Bog-skulks, as expected, came from bogs. Such places, swamps and other inhospitable environments, produced many of the most fearsome of lurkers. Stories of such things stretched back to the beginning of oral history. An ancient king, before Loiys and the boom of humanity, tried to bring the land near his people to heel. It of the Wilds did not stop him, for the people were still small and beneath notice, Thus the work began.
With hand and shovel they filled in their swamp. When their project finished, the people rejoiced and wondered at their deed. The lurkers returned within the month, and they came from the village. Location didn’t breed the Unseen, people did. Those people just found a new focus for their fears, their anxieties; and the lurkers lived.
Far better to leave the bogs and hidden places, for people never learned.
Galister sat a few miles from a swamp. That didn’t necessarily mean the bog-skulk came from there. Or any other one, but it made a likely candidate for its origin. Not that where it came from mattered. Lurkers were like that, so much of what you could learn wouldn’t matter. They lived in stories, and only their reasons and methods really mattered.
Athia had a good idea on the why already. To infect the people and spread its influence. Simple enough. The how, both how it got in and how to catch it, posed far more difficult questions. One step at a time, figure out whether it was invited. So, she setup her circle. A small one hidden under a rug in the entrance to the townhall.
Meyer sent a summons for a meeting before Sunsdown. Until then, Athia decided to speak to the butting heads of Galister, one on one. She snagged Meyer first while Gar went out to spread the word and get everything organized. Meyer busied himself preparing his remarks, his explanation that wouldn’t give too much away, and how he might help get his people through this.
She stepped into his office and shut the door. The quaint little room hugged the desk close enough Athia wanted to see how he got behind it. But she couldn’t think of a polite way to phrase the question.
“Mayor,” she said. “Can I ask you a few things? Without the Tricorn here to argue with every point.”
He looked up at her, over a stack of scribblings. Excess charcoal from his pencil dirtied the rest of his workspace and vanished in the dark woolen pants he wore.
“That would be most amenable,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Athia squinted at him.
“Grab one from the hall,” he added with humor. “It’s not often I have people in here!” A second passed and he added, meekly, “it’s Meyer.”
Athia stepped out and grabbed a spare chair, then sat it down. She couldn’t close the door with the seat there, so she left it open and took her spot.
“Alright,” she said. “What’s the situation? I’ve done some reading and have a few ideas, but I want you to tell me before I talk.”
He leaned back in his chair, the poor thing groaning and shifting as its old joints tried to separate. “At least ten dead so far, but maybe far more. Its skilled at hiding its prey. We only find them when they start to stink. Because it dumps them on the street overnight.”
Athia resisted folding her arms. Instead, she bridged her fingers. “It lets you know then.”
“Yes. The bodies are always impossible to identify. Random markings all over it, cuts and gashes, burns and bites.”
“But it’s not random, it just appears that way, so you never know what was deliberate and what wasn’t.”
“Yes, that’s what we figure.”
Not surprising. Lurkers followed strange rules and took unnatural forms, but they carried their own rules. Athia’s mother once told her of lurkers she encountered on the frontier. They killed animals to draw in others, then ate whatever came to scavenge. It might kill a deer to eat the mangy wolf that followed, or it might kill the mangy wolf and eat the human tracking it.
She looked up at Meyer. “Mayor, you’ve not found any evidence of the murders before finding the bodies, correct?”
“Yes. We have an idea of who might be murdered, but even then we’re not sure.”
Athia’s lips pursed to the side. “What do you mean?”
“Ten people have died, but we don’t know who.”
“You don’t know?”
“We’ve done head counts, went down rolls of names, and we’ve only found three we know are dead. Everyone else shows up. We weren’t able to keep everyone in one place for long enough to be sure.”
Athia fidgeted, fingers rapping against her thighs. She fancied herself clever, but not quite this clever. A pang of unease hit her stomach. It stayed past its unwelcome entrance. Bog-skulks impersonated by stealing heads, they could tap into a person’s memories to uphold the charade. How could she ferret one out here, in a new place full of people she didn’t know?
Instinct kicked in, forcing Athia to act in the one way she found most comfortable when faced with such a problem.
She grinned. “They’re great imposters, Mayor, but they’re not perfect. They’ll have the voice answer questions and be hard to tell. But they don’t have the soul, or the spark that really makes a person who they are.”
All of it true, but naively positive and hopeful. She knew better.
“If Gar would just listen to me,” Meyer said. “He’s unyielding, wants to keep the whole town locked down until his patrols catch the thing.”
“Why’s that so bad? You really want people moving too freely right now?”
“Of course!” Meyer said. “Let everyone act freely, right now we need to come together and not apart.”
Athia scratched her chin. “There’s a lurker actively killing people and you want everyone too,” she let the word linger into a question.
“Quit hiding,” he said. “There’s always some danger or risk in life, we handle it better together than we do hiding in our holes.”
“Sure,” Athia said. “But how would you make that happen?”
“It’s hard now. Gar has everyone scared and looking over their shoulders. If he hadn’t acted before me and shut everything down, this might not be so bad.”
“Explain the friction between you two for me. Please.”
Meyer took a long breath. “I was elected chief minister of Galister a year ago. We’ve got a bit of a rebellious streak here mind you, many of our founders trace lineages back to Soshil and the academy. Lieutenant Gar doesn’t like that we brush aside Tricorn demands for militia drilling and tithes and focus on education instead.”
He turned to a painting on his wall. Delicate brushstrokes pulled trees across an old canvass, growing tall in dim light. Little things lived in the oil forest, small forms that huddled close to a fire hidden in the woods.
“Gar ran against me and lost. He’s been frustrated ever since.”
Athia considered that, then tucked it away into the back of her mind. She asked, “what would you have done, if he weren’t here?”
“Keep all windows and doors open, operate mostly normally. Everyone sleeps together in the hall. Put at least three people into every building. Let us watch each other, not with suspicion, but to protect. We need to trust each other if we are to find this imposter.”
She nodded. “What about the Socratians? What’s going on with them?”
“They were traveling through, headed to the Brigrisar in the hope of land. Been nothing but polite and helpful since this started.”
“They came before you were aware of it, right?”
“Yes, the one thing that Gar and I agreed on was shutting the gates to keep the creature from moving to another city.”
Athia rose from her seat and offered a hand. “Thanks for your time, I’m going to go ask around for some other questions and let you get to work, Mayor.”
He shook, hands rough and grip tight but not unpleasant.
“I’m glad,” he said, “they didn’t send another Tricorn.”
Athia winked and turned. As she got out the door he sighed, “Meyer, not mayor.”