I needed a human subject.
So I put up posters around town, asking for volunteers. Nobody came.
I offered to pay. Nobody wanted my money, not even the homeless man down the street.
I begged. I pleaded. But nobody listened.
What else was I supposed to do?
It was coincidence more than anything that led me to the man. There I was, pondering how I was going to find someone to work on and just coming out my front door. I must admit, I was less than paying attention, and more than a little frustrated with my search. So when I collided with the man as he came around the corner, and he fell to the street and cracked his head, it just felt natural to drag him inside and down to my lab.
I just wanted to do some experiments. But the way he lay there, strapped to the table, helpless and pleading with me - well, it was such a surge of power. And along with that feeling came something else, another kind of power. I'd never felt anything like it before. But I knew what it was.
And it had the potential to make things much more... interesting.
When I arrived, the body lay on its stomach in the damp dirt of the alley, surrounded by the stench of death and a pack of Lions. That's Law Enforcement Officials. LEOs. Lions. The name you use depends on how formal you want to be.
"Hey, Grit," one of the Lions greeted me. I hated nicknames. My name was Gerrit, not Grit. But I'd been on the force longer than most of my men had been alive, and I knew how a nickname tended to stick, whether you wanted it to or not. Best thing was to ignore it and hope it went away.
"Brinton," I answered. "What's the situation?"
"Male, about twenty years old, found naked in the street by -" He looked around and pointed at a woman talking to another Lion. "- Peria, I think her name was. She lives in the house to the left here. Says she was taking out the garbage when she found him."
"You figure she had anything to do with it?" I asked as we approached the body.
"Doubt it. Looks like the guy was dragged here. If she did it, I don't think she'd bring him all the way back to her place just so she could claim to have found him."
I nodded, inspecting the body. "His toes are missing."
"And eight of his fingers," Brinton said. "Doesn't seem to be what killed him though - the injuries have already healed over."
"Then what did?"
"We haven't turned him over yet, sir. We've been waiting for you."
"Let's do it, then." Brinton called another Lion over, and together they flipped the corpse from its stomach onto its back. Brinton noticeably blanched at the half-healed scars crisscrossing the dead man's chest and face. I crouched down by the body and put my finger to a large puckered mark on the center of his chest.
"Here's our killing wound, unless I miss my guess," I said.
Brinton gave me a strange look. "How can that be, sir? It appears to be fully healed."
"We'd better get the Quis on this. It looks like we're dealing with a Healer."
I only knew a couple of Quis in the city - the one who came to work with us wasn't one of them. His name was Dav, and he stood nearly a foot taller than me, though much of that height was due to his armour plating
He paid little attention to the body, instead walking around to inspect the drag marks.
"They disappear when they get to the stone road," I told him. Intent on the ground, he ignored me.
"You can learn a lot from the ground," he muttered after a moment. "At least, you can before it's all messed up by a dozen people who don't need to be here." From under his helm, he gave me a meaningful look.
"Hey, don't look at me, it was like that when I got here."
Only then did the man look at the body. "You turned him over?" he asked.
His grunt could have been taken for approval or criticism. I elected to assume it was approval.
"We believe it was the large wound in his chest that killed him," I said.
"Not intentionally," Dav replied.
"I do not believe that the killer meant for this man to die. At least, not yet. Otherwise, why Heal the wound?"
"Torture, then? Why? Was he looking for information? And if he didn't mean for him to die-"
"Then he must not have found it," finished Dav.
"Damn it. We need to find out what he was looking for. I've sent a couple of Lions to figure out who the victim was, but that could take days."
"We don't have days."
"I know!" I scrubbed a hand through my hair - what little was left of it, anyway. "Do you have any ideas on who could have done this?"
Dav shrugged. "All I can tell you is it wasn't one of ours. Any Healer with the Asylum would have been with a Qui. And any Qui who allowed something like this would no longer be a Qui."
"Fair enough. So what do we do now?"
"You're the one in charge of the investigation, Grit." My eye twitched. Where had he gotten that name from? "I'm just here to take this guy to the Asylum."
"Whoa, wait - the Asylum? He tortured and killed a man! He deserves to be brought to justice, not taken to your little training center."
As Dav drew himself up, I quickly got the feeling that was the wrong thing to say. "Do not lecture me about justice," he said, voice cold. "Quis dedicate their lives to its pursuit. Prison could not hold this man without us, and he would likely bring the place down around the heads of your Lions. Training in the Asylum is a far harsher punishment than you can imagine."
His eyes held me until I nodded. "All right," I said grudgingly. "All right. He's yours. So what do we-"
A wail from the entrance to the alley cut me off. As I turned, a figure rushed past me toward the body on the ground. Dav's reflexes were better than mine, ans he caught the woman by the arm as though she was a child.
"This is a crime scene, ma'am," he said. "You can't just rush in here and-"
A Lion followed behind, out of breath. "My fault, sir," he said. "She claims to know the victim, and I brought her here to identify the body."
Back at my office, Dav and I sat down with the still grieving woman. Tears soaked her pale cheeks. "His name is - was - Barion. We've been living together for two years now. I -" Voice breaking, she looked away.
"Take your time," I said. After a moment, she composed herself, and I continued. "Do you know anyone who would want to hurt him?"
"No, nobody. We didn't get out much, and I can't see how he could have an enemy. Especially one that would want to do something like that."
"We believe the killer was looking for something. Information, most likely. Any ideas what he might have been looking for?"
"No. We don't have a large stash of money or anything, and Bari was never one to keep secrets anyway."
"When was the last time you saw Barion?"
"This morning, when he left for work."
"And he wasn't injured at that time?"
"No, of course not."
"Where did he work?"
"Althet's forge on the south side of town."
"Thank you, ma'am. We'll be in touch." I nodded at one of the Lions nearby and he led the woman away while Dav and I went to investigate the forge.
I could hear the Lion's voices everywhere I went, whispering my name. "Armel Nairo, come with us."
"No!" I shouted, spinning and running through a haze of mist, away from the voices, and the hands connected to unseen bodies that groped for me, searching. My legs felt like iron - heavy and rusting. The mist was so thick I could barely see five feet in front of my face, but I ran heedless of the danger. A figure loomed out of the darkness, and I turned in midstep to avoid it. It was a massive person, covered in steel from head to toe. Even as I turned, another appeared
"Armel," they said, all together. "Come with us." Five gauntleted hands reached for me. They only had ten fingers between them.
I woke with a start in a cold sweat.
No Lions. No Quis. I was alone in my own bed, with the first rays of dawn struggling to find their way through the heavy curtains. I tried to shake off the dream, but even if I could, I knew there was no way I was getting back to sleep. Sighing, I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Another early morning, apparently.
After I got dressed, I wandered through the empty halls of the house, thinking. I had so little time to think these days, what with my experiments taking up most of my time. Again and again, my thoughts returned to my dream, and the dead man I had left in the alley. I hadn't had any choice in the matter, really. It wasn't as though I had meant to kill him. Such a waste of a perfectly good research subject.
You might think I would have turned myself in then. I considered it. I really did. But my work was just too important to let something like that stand in the way.
"Armel? You're up early." I didn't turn around at the voice, but I stopped in the hallway.
"Well, you know what it's like, Mother. Things to do," I replied.
"Make sure you eat your breakfast. What do you do down there all day anyway?"
"Of course. Well, don't make a mess, darling."
Acting the obedient son, I grabbed a slice of bread and a fistful of grapes from the kitchen before heading down to my lab. I fished the key out of my shirt and unlocked the heavy iron door. Strange that nobody questioned why the door was always locked, but I wasn't complaining. My parents probably wouldn't understand.
Locking the door behind me, I descended into the darkness, lit only by the occasional torch that still burned on the wall. I made a mental note to get them replaced as I took my seat at the desk along one side of the room and picked up a small notebook. The only other furniture in the room was a large wooden table with improvised shackles, a bench that held my tools and a small cage.
"Good morning, Subject Number Two" I said to the figure huddled in the cage as I perused my notes. "We have a lot to do today."
"Please. Please just let me go," she whimpered.
"So this man - Barion - he never arrived at the forge yesterday?" I asked.
"I told you, I never saw him. You can ask anybody around."
"We'll do that. Has he ever missed work before?"
"Never. Dependable guy, if a little anti-social. Didn't talk much, but he did his work."
"All right. Thank you."
The man nodded and turned back to his work, and I turned back to Dav.
"So where did he disappear?" Dav asked.
"Exactly my thoughts. Let's retrace his steps, see what we can find."
We walked the route in silence, studying the ground at every step. I had assumed that Barion would have taken the shortest route possible - he didn't seem the type to take the scenic route - so that's the way we went.
A little less than halfway down our route, a woman opened her front door and approached us. "Are you LEOs?" she asked.
"I am, ma'am," I replied. "What can I do for you?"
"It's probably nothing," she said, "but, well, my daughter didn't come home last night. I'm not that surprised, and I'm sure she's fine - she's come home late before, just not stayed out all night - but I worry, you know?"
"Yes, ma'am. If you'll give us a description, we'll keep an eye out for her."
"Thank you. She's short - shorter than me - and has medium length brown hair and blue eyes. I think she was wearing a blue dress when she left last night. Her name's Ambella."
"We'll do our best to find her."
"Thanks. So, what are you guys doing here anyway? Looking for something?"
Not wanting to give the woman anything more to worry about, I hesitated, but Dav spoke up. "A man was murdered not far from here. We're trying to pick up the killer's trail."
The woman's face went white. "You don't think-"
Glaring at Dav, I said "We have no reason to believe your daughter was a victim, ma'am. More likely she just spent the night somewhere. There's no cause to worry just yet."
"All right." She was still obviously shaken. "I hope you find this guy."
"So do we," I replied. "Have a good day, ma'am."
She retreated back to her house, and I spun around to face Dav. "Why would you tell her that? Don't you think she has enough to worry about?"
"She asked, and she has a right to know all the possibilities."
I sighed. "What's done is done. Do you think Ambella was abducted?"
"Maybe. It is in the same area, it's not impossible."
"Let's keep looking, then."
We arrived back at Barion's house without finding anything unusual.
"Now what?" Dav asked.
"The tedious part. Go to every house on the street and ask if anybody saw anything unusual."
"Do I have to be there?"
"Given that we have two disappearances and a body in this area of the city, it seems likely to me that our killer lives or operates around here. You'll be able to tell if any of the people we interview are Healers. Yes, you have to be there."
Her blue eyes were quite pretty, truly, and beneath her dress had hidden a body that would make any man pause. And her lips - had I been the type to indulge, no doubt I would have tasted them. However, I had important work to do. Business before pleasure, as they say. Though I must admit to deriving a certain amount of pleasure from my work.
"Subject Number Two," I said as I looked down at her. "Today's the day our experiments truly begin. How do you feel?"
"You haven't touched your food. You need to eat to keep your strength up. You'll need it."
A whimper was her only reply. I sighed. "Very well," I said. "Let's get on with it."
I placed the key in the lock, turned it, and the door swung open with a creak. Faster than I would have thought possible, the girl lashed out at me with her nails, raking a furrow down my hand. Without pausing, she dashed for the stairs.
A wry smile on my face, I reached out with my power. One thing I had already learned about Healing was it could also be used to affect bodies in a negative way. Before the girl was halfway across the stone floor, she collapsed, her muscles no longer functioning properly.
"Nice try," I said as I strolled toward her. "Now, up on the bench you go." I've never been particularly athletic, but I managed to swing her up onto the table without too much difficulty. After I strapped her down, I Healed her back to perfect health. It was a necessity that she start from a consistent state. I hadn't made the same mistakes with her as I had with Subject Number One. She retained all her digits, and her scars from the previous day's work were all but invisible.
"Now then," I said once everything was in place. "What shall we start with? The straight edge? The hook? The saw?" I reveled in the way her eyes widened with each word, but she still didn't make a sound. That would change once I started. Fortunately my lab was deep enough underground that nobody would overhear.
Picking up the straight edged razor, I said "Let's start simple, shall we?"
A dull series of thuds filtered down from the stairs, interrupting me before I could start. "Damn it," I muttered. "What does she want?"
Placing the blade back on the table, I smiled at Subject Number Two. "Don't go anywhere," I said. "I'll be right back. Oh, and I almost forgot -" I drew on my power briefly and weakened her vocal cords. "Can't have you making any noise, now can we?"
The tears rolling down her cheeks as she cried silently a
The pounding continued as I ascended the stairs. What was so important? Didn't she know I had things to do? At the top, I threw the door open. My mother stood there, an odd look on her face.
"Yes?" I said.
"I know, you don't like being disturbed. But there are a couple of men here to see you. They were quite insistent."
My heart flipped and my stomach clenched, but I forced myself to remain calm. There was no way there were here about the girl. Nobody had seen me take her. They probably didn't even know she was missing. And the man I had so regrettably killed? Impossible that they could have tracked me down. I had left no evidence.
"Did they say what they wanted?" I asked, closing the door behind me and locking it, stuffing the key down my shirt. Nobody needed to know what was down there.
"Oh, just some silly thing. They want to know if you saw anything yesterday morning while I was out. I was quite clear with them that you spend most of your time in your lab, but they really wanted to talk to you personally."
"All right, all right," I said. "Let's get this over with."
My mother nodded once and led the way to our sitting room. The two men lounged on one of the couches, looking like a mismatched pair of vultures, one in thick metal armour plating, the other the plain uniform of a Lion. My breath caught when I saw the emblem on the armoured man's chest. A Qui. I bared my teeth in what I hoped would be taken for a smile. If I didn't draw attention to myself, I should be fine. I tried to avoid looking at the massive sword strapped to the Qui's back.
The Lion stood and reached his hand for mine. "Nice to meet you, Armel," he said. "I'm Gerrit. Your mother has told us all about you."
I took his hand, keeping on eye on the Qui. "All good, I hope," I replied with a smile.
"Of course, of course," the Lion said, seating himself back on the couch. It groaned under the weight. I perched on the edge of the couch facing the two, ready to bolt for the door at the slightest sign. "We just need to ask you a few questions, if we may."
"Ask away." I felt a tickle at the back of my mind, but I shrugged it off to paranoia. They wouldn't have any reason to suspect me. I spared a glance for the Qui. Was his face set a little bit harder now? Sweat trickled down my back as I realized I had missed Gerrit's first question.
Armel by Richard Young / Fantasy have rating 2.4 out of 5 / Based on38 votes