Early morning, Thirdday, on a Spring day in 4814
The smell of burnt flesh and tangy, electrical magic hung in the air like laundry on the line, and Caernen Woolley walked right into it. The scent smacked him in the face as he approached the crime scene, and he recoiled, holding his nose with one leather gloved hand. The tingle of residual magic raced through his sinuses and nerve endings, making his head ache. He squeezed his nose tighter, frowning as he drew closer.
“So there’s eight altogether,” Marswell was saying. “We’ve already graphed the current commanding officers of the PMU to try and identify the bodies. The actual event probably took place less than an hour ago.”
“Eight? No sign of another one having been with them?” Odd that it had not been a full and proper nine. A unit from the Pixie Messenger Union would never be an even number.
Marswell shook her head. “Nothing we’ve found yet. The area’s still being searched.”
Caernen looked sideways at his partner as they approached the bodies. She did not seem bothered by the stinging air, nor the stink of ozone. Maive Marswell was an odd duck if there ever was one for the Wardens. Caernen knew that she was halfgene Sylvani, but sometimes her peculiar sensibilities made her seem downright human. It did not bother Caernen the way it did some of the other Wardens – but then, she was his partner, and he had always liked her, even in their early days together when she was as hard as stone and bristly as briar. These days she was only as bristly as a hairbrush, at least where Caernen was concerned.
They slowed as they approached the corpses. A still-burning street lamp flickered above, casting long shadows across the cobblestones and pavement. At the base of the street lamp lay six bodies, each no bigger than a five marker bill.
“Ah, damn it.” Caernen sighed, switching to holding his nose with his left hand, and knelt near the bodies to peer closer at the evidence. “You don’t think the missing ninth one had something to do with it?”
“Might’ve, but not sure how a Pixie electrocutes eight others without external assistance. Only other thing I’ve thought of so far is the last one might’ve gotten away,” Marswell suggested, consulting her little notepad. “But I’m not sold on that either.”
“If it escaped, and it is not responsible, it’ll come forward with information. The other thing is – they may have been working undercover, if at all. They aren’t wearing uniforms. They might not be PMU after all.” Caernen mused. One of the Pixies looked to be holding something tight in one hand. He patted his pockets for his tools before remembering he had not brought them. “Do you have your glass on you?”
Marswell dug into her leather pouch and produced the polished brass magnifier. She checked it for smudges, then handed it over.
Caernen released his nose, breathing through his mouth as he leaned closer with the magnifying glass to study the female. She appeared to be mature, which meant she was nearly a year old, and seemed to be healthy and athletic as any flyer he’d ever seen. She lay on her side, curled around her closed fist with an object gleaming within.
“I need a toothpick,” Caernen announced.
“Hardly the time, Woolley,” Marswell sniffed.
“She’s got something in her hand. I need something to pry it open with.”
“Oh.” Marswell searched her own kit for something useful. “I… have a hairpin,” she offered at last. Caernen squinted a moment. He’d never thought about it before, but it suddenly seemed strange to him that her neatly knotted hair, dark green and snakelike as vines, would require hairpins. Marswell’s standard updo was, as far as Caernen was concerned, simply how her hair always looked.
“That’s fine. That’ll do.” He sat up, extending his hand for it. She reached into her hair, parting leaves and little springlike coils as she did. She pulled the pin out, suddenly as rosy cheeked as a schoolchild. Caernen raised his eyebrows in surprise. Marswell was rarely so shy or girlish. Was she actually embarrassed? “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” She handed him the pin, averting her eyes.
“Quite sure,” she replied with a sudden frown. “You’ll have to hurry before the bootlickers get here.”
Caernen crouched forward again, prodding the Pixie’s fingers with the end of Marswell’s hairpin. He squinted through the magnifying glass. It was difficult to tell, but he thought it looked like a bit of metal clutched in the Pixie’s hand. Caernen pressed harder between the tiny fingers, using the hairpin to try and wedge the fist open.
“There’s a Warden cart on its way,” Marswell grimaced. “The PMU officers could arrive any second.”
“I hear you, Marswell. Won’t be much longer…”
“Neither will the PMU – you know how fast they are.”
“Your jibes are particularly enthusiastic this evening, Marswell – is it a special occasion?” Caernen muttered.
He heard her rustle indignantly, like a breeze through a particularly lush tree.
“Hardly! You’re the one who had a date tonight.”
“Well, it is not against social norms for a bachelor to go on dates,” he replied.
“I’m sure it is when it turns out the date is a person of interest in an ongoing black market investigation.” Marswell smirked.
“I can neither confirm nor deny this assumption.”
Caernen’s prying began to work; the Pixie’s fingers strained under the careful force applied by the pin. Caernen did not want them to break, as that would mean more harrumphing and paperwork from the higher-ups he’d have to deal with later on.
“They’re coming,” Marswell warned again.
“I can see the wagon. Scrap, Caernen, it’s bigger than I thought. Who’re they bringing out for this?”
The easy hum of the approaching engine grew louder as the cart carrying more Wardens turned onto the quiet street several blocks away.
“Just a little bit more,” Caernen breathed. The pin slid a little further, then a little more, and the gleaming object fell onto the cobblestone like a sudden spark from a fireplace. “Gotcha!” Caernen snapped it up, using the hairpin like tweezers, and tucked them both into his inner breast pocket.
The cart had stopped and a handful of Wardens in plum and green uniforms got out, striding forward.
“I hope it was worth it,” Marswell muttered, and Caernen was unsure whether she meant the evidence or his date.
“Right, then. What’s all this about?” The Warden at the head of the pack was a blue-skinned Janni with a mighty beard. Several of his subordinates began to set up a perimeter around the crime scene, and one began summoning light orbs to hang in the air, illuminating the area with a brighter, harsher light than the normal glow of the street lamps.
Marswell saluted. “Evening, captain. A local woman discovered the bodies – eight Pixies. Six female, two male. No sign of a struggle or direct combat, no sign of the missing ninth member of the squadron, and no word yet from their commanding officers at the PMU.”
The bearded Janni scowled. “That’s even more unusual than I thought. Not a full nine? No struggle? What’s the cause of death?”
“From what we gather here so far, sir, electrocution.”
“Electrowhat?” The Janni looked dumbfounded.
“Electrocution, sir, perhaps a lightning spell or –”
“I know what electrocution is, Lieutenant,” the Janni snapped. “What I’m saying is who’s ever heard of a Pixie flock being shocked to death? It’s absurd!”
A handful of Wardens in the group chuckled at this, and Caernen squeezed his fist closed to keep himself from commenting on the inherently unfunny nature of this moment.
“It’s highly unusual,” agreed Marswell, keeping face as she always did, “but nonetheless, sir, that’s what we’re working with here.”
“Working with,” echoed the captain, folding his hands behind his back and peering over at Caernen, who was still crouched, studying the other fallen Pixies. “Well, is there anything else I should know?” he called to Caernen, who pretended not to hear. “I say, are you listening?” He stomped closer, and Caernen sat back on his heels with a start.
“What, sir, sorry sir,” he exclaimed, fumbling the magnifier. As a Fairy, Caernen was excellent at playing the innocent, slow-witted card, and many people tended to buy the act, even fellow Wardens like himself.
“I said, is there anything else you can tell us, Inquisitive…?”
“Woolley, sir, Caernen Woolley.”
“Inquisitive Woolley. Did you discover anything else worth sharing with the rest of the class?”
“No sir, it’s a mystery,” Caernen said. “I’ve never seen so many dead Pixies in one place like this.”
“Not even the morgue?” someone muttered, and there was a snicker in reply.
Caernan kept his expression as neutrally befuddled as possible. “No, actually,” he replied. “Pixie corpses are rather hard to come by, despite their incredibly short lifespans. And they don’t bury their dead.” The Janni captain rolled his eyes at this.
“Inquisitives,” he muttered with a shake of his head. “All right. Carry on looking, then, but get out of the way once you’re through. Someone’s got to clean all this up.”
The Janni moved away, back toward his sniggering crew members. Caernen glanced at Marswell and gave a quick nod. “Let’s finish up,” he said. “We need to get back to the office and find out what these Pixies have in common.”
Author’s note: This scene takes place ten years after the events of Warda: Curiosities.