the action of investigating something or someone; formal or systematic examination or research.
The scent of paper and candles wrapped itself around me. It had been a while since I’d last been in Alice’s home. I could feel her owl gaze on me as if I were her student again. The sweet, metallic scent of blood cut through the memory.
“What happened to you, Alice?” I traced my fingers over the notes for a healing poultice. She had been experimenting with dandelion and nightshade again. Her handwriting told me that it was for a client suffering from side-effects of dream magic.
It didn’t explain her being mauled to death, though. My eyelids close, and my magic seeped out over the apartment like octopus tentacles searching curiously. I felt a tingle in my spine. There! The nightstand. I walked over to it and opened the rickety drawer. Inside was a journal of some sort. The latest and last passage read:
“I can hear the scratching again. It’s at the back of the house this time. I wonder if I’m going crazy. Fumes from my experiments? Unlikely, I would have sensed it. I can’t take it anymore! I’m going to have a look.”
Scratching? That was… odd. It may have been whatever killed her. I decided to check the back of the house to see if there were any clues left by the intruder.
The moon was smirking at me as I glided out to the gardens behind her shack. The ramshackle cabin was quite a contrast to the gardens in the back. Most of the plants were unfamiliar to me, much to Alice’s everlasting chagrin. Perhaps that was why she readily agreed to let me complete my apprenticeship under Temis. The answer was likely forever out of my greedy reach now. Something strange caught my eye, pulling me from my thoughts.
The side of the cottage had several light claw marks on the wooden siding. The marks were large and easily cleared my eye level, so a cat was certainly not the culprit. A big dog maybe? I frowned and stared at my black boots. Several deep grooves were left by the beast.
“What in Hecate’s name is that?” I pulled a pen and notepad from a coat pocket. My scrawl describing the markings and a drawing covered some of the snow-white pages. I began to rule out culprits. They were too deep and long to be a werewolf, not that they’d disturb her in the first place. If they did try anything, Alice had enough silver in that shack to knockout an Alpha after killing half his pack. The animal wanted to kill Alice but not eat her. Wendigoes ate people. However, one of those… pleasant creatures wouldn’t be out here at this time of year. They preferred sub-zero temperatures. I knelt and sniffed the ground to try and pin down a peculiar scent. It was almost smoky, but that wasn’t quite right.
I tried to ignore the tossing and turning of my stomach as I worked out the scent. After failing miserably, I inspected the ground and spotted a light sprinkling of fine, black dust. The color gave it away as soot immediately. Man, my nose was getting rusty. However, my monstrology was not. Temis’s deep voice rolled through my mind like thunder, bringing a rain of wisdom.
“They often leave a dusting of soot wherever they go. Oftentimes, they are summoned to our realm on command. Due to their extremely aggressive and territorial natures, their masters typically have nefarious plans.” He paused to point at an illustration on the board. “This breed of demon doesn’t die by common magic but turns into a gaseous state that leaks into the ground back to either its master or the Realm of the Hells. The gas holds a resemblance to black smoke. The beasts have fur the color of coal and ember eyes that burn with a devilish intelligence. This is most likely what earned the black dog creatures a name like ‘hellhound’. Of course, they have other names that vary by region.”
I had my culprit. My pen quickly jotted that down into my small notebook. Summoning such creatures was outlawed by the Magistrati decades ago. My fingers soothingly rubbed the bridge of my nose. There was still no motive as to why they would want Alice dead, yet. That probably meant I wasn’t digging deep enough. I returned to the shack, took Alice’s diary and notes, and warded the shack to prevent intruders.
My magic shifted around me as I blurred to my apartment. It moved me through the streets with incredible speed while shielding me from any wind or bugs. I halted in front of my apartment building and trudged up the stairs. I still needed to file the report confirming that my preliminary investigation found suspicious circumstances. No doubt the police would be out in the morning, and a secretary would inform Alice’s sister. Pity curled up inside me for the woman. I couldn’t imagine finding my sister like that. The thought shuffled away as I found the solid book of paperwork I’d have to fill out. A sigh escaped my lips. It was going to be a long night.
“Scarlet, wake up!” Ivy’s voice snapped me out of my sleep.
“Wha?” I sat up in my desk chair with a groan. “Mother Hecate, I feel like I’m gonna die.” Aches wracked through my body. “What time is it?’
“7:30,” Ivy chirped. I was pretty sure I saw anime sparkles appear around her face. “Early enough for you to finish writing up that report!”
I stared at the curvy blonde with a dumb look on my face for a minute. “Oh, sweet Mother, the report!” My hands slapped to my cheeks in horror. My gaze flicked to my desk, where I found the report finished with a sticky note from myself saying I already sent a copy in. A sigh of relief escaped my lips. “I finished it last night.”
“Huh, that’s unusual. Maybe it’s because it’s for…” Her voice trailed off and her face dropped. “Find anything?”
I ran a hand through my hair. “Nothing good.” Ivy looked at me with curiosity. “Hellhounds.”
Her pink cheeks paled. “Oh. Well, shit.” She took a seat in the overstuffed chair in my reading corner. “You know they’ll want you and Temis on this. You gonna take it?”
“I don’t think I have a choice, Ives.”
“Well, you’d better get ready, girl. You smell like you’ve been lost in the woods for a few days.”
I nodded in agreement and headed off to take a shower. Ivy flicked on my little TV as I left. My beaded curtain sounded like rain as I entered my room to collect a change of clothes. My hand petted the white cloud of fur curled up in my dark purple duvet. Maisie, my sleeping cat, let out a meow of surprise before quickly returning to sleep. I grabbed some work clothes from my dark wooded dresser and went back out across the hallway to the bright bathroom.
The handle squeaked a little as I turned on the faucet to the shower. A cloud of steam quickly swelled up in the small room. I stripped and entered the shower, enjoying the steady beat of hot water on my back. Knots in my muscles loosened and became undone by the water’s soothing, warm fingers. My minty soap calmed and focused my mind as I scrubbed off the grime from crawling around in the garden last night.
After washing up, I got dressed in smart pants and a blouse that was crammed in the back of my drawer. My towels were rehung on their wire rack, and I met with Ivy in my kitchen. She gave me a black tea and a pastry with a name I couldn’t pronounce from the local coffee shop. I grabbed the paper copy of my report and my coat before we sprinted out the door.