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A shadow-robed figure melted from the crack of a barely opened door at the end of a dark alley. He glanced to either side before he tapped the door closed the rest of the way. He threw his black hood down to his shoulders to reveal pointed ears. The tapetum of his eyes flashed yellow in the darkness as he glanced once more down the alley. With a silent movement he whisked his robe off leaving just the street clothes underneath. He dropped the cheap cloak a few feet away from the door as he crept toward the main road.
He stopped suddenly just a few steps before the end of the alley. The light from the magelamp suspended above the street before landed on his boot as his sensitive ears perked.
“No use sneaking up on an elf,” the figure said.
“I know what you’ve done,” said a voice from the shadows of the alley.
“Then I guess I didn’t pay well enough,” he said, as he snaked a hand into his vest where he kept his hand knife.
The elf looked around the alley but couldn’t see anyone. It must be a sorcerer, nothing natural was invisible to an elf’s eyes, especially his. He contemplated this even as his eyes failed him and the world plunged into absolute darkness. He took out his knife and cut five wild arcs into the night before a force from below slammed up into his chest.
The elf fell to his knees and clutched his broken ribs. He held the knife up blindly and talked around a mouthful of blood. “You’re going to be sorry when you find out who my boss is.”
“I know who your boss is,” said the darkness, “and my boss has a message for both of you.”
The elf swallowed some more of his blood. “What’s the message?”
The sound of the knife dropping to the cobblestones echoed down the empty road. As the supernatural darkness retreated back into the night a few minutes later, a pool of blood blossomed out to the main road from the new red crescent in the elf’s throat.
* * *
“You sent for us, Captain?” Aulineer and his twin sister, Lia, both marched into Lefty’s office and stood at attention.
“Yeah, yeah. Shut the door behind ya and sit yourselves,” the captain said, gesturing with his one remaining arm to a pair of old wooden chairs.
Lefty was in charge of the Transia City watch in the borough of Old Town. It didn’t surprise anyone that had seen his missing appendage or heard the stomping of the cast iron boots that probably served as prosthetic legs that the touch, ancient dwarf had seen some war. Unlike most in his situation though, his handicaps seemed to give him a zest for life that few other wounded veterans shared.
“You two know Lieutenant Xanther.”
They both eyed the aselsti sitting on next to them. Aselesti looked somewhat like tiny, slender elves with all of their stereotypes enhanced, and Xanther was no exception. The milky white skin common to aselesti was burned to a pink that would have looked healthy for any other race. He wore his silver hair long and unkempt past his shoulders, unlike the intricately coiffed and stylized common among aselesti males and more aggressive females. One thing he did share with his race, by the twins’ estimation, was the instinctual need to control other people. A couple centuries prior, the Aselesti Empire had stretched to all corners of the five worlds. Xanther seemed to be on a one man mission to retake the claims of his people, starting with the domination of Transia’s city watch.
“We’ve met once or twice,” Lia said with a false smile.
Xanther looked at her with the fire in his deep magenta eyes for a moment. He looked back to the captain right before she shivered under her mail coat.
Captain Lefty scratched at the root of a braid in his grey beard. “Any of you hear about the elf someone cheered up last night?”
The three of them exchanged glances.
“Yup, someone gave ‘em an extra smile a few inches below the first one.”
It took a few seconds, but then Lia laughed at the gristly joke.
Lefty smiled and got out of his chair and walked around the desk to his watchmen. “I want you three to investigate. Looks like a mobster. Aris’Tama low-life.”
“What about my investigation in Mage Town, I’m almost—”
Lefty waved his hand to quiet Xanther. “You’re reassigned.”
Xanther stood up. He was just under the dwarf’s eye level; Xanther was a bit tall for an aselesti. “Captain. We were geared to bring down a major fencing ring—”
“Xanth,” Lefty suddenly became gruff. He pointed a thick, nubby finger at Xanther’s nose. “Shut the hell up. I said you’re reassigned. Mage Town is outside your jurisdiction. You find out who opened up this elf, you make sure it’s a mod thing, and you bring me someone I can lock up.”
Xanther put his hands behind his back and pointed his chin toward the ceiling. “Then I’m sorry, sir, but I’ll have to report this.”
Lefty slapped his forehead with his hand. “Fine, by all means—but save it until you solve this case. The body was found in an alley by the Church of the Bloody Chalice.”
Xanther marched out of the room without looking at any of them. Aulineer, not knowing what to do, scurried after him. Lia made a face at the doorway and shrugged.
“So, since we’re on special assignment, does that mean we have a bigger expense account?”
Lefty pushed her shoulder out the door. “Out!”
* * *
Xanther, Aulineer, and Lia looked down at the blood-soaked cobblestones in the alley. “Yeah, whatever was there is definitely dead,” Lia said.
“You haven’t ever actually been part of an investigation before, have you?” Xanther asked.
“Not so much, no. We’re usually assigned wall duty.”
“Great,” Xanther said.
Aulineer knelt down in the corner of the alley and came up with a black robe. He smelled it and handed it over to Xanther. “Smells new. Couldn’t have been here long. Think it belonged to the murderer?”
Xanther took the garment and tried to smell it as well. “Could be. The murder must have been trailing the victim from the shadows.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said a voice from behind them.
A tall, robed human stood at the opening of alley. He had long, greasy black hair that was covered with an iron crown around his head. He took a step toward them and held out a gloved hand. “Good morning, guards. My name is Cevil Lothowar. I’m the Deacon in charge of the Chalice. I’ve been expecting you.”
Xanther then Lia shook his hand. When it was Aulineer’s turn he noticed something wasn’t right. He looked down after he let go and realized the man had an extra finger on each hand.
Lothowar followed Aulineer’s eyes and flexed his hand. “Yes, a birth defect. It brings the cost of gloves up considerably. Some say it marks me as a prophet of the Dark Trinity.”
“You had some input about the cloak, Deacon?” Xanther said.
“‘Lothowar,’ please. And yes. Daggerhawk wasn’t the only one to leave the Chalice in disguise.”
“‘Daggerhawk?’” Lia said.
“Yes, the elf that was killed here last night. He was a regular.”
“A regular of what?” Lia asked.
“Why don’t you come in and I can show you,” Lothowar said with a smile. He pulled his robe tight and walked out of the alley and to the front entrance of the Church of the Bloody Chalice.
Xanther slowed Lia and Aulineer down and waited until they were outside of human earshot. “Keep your weapons ready. I don’t trust Dark Trinity worshipers, least of all this one.”
They nodded and followed him inside.
Lothowar walked through the long steeple. A few black-robed acolytes scrubbed some elaborate prayer benches. As Aulineer walked closer he noticed that each of the benches had rows of tiny spikes were a person’s knees would go and that all of them were stained with blood. Lothowar lead them to a side door and took out a black skeleton key from his robe to unlock it.
“Like most churches, we depend on the donations of the faithful,” he inserted the key and popped it open. “Unlike many other churches though, we take an active role in our flock’s spiritual needs.”
The door opened to a large torture chamber. A few acolytes were busy polishing various implements, applying oils to frightful machines of pain, and scrubbing blood (or worse) off the floor.
The three guards were silent for a few seconds. As soon as Xanter had taken it all in he looked at Lothowar. “You’re under arrest.”
Lothowar’s smiled faded. “Excuse me?”
* * *
“It looked like he had set-up a fully functional private torture chamber. It was disgusting,” Xanther said to Lefty outside the door to Lothowar’s holding cell.
“So he killed the elf then?”
“Well, we didn’t find any proof of that,” Aulineer said.
Xanther glared up at the half-elf.
“What proof do you need?” Xanther said.
“I’d start with any. Nothing connected that room with the elf’s murder. In fact, from what the captain has told us, the victim died in a rather merciful manner.”
Xanther looked at Lefty.
The captain shrugged. “He’s got a point.”
“Well, how do we know he wasn’t tortured first?” Lia asked.
Lefty patted Xanther’s shoulder. “Yer teaching these kids fast.” Then to all of them. “Go look at the body. It’s at the Lionblade Chapel, across the street from the Chalice. If the body has signs of torture, it’ll probably be enough to hang the sick bastard in there.”
“Why is the body at the Lionblade Chapel?” Aulineer asked.
“It was the nearest church. Once we’re done, they’ll prepare it for burial.”
“He was killed right outside a church,” Aulineer said.
“The nearest church dedicated to a non perverted, evil religion,” Lefty said.
Aulineer couldn’t find reason to openly protest further, but he looked at the padlocked door which imprisoned Lothowar. Why would the murderer lead them right to his own accusation?
* * *
“May I help you?” said the old priest that answered the door of the Lionblade Chapel.
“We’re from the Transia City Watch. We’d like to see the body they found last night,” Xanther said.
The priest stepped aside and bowed to them. “I’ll go summon Bishop Lionblade,” he whispered.
Before long the bishop greeted them. He was an older human, but he was still a generation or so younger than the doorman, who was introduced as Jaffe, the bishop’s assistant. After terse, yet cordial formalities, they were led into the back chamber of the chapel. This was the pure mirror of the church across the road. It was as though someone took the same blueprints and favored marble where the other architect favored obsidian.
Where the torture chamber was in the other church, the chapel had stone slabs where bodies were laid in state. All the slabs were bare save the one occupied by the remains of the elf in question. The three guards and the two holy men gathered around and looked down at the corpse.
“A true tragedy,” the bishop said. “It saddens me that someone would do this almost at our doorstep. I must say that I’m not very surprised.”
“Why is that?” Xanther asked.
“Well, with that profane temple opened up and encouraging the city’s most vile desires, I knew it would only be a matter of time before something like this happened.”
“You seem pretty prejudiced, Bishop,” said Aulineer.
“Well, as our Lord, Sir Latemel says, ‘Let those who judge best, take up mace and smite those they judge against.’ I don’t have my father’s warrior spirit, but I’m glad you fine young men and women of the guard were able to capture that evil man.”
“So you’re saying that you wanted Lothowar to be locked up?” Aulineer said.
“Of course, who wouldn’t? He was corrupting the neighborhood. His tentacles would all the way up to the Lawn and maybe the Prince’s Palace itself.”
“Bishop Lionblade, you’re under arrest,” Aulineer said.
“Excuse me,” Xanther, Lia, and the bishop said in unison.
“He’s just admitted to have motive to frame Lothowar for the murder,” Aulineer said.
“Wait, when’d he do that?” Lia asked.
Ignoring her, Xanther said, “You think a bishop of Latemel the Light would kill an innocent elf in cold blood?”
“He wasn’t exactly innocent, was he, Bishop?” Aulineer said.
“That elf might have been a gangster,” Jaffe, the bishop’s assistant said, “but Bishop Lionblade wouldn’t kill him. It’s not in him, I swear. I’ll testify on his behalf.”
“That might come in handy,” Aulineer said. He took out his wand and prepared to magically bind the bishop’s hands.
Lionblade put up his palms. “No need, son. I’ll go peacefully. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
Xanther took hold of the bishop’s arm and led him out. He glared at Aulineer over his shoulder. “I’ll take him to the dungeons, but mostly just so I can watch Lefty demote you to civilian service.”
Aulineer swallowed hard and suddenly questioned his reasoning. Lia patted him on the back as she walked by. “Hope you’re right about this, kid brother.”
* * *
“You brought me another priest? Gods almighty, what are you trying to do to me?” Lefty said.
“Actually, it was Aulineer that insisted we bring him in, Captain.” Xanther said.
Lefty pointed at Xanther’s face again. “You see this? Right there. That’s the kind of crap that makes the whole watch hate you. You stick up for your men, Xanther. Your troops are all you got.”
“Not when they’re being idiots,” Xanther said.
“Especially when they’re idiots.”
Lia and Aunineer stared at the floor with wide eyes.
Lefty slapped the stub of his right arm. “I gave this up for my men. And I wouldn’t hesitate to give up my other one.”
Lefty put his hand on Xanther’s shoulder. “You have to believe in them. Even if you think they’re wrong, you prove they’re wrong. And you do it in a way that they learn from it. And not in a way they just learn to hate you.”
Lefty took his arm down.
“Now you three have an investigation to conduct. I’m going home. If I come back in the morning and there’s another priest in my dungeon, I’m exiling you all from the city.”
Xanther, Lia, and Aulineer stood in silence as Lefty’s metal feet clanged down the hall. When the last echoes died out Aulineer looked up at Xanther and said, “We never examined that body.”
“That’s true,” Lia said.
“Do you have any experience with anatomy?” Aulineer asked Xanther.
“No, of course not, but we don’t need an expert here,” he said.
“If we could get an expert to look at it, it would leave no doubt in our minds though, right?”
Xanther started to protest, but rolled his pink eyes. “Fine. I’ll go to the barracks and see if we can ask the Palace for someone.”
“Why go to all the trouble when we have one at our disposal?” Aulineer said.
All of them craned their necks to one of the cell doors of dungeon.
Aulineer pointed his wand at Lothowar as he looked at the elf’s body on the marble slab. Misty arcane energy swirled out of the tip of the wand, like mist, and wrapped around Lothowar’s head.
Lothowar pointed the surgical knife the chapel lent them at the elf’s chest. “See that purple there? There was some kind of massive trauma. A blunt object.”
“Possibly from your torture chamber?” Xanther said.
Lothowar smiled at the aselesti, but it was quite a different kind of smile than the one he used earlier that day.
“No, sir. Not from the Chalice. We use paddles, whips, and sometimes small blades—“
“You mean like the kind used on his neck?” Lia asked.
“No. Ours are too short to cut that deep. We only aim to cut skin, not sever windpipes. Anyway, back to the broken ribs. I would guess it was club or a mallet. Maybe a mace.”
“The weapon a priest of Latemel would use,” Aulineer said, flashing a look at Xanther.
“Or a common thug,” Lia said.
Lothowar put the point of the knife into the elf’s throat and pried open the wound. “But this,” he said, “was not done by a common thug. Whoever this was knew exactly what they were doing. Someone who’s does this before.”
“Have you ever killed someone before, Lothowar?” asked Lia.
Lothowar stared at Lia and made a face that said “what do you think?”
“This probably lets Lionblade off the hook. He couldn’t even slaughter a pig if his god declared a crusade against them,” Lothowar said.
“Are you sure,” Aulineer asked.
“Yeah, look at the precision,” he held the wound open more so that they could all see the smoothness of the slice. “You can’t make a cut like that from luck, it takes practice.”
“What is that?” Aulineer said, pointing at the elf’s neck.
Lothowar leaned in close and worked the knife a bit. He poked a gloved finger into the hole and fished around.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Lia said.
Lothowar pulled something out of the wound and held it up to the candle light. He wiped off the old blood and there was a brilliant blue flower petal underneath.
“Huh,” Lothowar said.
“What is it,” said Lia, tired of pretending she was about to throw up.
“You know what it is,” Aulineer said, “Last-kisses.”
“The flowers that are planted on our father’s grave.”
“We should go to the Necropolis. It’s the only borough that would have that flower,” Xanther said.
“Hold on a second,” Lothowar said. His hands were cupping the back of the elf’s head. “I think there might be something else you should see. Yeah.”
He lifted the elf's head off the slab and pulled at the back of his skull. A tuft of scalp and bone fell away and clinked against the marble table. Lothowar held the shoulders of the corpse up and all four of them stared into the hole that was scooped out of the elf’s head and filled with dozens of tiny blue and purple flowers.
It was well after dusk by the time they put Lothowar back in his holding cell and made it out to the Necropolis. The Necropolis was the smallest borough of Transia, although being the smallest division of the largest city in the five worlds, still meant it had a lot of space to cover. It was closed to the public after sunset, but Xanther spared little time getting to the caretaker’s house, the only real building, aside from the mausoleums and family crypts that dotted the graves.
The caretaker was an elf with dark green hair.
“Do you know anything about Last-kisses?” Xanther asked.
“Sure. I have a few bushes of them. They’re very rare, we’re lucky that my father brought them to the city.”
“Yeah, yeah. Gods bless your daddy. But did you give any out recently?” Lia said.
The caretaker thought for a moment. “No. I don’t think so.”
“None at all?” Aulineer said.
The caretaker shook his head, and then perked up. “Oh wait. I send some over to the Bishop of Oldtown once a month. His assistant, the old fellow, came by a couple days ago for them. Guess they use them in their funeral ceremonies over there.”
The three guards looked at each other.
Lia narrowed her eyes, “That bishop is going to need some flowers after I’m through with him.”
The three of them hurried back to the Oldtown dungeon. As they walked toward the cells in the back, the warden stopped them. “That priest has a visitor at the moment.”
“Which one?” Xanther said.
“The good one,” the warden said.
“Which good one?” Lia asked.
The warden tilted his head at her.
“You know they are suspects in a murder investigation?” Aulineer said.
“Yeah, but it was another priest that saw him. I figured it’d be fine.”
A frantic scream interrupted their conversation. Xanther, Lia, and Aulineer ran down the hallway to Lionblade’s cell. Lia, the tallest among them, ran up to the door and peaked in the barred window on her tip toes. “My gods.” She turned around and yelled for the keys.
The screams continued as the warden rushed over to the door. He pulled out the huge ring of keys and promptly dropped them on the floor.
Aulineer pulled out his wand and Xanther took out two short swords from his scabbard.
The warden unlocked the door and threw it open.
The screams had stopped. There were two men in at the back wall. Lionblade was one of them. He laid face down on the stone ground, a deep red cloud slowly spread over his once pristine white robe. His assistant, Jaffe, straddled the bishop’s shoulders, he was using a surgical knife—the same kind the chapel had lent to Lothowar—to cut into the base of Lionblade’s skull.
Jaffe pulled something out with a snap and held it up to the guards across the room.
“This is it. The root of evil. I’ve been preparing bodies in the Chapel for decades now and I found that everyone who harbored evil thoughts had this organ in their brains.” The tiny nodule dripped gobs of thick blood back onto the bishop’s body.
The guards were dumbstruck.
Jaffe’s face contorted and he began to cry. He wiped the tears out of his eyes, but it also smeared the bishop’s blood all over his face. “Every time I suspected someone lived in sin came to stay on my slabs, I cut them open and looked for what they had in common. I knew Latemel was guiding me. It was my mission. If only more people understood the intricacies of the body, we could prevent so much suffering.” He held the wriggling chunk of flesh up higher. “Sometimes I open people up and they are full of tumors. I mean, bursting with them. If we knew they were in there we could have cut them out and that person would have lived longer. If I could find the organ responsible for a person’s evil, I could cut it out and they’d be a pure soul.”
Jaffe looked down at the bishop. “I never thought I’d find one in him too. He was the only pure person left in the world. At least I thought that until you pointed out he held hatred in his heart,” he looked up at Aulineer.
“It’s ok though. When exposed to the light, no darkness can survive,” he said. Then he swung his arm up, slurped the bishop’s brain fragment, and swallowed it.
“Now he can go to Latemel with a clean soul.”
Xanther lowered his swords and took a step back. “Lock the door.”
The warden slammed the door and clicked it closed.
“One behalf of the Transia City Watch, we once again apologize for your wrongful incarceration,” Xanther said outside of the Chalice the next morning.
“Accidents happen,” Lothowar said. “I’m glad I could help in the end.”
Lothowar started to turn and walk into his church. “Wait,” Lia said. She pointed a spot on the back of her head. “What the part of the brain, it’s kind of bulby, slimy when you take it out, right around here called?”
Lothowar thought for a moment. “I guess that would be the hypothalamus.”
“Have you ever gotten anyone ready for a funeral that didn’t have one?”
Lothowar looked down at her from the first step leading up to the main entrance. “No. Not a single person I’ve ever seen was born without it.”
He turned around again and shut the tall, black double doors behind him.
Adherence to Prompt (10): No satire, but there is definitely mystery and one-liners
Spelling and Grammar (4): I think you are missing a word here: “Of course, who wouldn’t? He was corrupting the neighborhood. His tentacles would all the way up to the Lawn and maybe the Prince’s Palace itself.”
Characterization (9): So many characters, and each of them are unique and they interact with each other based on their traits. Just be careful, because with the number of characters you do have, it is easy to confuse them. This can be fixed by lengthening the dialogue and descriptions in order to give each character a distinct feel, making it easier to visualize each.
Plot and Structure (9): Nearly perfect.
Style (5): Your writing style is very good, but I would suggest you take the tempo of the story down a notch in order to give you room to expound on your concepts.
Creativity (9): The "last kisses" were a nice touch. This was one of my favorite short stories in the last couple of SSC's. Good job!
@Technogeek: Oops, the word in that sentence should have been "wound." Oh well.
The original idea was to satirize crime shows like CSI and the like, but I think I took it too seriously. I felt like going back and trying to force it too much would cheapen the final product. In short, I agree ;).
Thanks a lot for the kind words and for taking the time to read through these stories. I'm glad you liked the story :D!
I liked this. It felt a lot like a Terry Pratchett novel in a lot of ways. It kept up a little mystery, gave us some hints, while dangling the important bits at the end like a carrot. Possibly a little cliche to have the evil-looking guy be the helpful one that truly solves the case for you. Interesting twists at the end that help shore up that one blind side.
Your characterization and setting are your real weak points here. We have no real characters we know or understand here. The Captain is your standard loudmouth NCO-with-a-heart-of-gold who doesn't play a big role in the story but is there with a wise word. Your token 'badass minority' comes from some sort of controlling race we know nothing about, possibly may be trying to take over the force but we don't know, and constantly gets shown up. Showing that he's underqualified for his job.
The two gate-guards are your most fleshed out, but they suffer from 'main character syndrome'. They're the main characters, therefore they must be able to do stuff. Like make big conclusions, jump from place to place, and have background knowledge that is entirely important to the case. It's almost a deus ex machina. "Hey, that's a thing we can recognize but few else would because its related to this other thing in our past/present which never comes up again". Good for satire, but while you -were- satirizing CSI and the like, the story takes itself too seriously to allow things like that.
This is one where I feel you should have had a bit more peer review. Talk to your friends. Get them to read it. Tell them what your intention was. Let them read it again and point things out. Needs a little more editing. However, it was damn good, did exactly what it set out to do with a minimum of problems. Well done.