Sevardin Harker. Merday, Virgo 28, 2353 AA. 3:58 PM. North Arroyo
“So I know we agreed that I’d do this gratis,” Risso began as he boarded the cruiser with the venture: “But considering the extra risk I exposed myself to, I was wondering if I could get that CI fee? No hazard pay or nothing, just a standard bounty for services rendered.”
Sev and Jecia stared at him blankly, utterly stunned. Juel spoke up:
“I can’t help but point out that you neglected to mention you ripped off the Rollers, Risso. Did it ever occur to you that playing CI when you are wanted dead to rights in North Arroyo might be a bad idea? That it might compromise our operation?”
“I mean,” Risso scoffed. “It’s not exactly like we had any contract prohibiting the simple resale of goods, or aftermarket modifications—”
“It’s your lucky day yet again, Risso,” Sev said, fishing out his wallet.
“Aw yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Detective Harker! Wait, twenty bucks?”
“Yup. To buy yourself some painkillers and a glamour orb to cover your bruises.”
“I gotta be honest, Detective, that doesn’t seem very lucky to me.”
“Really? The way I see it, it’s been your lucky day for a long time now. Because I can’t fathom how you managed to survive as long as you have without common sense if not for dumb luck. And kid, I do mean dumb luck.”
Risso looked down, chastened. Sev continued: “If you stop taking stupid risks, like dealing drugs and two-timing gangbangers, you have a bright future in a career predicated on bullshit. Of which there are many.”
“How old are you?” Jecia asked.
“Nineteen, miss. Ma’am. Detective.”
“You in school?” Juel asked.
“Yeah… no. I mean, I’m planning on working on my GED soon. After that, maybe I’ll go to Arroyo City College if they’ll take me. But right now I’ve been helping my uncle get by. He’s getting on in years and he’s got nobody else.”
“Where’s this uncle live? We’ll give you a ride.”
“Oh, no,” Risso said casually. “Really, there’s no need for that, detectives. My car is back at the station. If we go back to the central precinct I can sort myself out.”
“No, no,” Jecia said. “We insist.”
“I’ll take you to get your car after if you want,” Juel assured him.
“And I’ll make sure you don’t get ticketed if your uncle wants a word first,” Sev promised.
“My lucky fuckin’ day indeed,” Risso muttered.
—Jecia Singh | 5:10 | Arroyo (AKF Central Precinct) —
Risso’s uncle couldn’t have been a day over fifty years old, and he seemed both spry and sound of mind. When the cruiser pulled up his driveway, he stepped outside to meet them, taking a long drag on a cigarette and shaking his head as soon as he saw Risso disembark. The Keepers exchanged a handful of words with the man, just enough to assure him that his nephew wasn’t under arrest. Somewhat predictably, it seemed like a familiar occurrence for the uncle.
They got back to the precinct just after five and went to their usual ritual room to examine the drugs. Jecia and Sev didn’t need any assistance to use the Mortal Breath, but arrays and an amplification pedestal to put the sample on were useful foci. The deeper I can dive, the more I can derive.
Juel leaned on the rune-tiled wall casually, but Jecia knew he took a certain pride in being the only person allowed to watch them do their thing. She knew, because when the higher-ups insisted, he fought them vigorously, saying that he was the only one who didn’t screw up their focus. It was bullshit—now they could do the mortal breath whenever they needed—but there was a certain kind of intimacy to it that Jecia was happy to reserve for a partner.
They put the vials of juice on the pedestal then stood in the middle of the metal array set in the concrete floor. They took a deep breath together, on an unspoken three count, and merged their wyrds. She and Sev seemed to glide into each other’s minds, suddenly sharing each other’s awareness of the world around them.
Jecia knew Sev was tense, and she could tell that it was the specific, wicked sort of tension he only got after he was embarrassed about something, or otherwise mad at himself. And as she reached out to the juice vials, she could tell that his baggage would throw off her reading. Possibly irreparably. Psychometry is typically a one-shot trick, or at least, your first shot is typically your best shot. Best to calm him down first.
“Love, talk to me,” Jecia said.
“Jahnz,” Sev grunted.
“I knew he’d hold it over me,” Juel said tersely. “This ain’t on you, man. This is my own bad decision come home to haunt me.”
“You did what you had to do to save my life, Juel. I share the weight of that decision. But if this punk thinks it gives him the leverage to push us around—”
“He can find out he’s wrong—the hard way—later on,” Jecia assured Sev, and touched his cheek, soothing his anger.
She had come to recognize Sev’s patterns over the last two years. Things that gave him tunnel vision. Things that drove him mad. And she had done her best to learn how to shake him out of it, just as he did the same for her. Their rhythm synced up again, wyrds supersaturating in a sublime feedback loop. His focus is good, but I can do better. I need him to peer into the sample with a positive, open-mind.
“That sample is a good thing, Sev. It’s our key, and we won it with a minimum of collateral damage. It’s a job well done. So let’s explore it.”
He nodded and their connection intensified to an almost dizzying level. Then Jecia closed her eyes, reached out, and touched the sample.
The cursory layer of the juice gave Jecia palpitations. Lightning seemed to lick her veins from top to toe. It was ecstatic, but fleeting, because she knew drugs were tricky. Jecia pushed deeper and moved the world backwards. A long period of darkness gave way to the harsh scent of chemicals. A pair of hands stirred various reagents in a beaker. When Jecia tried to pull the scene into focus, the man’s fingers grew hazy, as if they were perpetually being blurred out with jet ink. Despite the noise, Jecia managed to make out a patch of Caucasian skin on his right hand.
What is the alchemist’s name? The inherence replied airily “The alchemist is ‘The Alchemist.’” Jecia pressed harder. What does he call himself? The inherence replied, “The alchemist calls himself ‘The Alchemist.’”
Jecia felt the inherence straining, and she pivoted to a different avenue of inquiry.
What does the man’s face look like? This time the object’s inherence answered quickly; too quickly. In the place of a face was a mass of writhing black squiggles, same as the ones that obscured most of his hands, but thicker, with more consistent coverage over the identifying features. Shit! It’s some kind of counter-scrying spell. I should have known. I might have been able to disarm it, but I didn’t even think—
“Let’s keep exploring, love,” Sev said gently.
Jecia nodded and thought gratitude at Sev, keeping her eyes closed. Yes. Don’t get distracted. She retreated to the raw stuff of the drugs, looking at the place of their metaphorical birth. She could see a dimly lit lab. That looks like a classroom though. Maybe somebody the Athenaeum? Jecia shared her vision with Sev.
“That’s Arroyo’s Alchemy Lab, alright. I recognize the smell of sulfur.”
What else can we get? She focused on the ingredients themselves. The principal ingredients— faen coffee, minotaur dust, and lions roar mushrooms—were all from Summer Court. But their potency was noticeably dimmer. Probably because they’ve been sitting in stasis jars rather than coming straight from the Faed. Jecia had explored juice before, and usually its potency manifested as a blinding glare emanating from the object. This was merely bright.
And then, like a thorn in a tapestry, there was a sharp element of the Autumn Court. The Dryad Sap. Mixing reagents from courts could be done, but usually they were carefully counter-balanced. This was almost like a deliberate perversion of Summer.
Jecia was tearing the end of her tether. She knew that if she pressed on much further, she risked a migraine that would rob some of her memories of what she had discovered. But she hazarded one final query. Did the sap come from the same lab as everything else?
The answer came slow and Jecia’s head started to ache, but in the end, she knew her answer: No. The Sap came straight from Autumn.
Jecia immediately disengaged, her wyrd straining like lungs that were preparing to pop. The only reason I was able to go that deep was thanks to Sev. If I pushed any further, I could have hurt both of us.
Sev seemed to know it too. When she opened her eyes, he was giving her a serious side-eye.
“The Dryad Sap is from Autumn,” Jecia said, by way of apology. “Everything else is from Summer. And that same lab.”
“Did you get a look at the alchemist’s face?” Juel asked.
Jecia shook her head.
“He had a counter-scrying spell on. I should have considered that, but—I didn’t. So when I tried to see his face, I saw a blur instead.”
“I’m not sure what you could have done differently,” Sev said.
“The real kicker is that this guy has an alter ego.”
Juel kicked himself off the wall and raised an eyebrow.
“What, seriously? He thinks he’s a cape-and-tights hero or something?”
Jecia shrugged and snorted.
“Or something. He calls himself ‘The Alchemist.’”
“I thought alchemists were supposed to be creative,” Sev joked.
“In this case, it’s a pretty clever trap though. All I could make out was that he was Caucasian. One spot on the back of his right hand was visible, but everything else was blurred. Makes me think that the counter-scrying spell was some kind of physical paste or make-up.”
“It’d be on brand for an alchemist.”
“I think that means we’re looking at a student. Most of those ingredients are pretty common. The only thing out of the ordinary is the dryad sap. It didn’t come from the Athenaeum.”
“Shit. That would have made for a wonderful rate-limiter.”
“In any event, I think a field trip to your old stomping grounds is in order.”
—Sev | 6:23 | Arroyo Athenaeum (Central Alchemy Lab) —
The venture made its way to the Arroyo Athenaeum’s alchemy labs, Juel and Sev regaling Jecia with horror stories of studying under Master Kafka. She was at once, the only reason they passed alchemy, and also the reason they never scored higher than an eighty percent on any test. She kindled talent, but she taught at the level of her classes’ smartest, and neither Juel nor Sev had a yen for potion-craft.
They came to the inventory counter where two young lovers were giggling idly. The alchemy aspirant behind the counter, an eleventh-year judging from his pin, held the hands of a pale-haired girl much shorter than him. She had slightly over-pronounced canines and two small horns. Half-fae. The boy straightened up as the girl continued to laugh, then she spun around and yelped at the sight of them.
Sad that we get this response from our own, but Keepers have a reputation, even amongst amagia.
“Can I help you?” the boy asked.
“Jecia Singh, Special Cases Venture. We were hoping to get a copy of your inventory records. Who should we be talking to?”
“I’ll need approval from a master,” the boy said. “It’s after hours though, so the only one here is Master Plath. I’ll make the copy right away, but she’ll need to approve it before I can hand it over. I just don’t want to get expelled,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
“No worries,” Sev assured him. “Where can we meet Plath?”
Jecia regarded the girl who seemed absolutely terrified. She wore pins associated with leximancy on her uniform and looked away under Jecia’s gaze.
“I believe she’s doing an experiment on the roof.”
“Could you call her to let her know we’re coming?”
The kid bobbed his head. The venture took one of the central elevators to the uppermost landing of the lab. On the roof, there were two open-air gardens and two greenhouses, along with lens arrays to intensify or defuse ambient sun and moon light; a common requirement for cultivating alchemical ingredients.
As they arrived, Cintessa Plath was adjusting one such array with the help of a student. She was a willowy, wispy woman, tall and wore a pair of tri-lensed glasses with her frizzy blonde hair secured by a head scarf.
“You can go back downstairs, detectives,” Plath called when they were half-way across the roof, though she didn’t look up from her incanter screen. But when her Master-Aspirant adjusted one of the lens dials, she flew into a rage. “No Shelten! Counter-clockwise, the opposite of a clock, goddamn it!”
“Is now a bad time Master Plath? We can wait—” Sev said.
“I sincerely doubt it,” Plath said brusquely. “If you were willing to wait, you’d know that I already gave Renair approval to give you the records.I take it this is about Alinore Valmont’s theory about tainted drugs?” Plath asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jecia confirmed. “We examined a sample of drugs from North Arroyo with a lethally high concentration of dryad sap, and we have reason to believe that most of the ingredients originated in and were assembled in an amagiate lab.”
Plath bowed her head sadly.
“After my talk with Ms. Valmont, I started to review our inventory records. I noticed that our reserves of sap are greatly reduced.”
Sap? Jecia was confused. But the sap came from outside the athenaeum. Unless…If people were starting to notice that the sap was going missing, our Alchemist would need to turn to an outside source to keep making his little concoction. And maybe that’s why it’s lethal.
“Forgive me, Master Plath. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything involving alchemy. What is dryad sap typically used for?” Juel asked, pulling out his pen and notebook.
“Urdo-analgesic medications. It instills euphoria that reduces pain. Just like pharmaceutical opiates, the effect on the body is highly addictive. The good news is, since it’s a highly restricted substance, we have very clear incanter records of who extracts what.”
“Could you provide us with a copy of those records?”
“Like I said, my inventory attendant has already compiled a file. He should have it ready for you downstairs. I haven’t looked at the individual student withdrawal records yet—I’m not very good with incanters, you see—but if there is a consistent pattern of withdrawal, it should be fairly evident.”
“Forgive the observation, Master Plath,” Jecia said. “But you seem rather unconcerned about the possibility that lethal drugs are being brewed in your lab.”
Plath’s eyes went wide and her cheeks flushed bright red. Then her face turned white with anger. It was a telling progression. She was afraid, embarrassed, and then angry. If I had to guess, she knew something fishy was up and turned a blind eye.
“Over five hundred students have access to our inventory at any given time. We have automated rate-limiters in place for controlled substances, and my aspirants review every transaction carefully. But I can’t stop every sticky-fingered aspirant looking to make a quick buck, now can I?”
“Maybe the Athenaeum should find somebody who can,” Jecia said evenly.
Whoa there, Jecia.
“Thanks for your time,” Sev said quickly, before things could escalate any further.
Plath couldn’t find words for a rebuttal, so she turned back to her experiment and started barking orders and criticism at her Master-Aspirant again. Juel and Sev both peered sidelong at Jecia as they entered the elevator.
“Sorry. I just get mad when people are cavalier about their own negligence.”
“You don’t think she’s involved?” Juel asked.
“Doubt it. She’s afraid of what we’ll find though, because at the end of the day, responsibility for securing medical reagents will fall in her lap. She’s the head bio-medithurgic alchemist.”
They exited at the ground floor and returned to the inventory counter where they had initially entered. The half-fae girl had left, and the boy, Renair, was waiting with a crystal drive.
“These are the records. Everything from this semester and all of the last.”
“You work this counter a lot?” Juel asked.
The boy nodded wearily.
“Feels like it’s all I do. I work most week nights, and also cover Satday mornings and nights.”
“You notice anything unusual in the last couple weeks? Strange requests from students? Reagents going missing?”
The boy chuckled.
“Happens all the time. Most of the masters have carte blanche to take what they want without us being able to record it. But sometimes whole containers of stuff will… disappear. Not that I think there’s anything sinister behind it,” he swept his arm behind him to the rows upon rows of preserved fluids, dusts, and other materials in preservation jars. “Like, I do my best to stay on top of it, but I’m not perfect, and neither are the other inventory workers.”
“Anybody seem to have a keen intense interest in Dryad Sap?” Sev asked.
The boy hesitated and nodded.
“Yeah, a container of sap did go missing about three weeks back. Easy to see why. It’s addictive, expensive, and very tightly rationed. Tricky to work with though. A microgram too much and it’s fatal. A microgram too little and it won’t have any effect. So students often need to overdraw their allotment.”
“Did you report the discrepancy to Plath or another Master?” Jecia asked.
“We write reports every week. Plath said she would look into it, but I haven’t heard anything. Not that that’s unusual. Most of the time stuff goes missing…” he shook his head. “That’s it.”
“Thanks,” Sev said. “We’ll probably have more questions for you later on. If you think of anything important, give us a call.”
The boy went stiff as he received the card, hesitating.
“I’m not sure about this. Like, it could just be happenstance, but… I have an idea of who took the sap.”
The venture exchanged glances.
“Do tell,” Sev said.
— Alinore Valmont| Jovday, Libra 1| 7:46 AM | Arroyo Athenaeum (East Dining Hall) —
Lin was doing her best to stay positive. Athren’s continued absence scraped at the back of her skull and gnawed at her nerves. Determining the origin of the tainted drugs had given her something meaningful and pressing to occupy her idle thoughts. But now that the case was out of her hands, she was left alone inside her head with the stresses of ninth-year course work, her impending thesis declaration, and worry for her brother.
“Earth to Lin?” Azmuir whispered.
“Sorry,” Lin said.
She and Az were supposed to be quizzing each other on abstract bindings over breakfast, but her attention had snagged on something she couldn’t even remember.
“How about we just focus on eating for now? We’ve got less than fifteen minutes.”
Lin nodded and scoffed at herself.
“Yeah, one thing at a time.”
As Lin resumed eating her cereal, she noticed a number of students glancing at the entrance of the dining hall with whispers on their lips. Lin followed their gaze and was shocked to find Arroyo’s Special Cases Venture entering the building. Singh stopped to speak with a young aspirant, who pointed almost directly at Lin. She stood, smiled, and met the venture as they approached her table.
“Detectives, I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” she said.
“Likewise,” Detective Harker said. “The amagiate world’s always smaller than it seems.”
“You aren’t looking for me?” Lin asked.
“No, actually. Do you know where we can find Azmuir Stillman?”
Lin turned to look behind her. Azmuir had taken note at his name and raised his hand cautiously:
“Azmuir’s my boyfriend,” Lin explained, confused.
“Oh. Well. This is… very awkward,” Singh said. “Mr. Stillman, I’m afraid we need to ask you to come in for questioning regarding an ongoing investigation.”