A member of Gar’s bodyguards asked, “uh, ma’am, people is wondering. Who’s the Mayor?”
She squinted, face scrunching, “the mayor.”
Gar approached her while the people dispersed back to their homes. He took a long breath as he got to her.
“My apologies, Miss Fensa, you handled yourself far better than I imagined. It was simply a moment I could not show weakness in.”
Her eyes hardened on him, “I’m putting that first one aside until this is done. Next time, I lay you out.”
“If you’re able, I understand.”
Athia wanted to retort, but Meyer grabbed her arm.
“Thank you, this very nearly descended into chaos.”
Before Gar could lay into Meyer, Athia held up her hands in front of both.
“Stop. No time for that. It’s seeking new heads tonight. Make sure there’s guards everywhere, but especially watch anyone who lives alone or with only one other person.”
Meyer frowned. “You said it wouldn’t try anything.”
“I said it would be a bad idea, but it doesn’t necessarily care for its own wellbeing. No idea what it’ll do at this point.”
“And you?” Meyer asked.
“I need to pick up a letter, then I’m going to come back and ask some more questions.”
Gar said, “we need to find who invited it. That should be our first priority.”
Athia shook her head. “No. It won’t go away if we do. Stopping it comes first. People keep dying until it does.”
“I already have suspicions.”
Athia cut him off. “No, save that for last. The more we frighten and irritate the people, the more open this place becomes. If we aren’t careful, anything will be able to slink in here. Without invitation.”
Gar moved his jaw back and forth, “alright.”
With that, they parted.
Athia took off after that and found the messenger woman in the company of her son and daughter in law, along with their kid. Athia walked them back to the station, got her letter, then walked them to their house.
With the last daylight she read the letter. Most of it covered information she knew already, but ended in, “Don’t waste space on nonsense or I’m charging you the return fee next time.”
The messenger was clear. With that knowledge she doubled back and grabbed a patrolling militia group and told them to make sure someone watched the woman. Losing the town’s messenger would be an awful blow.
Lamps came to life when the light died, yellow spots stretching down the streets in every direction. Overhead, clouds covered the stars and left the sky empty. Athia held a hand out, catching lamplight as she walked. Supposedly the captured light lamps worked because the light always wanted to return to the Suns. It would rest in the crystal but, when the suns light left, it would burst out in all directions to try and return.
From what little she knew of symbolism, she very much doubted that to be the case. But Athia still liked to believe it, and she wasn’t sure why. Her hand returned to her side, and she picked up the pace back to the hall.
What she’d said risked goading the beast, but she hoped it would serve to temper it. Give away enough for it to make a smart decision and then move forward with finding it while it laid low. She knew what to do next, maybe the simplest route forward. Find where it stores the bodies. There could only be so many places to put them.
Something hit the ground in front of her, just outside the town hall.
Athia ran forward, where a headless, desecrated old body lay on it stomach. One hand stretched out toward her, missing its pinky and ring finger, with thumb outstretched.
Something lit in Athia’s chest, a rage that propelled her spikes out into the sides of the hall. She catapulted up, so fast the wind roared behind her. She shot up over the roof as one of her spikes caught the main beam.
“Where are you,” she shouted, hanging in the air for a moment. Her power kept her there, long enough to sweep her eye over Galister. Nothing stirred and only the patrols still walked the streets.
“I’m going to catch you,” she shouted, so hard her voice grated against her throat. “Don’t lose your humor before I do!”
She pulled her spike and dropped herself back to the ground.
“Who is it,” a Tricorn said, hovering over the body.
Athia landed near him with huff of tension. “Member of the milita, named Jon. One of the last to enter the hall. Get a group and go check his home.”
He hesitated, then took off with the other two to relay the news. Athia paid them no mind as she inspected the body. Discoloration and rigid muscles suggested hours, if not days old, but it was cold out and that meant it kept cool. Hard to tell a definite age.
Bloodless wounds covered the body, made after death. Marks, scrapes, bites, gouges, in no discernable pattern except the knowledge that it removed identifiable marks. All but the ones it wanted Athia to see.
“The marks are removed well after death,” she whispered to herself.
It didn’t immediately make them unrecognizable, meaning it must know it sometimes would want them identified. She considered that implication, then ran her hand along the dead man’s back. It took two attempts before her finger came across a small incision. The skin around it held a hint of hue, almost imperceptibly shaded red. The kind of thing easy to miss if you weren’t looking.
Feet approached. She saw it was Gar and two guards out the corner of her eye and kept to her work.
“Why would it do this?” he asked. “Now it doesn’t have a proper disguise.”
She felt the small cut, then placed her hands on either side of it. At her pressure, the vertebrae moved, severed.
“It knows it will have one by the morning,” she said as she got to her feet. “It’s killing with a puncture into the spine. Small, quiet, the victim can’t shout. Easy to catch the blood from a small wound. Clean, quick, quiet, and discrete.”
“Does that help?”
“Yes,” she said. Her hands felt filthy, though the body was clean. “Get the Mayor, I know where we need to look next.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Inside,” she said, “where no one can hear.”
Meyer came and they stepped into his study in the left wing of the hall. Athia shut the door and windows, then cased the place. Books with broken spines, clean shelves, and tidy corners answered her search. With that done she turned back to them.
“Where have you checked for the bodies?”
“Homes of the deceased, the ice maker and local ice chests,” Meyer said. “Along with the latrines and anywhere else that stuck out.”
“What about the cooling systems?” she asked. “The vents and things.”
Meyer shook his head, “surely the homeowners would know, and it would be hard to fit them in there without someone catching you.”
“I think it’s using an icepick,” Athia said, “to kill people. Put it in their back, have it wrapped to soak blood. Clean and quick. Would be a good disguise too, reason to enter homes.”
Meyer paled, mind going to his own visits from the ice-maker.
“Check the roll from today, see if anyone who works there was missing.”
Meyer took it out and started looking. Gar folded his arms, his attention staying on Athia.
“If you’re right then we lost our chance to catch it. Now we have nothing.”
She said, “it can switch fast. I imagine going in as a member of the militia is ideal, easy for him to step out on patrol after checking in or come up with another excuse.”
“None of them were found missing,” Meyer said.
“Check the end of the roll.” Athia leaned over Meyer’s desk to look at the list. “See if one of them came in late, after Jon the militiaman.”
Meyer ran his finger down the list, then stopped on one before the end. “The owner, a widower named Ted. One of the last to arrive.”
“Prime suspect,” Athia said.
Meyer rubbed his hands together, taking slow breaths. “How do we test it? To know.”
“Once it puts on the head the thing perfectly replicates the rest of the body before death. The skulk won’t show any discernable signs, not at first.” Athia worked her jaw back and forth. “But the head deteriorates over time and the mimicry unravels. The connection at the neck will begin to rot.”
Gar said, “we arrest him and toss him in the dungeon for a few days. If the killings stop and the neck rots, we have him.”
“No, they’ll stop regardless,” she said. “If people hear we have it captured, it’ll feed into that. So we can’t release him even if he’s innocent, else someone else will kill him.”
“We’ll worry about that after we have it,” Gar said.
Meyer shook his head, “no she’s right. We must be delicate.”
Athia pointed a finger at Gar. “Let me be clear. You’ve made this worse, lieutenant. All this sword rattling isn’t helpful.”
Annoyance flickered on Gar’s face, but he kept it from his voice. “You’d rather let people die helpless then?”
“My tutor,” she said, thinking back on Kamil. “He said that weapons do not create safety,” she lowered her voice an octave in a bad impression. “Two people throw fists and someone gets hurt, but hand them a sword and someone dies. Give a layman a weapon and they’ll strike whatever they can hit.”
“Better to have a sword and not know how to use it than die like a pig.”
“Feeling powerful isn’t being powerful.”
They locked eyes for a moment, broken by Meyer. “Let’s call Ted in to mend the cooler here in the hall. Say it’s a big job, then claim he fell off a ladder and is under care here with the healer. Discrete and effective!”
Gar asked, “your cooling, right before winter?”
Meyer frowned. “I don’t think anyone will question it. We claim the air flow isn’t right.”
“Why would Ted come and not a worker?”
Athia thought on that, then said, “because they’ll be helping a search tomorrow. My search. Skulks aren’t known for their combat prowess. A few Tricorn veterans can subdue it if it lashes out.”
“Why not today?” Meyer asked.
“The bodies won’t move overnight, not without someone noticing. Better to put more resources on watching people.”
Meyer scribed out copies of the roll and the missing people, then handed one to each of them. “Let’s all hold on to one, to be safe.”
They both took their copies and tucked them away.
He said, “I’ll go get things ready to summon Ted and organize my staff to keep safe. The rest I leave up to you.”
A few steps to the door, he paused. “And, I will not permit any mistreatment of my citizens. Under suspicion or not, we need only wait. No interrogation, no torture.”
Gar eyed him and Meyer stepped out to meet his personal guards.
The lieutenant turned to Athia. “Surely you can see his foolishness.”
She chewed her cheek, eyes on the door. “Let’s get to work. Argue later.”
“Would you like an escort?” he asked.
“No, but I don’t want to be seen ignoring the advice we gave everyone. Make sure they can keep up.”
Gar walked out first, Athia lagging a few steps. Exhaustion pressed on her, and the weight of expectations. Could she keep this up long enough to see it through? How much longer could she keep up a front of confidence?
Athia slayed monsters, creatures of fangs and roars. She engaged in intrigue, did investigative work, but nothing quite like this. And Galister’s leadership didn’t help. The Mayor, who’s own concerns tinged everything he suggested. Gar that acted with angst.
Only she kept a clear head in this.
Could she even trust them?