Quincy scratched at the wood of her arm chair. This fidgeting was uncharacteristic to her, but since she’d flashed into Belcliff with that girl, she hadn’t felt quite right. Her veins sat heavy, and her eyes seemed swollen in her head. It wasn’t exhaustion, for she felt like moving…fast. But to where and to what, Quincy didn’t know.
Certainly, she didn’t want to stay in that cold little room any longer.
The marshal was a strong man, with a voice raked by smoke and an overflow of manliness. He was leader of the city of Belcliff, and oversaw all judicial matters in accordance with city law. He rapped his desk, his cobalt gaze looking through the circular window of the short tower, set atop the Belcliff regional jail. It was a holding place for those awaiting trial, and those waiting to transfer. She was in his office, where the ceiling rode high and the walls were of the same cold stone that the jails below were.
“There was no other way to it,” The marshal said, running a quick hand over his peppered black hair. “The girl was up to no good, trying noisily to get someone to free her mistress. Looking at her, you wouldn’t know it, but our investigators confirmed her presence at the killings.” He glanced at Quincy over his shoulder. “So you shouldn’t feel guilty.”
Quincy’s nail broke against the wood, tearing just low enough to the tender nail bed. She didn’t wince, but her jaw tightened. “You confuse things,” She said, bright eyes shifting to the marshal like knives. She crossed her arms and sat back with crossed legs. “Your rulings do not weigh on my conscious. I did my job.”
The man pursed his lips and nodded. “That you did. How do you wish your payment to be made? We can do it in any manner you wish.”
“That will be fine.” The marshal stepped to his desk, his militant boots managing to sound as such on the hard stone floor. Taking his quill from the ink pot, he pulled a slip from his drawer and scrawled something quickly. His attendant, a teenage boy who had been standing quiet and unseen near the doorway, hurried forward and took the note from the marshal with a bow. Quincy frowned at the rash she saw on his right ear lobe–it was red and swollen, skin peeling, as though nails had raked across it more than once.
“Herman,” the marshal said. “Take her to the city coffers and show them this slip.”
The boy raised himself up, hands folding behind his back. “Yes sir.”
“If there is nothing else, miss Quincy, I bid you good day.” The marshal turned away from her, gaze returning to the window.
Quincy stood, and followed the attendant out.
Belcliff. It had long shadows and longer nights–with clouds so thick overhead as to paint powerful illusions in the mind. She could feel the cold bite her through her cloak, felt the light snow come toward her almost in a frigid sort of anticipation that made her wonder why she was mad enough to sit outside so high–stuck up on a temple’s facade like a gargoyle. She eyed the passing bodies below and thought of beetles that scuttled through salt. Quincy scratched at the stone ledge she crouched on, using her other hand now, because her right hand had already broken four nails.
The buildings of the city were guarded by snow draped creatures, stone beasts and agents of heaven entrapped in an artisan’s vision. Next to her was a gryphon, its eagle head screeching to the sky. Quincy shifted her eyes from the city below to lean against the creation, her eyes flickering up to look through the space of its open beak crying out silently.
“Where is he?” she breathed. Her words were a fog.
Hakeem had yet to arrive in the city, and the day was already drawing to a close. She thought about leaving for the trails, to watch for him there. But something about watching from there seemed a level more anxious than watching from the city, and so Quincy didn’t move. Things would work out, as they always did. She would never admit this aloud, but Hakeem was the reliable one.
The time slipped by. In her fast, disconnected existence, its escape was not counted meticulously, as her partner could do. For her, what seemed ages was just a passing second, and what was a passing second seemed ages. Quincy was frustrated with this uneven take of reality. She could lose days without eating or sleeping, and could zero in on a task without losing an ounce of focus, but the moment she was left to drift in idle, things became impossible.
She missed the suns, the graceful rays that afforded her a place of warmth–away from the stony stares of stone sentinels and black beetles. The air seemed thin, and her breath, usually deep and calm, was short and labored. Quincy stopped her scratching at the rough stone and sucked at her finger in distraction. She paused when she tasted blood and pulled her hand back to stare at her thumb. It now bled from the edge of the nail, where it had torn.
The woman scowled and stood, the wind moaning low at her audacious block of its current. Her cloak lifted as the breeze pulled at it, but with one hand on the screeching gryphon, the woman held steady. She reached for her pouch, not bothering to untie it from her hip, but instead, rubbed it as it pressed to her thigh. A small item grew from her ministrations, and loosening the opening, she pulled out a teardrop of glass, no bigger than her thumb, and held it up toward the sky.
She gave it a shake and squinted her eyes as, in the clear glass, what looked like silver liquid appeared. It swirled as she gave it one more vigorous shake, but it did not change. Quincy pressed her lips together and began to put the little glass away, when something happened. The silver swirl changed. It pulsed red once, twice, then…
Bringing it up with a jerk, the woman’s eyes grew wide.
The teardrop had turned completely black, as though it had become obsidian. Quincy cursed. She placed the glass on the stone ledge and crushed it with her heel.
“…What is going on?” She hissed.
Quincy appeared at the marshal’s, the tips of her fingers wrapped in little bandages to stop the bleeding. The young attendant from before stared at her from his desk before the stairs leading up to the marshal’s office. Adjacent to him was the door leading to the jail cells. She could hear shouting on the other side.
“Miss? May I help you?” he asked, quill in hand.
“I was wondering if I could see the documents regarding the investigation of the convicted enchantress, Syria.”
The attendant’s mouth parted as he frowned with squinted eyes at her. “Under what authority?”
“I represent no one. I wish to see them for my own edification.”
“My apologies, miss. But those documents are sealed. They are not open to the public.”
“But the case is closed.”
“Indeed, yes. But it goes against city law to allow a civilian to review judicial information.”
“Leaving no one to contest it, I understand. But I have no wish to challenge the ruling. I only wish to see the accounts of the scene of the crime.”
“But for what?”
“Haven’t you noticed it?”
“…Um…noticed what, miss?”
Quincy leaned forward onto his desk, her voice dropping low as she held up her right hand. The young attendant’s eyes flickered to her bandaged fingers, as his hand went up to his right ear to tug at it. “There’s something wrong here.” She hissed. “Belcliff’s only magical professional has been shipped off to prison, leaving no one of the proper vocation to assess the damage done to the region. You think black magic just goes away because the caster gets locked behind bars?” Part of her knew that it was the dark influences at work, making her so aggressive, but if it worked to her end, she didn’t bother stopping it…which another part of her noted was probably a problem as well, but she had no time to consider such trivial things.
“That kind of evil stays, it lingers, it’s like a festering disease that can warp living things the longer it is left alone. The rash you have on your ear lobe from rubbing it too much? You think that it’s a coincidence? Like my breaking my nails from scratching at whatever it is I sit on is a coincidence? Did you know that dark energy can manifest itself through impulsive, obsessive habits–usually of a self-destructive nature?”
The young attendant blinked at her, his mouth jawing like a fish. “Uh…um…” He stopped pulling at his ear, wincing, and stared at his hand as though it had a life of its own.
“I am a long-time practicing wizard with a backed knowledge of the Unbound Disciplines.” Quincy snapped. She leaned in closer. “So if your prepubescent ass has to go trouncing up the fucking stairs to ask your boss if I can see your precious documents, then I suggest you do so.”
The attendant, pressed back as far as he could in his chair, gave a loud swallow. He nodded his head jerkily. “Y-Yes, miss. I’ll…I’ll speak to him r-right away!”
The back room of the town hall was, to Quincy, a hole in the wall. She glanced up at the hand that hovered near her borrowed desk, and her gaze flickered up to the guard that belonged to it. He was a tall man with a crooked nose and no eyebrows. His gray eyes fixed onto her, and her azure eyes narrowed in turn.
“Need you be so close?” she snapped. Her left hand clenched against the armrest of her chair, fingers scraping down the wood. She grit her teeth and through sheer will kept from scratching the wood again.
The man shrugged and took a small step back.
She sighed and looked back at the parchment she held. After some arm twisting, the marshal had finally agreed to allow Quincy access to the investigation records. Viewing them, she realized why he had been so hesitant.
The more she read, the more it sounded like the investigators had no idea what was going on. They were meticulous in their note taking, she gave them that. They listed everything from drawings of the scene as discovered, to measured dimensions, to entire pages dedicated to describing the state of the bodies found–which covered alchemical tests. But as far as conclusions went…well, the men were not magic users. It was a useless endeavor.
The most they could gather was that something horrible happened and that three citizens of Belcliff were dead. The victims were all men varying in age and species–one was an adolescent second generation human of Ko’Keil descent from a respectable merchant family; the second an aged elf that dabbled in politics–lineage unknown–who was guessed to be over two hundred years of age; and the third victim, a poor but well loved Avian therian that did odd jobs about the city.
Besides their gender, they shared nothing in common. She was even hesitant to say there was a pattern. Their vastly different backgrounds and social status seemed like picking particulars at first, but when reading on about the mutilation, Quincy found many inconsistencies in the level of “work” done, or organs…removed.
And when she thought about it, the word “mutilation” was a shaky term to use. While correct in the sense that the victims were defiled and violated, it was misleading because the things done were too…precise…to say that the perpetrator sought only to damage or transform. Indeed the cuts were almost clinical in nature. One clean cut, from the naval to the chin, with rib cages split open and genitalia cleanly removed? The neatness of these otherwise horrendous acts were one of the few things the victims shared in common. Even the symbols burned into their flesh were each of a different nature.
Artists sketched out what they could before the skin started to peel and fall away. Once this started to happen, further study of the bodies was halted, and their remains returned to the surviving relatives at the marshal’s order. The only one who had no family was the elderly elf man, but his corpse rotted too quickly for the artists to record all of his markings.
Quincy frowned and kneaded her brow. She could feel a knot tying between her shoulders, and blood flowed poorly up her neck. She winced and gave her shoulders a roll as she thought. The symbols were largely unfamiliar, though some of them reminded her of markings she saw in various ruins on Talmor, Faenea, and the Indabe. The real puzzler rested with the therian. All therians had the ability to regenerate, being creatures of spiritual force and transformation. Granted, Lycans and Ailurans had perhaps the fastest rate of healing compared to all, but there was no level of difference in the Avian’s wounds. As the investigators wrote it, it were as if the body had been burned with the markings all at once…which was impossible in that situation. Perhaps a gravity spell and a bit of elemental sorcery could achieve what the investigators concluded–but that was two forms of magic of a very high level. Even an individual who had mastered multiple schools of magic could only cast one form at a time. It was a two-man job.
However…even with the Lethia girl as an accomplice, the young enchantress still didn’t have the power needed to achieve either spell…considering she never even studied beyond her declared field of magic.
The flickering candle light made it hard to read the investigators’ scrawls, and in annoyance, the woman held up her finger and flicked it. The candles in the room flickered and sputtered out. Quincy’s finger glowed at the tip, instead, lighting the parchment much better.
The guard blinked and pointed, his face looking ghastly from the focused light. Quincy finally noticed that his nose was red and blistered. “Did you jes–?”
“Yes. Now be quiet.”
Quincy held her lit finger up to a particular sentence, toward the bottom, and scowled.
“Miss, I was told you were looking into some ‘bad aura’ you said was hovering over the region.” The guard was leaning forward, his eyes like heavy stones on her. “I can read through the paper. You’re focusing an awful bit on matters that seem a bit unrelated.”
“You’re well-read for a lackey,” Quincy said in an even voice. She spared him only a glance. As she expected, his nose flared at the off-hand remark. “Tell me, what do you know about magic to say that what I’m reading is not a matter of complete and utter importance?”
“I read a lot miss.”
“Oh?” Quincy set down the parchment and made lazy swirls through the air with her glowing fingertip. She tried to make one of the symbols the artists’ drew–a swirl with a line through it. The after image she traced burned behind her eyelids when she blinked. “Did you know there was once a case in the city-state of Gulley, where a boy was drained of blood, then skinned, and eaten by a militaristic cult?”
The man said nothing. The woman held her hand up to better light his face, which was tense and white. Her eyes narrowed. “They were conducting a ritual to the god Juventus, trying to earn invulnerability before going into battle. The boys ages and places of origin, things seemingly unrelated to war, was of great importance, because Juventus was said to have been born among the halfling clan of Tor, who resided in the far south. This clan nearly overtook the Talmor continent in a single vicious campaign. The magic they enacted could only be stopped by killing all possible sacrifices for the ritual, and rendering them unusable.”
The man pursed his lips and his shoulders bunched up a half-inch. “And did someone do that?”
“Yes. Someone did.” She turned away from him and picked up the parchment. “So if you still think you know what I should be looking at, by all means…”
The man didn’t speak again.
The door opened. The young attendant came in. Quincy looked up at him, not squinting as the light of the room changed. He shook his head, exasperated. “Miss, it’s been six hours. Have you got what you need?”
The woman looked at the desk, covered in parchment. She tapped her lip and nodded slowly. “Yes…I think so…”
“Thank the gods!” The attendant turned and smacked the soldier on the arm. The man had fallen asleep leaning against the wall. He jerked awake, eyes blinking wide. “Oh…” he yawned, “Gods damn, is my shift over?”
“Do I look like I’m going to relieve you?” The attendant tugged at his right ear harshly, dark bags under his eyes. Quincy glanced at him with a quirked eyebrow as she gathered up her cloak, draping it over her arm.
She came out from behind the desk, eyes bright with an alacrity that the other two did not match. They stared at her, as though offended by her lack of exhaustion.
“I’d like to speak with the young enchantress,” Quincy said, looking between them.
The woman gazed at them both with cool eyes. “Unless you’d like me to go wake the marshal, who is likely asleep in his warm, comfy mansion?”
The look of acidic hatred was all the answer she needed.