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In Search of Fire

By Pip Black All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter 1

"There are very few true facts in life," the aging doctor began, stopping briefly to cough and slowly push himself up off of the muddy ground, "but I believe I can quite certainly state that this" he said while surveying the gruesome scene before him, "is undoubtedly a murder."

His declaration was met with indefinite silence; after all even to the most untrained eye and slow of intellect, it was obvious from a single glance that nothing else could have caused a body to spontaneously slew intestines and scatter other unmentionable bodily matter in a bloody trail down the shore. Some limbs had been detached as well; investigators were still searching for an arm, a leg, and the distal phalanx of a pinky, but very few expected to find much in the swampy outskirts of the forest (especially when considering the pinky). After all, they had not been very successful in the past.

The head of the investigation party - a tall, lanky man with vibrant red hair, a rather large nose, and far too many worry lines riddling a face not even thirty years of age - sighed and pinched the bridge of his prominent nose in the hopes of waylaying yet another of the ever-looming migraines he constantly suffered since this whole nasty business had started.

It had been months since the first victim had been found one foggy morning near the marshes that mark the beginnings of the forest, one which very few people dared to enter even under the best of conditions.

The investigators briefly entertained the thought of a murderer living in their midst but eventually -with no small amount of trepidation - were forced to admit that, given the scene and the evidence at hand, the crime could hardly have been done by a human (never mind one of theirs.)

Given the location of course, very few people were overly surprised when the body turned up, although the extent of the mutilation left more than a few with a queasy stomach. Still, it simply reminded them all of the dangers lurking under the darkness of those trees; the men reinforced the locks on their doors and took to moving in packs, while the mothers found more reason to usher their children in before nightfall. The older and more mischievous kids took it all in stride, and were often seen daring each other to go closer and closer to the edge of the forest (at least until an adult swooped down to warn them away and they scattered like flies), or spreading wildly exaggerated rumors of dragons and night-crawlers that hid in the darkness at the top of the mountains and stole innocent children in the middle of the night.

Still, life went on. Or at least it did for a while - 17 days in fact, almost down to the hour - until dawn on a brisk late-summer morning when two more bodies simultaneously turned up. It was immediately evident that these murders were connected - the extent of the carnage was even more extreme this time.

The first thing anyone noticed was the blood everywhere.

It became denser and denser with every extra inch their gazes progressed closer to the bodies, until it agglutinated underneath the bodies in such a deep mass of sluggish liquid that nothing else could be seen. To the Head Inspector it seemed incomprehensible, in fact, that so much blood could come from just two bodies; he shuddered at the mere shadowy thought of that recollection.

The majority of the meat on the corpses' bones had been ripped off, presumably by whatever creature had killed them; the Head Inspector only hoped that it had been done post-mortem. Their faces had received the same treatment, making it difficult to identify the victims; when they finally did, it was mainly through word-of-mouth on who had suddenly mysteriously disappeared within the last few days, and fitting probable ones into the timeframe. (It was a relatively small village after all, with only a few thousand settlers; the majority of the people thereabouts, excluding a handful of other closely neighboring villages of similar sizes, lived a day's ride - or for those very few lucky enough to own or have access to a dragon of decent size a half-day's flight - away in the larger city that housed the Province Lord and his family.)

What unsettled most people to the very core, however, was that these corpses were discovered not on the outskirts of the forest, but by the river running through the midst of the most densely populated region of the town, well away from the fields and the shadows of even the outermost trees and certainly farther than any undomesticated creature had ever roamed before.

And as every person in the vicinity was soon to discover, these were but the first of many.

With every month, the bodies kept piling up. Sometimes there would be no new discoveries for days or even weeks, and then three or four would be found at once, or subsequently. The locations often varied; most were on the outskirts of the town, a few near the marshes. None were as close to the center of the village as those second two, but nonetheless a new terror permeated the habitants. A few outliers were even found well away from the village, on the path by the river that led relatively closer to the city.

Of course, no one could imagine keeping this recent spread of contingent yet horrific massacres under wraps. It was therefore with little wonder, but nevertheless rather large doses of fear, that word soon spread in all directions, moving faster and faster and leaving behind an epidemic of uncertainty and unease in every corner of the land that it touched.

By the time it reached the city a few days after word first started spreading, the details of the stories were unsurprisingly out-proportioned to the extreme, but the underlying message was clear: something out there was lurking in the darkness, waiting to devour the few random unsuspecting citizens unlucky enough to be out at night and who, by whatever reason, gave off the feel of 'perfect prey' to their unknown assailant. In short, the life of all of the people in the vicinity of the forest and surrounding marsh had become unsafe in a very short amount of time. And now, the danger was not simply contained to these few villages on the borders of the wilder-lands; whatever was picking off these people left and right with so little effort was moving away from the borders, and inching its way closer and closer to the outreaches of the city.

The Head Inspector had little doubt that he would be hearing from messengers of the Province Lord very shortly; after all, such a blatant safety threat could not be left unchecked or unanswered for much longer, and they were making little headway by themselves.

Right now, however, he had another body to deal with.

Motioning for some of the underlings on his squad to cover the body and transport it back to the lab for further examination, the Head Inspector made his way off of the scene, while trying not to pay attention to the green hue their skin had taken on as they made their way through the gore while trying not to muck it up any further.

He hated to admit it, but the inspectors were rather deadlocked with this case. They had been through countless archives looking for similar massacres from the past, and had found frighteningly few events with even mild hints of similarities; nothing compared to the brutality that this creature - for at this point they could not conclude anything other than that it was a monstrous thing, far more so than a mere human could be, but it was a creature nonetheless - had inflicted upon the remains of those found corpses (the Head Inspector had little doubt, after all, that if such a monster was at work, there were far more massacres than they would ever be aware of.) This case, also, proved to be of little help in making headway and resolving this mystery; there was not much new with this particular case, save the actual victim of the crime and the location in which the body was found. The identity of the victims did not provide many clues though; after all the Head Inspector hardly believed that the deadly creature nit-picked its food based on social status.

Which simply left the location. They had discovered long ago, however, that the location of each and every discovery varied completely; no two victims were found in the same spot save those that were found laying together, and the locations varied from the farthest outreaches of the wilder-lands to the innermost crevice of the town. The inspectors had noticed, of course, that nearly all such victims were found in relatively damp - if not outright watery - surroundings, but not much stalk could be placed on this particular assumption since the vast majority of the land surrounding the cluster of villages and paving the way into the forest was submerged - if only partially - in water.

A movement in his peripheral view caught the Head Inspector's attention, and he turned his head in time to see Matheau Fredericks, the old craggy doctor, motion for him to come closer to him.

"Gerald my boy," he started in a raspy winded voice as soon as the inspector was within hearing range, "tell me, have there been any further developments in these cases? Any leads?"

The Head Inspector, dubbed Gerald Germaine, sighed heavily and raked his hand haphazardly through his vibrant red mop of hair, leaving strands sticking up every which way in its wake. "No, not a bloody thing! You are familiar with the individual cases, Doctor Fredericks, but honestly aside from the medical discoveries there is hardly any trace of this monster left at any scene. It is as if it materializes out of thin air, and then vanishes just as easily, without leaving anything of itself behind to even show it had been there. I hate to say it, but if we do not find some physical evidence soon, we may not be able to get much further." Head Inspector Gerald Germaine stopped to catch his breath after his little outburst, and then sighed heavily and squared his shoulders. The doctor noted a determined, if not perplexed and frustrated, gleam emerge in Germaine's eyes.

"Doctor, have you noticed anything of interest from the examination of the remains of the more recently discovered victims?" Head Inspector Germaine questioned, fixing his gaze on the Doctor.

"I am afraid I can not offer much help there, my boy. For the overwhelming amount of bodies we have been able to find, there is a shockingly small amount of material for me to work with," the Doctor said, and then seemed to pause momentarily as if to organize his thoughts. "I can not say much about the newest discovery; I am afraid you shall have to wait until tomorrow after I get a chance to examine the body further for more information. I can tell you now that superficially, a rather large amount of flesh has been ripped off of the body, similar to the other cases I have seen. A good number of his ribs seem to have been completely pulverized as well, which points to his assailant being able to deliver a truly enormous amount of pressure behind his attacks, but the damage does not extend far; I can only guess that he was taken completely by surprise at the attack, and did not have time to even fight the creature off. I believe, however, that we can safely assume he died quickly, before most of the damage took place; I suppose it is a small consolation to know he did not suffer for a prolonged amount before his death. I can also take an educated guess and say that his missing limbs were most likely eaten by the creature, so I doubt your men will find much in the marsh, Inspector. I would suggest calling them off of the search within the hour if they have not found anything by then."

Head Inspector Germaine gave a wry humorless laugh at that proclamation, and replied, "Duly taken into account, Doctor. It is not a bad idea regardless; I doubt that finding the limbs would get us much further in finding the creature regardless."

The doctor smiled wryly and patted the Head Inspector on his forearm - the furthest up he could reach on the Head Inspector's lanky frame with his scraggy old arms. "Speaking of developments, when am I to expect to finally get a chance to examine the bodies they found up by the river near the city? I thought they were supposed to have been here by early morning yesterday. It's not too far; it should not be taking so long to transport them here! Unless something happened on the way..."

In truth, Head Inspector Germaine had no idea what had happened; he had sent a few of the men from his squad to retrieve the body three and a half days previously, and the journey should not have taken more than two days at most, even with the extra dead-weight (no pun intended, however brashly phrased that may have been) they needed to haul back with them. This topic was the major source of most of the more recent headaches the Head Inspector suffered, and while Gerald Germaine was, by nature, a rather optimistic fellow, even he could not ignore the constantly growing gnawing sensation in his stomach telling him that something might have gone horribly, dreadfully wrong, and urging him to look further into the matter. He was, however, saved from having to voice his concerns and doubts to Doctor Matheau Fredericks by a slight but growing commotion in the distance caused by the clic-clac-ing of horseshoes against dirt and gravel.

Both the Head Inspector Gerald Germaine and the Doctor Matheau Fredericks turned and watched with a sort of apprehensive relief as figures showed up over a dune, slowly but surely making their way closer to where the men stood around the parameter of the newest murder scene.

"Well, Doctor Fredericks," Head Inspector Gerald Germaine stated after recognizing some of the men from the scavenge group he had sent out previously, "I suppose we shall soon be finding out the answer to your questions, and you may finally receive those bodies you have long been waiting for."

The Inspector's anxiety increased as he stated this, however, upon realizing that the number of men slowly riding back came short to the number he had previously sent out, and more so that some of the men seemed to not even be his; instead, the colors of the Province Battalion based within the city and under the Province Lord's rule shown clearly even through the rips and tears and dirt stains the clothing they wore bore. This more so than anything caused Head Inspector Germaine's hackles to rise; the Province Lord would not send out his men for a simple cheery greeting - no doubt their appearance in his village did not bring about good news.

Steeling himself mentally for what he had no doubt was about to come, Head Inspector Gerald Germaine headed quickly in the direction of the riders, the old doctor Matheau Fredericks following behind at his own hurried, yet more sedated, pace.

They arrived just in time to see the front few men come to a halt and slowly slump over their horses (if they were lucky enough to have some) or simply crumpling to the ground, no doubt collapsing from the exhaustion they had endured throughout their four-day trek.

The old Doctor Fredericks, upon arriving, quickly rushed his assistants into action, pushing them to check the riders and make sure none were seriously harmed.

"By god men, what has happened?!" Head Inspector Germaine nearly shouted in anxiety at the collapsed, winded men at his feet. His gaze twitchily traveled over their devastated shapes: some crumpled on the ground, others barely supporting themselves on nearby steeds or desperately leaning upon the honorable Doctor Fredericks' men, barely conscious while they were getting their wounds looked at. He noted with a sinking feeling of daunting desperation at the bottom of his stomach that almost all of the animals that had accompanied his men were now heavily loaded with bundled-up sacs, the contents of which he could not quite see, but were not difficult to guess from the dark patches and stains leaking out from within. The number of the bundles was - in comparison to what he had expected - quite daunting. He quickly stopped that line of thinking before it went too far.

Upon seeing that the men were in no ready state to reply he quickly turned to the foreign members of the Province Battalion who seemed - though quite scruffed and haunted-looking - to at least be able to string a few words together and give him some idea of what had transpired. After a few seconds one of the men of the group stepped forward, meeting Germaine's gaze with his own guarded one.

The man - a bulky Guard of probably prestigious lineage (though that could only be guessed at from his occupation, since his muddied and torn garments offered little remaining clues) - appeared to be in his early 50's and had thick, dark brown hair perched in a large disorderly bushy shape on top of his head and a similar beard to match covering the majority of his face. His eyes shone through strands of his hair, showing a large accumulation of laugh lines at the corners, none of which were crinkled now - giving only a small clue as to the severity of the news he had to impart to the Head Inspector.

He motioned with one stubby calloused hand to Germaine, and after walking a few paces away from the men he turned around and sighed deeply. Eyes not meeting the Head Inspector's, the man opened his mouth, allowing a thick city accent to permeate from his stubble-covered lips.

"Well, Inspector, I'm th' commandin' officer of the Province Batallion from the great city of Glowkenshire - Cap'n Dieter Feigin - here on th' directions o' his Majesty the Provincial Lord Gautier concernin' these happenin's we 'ave been hearin' about for th' past while. I 'have ta say, I coul' hardly believe me ears th' first toime I hear' theze rumoured going on's, but aftah what I seen in th' past few dayz out there, I've no doubt left in me mind!" He muttered out, almost as if talking to himself. He paused a moment, regaining his composure, and then slowly raised his eyes and finally looked Head Inspector Germaine full in the eyes. His face, which seemed as if it was made for smiling and jubilation, was fiercely serious as he stared at Germaine, almost as if measuring him. Finally, he once again opened his mouth, his voice hushed as it reached Germaine's ears.

"I've a story ta tell ye, Inspector, an' as outlandish as it may seem, I swear on me life it's th' God-hones' truth! But - believin' it or not, as th' case may be - I know for certain tha' ye ain't gonna loike it, Inspector. Ye ain't gonna loike it one littl' bit."

The weight in his stomach dragged further down, as if tugging Germaine into the ground beneath him and burying him alive. He sighed, knowing his darkest nightmares were likely about to be confirmed, and with a weary and grudging nod of approval, he motioned the man to continue.

Botwin Gerlach was currently running through the narrow cobbled side-alleys of the large provincial city of Glowkenshire. He was fairly certain he had lost his pursuers a few slanting alleys down, but he was not about to stop just yet and make sure (he quite liked his life intact thank-you-very-much). Quickly turning the corner, he spotted the messy opening to the sewers, and with a quick triumphant fist-pump slid his way in and out of sight, quickly disappearing in the dark slippery depths.

He only made it down 15 tunnels and 2 dead ends before he was tackled from behind, and landed heavily with his face in the sludge lining the tunnel floor. Sputtering, he tried to scramble but was quickly halted by the weight perched on the centre of his back.

His sludge-filled ears picked up a diluted "Gotcha!" uttered amidst loud guffaws behind him, making him struggle anew. With a well placed kick and a hip gyration wenches would be proud of, Botwin finally dislodged the weight and scrambled up on hands and knees, trying in vain to shake the slime off of his face.

"Here, sheesh!" He heard and looked up, only to be confronted with a crumpled napkin being dangled, bobbed and waved dangerously close to his nose. Taking it, he sniffed temperamentally - and hacked a bit from accidentally ingesting some mud stuck in his windpipe - and, after giving his best evil stink eye (made even more effective by the surrounding stink, but less so by the sludge clinging to his eyelids and face) to the two laughing idiots surrounding him, proceeded to scrub his face raw with the rag.

"Aw is the princess a wee bit moody today? Got some mud up yer arse, by chance there Botwin?" one of the figures goaded. Botwin growled and got up to his feet, accidentally dipping the rag rather harshly in the slew before shucking it at the boy's face. The slightly muffled yowl of disgust he got in reply slightly patched up his pride, enough for him to put aside the foolish games for a bit at least.

"Gil, Bart, how did it go? Did I lose them?"

The smaller of the two figures, Bartholomew, spoke up from his position the ground where he had been tossed off Botwin's back minutes before. "'Course ya did, Bot, after the first 5 corners too! Those Province chumps can't keep up worth shite!" He whooped, grinning.

"Did ye manage tah get th' goods tho Botwin? Rofello won't wait forevah for dem yah kno. We got 'till tahnite." The remaining figure, Gilbert, chimed in from his perch at the opening of another tunnel.

"No worries Gil, I got them right here." He said, waggling the lumpy bag tied at his waist. "Good ones too, right beauties they are! Goldfinger'll be spittin' fire when he seez them, I bet he'd sell his mother for just one of 'em!" Botwin stated triumphantly, puffing his chest out to the others.

"Keep yer trousers on Botwin, ye kno' Rofello asked fer the 'hole set of 'em, and dat's wot we plan on deliverin'." Gilbert warned, but the glint in his eyes and wide grin on Bartholomew's face at the declaration did not go unnoticed by Botwin, easily showing their relief.

"Ye worry too much, Gil." Botwin teased with a cocky grin. "Don't worry man, I got this!" He said while sauntering over to the iron hand-grips on the side of the tunnel and beginning to drag himself up to the escape hatch. Hearing the other two following behind, he paused a bit to let them catch up and then unlatched the hatch, slowly peering out at the darkened street above them to make sure they wouldn't be noticed. Ascertaining that the coast was clear, they quickly made their way out of the tunnel and slowly moved towards the trickling crowds on the nearby busier streets, nonchalantly joining the flow of the crowds and starting up light conversation as they made their way home.

As if suddenly realizing something drastically out of place, Botwin stopped in his tracks and made a show of counting his party. "Gil, Bart... weren't there supposed to be 3 of ye?" Sudden realization clicked, and he asked "where's Hal?! The scoundrel, I have not seen him in ages!"

"Oh him," Bartholomew said, as if suddenly realizing that Hal was not amongst them. He paused a bit, then said nonchelantly. "Dunno. He may be drunk."

"Or dead." Gilbert chimed in.

"Or deported." Bartholomew finished. "We've got bets on!" He grinned, making Botwin chuckle as they rounded the corner, and narrowly avoided colliding with a party made up of a hoard of handmaids, a scattering of male servants, and in the midst of it all a finely dressed, plump woman of obvious nobility perched at a street stall and holding a ceramic vase. The handmaids shrieked, the scattered servants perked up from their trance-like states and whipped around for the source of the commotion, and the resulting shuffle caused the plump Lady to waddle a few steps and drop the vase, much to the shop owner's dismay. The Lady flushed fuchsia, the servants finally trained their eyes on the three trouble-makers, and Botwin, Bartholomew and Gilbert felt their bright dreams of mirth and riches flush away down rotting sewers in mere milliseconds.

"Oh bollocks." Gilbert stated in frustration.

"My vase!" The shop owner cried over the broken pieces, still dismayed.

"We are truly very sorry, m'Lady" Botwin tried to appease the flushed woman while subtly shuffling away.

"Shit shit shit!" Bartholomew moaned in mortification.

"My Lady?" one of the servants asked. " Are you alright?"

"Run." coughed Gilbert.

"THOSE RUFFIANS-" the woman began in a ruffled, high-pitched squawk.

"RUN!" Botwin shouted, grabbing Bartholomew by his shirt and dragging him away quickly, in fast pursuit of Gilbert who had already left.

They rounded the corner at a desperate pace, only to skid to a halt as they encountered the dim-witted guards from before (not dim-witted enough, however, to forget Botwin's face quite so soon after first seeing it) who had undoubtedly come in search of the commotion, and gave a nasty pain-promising smirk his way.

Botwin's eyes found Gilbert's, who had somehow managed to slink past the guards unobserved, and stood jitterly flanking them from behind. Thinking quickly, he yanked the bag from the belt securing it at his waist and thrust it into Bartholomew's surprised hands, pushing him forcefully through the small opening in between the two guards' bodies. Gilbert steadied Bartholomew on the other side, but while grasping the bag one of the sides fell open and a small oval-shaped object of brilliant color fell out and rolled back through the gap to rest at Botwin's feet. He lunged forward without thinking, quickly grasping it in a death-grip in his hands and stuffing down his shirt just as he felt the over-zealous hands of one of the more energetic servants - who had no doubt pelted after him in hopes of impressing his chubby mistress - grasp him firmly from behind.

"Well, well, well... what do we have here?" One of the beefy guards leered as they crowded closer, their hands engulfing his biceps and lifting him clear off of the ground without trouble. "Methinks it's a rotten weasel."

Past their dopey smirking faces Botwin managed one last glance of the worried faces of his friends before they once more began pelting out of there, the bag and its remaining contents securely in their hands.

"A traitor to the crown, I'd say. And a dirty mischief-maker and spineless thief to boot! He'll likely tah get a hangin' for this ain't he Bill?" The other guard added, a nasty smile on his face as he tightened his grip, cutting off the blood flow to Botwin's left arm, and getting a chortle from the first man.

"Quite right!" The servant chirped from behind him. "Causing my gracious Lady so much grief-"

"Oi! Who asked ye, eh?" The first guard, Bill, growled. narrowing his eyes in what Botwin assumed was the servant's general direction. "Yeh've done yer good deed fer th' day, now beat it and let us real men do our job eh?" Not waiting for a reply the guard hefted Botwin out of the servant's arms, causing the servant to squeak in surprise and step back, and Botwin to let out a grunt of pain.

With the two guards now flanking him, he had no chance of escape. Going limp and hoping with all of his might that the two buffoons wound not kill him just yet, he instead kept his mind occupied (through the whole time as his hands were roughly tied together with stringy rope and he was dragged down the street and unceremoniously stuffed through a doorway and into a cell) hoping that the other two had made it far away safely and concocting increasingly more radically stupid and hopeless plans of escape. He just hoped that, with the seeming dim-wittedness of both the guards combined, they would not think to search him.

Head Inspector Gerald Germaine had not, in fact, liked any part of Captain Dieter Feigin's ghastly recounts of the events that had transpired during the previous four days. In fact he hated them with such gut-wrenching ferocity that he could barely think straight for long enough to finish hearing the Captain's story. What did catch his attention, however, was the Captain's mentions of a partial footprint he and his men had seen near one of the bank shores shortly before they had stumbled on the scene of his men's massacres. It was, according to Captain Feigin, "a ghastly thin' gapin' at us from the banks. We'd almos' missed it, but one o' me men saw th' indentations o' th' claws on th' sides, else we'd ha' walked righ' pas' thinkin' it was jus' a big hole! Bloody huge, th's thin' is!"

It was a lack-luster sort of discovery, considering the huge price they had all paid to find it - even unintentionally as it was. Even so, Germaine supposed that this was a step forward at least: his fears were confirmed. They had a savage creature somewhere amidst their population that was slowly picking them off as prey. Not only that, but it was one smart enough to remain undetected until now.

Germaine started yet again second-guessing his career choice. While he loved his job, surely he would not be smart enough to figure this riddle out? Or if he was, by some chance, then how long would it take him to do so? He had been dead-locked on it for so long; even now the only reason he had moved ahead was because of an unintentional but lucky discovery. How much longer would it be before this creature decided to toy with them a bit more and leave another clue? How many more people would die before this was over?

"I'll have to investigate the scene myself, as I am sure you're aware of, Captain. Take samples and all that for evidence." And in order to give my men a proper burial. Well, what's left of them at least, he mentally added with a heavy sigh.

"Ach, ye'll do better than tha', lad. Apologies, but ye've been summoned tah his Majestie's courts, post haste! This 'ere situation cannae happen fer much longer. Th' monstrosity mus' be stopped, an' quickly! We cannae keep losin' our people tah th's thing!"

I should have expected that, really. Germaine thought. His first instinct was to protest, and say that his village needed him. After all, what would happen if the monster struck again while he was gone? Still, he knew it would be useless; no one ignores a summons from the Province Lord, especially not in such dire circumstances. If Lord Gautier went through the effort of sending his Guard after him, he had no choice but to conclude that his appearance was desperately needed.

"I suppose we'd best be going soon then." Germaine nodded with determination. "No need to waste the daylight. I'll go gather a few things and be back within the hour, Captain."

"Aye lad, we'll be here waitin' for ye." the Captain assured, patting him on the back and turning back to head over to his men.

With a growing feeling of dread Germaine headed to his office, where he kept multitudes of useful items stashed for exactly such a predicament. He grabbed a spare set of clothes and a set of robes for the Courts, along with some necessities and his case notes, leaving an updated copy on his desk for Doctor Fredericks to add to while he was away. Before locking up, he took one last look around at the room that held so many memories and years of his life, and sighed, hoping against hope that he would be back there soon, with this gruesome case resolved.

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