The straight razor drew a line of blood that settled on the blade’s edge. Elliot watched more of it pool out from the nick on his upper lip, his eyes shifting to the hollow reflection looking back.
“Elliot?" a voice called from the kitchen.
He dabbed on shaving cream over his face before toweling off the excess water and moving towards the faint call echoing throughout his new flat. Elliot was still getting used to the luxury of living, sleeping, cooking, and pissing in designated chambers rather than a single room.
“Father?" Elliot asked. “Is that you? You're not a ghost, are you? No ... you're too stubborn to die."
“Your muttering isn't as quiet as you think it is," his father chuckled.
Elliot's eyes were pulled to the boiling, shallow basin of liquid jetting out steam to project the visage of his father. On his side of the realm, the sun was setting and casting a dull glow about the office that he was sitting in. Elliot glanced out at the sunrise from his kitchen windows, imagining how his own vaporous appearance must have looked on his father's end.
“How are you doing this?" he asked.
“You've a whispering mirror in your home, son. Clearly, you've moved up in the world. And recently. Tell me, did the landlord request anything strange when you moved in? An eyelash. Toenail. Perhaps something more—"
“Father," Elliot interrupted, unable to help his tired grin, “this isn't precisely the best time. I just arrived in this apartment last night. I don't understand how half of these mechanisms function, let alone how you've reached me ... without my permisison, I might add. Whatever happened to quills and letters? You haven’t exactly sent me a roost worth of birds over the years."
“You know how life is, Elliot. But the times are moving forward," the hazy figure said. “And you are too, I see. My boy's finally ascending the ladder. Signica must have recognized the talent in your blood. New apartment. New salary. New position. Yes? New ... well, you wouldn't be needing a wand, now would you? Not that they know, I would hope. Do they?"
The brief light in Elliot's expression dissipated. “Of course not, father. They think I grew up with a willow wand. No I ... haven't needed another. Of course not. Never."
“You know, your mother would be very proud of you, Elliot, as am I. How are you? How is your scream?" The voice came throgh as if from the other side of a cave, its scratchy tones arriving in echoes.
“My scream is fine. But if I may speak in earnest, things in general haven't been so well, father."
“You’ve always been so humble. Just look at you. You're growing into your skin. I know you may feel the burden of this new position's responsibility, but give it some time, it will feel just as natural as when you were a ... ah ..."
“Sweeper. We're called 'sweepers', father."
“Right. Listen. I am attending a gala this evening—" a servant’s voice broke through the conversation. Elliot's father whipped around. “Pray tell why won't you do as I ask for once and have her wait for me in the carriage? Oh, I don’t know! Brush the horses! You always seem to miss that detail! Gods. Apologies, Elliot. Ah, yes, what was I saying? Your mother."
“We needn’t talk about mum," Elliot was quick to interject, "please. I'd prefer not to."
“Very well. I know you and I have had our differences about your decision to leave after her, well ... But your mother, gods grant her peace, she wouldn't have done what she did were it not for her faith in you. An undying faith, Elliot. One that I share. I may not have before, but, seeing you now, I understand that you leaving the family and its funds behind was an admirable choice. Foolhardy and childish, but strong all the same."
“Yes," he replied weakly. “Thank you."
“You still have it, don't you? The wand, that is."
“Father I really must be going and I'm sure—"
“Yes, yes! Fine, then, take the second carriage! What do I care? Apologies again, Elliot. Oh! I am just thrilled to see you settling into your new position with Signica. Give Carina my best. I'll expect another congratulations will be in order for that development as well. Do not hesitate to call upon your old troll if you ever need an extra coin or two to fund the ceremony."
“Regarding that … Carina and I. Well, things have changed."
Elliot serached the grey haze of his father's eyes. For once they were looking towards him with optimism rather than suspicion. Even after years of silence save for a letter her and there, what little warmth there was in this foggy happenstance was worth something. A lie at least. “We've decided to postpone the marriage," Elliot said. “We've just been so busy, you see."
“I understand. She has always been remarkably career-minded."
“Yes. Farewell, father. Enjoy your ... gala."
The steam projection slithered into the bowl like an arching snake struck dead, taking with it the violent bubbling as well. Tentatively, Elliot reached his hand out to the basin of whispering water.
It was cold. As frigid as the winds decorating Moram's streets with bronze and gold leaves.
"Shouldn't it have been you calling out to me from beyond that great silence?" Elliot asked the air.
Warden Flagstaff was fidgeteingwith one of his long, slouching ears before he cut off Freema's sentence short by slamming his fist down on her desk. An animated spark of literal fire sputtered in the air between his glare and Elliot's now loathsome gaze.
“Damnit, Freema! This is who you chose? Tell me, what have we given to you, Shriek? No, no, allow me! An apartment. A wand. Of satyr's bow, no less! A wardrobe for mercy's sake! A new salary, even. Now you give us this? A white flag? A resignation?"
“This quest for pride will end in death and deep wounds!" Elliot snarled back. “Somebody's already dead!"
“Oh, that old crone." The Dusk-elf held up a hand and, with the other, made a melodramatic display of suppressing laughter. “So that's what this is about, is it? Your own skin. So we let these bastards have their way? Don't casters have a spine these days? Gods, that word used to mean something."
“This isn't about me. Freema, you know the jobs I've accepted from Signica. Jobs with risks I didn't need to take. If danger were the only thing between us and them, I'd throw myself at whoever, whatever we're dealing with. But so far what I have to go on is a grandmother's corpse and a note that says, ‘Fuck off back home,' signed, sincerely, the people who know your name. Didn't either of you stop to wonder how they got that information? How they knew I'd be at Mormug's apartment that night?"
“Now listen closely you little squealing half-shade," Flagstaff descended on Elliot. “We don't know who these maniacs are or why they're doing this. For all we can tell they've been following you since you were born. The point is, they've stuck their fingers into Signica's business and made a mockery of you, and therefore us, in the process. The why, the how, and the who—damnit!—that's your assignment, Shriek. That's why we've got you in here and not out there sweeping up hobgoblins off 42nd street!" Flagstaff's fingers were quivering as he slicked back a few black locks that had fallen in front of his face. The elf straightened his suit's lapels and the sharp collars rising to his jawline.
“Elliot," Freema began, much gentler, “we understand how dangerous this is. I would not have chosen you hadn't it been for your enthusiasm for the peculiar and, in the past, the perilous. You have been loyal to Signica. This is an opportunity, remember that."
“Excuse me?" Flagstaff spat.
"I meant that I refuse to continue this discussion until Warden Flagstaff has left the chamber. Signica is my family. I will suffer verbal abuse from the public for my mother's blood, but not from the likes of my superiors. Damned if I do. Least of all from a pureblooded elf. How's that for a spine, you limp-eared imp spawn?"
“Oh, what is this? It was only a—"
“Flagstaff, out!" Freema commanded. “No! Not a word more."
After the warden had skulked away, Elliot stood up from the chair and paced the room. “I am frightened, warden. I want to know who this person is as much as anybody, but they've a lead on us that stretches several horizons long."
“You know what I think this is? Your nerves are still rattled from Reaver's Hollow. And whose wouldn't be? A bad first impression of this position's duties. I would think the rest of your investigation shouldn't be in such miserable conditions. Even so. That is the extent of what we can trust you with. Be proud of that, Shriek. You're a fighter. Now. Tell me what or who you are really afraid for. You would never grovel like this for your own hide. I've seen you do far worse for far less coin.”
“They took my wand. They killed Mormug. They wrote my name in blood. The salary is immaterial to me now."
“So what is it? An artifact in your family, perhaps? Something you don't want stolen from you?"
For a moment, Elliot thought she'd figured it out. He glanced away from the window to see how she was looking at him, but there was a genuine bewonderment in her face. "No," she realized with a relieved sigh, "then you can rest assured. Carina Sister is well looked after. She doesn't know of course," she added as an afterthought once Elliot faced her in complete shock.
A chuckle escaped Elliot's lips. He put his arm against one of the windows and let his head hang against it, laughing from a pit of exhaustion. "My chest actually feels lighter. I can't believe this. How did you …"
“I figured, what with the history between you two, you would have spoken to her about recent events. Even if you hadn’t, whoever's been watching you would come to understand what she was to you eventually. You two may not be engaged anymore, but most of Signica knows of the wounds left on your hearts. Hatred is a stronger passion than love, isn't it, young Elliot?"
“As long as it keeps her away from me. Who's guarding her?"
“Casters in her department. Two."
“That's settled, then. What would you have me do? What’s to follow all this?"
Freema handed Shriek an illustration from her desk with a rough, inky sketch of a man with a well-kept goatee and a glint of fortune in his eyes. “Jakkob Marta. He's a supposed tailor in Northern Moram, District of Hex Hazel. Beneath the surface, he's a practitioner of what he calls ‘orriginalium' it is a word playing on the Qalmorian phrase for ‘fingerprint'. He claims that with someone's organic matter, he can project that individual's current location onto a waymarker. A stone or object that points you towards them. He's been searching the clothes you wore on that day you were mugged since you were outfitted with your new wardrobe. Hair, dried spit, blood, a fingernail. It's all very dignified. You're going to pay him a visit. Today. See if he's found anything. If not, report back. See? This job isn't the stuff of nightmares, Shriek, it was only a rough …"
A series of knocks rapped on Freema's door. "Warden Freema! My apologies, but this cannot wait."
“Layla? I’ll be finished in just a moment. Kindly—"
But Layla had already shoved through the door and, after regarding Elliot with surprise, (for the better state of his clothes and hygiene in general), turned towards Freema. “It's about Carina. Angalin and Sora were found unconscious on Lamplayer's Road."
“That's not far from here," Elliot put in. “The casters you mentioned?”
Freema hung her head.
“Blood was drawn," Layla continued. "They're hexed in a terrible way, warden. We've put sealers on their mouths to keep them from screaming from the pain."
“And Carina herself?"
“She's gone. Somebody took her."