Zacklani looked confused when Rakcigion dropped the two fish on the ground.
“That’s all you caught?”
“I would have caught more,” he said looking at Sean, “But these talked and junior panicked.”
“I have no idea how you all are so normal about this,” Sean grumbled settling himself on the sand and taking another bite of his seaweed. It was thick, a little slimy, took far too much effort to chew and had an odd but distinctly green taste.
Gethain raised an eyebrow looking very unimpressed. Caniciat however openly laughed at Sean. Sean had and suppressed the urge to flip him off. He was not going to be ashamed of this. It’d be like the mailshrimp video that had traumatized him for days. Seriously, why would you eat a singing shrimp? Why would you eat a talking fish?
Cabrako looked as confused as Rakcigion originally had. He glanced at Sean like he was a particularly complex puzzle and then shrugged like he didn’t have the time nor inclination to solve it and grabbed one of the salmons and chomped into it.
Sean winced and took another bite of his seaweed. Watching the blood billow away from the salmon that Cabrako was eating made the seaweed seem particularly appetizing. Rakcigion was watching him out of the corner of his eye and trying hard not to laugh.
The humor of the situation fell away however with the reappearance of the rest of the circuit. The hard, grim faces were a dead giveaway that something was wrong. The corpse they dragged behind them helped to emphasize that fact. Sean hastily swallowed the rest of his seaweed.
“What happened?” Gethain asked.
Extinrel dropped the body onto the sand while Argan answered.
“We tracked him down and found him like that. He killed himself.”
“Interesting,” murmured Rakcigion.
Gethain was silent for a moment and then said, “Put his body with Ocknian’s. The preservation methods should keep this body well enough for a while.” He turned to Zacklani and Jenaicra. “Tell me what you learnt from the people here.”
“We asked about Ocknian and Narmik in particular,” Jenaicra replied. “We spoke to their families first. Ocknian has no other living family save for a cousin who lives in the home next to his. He described Ocknian as competent, fierce and well trained. He expressed disbelief that Narmik could have killed him. Ocknian is, of the two of them, the older, born some hundred years before his cousin.”
Sean choked at the number.
“Ocknian was, I believe, far older than any of us. He fought in the service of Teraelanthonis when he was younger, made it through two wars there.”
“Very old,” Fassleti commented.
“He was stern but fair, according to his neighbors,” Zacklani added. “And up until he got killed no one thought that he had had any problems with anyone.”
“They never do,” Rakcigion said dryly.
“Narmik is much younger,” Zacklani continued. “He was raised by the sister of his mother since both parents are dead. His father died in the Battles of Twilight. His mother lost a lot of her strength due to the strain of birthing him. Soon after his birth she went out hunting, never came back. According to the aunt he had no quarrels with Ocknian prior to the attack. She can’t think of a reason why he would kill him since they rarely interacted with each other in day to day life. She also expressed her opinion that the severity of the attack was out of character for Narmik. She taught him to hunt and to fight and has never seen him go after prey or an enemy like that.”
“Maybe we have it all wrong and Ocknian attacked first,” Caniciat said, “This Narmik might not have fought like that normally but I’ve seen cornered mers fight. It’s not pretty.”
“But Ocknian was a highly skilled soldier,” Sean said. “If he’d attacked Narmik with the intent to kill him, wouldn’t he have succeeded? At any rate, I don’t think he’d have been injured that badly.”
“The boy is right,” Cabrako replied. “He wouldn’t have taken injury that badly.”
“Unless, of course, Narmik used artae,” Gethain mused.
“He was competent in the use of artae,” Jenaicra said, “But he couldn’t sustain its use for long.”
“Use of artae wasn’t one of Ocknian’s talents but what he could use, he used well,” Zacklani pointed out.
“And if he survived two wars for Teraelanthonis, he’s a canny fighter,” Rakcigion said. “The old ones always have tricks hidden in their scales.”
“If Narmik had used artae though, he used it to help himself, not on Ocknian,” Extinrel said after a pause. “All those wounds were made by Narmik himself.”
“What was his personality like?” Argan asked. “Was he prone to emotional outbursts? Fits of rage?”
“Not according to his aunt,” Jenaicra replied.
“And not according to his neighbors either,” Zacklani replied. “The impression I got was that he wasn’t very noticeable.”
“Quiet?” Argan asked.
“No, just not memorable,” Zacklani told him.
Argan frowned a little, eyes far away. Finally, he waved the conversation on. Gethain nodded and turned to Rakcigion and Caniciat.
“Karlenae and the other trackers of the community tracked Narmik soon after they found Ocknian’s body. They lost him eventually, even though he was bleeding. We took the route they followed until the point they lost him at. From there, there were only three sensible routes to take. We followed each of those routes for a period of time but concluded that he hadn’t gone to any of those. Eventually we returned to the last known location and went off route. Eventually we found tracks left in the sand and in the surrounding stone in an area of converging currents,” Caniciat recited.
“Tracks?” Fassleti said. “After two weeks?”
“Because that was so unusual,” Rakcigion said, taking up the report, “We came back to Itait, and spoke to Gethain and Cabrako. We returned to the tracks and Gethain used artae to ascertain what had happened there.”
He cocked his head at Gethain who said grimly. “Artae was present there. Someone was opposing what I tried to do. When I tried to grasp it, it fled.” He frowned deeply. “I do not like it. It tastes sharp and thirsts for blood like it will never be sated. I fear that the ocean didn’t devour Narmik but whoever was behind this particular use of artae has him in their teeth.”
“How interesting,” murmured Fassleti. “Ocknian’s dwelling was tossed. Someone did a thorough search of his things. They appeared to be focused on things that were of greater age. There were several small souvenirs of his time in Teraelanthonis that bore claw marks. I don’t know what he was looking for but there was no blood on any of the things that were searched. If it was Narmik who had searched Ocknian’s place, he did it before they fought.”
“Do you think Ocknian found out that Narmik had searched his home and went to confront him?” Caniciat.
“No,” Sean and Argan said together. Sean shrunk a little when Gethain raised an eyebrow at him. Gethain looked at Argan for an explanation of his comment.
“The fight was intense,” Argan said and then frowned and switched to mer-speak. Rakcigion helpfully translated as he spoke. This time though, Sean realized, he translated what was actually being said and not what was meant.
“The fight used all of them. There was nothing that could be felt that was not intertwined in their need for victory. Their claws dripped with emotion, their teeth were bared with intent. Their gakineh lived like it was a thing apart.” Argan shut his piercing eyes as he continued.
“Narmik fought with a rage that was driven by fear and desperation. The wounds that were bourne on Ocknian showed this. This rage was a living thing. It hunted Ocknian like a starving thing that has not seen prey in days. It was frenzy. It was malice. He would have died to kill Ocknian. The only thing that mattered was Ocknian’s death.” He paused, inhaled and spilled water out his gills.
“Ocknian could have killed him, if he’d wanted to. But he did not wish to hunt one who was not prey. And so the child hunted him as prey. I think when he finally knew that there was no leaving the fight unless he truly hunted the young one to his death, it was too late. Narmik knew frenzy. Ocknian knew survival. The fight used all of him but there was no survival to be found. Narmik had already laid into him too deep.”
Argan’s eyes fluttered open and he frowned again. “The rage was mostly gone I think when he fled.”
“Are you sure he isn’t a berserker?” Cabrako asked, eyes darkening.
“I’m sure,” Argan said. “Berserker’s need something to set them off. Narmik searched Ocknian’s home before he fought him. That’s far too organized.”
“The tracks left by Narmik did not look voluntary,” Rakcigion added. “I think he fought there.”
“The artae that was left behind,” Gethain said, eyes narrowing to little slits.
“Most likely,” agreed Rakcigion.
Sean found himself in a strange state where he was sure he understood what was being said and also was completely confused. Artae was something that still hadn’t been explained to him and the actual translation of mer-speak left something to be desired when it came to clarity. Well to him at least, since everyone else seemed to have understood Argan perfectly well. At the same time though Sean understood why he hadn’t spoken using English phrasing. There was a myriad of nuances that could have only been conveyed in the mers’ native speech patterns. He was pretty sure that some of those nuances had still been lost when Rakcigion had translated and he was disappointed because he wanted to have the full profile that Argan had done on both victim and perpetrator.
“So…” Sean said. “Did he kill Ocknian because he wanted to or because somebody made him?”
“That would be question,” Argan replied. “And we lack the relevant pieces to make this puzzle clear.”
“Do you think somebody was trying to make Chantinal kill Serenti’s father?” Sean asked next. Heads swiveled to stare at him.
“You think they’re connected?” Gethain asked mildly.
“Nobody else thinks so?” Sean asked.
“We’ve learned not to make assumptions,” Rakcigion said kindly. “But say why you think so.”
“Okay well, Chantinal and Narmik both seemed to have personality changes which could point to a similar source. Um this artae you mentioned. Which I know next to nothing about. “
“Narmik didn’t have previous personality changes,” Jenaicra pointed out. “He seemed to just flip. Chantinal on the other hand seemed to gradually change over time. Chances are his annoyance with Serenti’s father and the others of his community grew over time and he was now starting to show it.”
“But why kill himself?” Extinrel asked. “If you’re annoyed with someone you attack them, not yourself.”
“Why run in the first place?” Fassleti added. “He hadn’t done anything against the law yet.”
“That we know of,” Argan pointed out. He frowned and then said, “I think this was unrelated to Narmik’s case. Chantinal’s personality changes could have been a result of guilt and/or a secret to hide. If I had to guess, I’d say drug trafficking.”
“We didn’t find any drugs in his home,” Zacklani said.
“He wouldn’t have kept it here,” Argan replied. “But if he thought we knew; he would have run. Killing himself would be a way to escape justice.”
“But there aren’t any drug trafficking routes close to here,” Cabrako pointed out.
“Actually, they’ve been pushing in this direction for a while,” Rakcigion replied. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got scouts this far.”
There was a thoughtful silence and then Fassleti made a little noise. “Serenti strikes me as the sort of maid who would notice a lot. I wonder if she saw Chantinal leave his home to do something we would find illegal and he knew.”
“Why not kill the girl then?” Gethain asked.
“Because that would bring the wrath of her father,” Fassleti replied. “And he probably realized she didn’t know what she saw. But if he’d found out that we were coming, perhaps he thought that there was a good chance she’d tell us what she’d seen. Especially if he figured she would say something about his feud with her father.”
The circuit considered this theory and then Gethain flicked a claw at Fassleti. “Question the girl.” Fassleti nodded and disappeared in the direction of Serenti’s home.
“That though,” Zacklani said indicating Chantinal’s necklace, “strikes me as strange.” The rest of the circuit who had not realized that the pendent was shattered reacted. Interestingly, Sean realized, when they did so, they barely moved a muscle and their facial expressions became nonexistent rather than more open.
Gethain lifted the necklace from where he’d laid it on the sand. “It is not the first I’ve seen like this,” he commented. “Mostly in battle, when strong artae has been used. But there is no trace of artae on this. Not anymore. It has been shattered for a long time and I suspect Chantinal wiped what trace of artae he could from it.”
“Can you do that?” Sean asked.
“Yes,” Gethain replied. “But it leaves the artae you used to do that behind. It is mainly used to stop persons from knowing what you used artae to do previously.”
“Huh,” Sean said.
“I wonder what he was hiding,” Extinrel said frowning. “Drugs aren’t a reason to destroy a protection necklace.”
“If you’re forced into dealing it might be,” Rakcigion pointed out.
“We have far too many broken pieces,” Caniciat commented.
“And none are trivial,” Gethain murmured. “Extinrel, can you check and see if he was taking any drugs?”
“I’d have to cut him open and even so, it might show nothing if he wasn’t using long enough.”
“Do it,” Gethain said.
Extinrel shrugged and disappeared inside the structure that held both corpses. He reappeared in a moment dragging Chantinal’s body behind him and settled it a little distance away from the tiny hut but still keeping the structure between the corpse and Itait. Sean stared as Extinrel pulled out a series of tools from his pack and then without further ceremony laid a blade on Chantinal’s body and started cutting.
He promptly turned away feeling rather nauseous. Rakcigion gave him a sympathetic look but didn’t seem otherwise bothered by the autopsy going on not too far from them. Sean risked a glance back, felt his seaweed hit the back of his throat and swallowed hastily. He swallowed some more for good measure and then promptly inched away from the blood that was creeping out from the dead body.
Weird, squishy, hacking sounds were coming from behind him when Fassleti returned. At this point in time Sean was distinctly green and had a death grip on his own protection necklace. He thought, rather hysterically, that he was literally green about the gills.
Fassleti gave the autopsy a professionally interested glance and then dove into his report.
“Serenti said that she did not witness Chantinal using any drugs but that she had noticed him sneaking out several times in the night. She didn’t see where he went and the one time she was still awake to see him return, he’d only been gone a couple of hours.”
“What was she doing awake?” Cabrako asked.
“I got the idea,” Fassleti said, “that she was waiting up for him out of sheer curiosity. She failed to state this of course.”
“Of course,” murmured Argan. Next to Sean, Rakcigion’s body shook with silent amusement.
Gethain ignored the by-play. He had cocked his head thoughtfully and Sean could almost see him arranging everything that they’d found out in his head.
“Well,” Extinrel said from behind him. “he was using something, though he was either very judicious in its use or he’d only started.”
Everyone turned to face him including Sean who promptly regretted it a moment later. Extinrel was up to his elbows in Chantinal’s innards. Blood was splattered over him, slowly leeching off him with the movement of the water. Added to that was the tiny bits of flesh that were stuck here and there on his upper body.
“It’s official,” Sean choked out, “I cannot survive the zombie apocalypse.”
“Or med school,” Rakcigion commented.
“He looks like a horror movie,” Sean said. He swallowed hard to hold back his nausea and then swallowed hard again at the cutting look Extinrel shot him. The mer then beckoned to the rest of the circuit. The circuit members swam up easily to the autopsied corpse while Sean had to force himself to walk closer.
Once they were all gathered around, Extinrel lifted several organs, showing then the fine spotting of black or gray that graced them.
“The largest concentration is in the stomach,” he said, brushing over the spots. “That means he took this orally. It went down to his intestines,” he said pointing out the heavy trail of spots on the dead mer’s guts, which means it’s a drug that leaves behind a hard waste product that can be excreted.”
Sean looked to Rakcigion for explanation.
“A lot of drugs come in a powdered form,” his father explained. “Often they’re absorbed directly from the stomach to the blood stream. Some do leave behind waste products that are excreted out but they don’t usually have so much remaining as to cause that concentration of damage.” Rakcigion pointed out the dark spots. “the ones that do, often have a greater concentration of waste product and often it’s hard, which cuts up the gut and makes it more susceptible to damage.”
“Yes well, the number of oral drugs available is small,” Extinrel said, “And of those, less leaves hard waste and only one leaves damage in this pattern. Cochlen shell.”
“What’s cochlen shell?” Sean asked.
“A narcotic, basically,” Rakcigion said.
Gethain cocked his head and then said, “So that rules out his involvement with Narmik’s case. Argan tender a report to Karlenae. Extinrel, close up that corpse. We’re moving on from here. There’s nothing more we can do for Narmik’s case. Not from here. Rakcigion and Caniciat, find those drug dealers and end their operation.” He paused. “Take the child with you. Fassleti, I want you to go back to where Narmik was last seen. Find me a direction at the least. The rest of us will move on to Nailecta. We move out in four hours. Rest.” With that he flicked his tail and spiraled up.
Sean blinked at the chain of orders and then turned as Rakcigion put a hand on his shoulder.
“Come on kiddo,” he said. “Let’s get some rest while we can. It’s going to be a busy few days.”
“No kidding,” Sean muttered.