Walking to the alleyway entrance, ignoring the flatfeet that were keeping the gawkers at bay standing on the cement sidewalk, I turned around and activated my arcane sight. Peering up at the wooden walls of the alley, I spotted what both Dorf and I had expected. Murky iron spikes were driven into the wall, high above where most people would look; the spell had cast a deep shadow over the alleyway, but done it with such subtlety that the average person walking by wouldn’t have even stopped to wonder why the alley was so dark. They would have just passed on by, never knowing that a young woman’s life was ending just steps away from them.
Walking back over to my partner, I confirmed Dorf’s suspicions. “Yup, a cloaking spell had been thrown up high at the alleyway entrance, real subtle work. That, coupled with the ritualistic way this girl was murdered, means that we have a caster as a killer.”
“Well, fuck,” Dorf cursed as he turned away from the body to spit to the side, his brown eyes reflecting the unease we both felt. “The news is gonna have a field day with this.”
“Can we keep this quiet for a while, try to gain some ground on our killer before they get tipped off we’re on their trail?” I asked in vain, already knowing what the answer would be.
Shaking his head no, Dorf sneered. “Freedom of the Press is one of the founding tenets of our fair city. If I try to keep them out of this, they will pitch such a fit that the Chief will gladly tear me a new asshole, no matter how much he may agree with us.” He rubbed his craggy face and sighed before continuing. “The best I can do is hold off on releasing it until tomorrow morning; I’ll blame a clerical error for the fact that it didn’t get reported right away.”
I gave him a feral grin. “Hey, every little bit helps.”
Turning back towards the body, my partner gestured at the markings around the chalk circle and on the victim’s body with disgust. “Any idea what any of this shit means?”
“Not a clue, and besides Common, Draconus and Orc, I read several other languages.”
“Pretentious show off,” he teased me.
“Bite me,” I shot back with a wink.
“Ah, don’t think I haven’t thought about it, but Gregory doesn’t like to share, so I’ll just keep my lips and teeth to myself,” he shot back just as quickly with a small chuckle.
“How is he, by the way?”
“Oh, he’s good. Just took a supervisor position at the hospital, so between my busy caseload and his new job, we don’t see each other as much as we’d like. But, it will be our fifth wedding anniversary in just a week, so I’m hoping I can at least take him out for dinner that night.” A rare smile broke out on Dorf’s face, as it always did when he thought of his husband, and I was happy for both of them.
“Hey, I did a favor for the owner of that new Elven restaurant, Flora and Fauna I think it’s called, so if you guys want reservations let me know and I can put in a word for you.”
“I thought that Elves and Orcs were mortal enemies, or some shit like that.”
I snorted, baring my tusks in a mock-threatening snarl. “Do you believe everything you read or hear from a news crier? Our people may have been like that in the past –or possibly out in the country where less civilized people live- but here in the city at most I’ve encountered a little bit of snobbery, which from those pointy ears is pretty normal for everyone but them.”
Dorf barked out a laugh. “Yeah, ain’t that the truth. Well, with some exceptions. Hey, before I let the boys from the meat wagon in, do you need to copy down these markings?”
“Yup, give me just a second.” Unsheathing my athame, I went over and scrapped off some of the alley floor inside the inscribed circle, and as much as it disturbed me, some of the victim’s skin. I ducked under an umbrella that one of the flatfeet had so conveniently provided and pulled out a pen and a blank piece of parchment. I crumbled both alleyway dirt and skin and put them into the top of the pen; grunting only slightly, I then pierced my skin with the tip to use my blood for ink.
Activating my arcane sight one more time, I stared out at the victim and the circle and let my vision and the pen do all of the work. It only took a minute, but when the spell was done I had recreated the markings on the victim and the circle perfectly. Turning the pen upside down, I shook out the dirt and skin and made sure to mutter the phrase that caused a small spark to ignite on my fingertips before burning the remnants of the spell to ash. No sense allowing some other caster to use them as ingredients to see what I just did, since it was a fair bet that only the killer would know that information. This just cut down on the number of potential suspects.
“No matter how many times I see that shit, it’s still weird,” Dorf shook his head in disbelief, which caused the jowls on his cheeks to make a slapping sound. Nobody commented on it, since I wasn’t the only one with a temper. He was a bit sensitive about his weight.
“Tell me about it,” I agreed with my partner while I stowed away the pen and parchment inside one of many safe pockets I had added to my brown gorgon hide duster. “And I’m the one that does the weird shit. But yeah, I think she’s ready to be sent to the morgue.”
Gesturing to someone at the mouth of the alley, Dorf signaled that the coroner’s people were free to come and take her away, to give some semblance of decency to this poor woman. Trying not to think about it too much, I left them to their work as my partner and I left the murder scene behind. Grimacing to myself, I tried to be rational. I couldn’t save her, I wasn’t a priest; the best I could do was to bring her killer to justice. Maybe that could bring her some peace in the next world, since she was beyond mortal concerns for this one.
Above us, the buildings continued to stand silent witness, all grey and brown and red, while the rain continued to drench everyone and clueless citizens went about their normal nightly activities. Sometimes, as I stood here in the city, I could almost feel the tightly packed buildings pressing in on all of us, hemming us in, acting more like jailors than places of safety. At any moment, any one of us could meet the Reaper and be shuffled off this mortal coil without any warning. Chuckling grimly, I reminded myself that it was just the murder bringing out the poetic and morbid side of me. Nothing that special about today…just another day in Aerendor.