2672 words (10 minute read)

Chapter 1

Calvern Noxwell trudged.  The clouds overhead were as dark as his mood and the cobbled streets under his feet were slick with pools of grimy water.  Rain became a waterfall cascading from the clogged gutters of the Pickled Pig, the slightly seedy tavern that was Calvern’s destination.  He lived beneath the notice of the law here, helping people who didn’t want to seek more official help for their troubles.  In a city like Kiistrom, with a bustling underworld and a decent crime rate, Calvern generally got enough cases to keep up on rent to the tavern owner and his de facto landlord.  But these past few weeks had seen an uncharacteristic dry spell in business.  The few cases that he had picked up recently were all leading to frustrating dead ends.  And that meant that Calvern was once again behind on rent.  Fortunately for him, Thelma had a gentle soul for a half-orc and seemed to be a bit sweet on him.  He waved meekly and avoided eye contact as he skirted past the bar towards the stairs.  She raised one of her heavy brows at him but let him pass without comment.

Calvern’s rooms were sparse and shabby.  Precious few personal items would identify its occupant.  But the fire in the hearth warded off the damp chill of the night and made him feel at home.  Calvern slumped into the chair behind his desk, letting it take his full weight and closing his eyes for a moment before opening the bottom drawer for a potion.  His supply was dwindling and he sent a silent prayer to the goddess of luck that he would get a break in a case soon.  He didn’t much fancy the thought of borrowing more money from thieve’s guild; unlike Thelma they expected their payments rather more promptly than he was comfortable with.

There are many types of potions in the world, ranging from the standard healing draught, a favorite with adventurers and brawlers, to potions for sleeping, extra strength, and even potions to help you look attractive just long enough to land a companion for an evening.  There are also darker potions, draughts to raise the dead or to kill the living.  Calvern was partial to more recreational potions that made you see little green fairies or feel like you’re floating.  He’d never seen a living fairy, but he rather strongly suspected they wouldn’t approve of the busty little ladies that would parade in front of your eyes after drinking these potions.  Rumor had it that real fairies could have a violent temper and a dim view of amorous mortals.

Calvern cracked open a bottle and took a long swig, trying not to think of his most recent case.  Yet another missing person.  What few cases had trickled their way to him had all been missing persons of late.  And every last one of them seemed determined to stymie him.  Here a baker’s daughter, there one of the orphans at a local school.  And every time he felt like he would hit a wall.  The smell of fear and blood tickled in his mind- the only connecting feature of these cases.  Finally his brain seemed to float away into the potion and he relaxed.

Calvern only had a few minutes to enjoy his potion before his door was flung open by an armored hand.  He tried to shake himself free of the haze but only succeeded in toppling gently to the floor with a soft, embarrassing giggle.  He heard a snort from the figure still standing in the doorway followed by a mutter and a warm glow that seemed to siphon the fuzziness from his blood.

"I’d heard that you’d fallen into a bottle and never crawled back out, but I never thought I’d have to use a clarity charm to hire a coherent detective."  The voice was familiar and Calvern climbed shakily to his feet to greet his intruder.  The woman was tall and muscular beneath her armor, and the jewel on her breast plate glowed with holy light that made him feel a bit queasy in the aftereffects of his sudden sobriety.  She was a cleric from the nearby temple of Thaddai, more divine warrior than shepherd to the masses, and Calvern had worked with her several years ago to bring a minor demon to justice.  He liked her, though he wondered if having no sense of humor was a prerequisite of the job or just a side effect of channeling the will of a rather dour god.

"Good to see you again, Iliana.  Can I offer you anything to drink?" He was proud to note that his voice only shook slightly.

"None of what you’re having, thanks."  

Calvern smiled tightly and poured himself some musty water from the pitcher on his nightstand, hoping to clear away the rest of the cobwebs in his brain.  He leaned against his desk, "I only indulge occasionally.  And it isn’t like the populace is pounding down my door for help at the moment.  Until now.  You mentioned a job?"

To his surprise, Iliana’s expression turned from faintly disgusted to stricken in a flash.  She sank into a chair with a clatter.  "I have a problem Cal.  I don’t even know where to begin.  This may mean my head if word gets out...I wasn’t sure who else I could trust."  She took his silence as invitation to continue and went on, "we’ve had a...I guess you could call it a robbery.  The royal vault has been defiled!"  At that her righteous indignation seemed to propel her back to her feet and she began to pace around the small chamber like a wild cat.  The lamplight glinted wildly off her armor as she moved.  "The sarcophagus of the young prince has simply vanished!  No trace of intruders, no broken locks, nothing.  The only reason I was even in the cemetery was one of the groundskeepers reported hearing strange noises and I thought the rains might have flushed out some more giant rats"  Her brown eyes narrowed as she looked at Calvern.  "Would you come take a look?  I’m at my wit’s end and if I don’t have anything to tell the council, I’ll be stripped of my Grace and sent to the borderlands."

Calvern pretended to consider this, while inwardly he smiled at the thought of a fee straight from the heavy church coffers.  "I’ll meet you at the cemetery at first light tomorrow."

Iliana seemed to have regained her composure and normally stern expression as she looked at him, "Try to stay sober, ok?  I have enough to worry about without you falling into an open grave."

The next day dawned with only thin rays of damp looking light through the drizzling clouds.  Calvern stood outside the gates of the city cemetery sniffing at the cool air.  His skin tingled slightly in the holy aura of the many blessings that had been laid upon the gates, grounds, and tombs through the centuries.  Not many guessed it, and fewer still knew for sure, but Calvern was one of the products of a tainted union in his family’s past: he carried demon blood.  Some unlucky souls with this affliction grew horns or tails or fangs.  All Calvern Noxwell had to show for his unholy blood was unsettling yellow eyes and ability to discern things that others could not.  Handy for a life of a detective, but rather less so when it came to forming any sort of lasting relationship.  At least he didn’t seem to have any evil leanings as a result of his unfortunate background; he knew some who had turned out only slightly less depraved than the demons in their bloodline, and still others had been driven mad trying to resist the dark whispers in their souls.  Calvern just got a slight headache when he spent too much time around blessings and holy water could give him a five alarm hangover worse than the most potent of his potions.

Still testing the air, Calvern felt Iliana’s approach before he heard the clank of her armour.  Her Divine Grace, the mark of the god she served, preceded her with the faint aroma of burnished metal, the spicy tang of holy water, and the distant rustle of wings.  He wondered if anyone else could see her ascension to archangel as clearly as he could.  It didn’t happen often, but some people’s futures were written so clearly on their faces that he was surprised that no one else noticed.

Iliana only nodded tersely at his greeting.  He had spent enough time with her to know that she really hated to not be in control; not knowing what had happened in the royal tomb must be eating at her righteous soul.  This cemetery served the entire city of Kiistrom, from the poorest beggar who died on the street, to the highest of royals going back four dynasties.  The current royal family vault housing the empty bodies of the Fel dynasty was in the northeast section, resting on a hill.  Calvern could well remember the day just a year prior when the entire city was plunged into mourning by the sudden death of the young prince.  Prince Stevan Fel, the only child of King Galan and Queen Cassara had just turned six when he disappeared from his royal bed.  The city was turned upside down in the frantic search for the missing boy.  It all ended abruptly with the discovery of his body in an isolated clearing of the North Woods.  Official details hadn’t been released, but Cal had found himself drawn to the clearing not long after the Prince’s burial and the whole area had stunk of evil.  A demon had been summoned in that clearing, he was sure of it.  The hair on the back of his neck stood up at the memory.  The Queen and King hadn’t been the same since the boy’s disappearance and no new heir seemed to be forthcoming.  King Galan was already a shell of his former self and whispers in the wind spoke of a changing dynasty should the frail leader join his son in the royal vault too soon.  Calvern shook his head; to have the prince disappear again...no wonder Iliana was on edge.  That might be all the shock the King’s system needed to trigger an all-out war for succession.

They stopped at the doors to the tomb.  Calvern strained his senses, trying to get a feel for how the sealed sepulchre had been entered.  All he could feel was Iliana’s growing impatience and the faint hint of complex magic around the seal.  And...something else.  A metallic taste.  He leaned closer to the door, squinting.  "There’s blood on this seal.  Just a trace.  Just enough to bypass the protections."


"Whose blood?" Iliana’s question hung in the air.  

"I can’t tell.  The rain has washed most of it away.  Are we able to go inside?"  Iliana waved her hand to dismiss the temporary seal she had placed after discovering the break in and pushed the door open on its heavy hinges.  The musty odor of dank earth and old death washed over them.  Iliana muttered a short word and a small glowing ball sprang to life above them, lighting the path into the tomb.  

The newer burials were near the entrance to the branching tunnels of the catacombs.  Prince Stevan had been laid to rest in a small sarcophagus and placed in an alcove heartbreakingly large for his shortened coffin.  Under the stone lid, it was rumored Stevan was interred with brightly colored books and toys far more suited to a nursery than this dark vault.  Calvern’s yellow eyes moistened briefly as he looked at the empty recess that was supposed to be a child’s final resting place.  Violated.  Iliana was white-lipped in the glow of her floating light and Calvern decided he did not envy the man, woman, or demon that might have been involved in the second theft of the Prince.  The tall cleric’s grim expression promised a world of extremely personal pain for whoever was found responsible.


Just as Iliana had described, the nook was empty and for all the world appeared undisturbed.  If it had not been for the name of the interred carved above the marble shelf, one could almost imagine that this grave site was still waiting for its final occupant.  No helpful scraps of fabric or hair had been caught in the smoothly carved walls, no conveniently dropped calling card, no muddy footprints in spite of the constant rain...wait.  No footprints?  He could clearly see the line of prints they had tracked in today in the bobbing light of Iliana’s spell.  But the floor around them was smooth and clean.  The rains that had been plaguing the city virtually guaranteed a morass of mud that should have marked the path of the intruder.  Whoever had done this had the foresight to remove physical evidence as well as the knowledge of whatever dark magic had opened this tomb.  This person was smart.  Not Calvern’s favorite type of criminal.  He much preferred the bumbling idiot types.  Having exhausted the evidence of his eyes, Calvern slowly extended his other senses into the shadows of the tomb.  A wave of evil washed over him, competing with the holy aura of blessings carved into the surrounding sarcophagi.  In a crimson haze he could see at least three figures moving around the space he and Iliana now occupied.  One seemed cloaked in shadows, holding back and directing the activity.  The other two were bustling around the small coffin, lighting dark candles and painting ghostly patterns on the walls and floor.  The figure closest to Calvern moved with a strange scuttling limp that tickled at Calvern’s memory.  As the vision faded, Calvern’s nose was filled with the sickening smell of blood, cinnamon, and brimstone.  He blinked several times and Iliana’s face swam into focus in front of him.

Now that his vision had cleared he could see the faint echoes of the symbols that had been painted with the same blood as was on the door.  He shuddered and looked into the cleric’s eyes.  "I don’t know who did this, but I think I know where we can start looking."  

Iliana’s expression was morose.  "I’m going to be stripped of my holy symbol and made to preach to heathens in the arctic circle, aren’t I?"

Calvern’s yellow eyes flashed at her in the dim light and he smiled as the faint ghosts of the archangel’s wings unfurled behind her.  "I don’t think anyone can take your Grace away from you, sword bearer of Thaddai.  I really don’t."

"Forgive me if I don’t find the promises of demon blood to be very comforting."

Calvern Noxwell laughed as they abandoned the tomb to its silent inhabitants.