“Thank you. Bye.”
Derek looked up. “What’d Kelly say?”
I glared down at him. “She said you need to get off my lap.”
He returned his attention to his game. “I doubt it.”
“To be more specific, I need to investigate a few things at Nishrek. Alex and Jarasax have gone missing, and while the rest of the retinue and Adam deal with that, she wants me to pick up where they left off. There’s been a couple murders.”
“Hrrm…” He still didn’t move.
“Specifically, the orcs said they were killed by a gargant.”
He paused his game. “The fey were involved in this?”
“Maybe. Nobody had a chance to review the security footage yet.”
“If the fey randomly murdered a few people, we can demand retribution.”
“Which they will pay,” I said.
“True.” He finally slid off my lap, stretching once he was off the bed and on his feet. “How far is Acheron from here? I can never remember.”
‘Here’ was NHQ, a small private room off the barracks, reserved for officers. It was still austere and Spartan, but it was never designed for more than sleeping anyway. Our dorms back at AU would have been marginally more comfortable, but it wasn’t worth running back and forth every day.
“It’s actually a bit on the far side,” I said. “A couple hours by car, with all the traffic and everything.” Necessarian sirens would only help so much. “Nishrek actually has a helicopter pad, if we want to do this the fun way.”
He looked surprised. “We have choppers again? Since when?”
“Since we’ve been on good terms with the aves,” I said. “After Soaring Eagle fled, one of her subordinates took over. Delia has been quite helpful, and is leasing us a few of their choppers and VTOL craft.”
“All right then,” he said cheerily. “Let’s go.”
“First, change your shirt.”
He looked down. “What’s wrong with this one?”
“It has holes.”
“Only small ones!”
“Still.” I tossed him a simple black tee from the footlocker. “That will work.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. But you need to change too.”
“What?” I placed my hand on my chest—or, more specifically, on the beautiful gray embroidered long-sleeve shirt I was wearing. “My clothes are fine. I could get into a ball with these.”
“And we’re investigating a murder,” he said. “At Nishrek.” He rooted around in the footlocker and found a bland white tee and a simple fake leather jacket. “Here. This should be just right.”
I sighed. He had a point.
After we finished changing, it only took twenty minutes to get to the Fifty Battlefields, with more of that spent finding a helicopter pilot than actually flying. MC had her remote piloted drones, of course, but those weren’t equipped to hold human passengers.
Once there, I didn’t waste any time. I headed straight to the security room, dragging around the protesting devil the whole way.
“Honored Paragon, there is no need to keep the Battlefields on lock down,” Bahgtru begged. “The threat has passed, and the scene investigated! Of course, we will comply with Necessarius in any way you need, but this is simply unnecessary.”
There were about a dozen orcs guarding the security room, which increased my respect for the man a bit more. Of course, it would help if there had been guards from the beginning, but that was beside the point.
The room itself was underground, like most of the behind-the-scenes parts of Nishrek. Not particularly deep underground, just a floor or two below street level. There was nothing cold concrete walls, illuminated by dull red nightlights and dotted with doors.
The security center was the third on the left, and inside were banks and banks of monitors, providing as many views as possible for the hundreds of cameras of Nishrek.
The girl in the chair—orc, of course—spun around when we came through the door, but relaxed when she realized who we were. “You scared me, boss. These the ‘sarians who need to see the footage?”
“Yes,” I said, glossing over the precise details of our relationship with Necessarius. “That’s what we’re here for. But first, would you mind going over that kidnapping one more time? Just real quick.”
She nodded. “Well, like I told the vampire, I wasn’t here when the angel and the changeling were. I was out getting coffee, and Bahgtru was coming to find me. When we came back, they were gone, and their phones were on the floor.”
All true. “You didn’t kidnap them, or aid in the kidnapping in any way, shape, or form?”
She frowned. “Uh, no. No ma’am, I did not.”
I turned to the devil. “Bahgtru. Did you kidnap Alex Gabriel or Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters, or aid in the kidnapping in any way, shape, or form?”
He gave me an odd look. “No. What’s this about? Fi—the angry vampire already interrogated us pretty thoroughly. We told her everything we know. I thought you said you weren’t here for that?”
“Just following up.” Both were telling the truth; I could leave the rest to Kelly. I turned to the monitors. “Why don’t you show me the footage from last night? The murder itself. You said it was a gargant.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the security tech said as she tapped swiftly at the keyboard. “Got it clearly on three separate cameras. The actual murder is just a tad offscreen, though, so it’s still not clear precisely what happened—”
“Please,” I interrupted. “Just show me.”
“Uh, right.” She tapped a few keys, and the screens changed.
Derek leaned forward. “I don’t see anything. Your cameras have night vision, right?”
“These ones do,” she said. “Vampire-style, increased light sensitivity. We have some infrared ones scattered around, but the gargant didn’t get caught on those.” She tapped the keyboard again. “But the point is, that’s it.”
“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Are you sure—”
Then the thing on the cameras moved.
It wasn’t that the camera couldn’t see in the dark. It was just that the gargant was so big, they couldn’t get a good angle to make out any details. I saw dark hair covering every inch of its body I could see, and a writhing, heaving back, but the limbs remained out of sight…
“Do you have audio?” I asked.
She nodded and moved her hands over the keyboard again.
Suddenly the room was filled with heavy, labored breathing, like from some massive animal almost too big to support its own weight—it was a sound you learned to associate with gargants pretty quickly.
But they weren’t the only ones that made it. “You sure this isn’t just a sasquatch or yeti?”
“Hair color is wrong for a yeti,” Derek said.
“And yes, we are sure,” the tech added. “You’ll see in a second.”
Gunfire. Short, quick bursts, too regular to be accidental.
“Some kind of specialized weapon with a burst-fire mode,” I said. “A pistol?” More gunfire, this time not in the same bursts as the first. “Two guns. Different make. I think the other one’s a pistol too, though.”
“First is an Olympian Hermes,” Bahgtru said. “Second is a…” He checked a pad. “Crisis 04181976. Sorry, I should have checked for more detail on that, but I’m not the one who found them…”
“Reiner Gamma Crisis,” I said. “The colony on Luna collapsed when the prisoners revolted in 1976. That’s a microflechette pistol, though. Using it on something that big is an odd choice, to say the least…”
One of the guards coughed. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but the Reiner Gamma uses poison. Pretty strong stuff. Normally not enough to take down a gargant, but they emptied a couple clips at it, so it should have worked.”
I frowned. “You found empty magazines on the corpses?”
The guard nodded. “I did, ma’am. When I was helping that angel who got kidnapped. Uh, before the kidnapping. Found both guns, too. The Hermes was also empty.”
“Hm.” I turned back to the tech. “Continue.”
The woman had paused the video while we were talking, and pressed play at my signal.
The gunfire continued, as expected, but I also heard yelling—at least two separate voices, maybe more. And it wasn’t in English, but I couldn’t quite pick out what language it was. German? No…
“Can you isolate and enhance that?”
The girl shook her head. “We just don’t have the equipment for that sort of thing. MC probably can, though. But wait, we’re coming to the good part.”
There was an explosion.
I turned to Bahgtru with a frown. “There was no sign of an explosion—”
“Shh!” the security tech hissed. “Right here!”
The thing blocking the camera moved out of the way, just for a moment. Just long enough to reveal a short baseline man, clearly one of the victims we had found on the first floor, standing in front of his enemy with his hands glowing orange. He brought his hands together, and there was that explosion noise again, though it didn’t seem to do any actual damage.
The gargant roared in pain and fury—enhanced ears, no doubt, made the cheap little sound effect much more annoying for it than for us. Then it lunged forward, obscuring our view again—and the baseline screamed, only for his cry to be cut off quickly and lethally.
A few moments later, the gargant moved out of camera range, dragging the corpse with it.
“That’s odd…” I muttered. “It killed them all in different places, and then put their corpses in a big pile?” There had been twelve victims in total. All still in one piece, minus the part where their hearts had exploded out of their rib cages. “None of them were chewed on or eaten… do we have any better angles?”
“No. This was the best by a mile.”
“Of course it was.” I touched the ring on my necklace. “While this could be an excessively bestial sasquatch, I think you’re right, it’s a gargant. Something fey-made, but… intelligent?” I shook my head. “They’ve made cunning monsters before, but this seems like something else.”
“What if they found a way to remote-pilot one?” Derek said. “You’re right. A normal gargant, even if it could be trained not to eat meat—or maybe it’s just an herbivore, they’ve got a couple of those—wouldn’t toss them all in a pile like this.”
“Dogs have been trained to do more complicated tricks,” the devil said.
Derek frowned. “…true.”
“That’s not it,” the tech and I said at the same time.
We looked at each other, and I nodded and made a sweeping motion with my hand, conceding her the floor.
She blushed at the sudden attention. “Uh… right! Anyway, the important part, the sign of intelligence, isn’t the fact that it cleaned up after itself, or even the weird way it killed everyone. It’s that it managed to keep its back to our cameras the entire time it was in Nishrek.”
There was a pause as everyone let that sink in.
“Yeah,” Derek said after a moment. “Yeah, that’s a sign of intelligence, all right.”
“We’ll call the fey later, demand answers,” I promised. “But it will go better if we know what questions to ask.” And if I was the one asking the questions. “What about the victims? We know two of them had BOB guns. Anything else linking them?”
Bahgtru shook his head. “All the other guns were unused, and were a variety of models and brands. A few Telums, a Colt, an H3 Dawn, and so on and so forth. Nothing really interesting, except for a smoke grenade that they didn’t get a chance to prime.”
“And we can’t analyze that speech quite yet,” I said, mostly to myself. I did need to remember to download a copy of the audio at some point, though. “What about culture? What culture were they?”
“Baseline,” the orc said instantly. “They were all completely unmodified.”
I frowned. “…okay.” I really needed to have MC translate Alex’s notes from angelscript. I made a mental note. “That seems like an odd coincidence. Let’s move on to how they died. Has there been any luck on figuring out the exact cause?”
Derek handed me a pad. “The CSI guys gave me this when we got here. It’s all their notes, including a live update feed from the coroner. She got the bodies a few hours ago.”
Why hadn’t they given this to me in the first place? Whatever.
I scrolled through it… then frowned and backed up.
“That can’t be right,” I muttered.
“According to the coroner’s preliminary report, none of them ever used the toy maker. At all.” I double-checked her findings. “No exterior modifications of any kind, and she hasn’t found any of the brushstrokes that would indicate they had some and removed them.”
“So?” Derek asked. “Lots of people don’t have cosmos or anything obvious.”
I shook my head. “This is an in-depth autopsy. She should have seen something.”
“Has she reached the internals yet?”
“She’s working on it.” There was a video. “Yeah, cracking open the rib cage now.”
“Assuming she doesn’t find anything, that only has one possible answer.”
I looked up and rolled my eyes. “They are not clays. Do you have any idea how rare those are? Last I checked, we had a grand total of four in the entire city.” I thought about it. “Actually, I think Ryan Hearing left.”
Derek sighed. “Forest for the trees…”
I glared. “Just tell me what I’m missing.”
“There’s one other group that doesn’t use the toy maker,” he said. “Not can’t, just don’t.”
What was he…
“Yeah,” he said with finality. “Them.”
Bahgtru looked between the two of us. “What? Who are you talking about?”
“People from outside the city,” I growled.
Behind the Scenes (scene 256)
I might be drawing this out longer than necessary, but I keep forgetting to bring up these plot points, so I’m doing them now.