Shadow's Ascendance

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Chapter Four

Once I was out of the elevator, I heard it ding as the doors closed behind me, heading off to another level. The spray of steam coated the back of my duster, but thankfully I had rubbed it down with duck grease the day before yesterday, and so the water slid right off of it. Just another reason why a lot of people preferred taking the stairs to the elevator. Walking down the short hallway, I grabbed the handle on the only door in sight and stepped inside the Archives.

There were a few reasons that most mundanes (and even some casters) were frightened by this place, the chief among them being the Archivist. Personally, it never bothered me, but I could see why its appearance would be cause for alarm. Once I had entered the room and closed the door behind me, waiting for me behind the counter was said being, looking very dapper and gleaming with fresh polish, the brass and copper gears in its limbs making a nice compliment to the dark steel that made up its torso and head. “Good morning, Archivist,” I greeted it, stepping up to the counter.

Maybe it was the lack of facial features that bothered most people. Instead of eyes, it had a single orb in the middle of its face that never blinked; instead of ears, there were two small funnels that were mounted to the side of its head; and, instead of a mouth, there was a circular grill and speaker where that feature would be on a person. At least it had arms and legs, though to be fair the feet had wheels in them that it used to skate along, and the hands on its arms only had two fingers and a thumb, since it didn’t really need manual dexterity to do its job.

“Good morning Detective Jonas. How may I assist you today?” it replied, the low volume hum of all its gears merely fading into the background of the Archives constant movement. Nobody knows what species –or gender, for that matter- the Archivist was originally, but after some horrific accident its brain was placed into an artificial construct that kept it alive. Why someone wanted it kept alive, instead of allowing it to die, was a matter of rampant speculation. If anyone knew, they weren’t telling. But, ultimately it didn’t matter, since it had been in charge of the Archives for as long as most people could remember, at least thirty Cycles or so. And it was very good at its job, and the only one singularly qualified to do it.

The Archives were completely automated. When the new station was first being built (after the police force had outgrown the old building that they had been shoehorned into), the Yamda Company –today known as one of the premiere manufacturers of steam-tech equipment- had wanted to make its name known, and donated at considerable expense all of the necessary things needed to create the Archives that we know today. All of the old case files were sent over to be stored in it. After only a year, however, it became obvious that no ordinary caster or mundane –even those that had been modified by tech- were capable of keeping up with the rapid calculations that the Archives needed to run efficiently. What calculations were those, you might ask? How should I know? I’m definitely not up on all the intricacies of steam-tech. But how it worked didn’t matter in this case; it was in danger of being shut down, and if that happened, Yamda would lose a lot of respect and name recognition in the community.

Enter the Archivist. One day it just showed up, asking to speak to the Chief. The conversation took place behind closed doors, with no stenographer present to record what was said; all anyone knew is, after that short five minute talk, both of them emerged and the Chief heralded the anthropomorphic construct as the new head of the Archives. It quickly got to work, and within days everything was moving along swimmingly, as the Naga saying goes. Those aquatic people and their wacky sayings about water and stuff.

I realized that my lack of sleep was leading me off on tangents, and came back to the present with a start. But, I should have expected that it wouldn’t have mattered to the Archivist; it just stood there, patiently awaiting my request. Unlike most mortal beings, it didn’t consider me rude for woolgathering. It knew that only someone with need would seek this place out. “My apologies, Archivist, I haven’t gotten any sleep since the night before last.”

“Apologies are unnecessary, Detective Jonas, but thank you.” It’s odd to think of something sounding metallic, but that’s exactly what its voice sounded like to me. Yet, it still managed to hit the right inflections so the words weren’t all flat and monotone.

“Anyway, I’m looking for some old cases, before the ‘one mundane, one caster’ rule was implemented here on the force. Back before this new station had been built, along with the Archives. They would mention odd markings on the murder victim’s body, in a language that nobody recognized. Solved and cold cases both, if you don’t mind.”

“Request received. Would you please have a seat in the waiting room while I check through the records, Detective Jonas? I’m afraid I can’t offer you a beverage, but at least it’s quiet and peaceful in there.” It gestured to the side, where the only other room on this floor was located. Unlike the chairs down in the Library, these chairs and desks were quite comfortable. The Archivist really went out of its way to try and make it more relaxing to those who needed to look through the old cases, and it was a shame that its efforts weren’t appreciated more fully.

“Thank you, Archivist. I think I shall do that.” It nodded to me once before it turned away from the counter and went into that swirling mass of gears, shelves, and boxes. Like it knew who its master was, the shelves parted before the Archivist before closing behind it, sealing it away from prying eyes. Not that anyone wanted to spy on what went on in there. I had a natural curiosity about how things worked, and even I knew better than to pry. Some things are better left alone, after all. Turning away from the counter, I went into the waiting room, sat down in the comfortable chair there, leaned back in it and was fast asleep within seconds.

Feeling that I was being watched, I bolted upright with a start. Rubbing my gummy eyes, I realized it was only the Archivist, holding a decent sized pile of folders. I had learned long ago that you needed to grab sleep whenever you could on this job, but I still felt embarrassed that I had passed out so quickly. “Sorry, Archivist, how long have you been waiting?”

“Only one minute and forty-three seconds, Detective Jonas. It took me almost twenty minutes to find all of the files using the keywords that you had suggested. I apologize.”

“Don’t worry about it, and thank you.” Handing me the stack of folders, it merely nodded and walked out of the room, closing the door behind it. While it seemed fairly easy going, the Archivist didn’t allow any folders or papers to leave the Archives -though making copies was perfectly acceptable- and so any reading that I needed to do would have to be right here. “At least Dorf will leave me alone for a while,” I murmured, knowing full well that anyone who showed any steam-tech modifications creeped my partner out badly. He could see dead bodies, beat up kids, and accident victims all day long, but the sight of someone hobbling along with a prosthetic leg or an artificial hand had him squeamish as all get out. It was very funny.

With a sigh, I sat back down and opened the top folder. The Archivist had stacked them chronologically, and so this one was the most recent, dating back about twenty Cycles or so. Instantly I was struck with similarities between my case and this one. Like mine, the victim had been a young human female, appearing to be in her twenties, and I was thankful that the detectives on the case had chosen to photograph the markings. Since it was twenty Cycles ago, the photograph had faded slightly, but squinting my eyes and using a magnifying lens that was left at the desk I was able to confirm that at least they appeared to be the same type of markings that were also on my victim. It was too blurry to tell if they were exactly the same, however.

It occurred to me that maybe this murder was the reason for implementing the ‘one mundane, one caster’ rule, since it had started roughly twenty Cycles ago. I put that musing off to the side in my mind to focus on the task at hand. There was pens and parchment available to take notes, but being a caster I had shortcuts that I could use. Pulling out a tuning fork from one of my duster pockets, I struck it on the surface of the desk, closed my eyes, and hummed a tune while it resonated. When it stopped, I opened my eyes and read the contents of the folder out loud, feeling each word etch into my mind. Once it was done, I put the tuning fork back inside my pocket. Whenever I struck the fork again and hummed that same tune –and only that tune, not any others- I would be able to recall perfectly every word that had been written down. Granted, I could only memorize one thing at a time, but it was still a neat trick, if I did say so myself. And yes, I have almost broken my arm patting myself on the back, what of it?

Putting that folder aside, I grabbed the next one. After flipping it open, I stopped and stared for a second. The date on this one said it was forty Cycles ago. Wanting to confirm my hunch, I temporarily put this folder aside and opened the next one in the stack. Yup, just like I suspected, sixty Cycles ago. I wondered why the timing was like this. Knowing that at certain times of the year and at certain places magic could be more powerful, I wondered whether or not the killings took place at ley lines, intersections of power located all over the world. It would make sense, though I myself didn’t know of any rituals of that nature, the sacrificial kind. I’ll take my magic not tainted with pure evil, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, since none of the detectives working these previous cases were casters, they didn’t make note of any significant magical events that may have been taking place at those exact same times: no constellations that were visible, no comets passing overhead, no eclipses or anything of that nature. All the three folders that I had looked at so far just mentioned the victim, the way she was murdered, and the fact that it was raining cats and dogs at the time. Surely that was a significant fact, but since most magic that I knew of would be disrupted by a rainstorm I couldn’t see what that was. And this was before the smog and pollutants from the numerous factories turned our rain sometimes into acid that stained and burned whatever it landed on. Besides, we were a northwestern coastal city, so it rained quite often.

Thumbing through the last few folders, I confirmed that each grisly murder took place twenty Cycles before the previous one, until I got to the last folder. Its date placed the original murder almost around the time our fair city got an officially recognized major police force, and you could tell in the language the original detectives used that they were unsure of what they were doing or how they were supposed to track down a killer without any motive or witnesses. I sympathized with their frustrations, since I was practically in the same boat as they had been, even with all of our technological advancements and magic to help even the odds.

But, buried underneath the usual diatribe against the other races corrupting and polluting the humans and Dwarves –the two races having been allies for many centuries- of this fair city (Elves, Gnomes, and Orcs were all mentioned as murder suspects, of course), there was one small detail that either had escaped all of the other detectives assigned to the other cases or the killers had just gotten wiser in the coming years. Alongside the first victim was a playing card, like those used in various gambling games that had been played for centuries.

This card, however, had been one that neither detective had encountered before. It had been on high quality parchment, and the colors hadn’t run in the rain. Instead of being a numbered card with one of the different suite symbols that were used in each type of game, it had been the capital letter “I” on the top, and the picture had been of a man in a red robe, standing in front of a table and holding aloft a bloody knife. Reading this, the hairs on my arms stood up, and I knew that this was significant in some way.

Reaching over, I grabbed one of the spare pieces of parchment and dipped the pen in the inkwell before writing down a full description of the aforementioned card. Granted, it wasn’t much of a clue, but right now it was the only clue that we had. The wait for the ink to dry seemed to take hours, not the one or two minutes that it actually took. Grimacing when it was finally done, I stuffed the parchment inside my duster and stood up, making sure to grab the folders before rushing out of the room and thanking the Archivist for his help. I quickly handed off the folders to it, not worrying if they were in the proper order, since it would just put them away where they belonged anyway. And besides, it wasn’t like it expected any of us to be as ordered and logical as it was.

Some of the officers and detectives liked to complain that there was no real reason for the Archives, that we could put the space to better use. Although, they never actually seemed to have a viable suggestion about what they would use the space for; I guess when something makes you uncomfortable because it’s different, you don’t really care about logic or reason. But in times like this, I was glad that smarter heads prevailed and had the forethought to build it, even if it was in a unique format that made said people feel out of place. They could just shut up and deal, and if they didn’t want to use every tool at their disposal, that was their loss.

This clue -and the little cat-nap I had taken earlier- lent me a burst of energy, and I hurried out of the Archives and headed for the elevator. I needed to get this to Dorf, and fast. Already I was going over in my head possible places we could take this information to gather any leads. Even though my partner wasn’t going to like them, since most of them were magical and it had taken him months to get comfortable around my usage, we didn’t have much choice. We had a murderer to catch, and we would follow wherever this trail went.

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