They assigned two women to Athia’s protection, Tricorn trainees local to Galister. Nineteen and twenty, a little younger than Athia, and plenty happy to be closer to the hero. Clare, the younger one, used a bow and short sword, imitating the style of Serra the Savior. She wore wrapped green cloth over well fitted leather armor. Like most scouts, she lacked in height and pure strength, but carried herself with a dexterous efficiency that served well in matters of silence and agility.
Tana, the older one, carried a spear and stood two inches shorter than Athia, which made Tana tall. She wore a loose red outfit, tied at the wrists and ankles to keep it secure and allowed for more freedom of movement. A foreign style, Closian, suited to speed and offense. It piqued Athia’s interest.
“You want to join the Order of Fenil?” she asked Tana. “The colors are right and a bit exotic for the area.”
Tana looked down at herself, lit by the first peek of the Creator Sun. She kept her dark hair tied back, just past shoulder in length, unlike Clare’s shorter cut that made more sense for combat.
“You’re familiar with the Order?” Tana asked with a light, second generation accent. Closians spoke with a deeper octave, favoring long vowels and sharp consonants.
“I went to Closiah about ten years ago. Spent half a year there, really nice place.”
“I’ve always wanted to join them, but never had the ability to go. This was the next best thing and, maybe I can travel there once I save some money.”
“It’s all women, right?” Clare asked.
“Closah? No, there’s men too,” Tana said with a small laugh.
“I meant the order.”
“Oh, it’s mostly women, but I think there’s a few men.”
Athia finished nibbling her breakfast, bread folded over meat and cheese then fried. It tasted great hot, good warm, and bad the moment it got cold. She ate too slow to enjoy it properly. Still, it helped after a night of no sleep. She’d snuck a few naps, never more than twenty minutes at a time, but not enough to count, or so she decided.
Her guards proved good company, at least for her stakeout. Now they headed to the ice maker’s shop to get aid in their search. They planned on investigating the few home cooling systems in town, where Athia thought they might find the bodies stashed.
In truth, she expected them to be strewn about outside come morning. That it didn’t happen gave her some hope her work pressured the creature. It relieved a modicum of pressure from her chest.
“Athia,” Clare said, holding her own turnover near her mouth, “how much are you getting paid to do this? If I was a free sword like you there’s no way I’d take this job.”
“Twenty ren, if I solve it soon and clean.”
Clare spit out cheese and bread. “Ok I do have a price.”
Tana said, “the job is worth it, but I’m impressed that they decided you were worth it. You must have a great reputation.”
“Among other things,” Athia said with a wink.
These two could be vouched for as being genuine. They guarded the hall’s back entrance with four others, at the time the skulk threw Jon’s body. That gave Athia comfort, some stability. She could trust them. For once, that felt like a luxury.
People showed up for Gar’s mandated training. It brought much of the rest of the city to a standstill. No one tried to open their shops or go through the motions, all of it too real and too close to ignore. Many held weapons for the first time in their lives, nervous and hoping this would give them some sort of power.
Clare slowed as they neared their destination. “What if there’s more than one?”
Athia shook her head. “They don’t work like that, not these skulks. It’s one and maybe a collaborator.”
“You think there’s a cult?”
Athia rubbed her head. She couldn’t find an answer, so she said, “trust me.”
Tana asked, “then just one or two people with bad intentions?”
Off to the side, one of the Tricron talked with Samal of the Socratians. Samal noticed Athia and pushed passed the Tricron.
“Athia Fensa,” Samal called.
It put a question in Tana’s mind, one she filed away for later.
Athia waved at the Socratian and caught up to them before the Tricorn talking with them could argue.
“Do you need something, friend?” Athia asked. She couldn’t remember the proper Socratian title, so she went with friend to be safe.
“They’re accusing one of our own of being the creature. It is not the case, but I cannot dissuade them.”
Athia bit her cheek and nodded. “What are they saying?”
The Tricorn man jogged to them. “There was a murder last night, I have two witnesses to it. They stopped the villain in the act, but it got away. They described the miscreant and we found them. If these scracs won’t turn ‘em over then we’ll take the beast.”
Samal tensed at the insult, and the threat. They eyed the Tricorn but held back anger.
Athia took that as trust. She stepped up to the Tricorn and said, “loose another insult,” she challenged.
The Tricorn hesitated.
“Your name?” Athia asked.
“Philip,” he said.
“Take me to the victim.”
“But the lurker-“
Athia snaped her fingers. “Samal, please keep an eye on the accused. Don’t turn them over but watch them in case I have questions. Is that fair?”
Athia waved Clare and Tana to follow. “I’m going to teach you two something.”
They fell in step just behind her, curiosity tugging them more than duty.
Philip brought them to a small home near the Socratian camp. A few militia members loitered outside, keeping watch like they kept their wits at the tavern. They gossiped about the discovery, spears and cudgels bouncing and mouths moving.
They let Athia inside without issue. Clare and Tana squeezed in after her, crowding the small home. One man lay dead on the ground, head missing. Blood pooled out from his neck, but small splatterings flecked the walls to the left, about shoulder level for Athia.
The single main room served as kitchen and dining room both. A thin, pungent stew simmered away over a dying hearth, filled to the brim. Two untouched bowls sat on the table a few feet away from the body. The interior walls matched the exterior ones, only two shades darker without exposure to the Suns. What Sunlight that did get in hit the door and gave them enough to see. A ladder led to the upper loft where the owners slept in small cots.
Athia put the toe of her boot down to the blood pool. It moved as a semi-formed clot, old but slowed by the cold. She knelt beside the body while her guards and Philip watched.
Clare, who did her own hunting and gutting moved closer while Tana grimaced.
Athia pulled a knife from her boot and cut off the deceased’s shirt. She pulled it away and felt down his back for a wound.
“What did they say happened?” she asked, pressing at regular intervals along the spine.
“The witnesses are brothers, they work at the wainwright across the street.” Philip pointed at the deceased. “He works with them, a friend. He’s staying with them because he was afraid to be at his own home alone. It was before dawn, they were still getting up, their friend was making a stew with what they still had. When they came down, they found it taking his head.”
Athia turned the body over. She didn’t find a wound on the back, and she didn’t expect to find one on the front.
“How long has he been staying here?”
“A few days.”
Athia let out a breath and got to her feet. She stepped to the hearth and one of her spikes shot into the pot, then retracted. A half-cooked head came out and she let it drop to the ground. It reeked of boiled flesh and spoiled meat. Something caved the back of it in, leaving browned brainmatter on display.
Athia looked back over her shoulder at Philip, annoyance shading her face dark.
“Don’t waste my time,” she said.
He blinked, “what- but- I don’t understand.”
“You figure it out,” she said, turning to the door.
Clare gawked while Tana covered her mouth.
“How,” Tana managed, “did you know?”
Athia felt another sharp remark in her throat but caught it. Her mind went back to Jon’s body. This thing got to her, she realized. How often would she miss a chance to brag?
She slapped both her cheeks at once, took a breath, then force a smile.
“No obviously fatal wounds,” she said. “Most the blood is pooled where the head came off, except,” she pointed to the blood on the wall. “There’s no spray, so the head came off after he died. Blood up here suggests a strike that launched it, probably to,” she pointed to the head.
Athia wiped her spike on a tablecloth. “He tried to get in here, something might have spooked him. Wasn’t staying already, only two bowls out, and we advised everyone to stay in threes last night. They thought he was the lurker and used one of Gar’s cudgels to bash his brains. Then realized their mistake and tried to cover it up. Self-defense at work.”
Clare grimaced, “and pin it on an innocent party.” She glanced at Phillip.
The man licked his lips. “We’ll bring them in for questioning.”
“Find out where the deceased lives. I want to check it out later.”