October, 707 CR
Jim stared. The dagger stared back. Mocking. Oblivious to the faint drumming of cold rain against the stone tower wall.
Throwing down the scroll onto his battered desk, he flopped his goat form onto the tied-together wooden chair which creaked alarmingly under the pressure. Join the town watch they'd said. March before cheering crowds and thrown rose petals they said.
Instead there were crappy hours, rotten fruit, and the endless mud under his cloven hooves.
And when he'd been promoted to head of Euper Investigations, it was all now you can relax and enjoy life.
Until the murders started.
Oh, there were always murders. Sometimes action was even taken. A body washing up under the docks once a week was usual. Same with a half rotted corpse in an alley. He'd have just left them, except for the standing order for cremation to make sure necromancy didn't raise them.
He stared at the dagger.
But now— Entire families. Another one last night. All with their throats slit. Entry forced by a pro, the murders quick and thorough. Evidence of a careful search. Nothing taken and the door or window closed as the bastard left.
And then. Two days ago, the dagger, edged in dried blood, left on the floor.
Higher ups wanted the murders solved. Or, in the real meaning, stopped. Else heads — in this case his — would roll.
He'd have sworn the dagger was mocking him.
Glaring back, he scowled at its leather-bound hilt. His eyes slid down its length to the bound book it was thrust into: Tales of Metamor Investigations.
He'd read the first one. Or tried to. A building full of highly trained mages and clerics. Careful records. Undisturbed crime scenes. Elaborate illusions recreating complex murders in agonizing detail. The criminal always being caught—
He had one person directly under him, this desk that he'd had to supply himself — and it was the only momento of his grandmother he had — a room it could barely fit in. Eli! He'd sent to the keep two days ago for a mage or somebody to do a reading on the presumed murder weapon.
And, so far, nothing.
He turned his hatred to the latest volume: Tales of Metamor Investigations — the Dollhouse Murderer. The printing house up by the keep kept sending him complementary copies. Eli damn—
There was a knock on the door. Jim yanked his eyes away from the book, from the dagger , as the knock repeated, his ears flipping to catch the sound.
"The door's open, Chrispher." The shy knock had told him it was his arrant female assistant knocking. She'd been male before the curse, and now she refused to touch a weapon.
And now his secretary.
She pushed the door open, her cute female face blasted with a scowl. "That mage is here."
"Send him in!"
Her tone of voice struck him as odder than usual, and it didn't take long for the reason to make itself apparent. The mage who came in could barely be seen behind his desk, and Jim didn't get the full impact of the wizard's appearance until said wizard hopped, or climbed, onto the desk.
The magic worker looked like a fox, but was dark gray in colour and wrapped in a soaked silver-threaded black wool cloak. His eyes glittered, and glared, hating the entire world. Jim almost laughed, the fox looked young enough that he had to still be nursing, except he noticed the Patrol Captain badge.
Jim saluted. "Sir."
A big blob of muck slipped from the mage's cloak onto the edge of the desk, and then fell off, splatting on the floor.
"Blasted rain! When I find out who's brain-deceased idea it was to send a fire mage—" The fox shook himself, the weight of the cloak almost dragging him backwards off the desk. "I'm here. What do you want?"
Jim blinked, tail pulled up against his spine. "Umm— sir— That dagger," he pointed. "I need a reading. Who owns it? What did they do with it?"
The fox blinked back. "Reading? I'm a fire mage, not a blasted Investigations specialist!" The wizard's eyes sparked as water dripped onto the floor.
The damn fox probably loved those stories. "I'm sorry. I did specify—"
"Whatever—" the mage said, rolling his eyes. He pointed, "That dagger?"
Jim sighed and nodded. "We've tried to minimize contact with it as much as possible. The blood on it was there when we found it."
"You think?" the fox said dryly. He produced a long piece of chalk and tapped it against the underside of his muzzle. Circling the murder weapon once, his toeclaws dug into the desk. The goat cringed when the mage bent over and began drawing circles and odd glyphs upon the wood.
"Uh— you're scratching my desk."
"I know." The fox continued, plea unheeded. Soon the wood surface was a tangled mess of chalk lines, and with little foot room left he pushed Jim aside and moved onto his now vacant chair. From this farther vantage point, he leaned over and waved a claw over the dagger as the symbols resonated with a faint glow. "Pay attention. I'm only doing this once."
Jim leaned forward, his ears angled in desperate attention as fox waved his hand in a circular motion.
"I was made—" the mage began, "made in fire and heat and pain. Hammered. Folded. Again and again. Yadda, yadda— yeah, yeah we know—" He pursed his lips for a moment as if scanning some directory. "Made in love and honour by a smith of greatness. Oh, please —" He rolled his eyes. "Oberon— Oberon— he made me, sold me. Sold me to— to— Blast it! It's hidden— Magic cloaks? Secrets, secrets— tell me, blast it! Flying through the air. Blood, hot blood, flowing, dripping. Soul death, taken. Taken— yeah, yeah— Found, found, magic, great magic, and hate, hate! Ooo— hmmm— A hard power, a form, white glistening burning white. Holy life giving white and ivory. A unicorn. Used. Used. A—" The mage clenched his teeth, his voice straining, "Take life— all life— all — GAH!!"
The dagger exploded, shattering into hard shards that flew across the room, clattering from the walls and floor and ceiling sounding like hail in a storm.
The wizard tumbled backwards off the chair, falling into a tumbled pile of fox and wool and mud as Jim wiped blood from his forehead. Squeezing around the desk, he kneeled, reaching down to check the fox's pulse — the mage's muzzle was black with soot, and smoke coiled up from his fur. There—
"Get off me! Blast it!" The fox thrust the goat's hand away. "I'm fine!"
The only response was a death-glare.
"Well— Thank you."
The wizard mumbled so softly that Jim strained to hear it. "They don't pay me enough—" His voice returned to a normal volume. "Next time, tell them to send a blasted scrying mage!"
With that, the fox wizard left, black tail-tip peering from under his dragging cloak. The door knob turned of its own accord and swung open for him, then slammed behind as he muttered about his, "only blasted day off."
Only when the door closed, did Jim turn to look at where the dagger had been, now only a soot-black crater on a smoldering book.
The woman's head poked in. "Yes?"
"Tell the Euper Watch Captain's to keep their eyes open for a unicorn. Probably—"
"Yes, a unicorn! Probably anthro. If—"
"Sir, I remember hearing—" She scratched her chin. "It was about a month ago. Heard it in the lunch room. Some tavern — the Bronze Unicorn I think — watch had been summoned. They were saying they saw a white anthro unicorn, female, she'd been in the basement. She shoved her way out, tavern keeper refused to press charges."
"Ahah! Tell the Captains to keep an eye out for an anthro unicorn. Probably white, but I don't trust anything in this case. Check with the gates, see if anybody remembers a white unicorn, or any unicorn, coming or leaving. Check the gates up to Metamor Town too." Jim started pacing back and forth in what little space he had.
"Nobody is to approach her. Just keep her in sight. And then fetch me. And reinforcements. Lots of reinforce—" He stopped, leaned down, and picked up a fragment, a large one, between two hoof fingers. It was the hilt, intact, even with a bit of the guard. "I'm going up to the keep. I think I've heard of an Oberon — I want him to look at this dagger."
"That's all sir?"
"Yes, that's all!"
As Chrispher turned and left, Jim tossed the hilt onto his desk. It thunked and slid to a stop against the latest Investigations book, which was blacker than a few minutes ago, and definitely smoldering.
It seemed that today was his lucky day!
Jim's stomach was stabbing him with pain by the time he found what was, hopefully, Oberon's forge. He'd been wandering the keep for hours, once even reaching a dead end that led into a thoroughly trashed room with, of all things, both reading primers and a dagger target. It was like the keep wouldn't let him go where he needed to go. He was glad he lived in a normal building where a demigoddess didn't shuffle around the rooms and corridors at a whim.
Finally he'd ran into somebody, and been told that Oberon had been advanced into the Long Scouts and had quarters with them. Choking down both a scream, and a hunk of cud, Jim had made his way to the central keep, and to where the Longs laired. Then it was endless security checks, ID checks, verification, delays, argument, disagreements, harassment, and everything else conceivable, before Jim had finally been let in to the damn long house. After that, at least, it'd been a reasonably direct path he'd been led upon to the forge where Oberon was working.
He chewed the last of his cud thoughtfully. On his way up he'd checked the gates onto The Killing Ground and one person remembered a white anthro unicorn, female, passing both into Metamor Town, and out of it a few days later, all a month or so ago.
Jim was fairly certain the unicorn was his murderer.
He'd arranged for the gate guard to spend an afternoon in the keep with an artist. Jim didn't want to start posting wanted posters everywhere yet, but he wanted to be ready. Give it a few days to see if the Euper Watch could flush her out.
Swallowing the last of his cud, his first stomach grumbled its annoyance. His escort pointed at the forge and there was, indeed, a monstrous white tiger working on something on an anvil. Each *clang* of the beast's hammer rang through the room, making Jim pull his ears against his head.
"Good luck," his escort said.
Yea, I'll need it Jim thought.
With that he walked towards the forge, his hooves clicking on the stone floor. Eli but the tiger was big. Insanely huge. He had to force himself not to flee as the damn tiger could probably twist him into a pretzel with two fingers.
How could anybody be that big?
He stopped by a table covered in work tools. Forcing down his fear, ignoring the growing emptiness in his chest, Jim called out: "Are you the Long known as Oberon?
"Oberon! I need to talk to you!"
Jim took a deep breath. "By right as head of Euper Investigations, I demand you talk to me!
This wasn't working. Maybe a different tactic. "Smith Oberon! I have a broken dagger of yours!"
*clang—clink* The frighteningly monstrous tiger put down his hammer, dropped what he was working on into a barrel with a meat cooking roar of bubbling oil, and turned. The parts of his fur that were white were streaked with black that merged into his stripes, and his face was scarred and angry. "Impossible! My weapons never fail their owner!"
Jim took an involuntary step back. He swallowed, licked his long dry lips. "Well— this— this one did!" With that, Jim took the dagger from his pouch and tossed it on the table.
The tiger's tail whipped back and forth as he stomped over, foot claws tearing at the stone floor. "That is not—" Reaching the table, he stopped, staring. He picked up what was left of the dagger, sniffed at the hilt, ran a finger along what was left of the guard. Emotions whipped through his eyes, his ears stood tall and erect. "/What happened?"
Drawing from strength he didn't know he head, Jim stood his ground. "Do you know who had this dagger?"
"Who had—? The Long's have some. I have some. The only ones I sold recently were to— it was at the fair. Curse it! I knew something was wrong with her—"
"Can you tell me in detail what happened? It's a legal matter. I need to know everything you remember."
Jim listened as Oberon told him about the white unicorn. He'd run into her, almost literally, in the keep a few weeks before the fair. At the fair she'd come seeking the tiger. Oberon told him how she was always looking behind her. She had a sword, but no idea how to use it. But she was very good with thrown daggers. She'd purchased a scabbard for the sword — on the one she'd, the bottom had been hacked off as it was too short to hold the sword.
She must have stolen that , Jim thought, But why carry it around?
At the end she'd paid with a gem and a few coins.
"So you still have the gem?"
"Somewhere. I have not had time to deal with it. It is in my quarters. Just give me a minute."
Jim waited, getting more and more confused. Someone expert with knives, but with no sword skill, suggested somebody who fought in cities, in generally illegal ways. Not a warrior. That fit— a thief would know how to enter as an expert. But why a unicorn? Talk about a memorable person! Unless— the curse? He'd have to check the entry records for Euper for one to three weeks before the time this unicorn had been encountered in the Bronze Unicorn. That was likely only a few days before she went through the gates to Metamor Town. If somebody remembered a woman with a sword entering, maybe he could backtrack her—
"Here it is."
Jim jumped, almost out of his hooves. How in Eli's name could something that big walk that silently? Still shaking, he took the gem from the monster's palm. "Was it like this when you got it?"
The tiger nodded.
It was cut— if the unicorn hadn't had it re-cut after acquiring it. Have to check with jewellers in both Euper and Metamor Town. Likely she brought it in with her— there were no jewellery burglaries within the last few months. If he did find the jeweller, what he remembered probably wouldn't help much. Maybe a reading— couldn't hurt—
"May I have it back, please?"
Jim looked up, way up, and felt his ears press against his skull. "I— I'm sorry. I need to keep this."
"Possible evidence in a murder invest—"
The tiger's voice was cold. "Murder—"
"I'll give you a receipt. How much is it—?"
The tiger grabbed him by his shirt and lifted him until they were muzzle to muzzle. "Did she use the dagger?"
The gem fell from Jim's fingers and clattered on the floor.
The tiger tightened his grip until Jim thought his shirt was going to tear. "O— over twen— twenty that—"
"Over. Twenty." The grip tightened. "Who?"
Jim lost it in his pants. "Families— Poor— Euper—"
The tiger dropped him, and Jim gasped for breath. "The unicorn will be taken care of."
Forcing the next few words out between his desperate breaths was the hardest thing Jim have ever done. "N— No. The— the Duke does— does— does not want vigilante—"
"I. Don't. Care. She has taken the piece of my soul in that dagger, and she has cursed it. Cursed me with it."
"It is now personal."
"Get. Out. Take the gem. Find out who started this. I will take care of her."
Jim staggered to his hooves and fled.
As he ran, he forced his thoughts to stop trembling in fear. He couldn't talk to the tiger again. He was sure the tiger was kind and nice, would never hurt him, but— Predator and Prey. And the tiger, Oberon, was so insanely huge. And now pissed.
Almost anybody else, Jim would have gone back to argue with. Or at least gone back for the gem. But, the tiger— He just couldn't.
Which meant he had to find the unicorn first.
Three days had passed. Three days with no more bodies. But then, that was typical, through towards the long end of the scale. The wanted posters were being printed, patrols had been brought down from Metamor. Everything was falling into place.
There was no memory of a unicorn entering Metamor before the first sighting in the Bronze Unicorn. No records. Nothing. And no woman with a big sword either.
Oh, Jim had confirmed that she'd been up in the keep. Had visited the library there. Had asked questions typical of the newly changed— what her species was, any special dietary notes—
And then she'd asked about a symbol that the Chief Librarian had identified as that of a cult, and then dismissed the cult as myth, as an old wife's tale.
As to the motive, well, either she was insane in which case there was no motive. Or, she had purpose, and the only one —
A paper was on his otherwise empty desk. Where'd it come from? He'd have sworn it hadn't been there— Unfolding it, he read the contents:
She is not one of us, but she has purpose. Deal with her as you wish.
It was signed with the dagger and coin symbol of the Guild of Thieves.
Eli damn! Purpose? Well, if it was the cult, well— well—
Jim shook his head.
If there was a cult, as a Citizen of Metamor, or as a visitor, her duty was to tell the authorities and let them, in this case the watch, deal with it. She had neither the right, nor the legal authority, to go on her own private crusade of death! No matter—
There was a knock on his door. "Enter."
It was Chrispher who pushed the door open, and he hadn't even noticed her distinctive knock. "Sir, a report has come in— they think they've found the unicorn!"
Jim leapt to his hooves. "And—?"
"As per your orders, a very discrete watch is being kept on her.
"Good. Get the task force up. It's time for us to catch a unicorn—" Before that damn tiger who'd been snarling around Euper beat them to it.
They were led to what had to be the poorest, most destitute, most filled with hate and despair, part of Euper. As it had rained the night before, the streets were a thick soup of clinging, gluey mud. Jim wish he'd worn his boots, but was sure he'd need his hooves for climbing soon enough.
Nobody lived here who had a choice. Jim could see eyes peeking through the crack between shutters on the buildings to either side of them. He figured they were more afraid of him than of the serial killer he was after. You'd think that after the assault last winter, people would have left to help fulfill the desperate need for labourers up in Metamor Town. Only a few had. The rest lurked here where the tanning-stench filled the air, in the ruins, in the rubble, in the mud and the fear and the hate. Seagulls cried from over the docks, oars slapped into the water, and the miasma of fish going bad oozed between all the other scents.
A big piece of mud splatted on one of his men's helmets, but there was no sign of who'd thrown it. "Ignore it," Jim said. "We have bigger prey today."
The men grumbled, but he'd picked ones who were the toughest, the most skilled. The ones who knew what the worst of Euper was like.
A massive ox dressed in rags stomped through the mud. Jim almost didn't recognize him as a member of the watch. Holding up his hand, Jim heard the task force halt behind him. "You know where she is?" Jim whispered.
The ox nodded. "Caught a gleam o' pearl late last night, it vanished into that alley down there." He pointed. "No-one's left, and that there’s the only way in."
Except for the roofs Jim thought. "Good job." He drew his sword, and heard the hiss of weapons being readied behind him. He'd have preferred heavy chain, but stealth was more important so he wore hardened leather, as did the others. He just hoped he'd gotten her first, before that tiger, before the Longs started poking around, though rumour said they had. Before any other intruders from the keep came down and started tramping all over Euper.
Clearing his throat, Jim stepped into the entrance of the alley. "In the name of the Euper Watch, and the Duke of Metamor, you are ordered to surrender to His most blessed and fair justice!"
Jim watched as the unicorn began to stand, almost wobbling. She was dressed in brown leathers complete with brimmed hat, streaked with dirt and mud. Her mane was tangled, her fur stained black with bits of white showing. Had she dyed it? And, and her horn. Her— alicorn. Was that the word? It gleamed like the finest, most precious pearl ever given to the most noble of ladies. It glowed with power and goodness. It drew the eye, holding the mind. Trapping—
Jim tore his eyes away and shook his head to clear it. He hated magic sometimes! Watching her from the corner of his yes, he yelled out: "Stand slowly. Make no sudden moves." As she stood, he motioned the guards behind him to follow, almost having to slap the panther to get him to move. The others followed, tromping in the mud, the sun hanging in the sky behind them.
He stopped about ten feet away from her. "In the name of the Duke of Metamor, you are under arrest for mass murder." She closed her eyes. "If you move, you will be killed." How in Eli's name could this be the mass murderer? "If—"
The polished pearl glowed, brightened, brightened, until eye piercing blinding brightness filled the alley. Jim almost fell backwards, only the woman behind him keeping him upright. Others screamed as the world went white, nothing but white. Jim strained to listen, hearing hooves scraping against wood. He blinked, his eyes clearing as suddenly as they'd been blinded.
Somebody behind him called out. "Where the hells did—"
"Everybody all right?" Jim shouted.
All around him others were rubbing at their eyes, shouting and calling out in confusion. "Where is she?" one asked.
The panther beside Jim looked up, pointed. "On the roof!"
Jim pivoted his ears, and heard the clatter of hooves on tiles fading into the distance. "After her! She's going for the river!"
The confusion didn't last long. Jim shoved his way through, the thick mud sucking at his hooves as he ran, each step requiring him to almost physically yank one hoof out to move forward. Others crowded around him, pushing, running as fast as they could. He tripped on something, falling into the mud, just catching himself with his hands as his chest splashed into the ooze. The panther helped him up, and he staggered back into a run. Outside the alley the mud thinned, their speed improved. Some stopped and fired bolts up at her. Jim didn't stop them — he refused to let the murderess get away.
"She's going to the docks!" a woman's voice yelled, and Jim ran faster, his breath coming hard and fast.
The men and women in Jim's task force spread out, going down alleys and along streets. More bolts were fired upwards as their prey ran. Herded. Sunlight shimmered off pearl as she leapt an alley, and that was when Jim knew that he had her! The block she was on was long and narrow, and there was nowhere to go from it.
"You five, stay her — shoot her if she back tracks." He grabbed the shoulders of two squirrels, a raccoon, the panther still beside him, and motioned them up to the roofs. Sheathing his sword, his heart thudding loudly in his chest, he leapt onto the wall, cursing the mud caught between his lobes as his mountain goat hooves scrabbled and clawed at the weathered wood, pushing him upward. The others followed.
Above there was a loud crash, the clatter and scrap of tiles sliding and falling off. Below the unicorn, below them, Jim could hear the shouting of a crowd, cursing the watch, cursing the unicorn. Jim silently cursed them, not having enough breath to speak, as some of his men peeled off to keep the crowd away from the criminal.
He got his head above the edge of the roof just in time to see her back on her hooves, grabbing her leather fedora to keep it from blowing off. She ran and Jim yelled after her: "Surrender! You won't— won't be harmed if — if you surrender— peacefully."
His breath shoved itself into his lungs, and shoved itself back out. The others pushed at him from below and he scrabbled onto the roof. Drawing from a well of strength he didn't know he had, he staggered after her. Not a run, just the best he could do.
Jim could smell the stench of the harbour now, and she could too, as she stopped at the edge of the row of buildings. She had nowhere to go but into the arms of the watch, or into the foul muddy water. He had her! "Hold— hold your— your fire!" Jim shouted out. He stopped, hands on his knees, fighting to hold his head up as he leaned forward fighting to catch his breath. "If you come— come now— you will be tried— tried in the Duke's court. Justice will be done!"
All around him, his men tensed.
The crowd tensed.
Jim watched as she took a few steps away from the edge of the roof, her bare hooves gripping the wet tiles with surprising surety. "Why?" Jim asked. "Why kill so— so many?"
She looked at him, the sun glittering in her eyes, on her alicorn. "Because— because if I— I don't, they'll— they'll kill us all—"
At least she was out of breath too. One mortal weakness. "Who?"
"Ask— library—" And then she spun, ran, and leapt off the edge of the roof.
All around, men fired bolts up at her, their iron tips hissing around her form. The crowd cheered, enjoying anything that caused problems for the watch. Birds screamed, oars slapped.
Jim staggered to the edge. There was no need to hurry because he wasn't paid anywhere near enough to dive into the sludge below. Below him, the Watch fired all the bolts they could towards the water. It looked like one sunk home by her spine, but Jim wouldn't put a copper on it. All he could do was watch. Watch her fall, tumbling. Watch her hit the water, splashing. Watch her struggle.
And watch her sink, even as the bolts hissed around her like rain.
"Sir—?" the raccoon asked, coming up to his side. Jim couldn't remember his name. "We did it—"
"Something doesn't add— add up here. And— she's not dead."
"But how do you know?"
"Because that would be too easy."
Part of him hoped she lived, but the rest of him prayed she died. But, until a body was found, he'd have to keep searching. He dreaded having to ask an otter to swim in the stuff below, but he had no choice.
No choice at all.