Lillet woke early from a restless, troubled sleep. Part of it was Amoretta's absence; she wasn't used to sleeping without her homunculus lover curled up against her and the subconscious feeling of wrongness was always disturbing. But just as much, the circumstances she'd found in Jacob's Creek worried at her, keeping her mind from being able to relax.
The light that streamed through the gaps in the shutters was cold and gray. Lillet consulted her pocket-watch and found that it was around quarter past six. Her body had taken little time to adapt itself to country hours, or else it had just given up on the attempt to rest.
She washed and dressed quickly, and by six-thirty had descended to the Green Man's common room.
"Good...good morning, Your Excellency," Molly greeted her. The hesitation might have been over Lillet's rank or her witchcraft, but it also might have been left over from the scene Lillet had stumbled into. "Will you be wanting breakfast?"
"Yes, please. May I ask what's available?"
They quickly negotiated for oatmeal with apples and cinnamon, toast, bacon, cheese, and coffee. Molly's eyebrows rose slightly at the request.
"Is something wrong?" Lillet asked.
A slight flush graced the girl's cheeks.
"Oh, it's...it's nothing, Milady."
"I grew up on a farm, and I've never quite managed to convince myself to start eating a crescent roll and calling it breakfast the way they like to do in the capital."
Molly smiled back, telling Lillet that her guess had hit the mark.
"Don't I know it! My stomach'd be growling at me all morning if I had to do like that. I'll be right back with your toast and coffee, Your Excellency."
She disappeared through what was presumably the door to the kitchen. A few short minutes later, she returned, bearing a plate in one hand and a steaming cup in the other.
"Thank you," Lillet said, and reached for the coffee the moment she set it down.
"There's strawberry jam, there," Molly said, gesturing at a small pot on the toast plate.
Lillet was about to thank her again, when she was cut off by the girl's father emerging from the kitchen.
"Come away from there, Molly," he snapped. Surprised, but obedient, she backed off and headed for the kitchen again, while the man marched up to the table. "The law may say I have to put up with ye, but ye'll not be working your devil's ways on my gel...Your Excellency," he added at the end, as if it were a curse.
It stung, but Lillet didn't let it show.
"Fine; I'll talk to you instead," she replied while putting jam on her toast. "Tell me about my fellow guest, Mr. Maudite."
"Ain't got nothing to say."
"Sit down," she said flatly. She didn't like to bring it out, but she could do the voice of authority well enough for all that she hadn't been born to rank. It was the kind of tone that struck home to this God-fearing man that Lillet wasn't just a magician, but one believed to be on par with the Archmage—and more than that, with the law backing her up if she chose to exercise that power.
"Mr. Maudite," she pressed Bogle, then took a bite of toast. The jam, she discovered, was very good, though the bread was nearly burnt on one side and half-done on the other.
"He's nobody, a traveling peddler. Tinker. You know the kind, fixes pots, sells what he comes across, pulls teeth, a little of everything."
"When did he get here?"
"Day before yesterday."
"Has he been to Jacob's Creek before?"
Bogle shook his head.
"No." His eyes narrowed. "You think he's got something to do with the Demon?"
"I'm just trying to see where we stand," she said. She didn't want to say that it was the furtiveness of his manner the night before that had drawn her attention; the mere fact of her asking questions about him was enough to raise eyebrows.
"Well, I don't know anything about him, so there ye go," Bogle muttered. "So if ye've got no more questions—"
"There's one. Where do I find the undertaker's?"
He looked at her strangely.
"Ms. Alice Henry, I believe Father Dubbel said that her name was?"
His small, dark eyes glared at her suspiciously.
"What'che want with her for?" His tone made it plain that he suspected her of all kinds of unwholesome doings. Lillet supposed that was natural enough, the combination of witches and corpses in his mind could only give rise to dark imaginings. The foolishness of it annoyed her, but she also knew that if she left the matter there in her irritation she wouldn't do herself any good.
Being Mage Consul had made her learn to at least be aware of political considerations.
"If I knew what kinds of injuries killed Mr. Jackson and Miss Duvel, then it might help me discover what kind of creature it was that killed them, which would in turn help me know the sort of thing that I need to be looking for in my investigation. I want to talk to Ms. Henry because she has first-hand knowledge and experience with different kinds of wounds."
His glare didn't change, as if he wanted to find something wrong with what she said, but his silence told her that he couldn't. At last he spoke up.
"She be two houses up from the church, Your Excellency."
Lillet finished the rest of her breakfast without further conversation. Molly said nothing when she brought in the rest of her food, though Lillet couldn't say if the nervous look on her face was because she was wary of her father's displeasure or that she had taken his warning to heart.
The oatmeal, she found, was too runny, but she put it down to the abilities of the cook, probably Mrs. Bogle, rather than to any malice towards her as the bacon was done to crisp perfection without burning and the cheese sharp and tangy. Lillet ate quickly, not wanting to linger, and left the inn with her grimoire under her arm.
A light drizzle was falling, making the dull light from the veiled sun even dimmer. Evidently there had been a stronger rain earlier in the morning, because the dirt road was wet, giving slightly under Lillet's footsteps. There were few passerby on the streets, and they all seemed to hurry past with hunched shoulders and bowed heads. Lillet found herself mimicking them, not wanting to be out in the damp any longer than she had to, but it seemed to her that the attitude of the people wasn't just on account of the chill, wet air. Rather, it was as if they were cringing away from something, drawn into themselves lest they attract the attention of...whatever. A devil, a sorcerer, or some shapeless, nameless presence that was far worse than any known, understood problem.
The undertaker's house appeared to be right where the innkeeper had directed Lillet to. The churchyard, with its plain grave-markers, was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. At first Lillet saw no gate, then realized that a track ran up between the cemetery and the adjoining house. A lych-gate was perhaps fifty feet along, and when Lillet walked down to it she realized that it was nearly opposite a kind of extension or addition to the second house from the church, the one Bogle had indicated. A wooden sign-board was fixed to the wall next to the door, reading, "A. Henry," and below that, "Mortician."
Since these were apparently shop premises, Lillet went right to the door and reached for the knob. If it proved to be too early, she would go around and try at the house, but she would prefer it this way. For some reason, it felt to her like it would be more of an intrusion if she had to call on the undertaker and talk about professional matters in the woman's front parlor.
The door wasn't locked, though in a village like Jacob's Creek it might not be expected to be. This wasn't like the city, where a mortician's premises would need to be kept secured against grave-robbers who might see an open door as a way to save themselves the trouble of digging. A bell rang, announcing her entry.
"I'll be right with you."
Lillet wasn't quite sure what she expected, perhaps someone like her necromancy professor from the Magic Academy, Ms. Opalneria Rain, a tall, cold beauty fond of dark clothing and skull and similar motifs that suggested death. If so, she was quite surprised by Alice Henry, who emerged from a side door. Jacob's Creek's undertaker was a broad-built woman in her late forties, her dull brownish-gold hair pulled back in a tight bun, the crinkle of laugh lines starting to show around her eyes and mouth.
"Oh. So you're the one they're talking about," she sized up Lillet matter-of-factly.
"News travels fast."
"Tongues wag. I don't blame 'em; the way things are, I couldn't keep quiet, either."
"People are scared," Lillet said.
"With good reason. So I hear you're some high-ranking magician sent by the government to either hunt down the Demon or help it take us all for sacrifices, depending on who's telling the story."
"I'm Mage Consul Lillet Blan," she replied. "I came her as a favor to Archbishop Beringer, to try and find out what is killing people in the village and put a stop to it if I can."
"I see." Sharp, dark eyes looked Lillet up and down. "I can't say I hold with witches, but the law's the law and the rest of it's between you and God. What am I supposed to call you?"
There was something about this plain-spoken woman that made Lillet feel faintly ridiculous at the thought of asking her to address her formally.
"It's supposed to be 'Your Excellency,' but I don't think that will be necessary."
Alice Henry shrugged.
"It doesn't matter to me. I'll call Jess Cavit 'Your Honor' and I'll call you whatever you like. It's just words, anyway."
"Maybe to you. To some people it's a lot more, a sign of respect—or the lack of it."
She gave Lillet a measuring look.
"That's right enough. Sharp one, aren't you?"
She brushed sawdust from her apron.
"So what do you want with me?"
"Father Dubbel told me that he hadn't actually seen the bodies of the victims. Since you prepared them for burial, I hoped that you'd have the best idea about the kinds of injuries they suffered. If I knew that, it might help me narrow down what kind of creature it is that I'm hunting. I gather that there wasn't an examination by a doctor for the sheriff's official investigation?"
"A doctor? No need for that; it wasn't like either one of those poor folks was going to get better." She gave Lillet another pointed look. "You must've meant something more by saying that, though?"
"In the capital, the Watch will sometimes have a surgeon examine the body in the case of a suspicious death, to give an expert opinion on what kind of weapon was used, if the killer used his left or right hand, if a person might have been poisoned or suffocated instead of dying naturally, or that sort of thing."
Ms. Henry nodded in self-satisfaction.
"Ah. Thought there had to be something to it. You don't seem the type to ask something as silly as that sounded. No, nothing like that, though it's not like there's any reason for it hereabouts. Folks here don't go around murdering each other. It's been near on five years since there was a killing, and that was the drink, not anything else." She was about to go on, then broke off and shook her head. "Sorry, my own tongue tends to wag a bit more than it ought. Comes of not having anyone who talks back around for most of the workday, I figure. But you've got real questions, so go ahead and ask."
The rain had picked up again; Lillet heard it rattling off the roof-shingles above.
"It's the wounds on their bodies I'm interested in. Father Dubbel indicated that they were savage, but he didn't actually see them, so he was only able to go on second-hand stories."
She let out her breath with a heavy sigh, her face falling into a grim solidity.
"Savage doesn't come close. I've been dealing with dead bodies for upwards of thirty years since I started my apprenticeship with my father, and I've seen some ugly injuries. A man mauled by a bear, one where a tree fell on him, a fellow who got stuck with a knife, a highwayman who was run down by the hue and cry, a family that died in a house fire." She shook her head. "There weren't none of 'em worse than this."
Lillet couldn't repress a shiver.
"You know the kinds of things I'm talking about, don't you?" the undertaker said, correctly reading her expression.
"I've seen people killed by devils before, if that's what you mean."
She wasn't thinking of the Theater District killings and their sadistic madness, but farther back, now, to the Silver Star Tower, to those occasions on which she'd seen the Archmage, Grimlet, or one or the other's minions take a friend's life. That's what these deaths were like for Alice Henry, after all, the victim's people she'd known all her life. Liked or disliked, friend or relative stranger, they were part of the warp and woof of her life and tearing that out always would make a deeper impact than the deaths of strangers.
Not for the first time in her life, Lillet offered thanks to whatever divine providence or twist of fortune had insured that she had no memory of the vast majority of the years she'd spent trapped in looping time. There were roughly seven thousand and three hundred five-day loops in a century, the vast majority of which had no doubt ended tragically. And how many centuries had it been? To say nothing of the time spent by her alternate selves, trapped in that room where time and space were warped, unable to do anything but watch helplessly as she blundered through.
She'd be a raving lunatic, she was sure, if she were burdened with those memories.
Some of this must have shown on her face, because Alice Henry nodded solemnly at her.
"Then maybe you do understand what I mean." She took a deep breath. "Jackson, he was bitten to death, but by jaws a size I've never seen."
"Yes, it wasn't just a single puncture, or a row of them the way claws would make, but a U-shaped arc, like something that had seized his midsection in its jaws." She traced an outline on her abdomen; the size was amazing, reaching over, halfway across her body. The U was long and narrow, like a dog's muzzle rather than what human-like jaws would create. A barghest, maybe? The massive "black dogs" could bite like that and were widely known in rural legend.
"Was there a matching bite mark on his back?" Lillet asked.
"Yes, there was. But that's not the only thing."
Again, the undertaker nodded at her, but she glanced down, her matter-of-fact mood vanishing. Apparently something about this detail had upset Alice Henry in a way the discussion of the bite mark had not.
"There was a second bite."
She fell silent again, making Lillet want to prompt her, but the magician remained quiet, knowing that she was more likely to talk freely, if allowed to continue at her own pace. This wasn't an interrogation where information had to be dragged out of an unwilling subject, after all.
"It...was in the same place as the first one, but...bigger." She traced the same general shape on her body again, but extending nearly across herself. "The only way I can describe it is that it was like something else with the same kind of jaws but longer had come along and bitten him in exactly the same spot!"
Lillet could see why she was taken aback; this was surprising.
"You said it was exactly the same spot?"
The rain resembled thunder on the roof.
"Yes, it was. So far as I could tell, of course. I mean, I didn't sit there and measure, or anything like that. But they looked to be nested one inside the other, like the circles on an archery target."
Which meant...what? Two similar bites of different sizes might have meant two separate creatures, but two in exactly the same place? It didn't make sense at all. Lillet had read of animals with multiple rows of teeth, like sharks, but this was to replace ones lost or broken, not in multiple arcs in the same bite, and besides, this sounded like separate bites, two sets of jaws.
It made no sense.
If the bite-marks were indicative of something, then it wasn't something that Lillet immediately knew. Nor was it striking a chord in her memory in that strange way that magical knowledge did when she encountered something that she had once learned and then forgotten during her myriad trips through time at the Silver Star Tower. She still had those moments now and again, where a casual encounter with some Rune or spell resulted in almost instant mastery because sometime before she had mastered in, in the same way she had gone from what she believed to be a complete novice to a master magician in under a month—five loops of five—because those last five loops were the only ones she actually remembered.
But not this time.
"Did the other victim's body show the same marks?"
Ms. Henry did not meet her gaze, her solid professionalism giving way to emotion.
"Yes and no."
Lillet waited, hoping she'd go on without prompting. The drumming rain on the shingles filled the silence.
"There was the same kind of mark, but with a third, larger one outside the other two. She was bitten nearly in half, and that isn't all."
Lillet shook her head.
"I can barely believe it. But you said that it wasn't all?"
"No. There were a number of places where...where it was like some corrosive toxin had been splashed on her body. The flesh was blackened and corrupt, penetrating the tissue, down through muscle. Even the bone was pitted and discolored beneath the worst of the places. I counted no less than seven spots on her body where this had happened, of various sizes. The smallest, on her lower right leg, was about the size of my little finger." She extended the digit to illustrate the example. "As for the worst, the entire...the whole left side of her face was like that, the eye destroyed in its socket, the skin dead, almost decaying and sloughing off the skull."
Lillet couldn't suppress a wince at the description.
"We couldn't even let the girl's mother see the body, it was so mangled. It hurt that she couldn't even say her goodbyes to Louise's face, but...no parent deserves to have that be her last memory of her child."
Lillet nodded, thinking of Cress.
"What about Mr. Jackson? Did he have any of the same kind of injuries?"
"You mean, the places where the skin seemed poisoned or corrupted? No, none. There were claw marks...well, they looked like claw marks, at least, across the back of his legs, though."
"Like something had brought him down with a sweep of the claws, then finished him off with a bite?" Lillet speculated.
"That could have been it, true enough."
"And it definitely was claws, then?"
Ms. Henry frowned at her.
"You mean, as opposed to a blade? Of course. Claws don't slash the way a knife does. They punch in and rip through the flesh; they can be pretty sharp but not like something meant to cut is."
"I understand; I just wanted to make sure I had everything straight."
The undertaker looked a little mollified at that, but only a little.
"That's what you're getting. If I don't know something or I've got an idea but I'm not sure, then I'll say so," she grumbled. Lillet didn't apologize or defend herself further, as she suspected the quick burst of emotion had as much to do with driving the thoughts of Louise Duvel's body out of her mind as anything, the woman's brain grabbing onto the first thing it could focus its attention on.
"So, then, was there anything else about either one that we haven't gone into yet?"
"Not Jackson. There was a scratch on Louise Duvel's arm which looked like the claw marks, but it was too shallow to be sure about it. Could've just as easily been from brush or tree bark."
"There anything else I can do for you?"
She looked expectantly at Lillet, but the Mage Consul didn't answer at once. Lillet tapped her forefinger against her lips, staring off at nothing in particular while she thought over what she'd been told.
"I do have a couple of questions."
"Could you tell if the corrupted places on Miss Duvel's body happened before or after the wounds?"
"Now how am I supposed to—" Ms. Henry began reflexively, then cut herself off. "No, now wait. There were a couple of places where the bites did go through one of those places, and from the shape of the corruption, I'd say that the flesh was whole, not pierced, when the poisoning happened. But I can't guarantee that; it's pretty hard to tell and I wasn't looking for it at the time, y'see?"
"I understand. But even so, when you add that Mr. Jackson didn't show the same symptom, it suggests that whatever did this didn't inflict the poison with its bite or claws."
"Like some animal, you mean?" Ms. Henry shook her head at Lillet. "This wasn't anything part of God's nature, you can be sure of that, at least! Of course you already know that, or else you wouldn't be here at all."
"Then I can guess what the answer to my second question will be, if that's the case."
Lillet paused, thinking how best to phrase it.
"I'm sorry if this comes off as indelicate, but...other than the injuries, the bodies were intact? That is, no part had been carried off or, um, consumed?"
"Heavens, no! You don't think a demon would be eating its victims, do you?"
"A demon, no, but plenty of monsters do, either by need or by taste. Though for others, it's the kill they hunger for, not food."
"So does all this tell you what kind of demon this is?"
Lillet didn't think she'd be able to lie to the undertaker, and in any case what would be the point if she couldn't back it up? That was how the Sterling Gervase's of the world operated, by making sweeping claims and then piling more lies on top of the first.
"No, I don't. I know several things that it isn't, but as for what is doing this or why...that I can't say."
A sudden puff of wind made the rain clatter against the windows as if mocking Lillet. The witch-hunter's lies or her truth; neither one was doing the people of Jacob's Creek any good thus far.