“This is the place, sir,” says Aliyah. She walks to a drainpipe on the abandoned warehouse and kneels, spotting something in the shadows cast by the morning sun. She stands, holding up a thin cord, and turns to look at Sky with a smile. “And I guess this is where Jack said he woke up.”
“Good work, Corporal,” Sky says as he takes the cord. Looped on either end, slightly frayed in the middle... “A bowstring,” he murmurs. “Or rather, a crossbow string.”
Aliyah nods. “Uh-huh. Unless it’s for a bow for really short people. Those marks on Jack’s wrists – the perp must’ve used this to tie him up.”
Sky looks up the wall, spotting a fire-escape ladder and, near the top, a broken window. He nods at it. “Up to some climbing, Corporal?”
She follows his gaze, then swallows nervously. “Great. I guess whoever attacked Jack could be holing up in there. But maybe we should check the door first?”
“All right,” he replies. They walk around the building but find that the two human-scaled doors and the large delivery doors are all locked. As they are returning to the ladder, Sky notices a form watching them from an alleyway across the street. Whoever it is hesitates, then continues walking, stepping into the light. Some street tough, hair slicked straight back, no obvious weapons but moving as if he has concealed ones, tattoos on exposed skin that indicate which prisons he has resided in and for how long.
Aliyah calls out to the man, and he pauses with obvious reluctance. Sky listens as she asks the man who he is, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, whether he saw anything. The answers are evasive, almost certainly lies in many cases, but that is only to be expected from someone like him being questioned by someone like her. Sky begins to grow impatient – Atheist Jack’s attacker might have nothing at all to do with the Pearl, after all. He only decided to check it out amid the current emergency on a hunch, and he hopes he’s not wasting time.
Getting nothing useful from the hoodlum and having no reason to hold him, Aliyah lets the young man go. She returns to Sky with a sour look on her face. “Carpetbagger,” she mutters.
“You mean he’s not from Three Rats?” Sky asks.
“He tried to make me think he was,” she says, “but he didn’t have the accent right. Well...I guess we have to look inside this place, huh?” Aliyah looks doubtfully at the ladder.
Sky watches the hoodlum disappear into the shadows. “Hm... Oh yes, I suppose we must. Here, I’ll boost you up to the ladder.” He makes a stirrup of his hands. She sighs and steps into it, and then gasps as he lifts while she straightens her leg, bringing her up so swiftly that she feels like she’s flying. She grabs the bottom of the ladder and it swings down enough under her weight that Sky can reach it.
She laughs, “Whoo! Do it again! Oh, uh, sorry sir, just kidding.”
He smiles. “Go on, up you go. I’ll be right under you if you slip.”
As they climb, Aliyah’s long braid sways back and forth from the motion of climbing. She turns her head slightly to chat to him. Sky can tell she’s trying to keep her mind off how high she is. “Inspector? Doesn’t a guy like Atheist Jack make you...um, nervous?”
“You mean does he scare me? Yes, I suppose he does, a little. It’s quite disconcerting to have one’s powers suddenly stop working.” He doesn’t mention how being near Jack threatens to expose his most closely held secrets.
“He seems dangerous to gods like you.”
“He is. That’s why we need to keep an eye on him.”
“Oh...you mean to arrest him if he steps out of line?”
“Not really,” says Sky. “I’m worried about his safety. I think some gods might try to hurt him. He may be dangerous, but I don’t think that’s any fault of his. He deserves protection as much as anybody.”
“But...he preaches against the gods!”
“So do the monotheists. But mortals were granted freedom of belief centuries ago. And as far as we gods are concerned, belief in no gods isn’t much different from belief in one God. … Aliyah? Can I ask you something personal?”
She pauses, having reached the top. “Um, sure.” She looks down at him, a little surprised at his use of her first name while they are on a case.
“You’re a Sikh, right? But I’ve seen you pray to Kyri a couple of times, and to Doria just a little while ago.”
Aliyah grins. “Well...see, in my family’s sect we believe all you gods are manifestations of the One God. Most of you just don’t know it! There’s a bunch of commentary on it since our people arrived here centuries ago, but to tell the truth, I’m not all that religious. My dad, though, he could talk your ear off about it.”
“I would enjoy meeting him sometime. And Cala? Is she Muslim?”
“Yep. So she thinks you all are false gods. You know, I guess that is a little like Jack. But hey, that doesn’t mean she hates you! Heck, she told me she really likes you! And Sergeant Alma, too.”
Sky notices that she didn’t mention Gwydion. “Oh I don’t imagine she hates me. I respect her, and her beliefs. She’s been very helpful, and she’s an excellent constable.”
“Yeah, I still feel weird about being promoted over her. We’ve been friends since we were little, and she was always the one in charge.” She peers in through the window. “Sir? I can’t see a thing in there. The sun isn’t high enough to shine in through the skylight much.”
“Is there a walkway you can climb onto in there?” Sky asks. At Aliyah’s nod, he says, “Climb onto it and I’ll join you. I can make some light.”
After Aliyah carefully climbs in through the broken window, Sky follows, then concentrates and summons a ball of greenish-blue light that floats above his palm. It looks like an undulating bubble of seawater, glowing from within. He tosses it out over the interior of the warehouse, illuminating boxes stacked high, stairs...bodies. Aliyah gasps. Then they are both rushing down the interior stairs to the main floor.
The first corpse they encounter is a slender but muscular bald man, bled out through a wound to the heart. Sky gestures towards the ball of light and it comes closer. He notes a piercing wound to the man’s left foot as well, and boot marks in the pooled blood. Someone came back and retrieved an arrow from his body, Sky thinks. I’m betting a crossbow bolt.
“Do you recognize him?” Sky asks. Aliyah shakes her head no. Following the bloody bootprints, they move on to the next corpse, a nude woman with icy blue skin. Sky recognizes her quickly, despite the lack of flames. “She’s a Dukaine scion,” he says.
Aliyah kneels next to the woman’s head. There is surprisingly little blood, and Sky sees why: there is a crossbow bolt through the roof of her mouth into her brain. With the heart stopped almost immediately, there was no pump to force the blood out. Looking more closely at the entrance and exit wounds, he sees corrosive effects from the arrowhead’s touch, and he leans closer to sniff...demonblood ichor.
Aliyah touches the feathered end of the bolt, and she whispers, “Oh no...”
Sky is surprised that a corpse, even the corpse of a demigoddess, could affect an experienced Guardia like Aliyah so strongly, but then he realizes something else is troubling her. “What is it?”
“Oh, sir!” she says miserably. “I...” She stops speaking and looks up at him from where she is kneeling, her eyes filled with a mix of fear and pleading.
Sky looks her in the eye. “What is it, Aliyah? Tell me.”
“Sir...I think...I think I may know who did it. But...sir...please” she begs, her voice quavering, “I know I have no right to ask this, but please please please give me a chance to take care of this!”
Sky is shocked. He almost can’t believe she is serious, but from the way her hands shake, her eyes bright with unshed tears, he knows she is. “Corporal...if you think I’m going to let you go after a killer of three people, one of them a goddess, alone–”
“Not alone, sir! I’ll take Cala with me! And she...the killer...she would never hurt us.” She grabs his forearm with both her hands. “Please sir! Let me do this! If it’s anyone but me or Cala, we’ll never find her. Cala and me, we can do it, I promise.”
Sky looks at her for a long moment before speaking. “I suppose you can’t explain this to me, either.” Aliyah, looking ashamed, shakes her head no, but keeps her eyes locked on his nonetheless. Sky sighs, then decides to take a risk. “Very well. You have a day. Do not make me regret trusting you on this.”
“Oh thank you, sir!” Aliyah exclaims, and throws her arms around Sky, knocking him off-balance so that he sits down heavily. “Oh sorry! I’m sorry sir! That...was inappropriate, wasn’t it?”
“A bit, yes,” he replies drily, letting her help him back to his feet. Once they are standing again, and begin walking toward the third corpse, he says, “Corporal, listen to me. This...old friend or whatever she is – you did say ‘she,’ didn’t you?” Aliyah reluctantly nods. “Well she poisoned her bolt with demonblood ichor. That is extremely illegal, not only because it can kill a god, but because the only way to get it is by summoning demons, which, without a license, is a crime punishable by death.”
“Oh, sir, she wouldn’t even be able to summon a demon...she’s not, like, a wizard or anything.”
“She’s still running in some very dark circles, even to be able to buy such poison.” They look down at the final body, lying face down, a wound in the back of the neck. Sky does not have to point out that the killer shot down an unarmed, fleeing man. “What I’m saying, Aliyah, is that she may not be the friend you remember.”