We Make Our Own Tragedies
"Thank you very much, Alys. I don't know what I would have done without you. I'll send your commission fee to the Hunter's Guild right away."
Alys Brangwin shrugged. It hadn't been a difficult job, retrieving the crawler for Professor Crane. Bringing it back alive had added a bit of challenge, but not much. Now the beast was securely locked in one of the steel-barred cages in Crane's zoo, an exhibit for passerby as well as a subject for him to observe. It was, of course, preferable to observe creatures in their natural habitat, but it was difficult to hold long-term studies of biomonsters in the wild. Sooner or later, the observer would change roles to that of prey.
"It's just another job," she told him offhandedly.
Professor Crane shook his head vigorously. He was a weedy little man, painfully thin with a scraggly beard and mustache.
"No, no. I may be an expert on biomonster physiology and behavior, but you know as well as I do that I would be useless in the field, as it were. No, bringing that creature into captivity will be of immense help to scientific progress, and I owe it all to your efforts. I wish I could properly express my gratitude, Alys."
She shook her head.
"Your fee is all the thanks I need, Professor. You hired a hunter because you believed they could do this, and I have. That's all. Although, if you want to go beyond that, I could use a glass of iced vanja. Hunting can be thirsty work."
"Oh, of course. I'll get it right away." He disappeared into his tent and emerged a few minutes later with a glass of the sparkling emerald juice of the native Motavian barrel cactus. It slid down Alys' throat, tingling pleasantly, washing away the sand and dust of the desert.
Even as she savored the taste, though, Alys' instincts as a hunter stayed keyed, her senses sharp, which was why she heard the angry mutters steadily growing louder. The traveling zoo was on the outskirts of the village of Monsen; if people were coming that way it wasn't likely they were going someplace else.
Alys set the glass down. Her voice was hard when she spoke.
"Professor, you're about to have company, and I don't think they're paying customers."
They came around the side of the tent, saving Alys the trouble of explanations. There were around ten of them, their faces angry with an edge of fear. That was bad. It was always fear that gave rise to anger and hatred, but when it lay this close to the surface it meant trouble, and with a mob almost always meant violence.
"Professor Crane!" barked the leader, a burly man with a bushy black beard and a protruding gut.
"Yes?" Crane said mildly, stepping towards them. "What is it?"
"What is it?" the big man roared. "You've got the nerve to stand there and ask that?"
"Well...yes. I mean, I don't understand why you are here, and--"
"Lying bastard!" someone cursed.
"Let's get him!" shouted one woman in the back.
"Yeah, hanging's too good for the bum!"
That, Alys decided, was her cue to act. Between the pale gray light of dawn and their focus on the professor, the mob hadn't noticed her yet. It was time for that to change.
"That's enough talk of hanging," she said, striding two steps forward. Her left hand urged Crane back behind her while her right dropped to the grip of one of the slashers paired at her belt.
"Who are you?" the leader growled.
She knew what they were seeing, a tall woman, as tall as any of them, with long brown hair held off her forehead by a wire circlet. A black bodysuit under her white-piped red dress showed off the whipcord muscles in her arms and legs. The weapons at her belt were throwing blades that could strike multiple targets and return to her hands. The mob was made up of simple villagers from the looks of it, rather than trained soldiers. Alys felt confident that she could take them down, if it came to a fight. The thought of doing so, though, of using her blades on people driven by terror rather than evil, made her stomach twist in revulsion.
No, that was strictly a last resort.
"I just finished hunting up that crawler for the Professor's zoo, and I'd be very unhappy if you hung him before he paid my fee."
She could see the indecision in their eyes. Mobs were brute beasts, without logic or reason. They'd act on their feelings, not with an accurate assessment of risk.
"Alys Brangwin," the leader said.
"The Eight-Stroke Sword?"
Alys smiled thinly. She hated that nickname, but right then she was glad she had it. Alys might only be one person--a sign of weakness to an unthinking mob--but she was also famous, with a reputation as one of the planet's most skilled hunters. That made her much more than a single person.
"You called the Professor a murderer," she continued, figuring that the longer they talked, the less likely they'd be to turn to violence. "Who's dead?"
"Captain Vane," said the one in front.
"He's the third one in a week!" another voice piped up. "Butchered in their own homes like...like something ate them."
"It's Crane's fault!" a voice shouted from the back. "He brought those monsters into town and now people are dying."
"I...I assure you," Crane stammered, "that all the creatures in my zoo are securely caged. None have gone missing, so they couldn't be responsible."
"We never had any monster attacks in town before you came here!" bellowed the leader.
"Yeah, you tell him, Rivas!"
"Be quiet!" Alys snapped. "Who's the local law around here, anyway?"
"Vane was," Rivas said. "He was the town guard. If there was trouble that needed more than one person to deal with, he'd round up a militia. Jed Karl was the village elder, but he was the first victim. Doctor Peck was the second." The big man spat in the sand. "Ain't no law left in Monsen."
Alys smiled thinly.
"There is now."
"Until this is settled, I'm your guard captain. If anyone is going to be lynched around here, you'll have to come through me to do it."
"Murder is a hanging crime," Rivas grunted.
"Screaming mobs of vigilantes aren't the appointed executioners, I'm guessing. This will be done lawfully."
People argued with that tone of voice sometimes, but only if they were very drunk. Rivas might have had a shot or two of false courage, but he wasn't that far gone.
When no one raised any objections, Alys clapped her hands together.
"All right, then. Professor, you'll be staying with me just in case someone has an attack of terminal stupidity. Rivas, you seem to be in charge of this little band, so you'll also be in charge of showing me what I need to see and answering my questions." She also figured he'd make a good witness that Alys wasn't covering up evidence or otherwise doing the sort of thing small minds might believe a hired hunter working for a murder suspect might do. "As for the rest of you, go home. Whatever you're supposed to be doing isn't going to go away just because you've been running around in a lynch mob."
There were grumbles and mutterings, but also a few shamefaced looks as the swarm of villagers dispersed.
"What now, 'Captain'?" Rivas asked with a trace of a sneer.
"We'll start with the bodies and the death scenes. If it was a monster attack, I might be able to figure out what kind of monster it was. Sand newts aren't locustas, after all. When were they killed?"
"Karl was four days ago, Doc Peck the night after that, and Vane last night."
"All of them during the night?"
"That's a start, then. Where was Vane killed?"
"At his house. It was about three hours ago. We heard the screams."
The professor's head jerked up at that.
"Screams? Three hours ago. Oh, dear; I did hear that but I assumed that it was the cry of some wild animal. We're quite a distance outside the village, of course, and--" He broke off, shuddering.
Rivas looked at him with curled lip, obviously not believing that Crane's nerves were genuine.
"Undertaker'll be taking it pretty quick."
"Then we'd better get going if we want to examine the scene before any evidence is removed."
Rivas grunted once and led the way. The zoo was about a quarter-mile outside the village, so the walk only took a few minutes. Captain Vane's home was a small one, suitable for the needs of one man, but the interior was nicely, if sparsely appointed. The furnishings were high-quality, some antique, some new, so it wasn't a case of hidden poverty or secret vices that drained his wallet. Vane simply hadn't been a man who liked clutter.
"Body's back here, in bed," Rivas said, walking over to an arched entryway at the rear of the main room. He started to go through, paused, and swallowed. "If you don't mind, I'll just wait out here. I've got no liking for seeing him again."
Alys nodded, and stepped into the bedroom. The smell of death hit her as she walked in, a kind of miasma, a despair combined with the biological odors that accompanied the destruction of life. In her years as a hunter Alys had grown all too familiar with that smell, and yet, somehow, it seemed off to her. Something was missing.
The bedroom was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the house, with a bed, a nightstand, a chest of drawers, and a wardrobe the only furniture. The bedsheet had been pulled up to cover the body, and dust sparkled in the rays of light from two narrow windows. Covering the body hadn't been a good idea; Alys had worked with enough town guards investigating murder to know that it could disturb or destroy important evidence. She didn't hold it against whomever had done it, though. Some instincts were too strong for an average person, without knowledge of criminal investigation, to fight off, and Alys wouldn't want to live in a world where people were too callous to care.
She drew back the sheet, and at once realized what had been missing. Blood. The coppery tang in the air had been minimal at best because very little blood had been spilled. It wasn't because Vane had been killed by poison, strangulation, or some other, less gruesome method. The wounds were every bit as grotesque as the mob had implied, half the face gone, left hand missing entirely, a good third of the flesh, bone, and organs of his torso gone as if scooped out by a giant blade. Alys' gorge rose, but she was no stranger to death and remained cool, in control.
The wounds should have bled profusely, but they had not, because it looked as if they had been cauterized, the flesh burned to stop the flow of blood. It was inane to think it could have been done in an attempt to save Vane's life, so it must have been a side effect of the death weapon.
Acid, Alys thought, burning away flesh. The concept of someone creeping into the room with enough acid to do this much damage was almost comical, and Alys put it out of her mind at once. She'd seen this manner of death before, and had a suspicion she knew what it was. She walked around to the far side of the bed, and found what she'd expected to find: two glistening trails stretching between the bed and one of the windows.
It looked like the locals had been right after all. Captain Vane had been attacked by a monster.
Alys turned and walked out of the bedroom. There was nothing more to learn there at this point.
"Well?" Rivas challenged.
"It looks like a slug," she said. "It came in through the window, sensed its prey, and...ate."
"A slug," he said, but then his eyes lit up and he rounded on Crane. "Like that big blue thing Crane's got in his zoo, you mean."
Alys remembered the creature from when she'd first been hired by the professor and Crane had insisted on giving her the tour.
"No, that's a meta slug. You've got the right idea; those things are dangerous and could certainly kill a man easily enough, but the size is wrong. That thing's about seven feet tall and as wide at the base. Slugs are flexible and can compress their bodies down to a smaller size, but there's no way it could have fit through the window of that room."
"A Zol slug then?" Crane suggested.
"That would be my guess." Zol slugs were miniature versions of the giant meta slug, but a Zol slug was only two to three feet high. It would easily have been able to squeeze into the room, and the slime trails on the floor were consistent with its size. Many hunters suspected that Zol slugs were a kind of larval form, because two could combine together, becoming one meta slug through a process called fusion. It was a one-way trip, though, which left Crane's meta in the clear.
"C'mon, I want to check around back."
She left the house and went around to the wall behind the bedroom. One of the nice things about slugs was that they left an easy trail to follow, and Alys hoped to track this one back to whatever cave or nook was its lair. There would be a lair; slugs didn't last long in Motavia's blasting desert sun. They thrived in cool, damp environments. At the scene, though, Alys' plan was stymied. The slime trails began and ended at the windowsill. There was nothing on the outer wall, nothing on the rocky ground.
"Cheer up, Rivas," Alys said sardonically. "You may get to have your hanging after all. This was murder."