Ashatha
III.

The Cold House

The Cold House lay upriver of the Tombs, on the eastern bank of the Lenapehanna, most swiftly reachable by coach and then by ferry, possessed as it was of its own river frontage and private dock. Correctly and properly it was known as the Keystone Provincial Forensimantic Laboratory, housed in the decommissioned shell of a Revolution-era pentagonal fort, and not so much one building as several, the largest of which by far was the morgue, which processed not only the victims of criminal activity but also corpses of known and unknown provenance that found their way into the possession of the authorities both civil and medical. I spent the last two years of my time at the Academy of Practical Arcane Arts and Sciences serving my practicium and residency for my degrees in forensimantic medicine and investigation within its walls, and its precincts, regulations, and oddities were well known to me. I had, I confess, a certain nostalgic fondness for the place, being one of the last where my own peculiarity of nature did not set me out of place or cause me to be looked at askance, and I felt that nostalgia welling up in me as its hulking, uninviting gray stone walls came into view off the starboard side of the ferry. It was called the Cold House both for the icy midwinter sheen of those walls and for the ambient temperature in most of the working rooms, mostly by the guardsmen of the City and the soldiers of the Provincial Militia, quartered across the river at Fort Washington, but to those of us who lived and worked there it was always and forever the Heap.

A Sergeant of the Guard and a handful of men-at-arms met us at the dock, Stahl stepping off the ferry almost before it had finished coming to a rest alongside the pilings and striding up to the commander to address her in a voice that most definitely carried. “Sergeant Windsinger, I believe you have met most of my company – Inspector le Glace, Special Agent Harada, Special Agent Lyonsgate, Doctor Corvinius. Our orders.” He handed her a sealed packet of documents as we crossed the dock to join them, the men-at-arms falling in around us, halfway between an honor-guard and a security detail. “I trust that the chief forensimantic examiner was informed of the imminence of our arrival.”

“You trust correctly.” The Sergeant – whom most people called Windsinger for ease of elocution but who was known more properly as Sings-the-Wind to those who knew her well – snapped him a perfectly crisp, courteous salute and gestured for us to follow her into the fortress itself. “I am to escort you to Examination Theatre Three – “

“I hope they refurbished Three a bit since the last time I was here,” I muttered, theoretically under my breath.

“All the examination suites were redone over the last two years.” Sings-the-Wind tossed an amused look at me over her shoulder, iron-gray braid swinging, the little crow's-feet at the corners of her dark eyes creasing her skin with the memory of thousands of smiles. “You look exceedingly good for a raving lunatic, Agent Harada.”

“Please. Just a lunatic. Raving his entirely too hard on my throat.” I grinned back at her. “Sergeant Singer.”

“At long last.” We passed through the gates to the inner ward, the vast stone-paved courtyard uninterrupted by any trace of greenery that wasn't virtually unkillable lichen despite the efforts of a long succession of groundskeepers to encourage otherwise. “For those unfamiliar with the drill, we have a particular procedure once we enter the morgue. No one but the investigating forensimancer enters the examination suite proper – it is a sealed environment intended to maintain the forensimantic integrity of the subject of inquiry. He,” Windsinger gestured pointedly at me, “knows how to properly disengage and re-engage the seals to preserve the security of the environment. The rest of you do not and therefore you will confine yourselves to the observation deck adjoining. Do not attempt to cross the observation deck's ward boundary. You will set off an intensely annoying alarm.”

The enormous, iron-bound doors of the morgue itself loomed ahead of us, looking more or less precisely what it was – a repurposed arsenal, the majority of which stretched floor upon floor underfoot, sunk deep into the bedrock, once upon a time to prevent the casual destruction of powder magazines and stockpiled arms, now to lend the strength of the earth to the preservative forensimantic ward-structures that kept the bodies temporarily stored there incorrupt until such a time as they were released to their final destinations. I felt something welling up in me as we descended the first of several downward curling staircases, a bubble of corrosive emotion not my own, grief mixed with a hot and poisonous hatred, and I saw her face again, the haggard and sickly Firstcomer woman, deep-lined skin clinging tight to her bones, mouth tired and eyes deeply set, knew her for Riverson's mother, who had died while he was serving a six-month sentence in the Tombs for petty thievery, whose landlord had claimed no next of kin when it came to removing her body, and whose ashes mixed with dozens of others in an indigent's grave. Kieran glanced sharply at me as I missed my step and Merrick caught my elbow; I waved them both off. “Remnant sense impression. From the Serpent's Den. Nothing to worry about.”

Kieran's eyes narrowed that dangerous fraction that warned me he was officially only believing every third word I said. I rather doubted it would be the bit about there being nothing to worry about.

Fortunately, we did not have much further to go. The forensimantic examination theatres were located in the uppermost sublevel of the morgue, the short and long-term storage facilities in the lower, where the ambient below-ground temperature worked with the preservation wards rather than against them. We parted company at the theatre entrance – Windsinger escorting my companions up the short flight of stairs to the observation platform, the rest of the security detail peeling itself off to accompany me as I took the service corridor to the clean room. Two of them preceded me, two followed, and one positioned herself at the door itself, watchful and alert. All four did a swift but thorough sweep of the clean room before they permitted me to enter and close myself inside, alone, to change out of my own clothing and into the forensimantically-neutral tunic and trousers waiting in the locker – they were the sized I'd been before my hospitalization and now hung somewhat loosely on my frame, fortunately sewn with the sort ties that allowed for ruthless pulling-in. I twisted my hair into a tight knot at the base of my skull, and kept my own gloves, and ignored the stack of paperwork sitting on documentation shelf. I did not want the knowledge of anyone else's observations mingling with my own just now.

The examination theatre was a noticeable number of degrees colder than ambient, though not enough to cause my breath to fog the air, and brightly lit with the consistent, sourceless sphere of illumination that strove to eliminate the possibility of errors in physically observable detail. Eight feet above and along the theatre's far curving edge the observation platform slanted upwards into shadow, amphitheatre seating carved into the stone. Kieran sat on the first bench, his hands laced together under his chin, elbows braced on his thighs; I felt his gaze settle on me as I entered, felt something more caress me under the skin, ghosting through the bones of my skull.

Can you hear me?

I nodded fractionally, and saw Merrick hear it as well, his eyes – bright, intensely bright green now – flicking first to Kieran and then to me. He stood at his ease near the edge of the platform, on the other side of the ward-boundary incised into the stone, arms crossed over his chest, the visible tips of his fingers twitching as though in want of the haft of a knife. Robin and Windsinger stood together close to the top of the stairs, conferring in voices low enough that they failed to carry. It took me a moment to spot Stahl – he had separated himself from the others by the expedient of pacing halfway around the observation deck and now stood slightly to the left of center, not quite opposite either the entrance or the cluster of other observers, more lost in shadow than I had thought possible even in his dark clothing.

Gerath Riverson's corpse lay on a surgical steel table in the middle of the theatre, covered in a sealed white clean sheet. The angles were entirely wrong for a body lying in standard post mortem examination posture, the peaks and shadows hinting at less than controlled conditions. I touched the wards in sequence to release them and folded back the first third of the sheet.

I paused for an instant to control my initial reaction – hand-tremors, a hitch in my own breathing that I heard echoed from above, Kieran's quickly-smothered shock-horror-revulsion reverberating in the back of my mind – and finished folding back the sheet. The trigger for the theatre's voice-and-image recording apparatus was the loudest sound in the room as I activated it. “The deceased is Gerath Riverson, adult male, precise age indeterminate but approximately early forties, Firstcomer ethnic extraction. Precise height and weight is difficult to determine due to the condition of the cadaver but spinal measurement extrapolation suggests a height in excess of six feet...”

Whatever had killed Gerath Riverson had not been kind to his body. It lay contorted on the table in a near-fetal position on its left side, legs drawn up nearly flush with the chest and abdomen, arms twisted in a posture I was tempted to call “defensive,” neck and head thrown back. The entire thing remained in a state of profound, heavily desiccated rigor, bones peeking through natural points of tension in the epidermis at the joints, along the spinal ridge, the high-cheeked skull. His face was by far the worst, his mouth frozen open in a howl of mortal agony that had split and flayed his lips over his teeth, eye sockets empty pits in a field of cracked skin and flesh. Inside my own skull, I felt Kieran as a still point of clarity and paused for a moment to mentally orient myself toward that point – emptying myself of emotive reaction, building a lattice of detachment out his calm and making it my own. The first thing I shoved away was the memory of a long, pale wound that was not a cut on my own arm and the morbid curiosity that made me wonder how much more would be required to reduce me or anyone else to this, a pile of bone and skin and tendon held together by their own surface tension.

“Ligature injuries on the wrists and ankles were inflicted pre-mortem,” I activated the wards in my gloves and skimmed my fingertips over them, feeling the rasp and tug of heavy and not particularly smooth rope in skin slicked with fear-sweat, felt the lingering echo of not at all mindless terror, sent both to the compartments in the lattice where they belonged. “Restraint injuries. No corresponding ligature on the throat. The subject was not strangled,” My fingertips rested in the hollow of Riverson's throat, between the sharply angled bones of the clavicle and I revised my opinion. “The subject was not externally strangled. There is interior damage to the trachea and larynx that is not visible to physical examination. Force was applied against them internally. He is...missing a substantial portion of his tongue.”

I brushed my fingers down what I could reach of his chest without manipulating the limbs – I suspected they would not endure much handling, rough or otherwise. The scrape of his skin against the palms of my gloves was the loudest thing in the room for several moments as I allowed the sensations that attended the last moments of his mortal existence to flow into and through me, the raw pain and fear of it, Riverson's desperate struggle to....

Hold his silence.

“Tortured,” I heard my own voice as though it were coming from some great distance. “He was being tortured and interrogated.”

“By whom?” Stahl. “To what purpose?”

“I cannot perceive that.” I felt Kieran's sudden surge of alarm spike through me. “I will have to probe more deeply.”

“Nate – “ Kieran began, then swallowed his objection. “Be careful.”

“Always.” I drew off first one glove and then the other.

The flesh of Riverson's back had the tension and texture of a drum head, colder by far than even the ambient temperature could account for, a psychic chill that leached into my bones, sent a savage ache from the tips of my fingers to the crook of my elbow. As swiftly as it came it receded – or, more precisely, I felt it pulled away, drawn out of my sense awareness and smothered, to prevent it from fracturing my focus. Without the buffer of the gloves and their wards, every remaining impression was not only stronger but more raw, as well, more likely to impinge on my awareness in ways that I could no longer fully direct or control. I felt Kieran's presence within my mind more sharply, as well, no longer content to observe, his protectiveness taking on a more active aspect. Careful. I must be able to see.

A tiny surge of acknowledgment behind my eyes, riding a frission of nervous tension. I could hardly blame him.

I laid my right hand at the back of Riverson's head, the brittle threads of his remaining hair brushing across my knuckles, some breaking, some not. While he was alive, it must have been quite the resplendent mane, even at his age, it was still more dark than not and thick even now, the sensation of touching it not unlike the dried reeds and grasses that grew on the edge of the river in the tiny hamlet where he had been born. I smelled water, clear and cold, heard it murmur over ridges of stone in the shallows, saw dark pools under the roots of sycamore trees where the fish hid in the heat of high summer, Mother singing cradle songs as the bread baked and the fish fried and the herbs boiled for tea. Mother singing as she drew the blankets up about his shoulders, warm and soft, her lips on his cheek. Mother speaking soft words of thanks to the men who came to the door of their house, Mother weeping and drawing him into her arms to hold him tightly, Mother gathering what she could carry in a large pack for her back and a small one for his, the river growing wider and darker as they walked along its bank, packed earth becoming stones that bit into their feet, stones becoming cobbles slicked with ice and oil and a thousand other things, all of them foul. The air, foul. The river, foul. The city, whose edges they came to live in now that Father was gone and their house was no longer their own and Mother could not return to her family. Foul.

Mother no longer sang. She no longer rose early purely for the joy of greeting the dawn. She no longer shook him awake in the small hours of the night to search the sky for falling stars or to watch shadows fall across the face of the moon. Her face grew worn, and thin. Her hands grew rough from the work she did. Her hair, once thick and lustrous, became gray and brittle; her eyes dull and sunken deep into her skull. Her breath came in rasps.

He did what he could to lift her burdens, but there was no clean water here from which he could catch fish, no forest from which he could gather the berries and roots and mushrooms that she had taught him were good to eat. There were only narrow reeking streets and shopkeepers with dogs and sticks to beat away unpaying hands and Guardsmen to give chase. It was, nonetheless, all that he could do, the path he was drawn to by the inexorable gravity of poverty, of needs he had to meet. His mother was ill – sometimes too ill to work. The rent on their rooms needed to be paid, food needed to be put on the table, medicine needed to be purchased, clothes needed to be put on their backs. And the one thing the city had in even greater abundance than foulness were rich idiots waiting to be separated from their money, one way or another. Some of these separations go more smoothly than others.

His mother dies of her long illness after a less-than-smooth attempt sends him to prison for half a year. He was seventeen and when he emerged it was to find all their worldly possessions sold to recompense their bastard landlord, his mother gone, her body unclaimed long enough that it was cremated and sent to an indigent pauper's grave. After that, it's hate as much as hunger as much as anything that drives him, hate and a rage that no amount of money or pleasure can soothe away for long, the wrath of a bitter man bereft of everything that was once good in his life, whose fiercest desire is to see the rest of the world as beaten and broken as she had been by the end –

Oh, Gerath. My beautiful, bitter Gerath. What happened to all that passion – all that vivid, vicious purity of purpose?

My perception twisted, wrenched suddenly, viciously sideways as those words, as the voice they belonged to, curled through me cold and dark as winter midnight. I felt it sinking into me and through me, spreading like feathered runners of frost across a windowpane as it went, leaching me of warmth and more than warmth, ice in my veins and a vast, yawning emptiness opening within me where...

Where everything that made me human once lay. A void that had lain empty so long that the lack no longer even ached, had become instead the essence of my self, the whole of my being a hollow seeming wrapped around nothing. Gerath Riverson lay bound before me, in terror and agony, and I felt nothing – no pity, no anger, no regret despite the words that fell from my lips, no admiration for the courage he showed in this, his final extremity.

Have I not kept faith with my part of our bargain, beautiful Gerath? Have you not tasted all of the rewards that you were promised for your service? Are you not wealthy – so wealthy that those who would call themselves your betters come on bended knee to seek your largesse? Are you not powerful – so powerful that those who call themselves your rulers come to you seeking favors? Have you not drunk deep from the chalice of vengeance, humbled those who scorned and cast you out, taken the world by the throat and satisfied your hunger?

His head jerked, helplessly, involuntarily, in affirmation and beneath the surface of his dusky, pain-reddened skin I saw something black writhing against the lineaments of his throat, filaments of unnatural darkness twined around muscle, tendon, trachea and esophagus, the veins and arteries.

And now? Now you deny me.

The filaments twisted, and Riverson's face darkened as he choked, mouth working helplessly as he fought for breath, nothing, not even sound making it past the obstruction compressing all the structures of his throat.

Such betrayal wounds me, my beautiful Gerath. It cuts me as the edges of a thousand poisoned knives. Only the love I bear you spares you now, my dear one. Serve me again and all may yet be forgiven. Nothing. I felt nothing, neither pain nor love, only the cold dark emptiness and, beneath that, hunger – a clawing hunger as vast as the icy, inhuman nothingness where my heart once lay. You yet have time to repent of your foolishness. Give me the girl.

Down the hall, in a room provided with all those things that would give delight to the heart of a small girl-child, a small girl-child lay who would never find delight in anything again, next to the cooling corpse of the woman hired to attend her every need. But not the girl I had come seeking, not the child whose birth I saw written in blood and bone and entrail, a gift unlooked for and now snatched away by the one to whom it had come. The hungry darkness relaxed its grip at my direction, allowed my false-hearted servant the breath with which to answer.

Do you think I mean to harm her, my beautiful Gerath? So foolish, so faithless. She will be exalted above all others – she will live in splendor such as even you can only imagine until the time comes. Give her to me.

His mouth moved, a thread of spittle dripping down his chin as he struggled for speech.

Give her to me and I shall give to her the gift of her father's life – to be an orphan, so very young, is a terrible thing, I know. I felt the corners of my mouth curl beneath my mask, the skin of my cheeks cracking with the motion, resealing almost as swiftly. Teach her to serve me as you have –

It was not spittle pouring down his chin any longer. The scent of blood, thick and sharp, assaulted my senses as his jaw clenched, clamped, and he tossed his head to aid the effort of spitting something at me, his mouth a gory ruin.

His tongue. A hideous sound emerged from his throat, thick with blood and the hungry darkness' filaments, drowning despite their effort to stanch the flow – horrid and yet edged in triumph. A laugh. He was laughing.

I felt nothing – not horror nor sorrow nor anger, only a distant, dusty irritation.

Know this, Gerath Riverson, as you die: you have saved nothing. You have not spared her – you have only destroyed yourself. Eat your fill.

His sounds took on a distinctly different tenor –

I came back to myself with a wrench of dislocation so violent it was nearly physical, my skull ringing with a force strongly reminiscent of its recent impact with my own sitting room wall, fighting down the urge curl, retching, around myself as concussive disequilibrium and nausea made themselves felt simultaneously. Discovered, quite suddenly, that I could not have fallen to my knees even had I wished to do so for I was no longer standing under my own power but pinned against the dressed stone of the examination theatre wall by the expedient of a well-muscled forearm across my upper chest, the whisper-sharp edge of a knife against my throat, my decidedly watery legs braced by another's thigh, tight against another's upper body. Quite nearby, a ward-alarm shrieked at inner-ear disturbing frequencies, sending rhythmic bolts of pain through my already throbbing skull and greatly enhancing my desire to empty my stomach. With a heroic effort of will I forced my eyes to open – when had I closed them? I had no conscious memory of doing so – forced them to focus through a blur of pain-tears, felt and smelled the blood washing down my cheek from the Tell.

Merrick's face swam blearily into focus, inches away from my own, his ice-green eyes blazing with a cold and killing light, intent upon my countenance, lips peeled back from his teeth in a soundless snarl. I wanted to speak, to say something to banish that awful look from him, but found my mouth and throat full of my own blood when I parted my lips and no sound willing to emerge, only a pained, desperate rattle. I saw something, some emotion flicker through Merrick's eyes – sorrow? regret? – and his grip on the hilt of his blade shifted slightly, the pressure of knuckles and edge against my throat changed and finally, over the sonic torture of the alarm, I heard Kieran screaming.

“Merrick – Merrick, no – that's him, that's Natanael, I have him!”

Merrick flicked a glance over his shoulder, his snarl no longer soundless, and snapped his gaze back to me as I shrank reflexively back away from it, the edge of his blade pressing a thin red kiss to the underside of my chin. His nostrils flared slightly as it did so, his eyes flicking closed, his face going still. He did not lower his knife but he did lean in, erasing the last of the distance between us, his cheek perilously close to mine as he drew in a deep breath, and then another. A shudder rippled through him, the tension in his shoulders, in the line of his body, in the hand keeping the weapon pressed against me, relaxed suddenly and all at once, the knife vanishing back wherever he had kept it and both arms coming around to support me as my legs flatly refused to continue humoring my delusions of remaining upright. Kieran was at my side almost before we finished settling on the floor, Merrick's arm still holding me up, his hands on my face checking muscular tonus, forcing my good eye open enough to check pupilary reaction, his voice in my ears and inside my skull, whispering, Nate. Natanael. Stay with me, focus, I need you to look at me –

“Someone kill that bloody alarm.” Stahl's voice, clear and cold, cut across the noise and the babble of voices – the security team, Robin, Windsinger – the awareness of which was beginning to filter in. “Dr. Corvinius, Ser Lyonsgate, step aside.”

“I will do no such thing,” Kieran growled, from between clenched teeth, shooting a look I was strongly tempted to describe as murderous over his shoulder.

“Sergeant Windsinger, please escort Dr. Corvinius out of the examination theatre.” Stahl replied coolly. “You two – “ He gestured to our security detail. “Keep him in the clean room until such time as I permit otherwise.”

Windsinger gave him an apologetic look and the two indicated guards drew their weapons. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Merrick incline his chin slightly as he rose and stepped back, making certain I was firmly braced against the wall before he did so. Kieran rose, drew himself to his full, rather impressive height and permitted himself to be escorted out without the need for shackles or prodding with a shock baton, though his expression suggested he was composing a number of rather scathing remarks in the back of his mind and was waiting only for the right moment to unleash them. Stahl watched him go with a nonexpression of such perfect equanimity that I was momentarily uncertain for whom I should fear more, realizing only belatedly that it should be myself as he knelt beside me and laid one gloved hand against my forehead, lifting the level of my gaze with delicately applied strength and forcing me to meet his eyes. “Do you know me?”

“Yes,” I croaked, my voice sounding intensely hideous in my own ears. “Stahl. Agent Stahl. Queen's Own.”

He nodded once, briskly, his lack of expression lightening a degree or two. “Good. Tell me.”

“May I have some water? And a basin.” Both items were provided, and I took a moment to wash the blood out of my mouth. “Gerath Riverson was murdered by the shadow-creatures that attacked both Lord Rheyes' household and myself. Ate him alive, from the inside out.” I drank a mouthful, found my stomach reasonably willing to tolerate that, and drank some more. “Which would account for both the internal damage and the severe state of desiccation found in the remains. The...murderer...called them 'the hungry darkness.'”

“You perceived the killer?” A slight hint of surprise in his tone, quickly smoothed away.

“In a manner of speaking.” My stomach twisted into a knot around the drink I'd taken. “You may wish to lean back for a moment.” I disposed of the knot by the most expedient method possible, rinsed my mouth, and continued. “The killer's sense impression was stronger than Riverson's. On his own body. Much, much stronger – hijacked my awareness so completely I saw everything through its eyes.” I realized, as the tremors started, how close I was to lapsing into both physical and psychic shock.

Stahl, I suspect, realized it as well – his tone, when he spoke, was something close to gentle. “'Its'?”
“Old,” I wrapped my arms around myself in a mostly fruitless effort to keep the trembling under control. “It felt...old – horribly old and empty inside – nothing it saw moved it even slightly. No sense of gender, even – most psychic impressions of that intensity have some sense of fundamental identity about them but this – “

“So I suppose putting together a lineup of greybeard magisters is out of the question, then?” Robin joined us, putting himself at Stahl's shoulder.

I shook my head and almost couldn't stop shaking more afterwards. “I...am not at all certain it is...if it can be considered human any longer. There was...very little inside it that met the necessary criteria.” I wet my mouth again, but tried not to swallow. “It was torturing him.”

“To what end?” Stahl again, his hand on my shoulder, propping me up, and I realized I was starting to slide rather noticeably sideways.

“It wanted his daughter.” The knot twisted tight again. “He refused to tell it where she was. It killed the girl in the nursery and her caretaker – they were decoys. That child was not Riverson's daughter. Bit out his own tongue rather than tell it. He was trying to kill himself before he could be forced to speak.” I looked up at Robin, the corners of my mouth twitching involuntarily. “You were right about one thing, Robin. I am almost entirely certain that our killer is a necromancer. And I am likewise certain that Riverson did not know that when he died, or else he would have tried to live.”

“We had, I admit, wondered about the child.” Stahl rose, nodded to Merrick, who was at my side immediately, and gestured to another pair of the guards, who joined him in helping me to my feet. “Especially given the information your investigations uncovered.”

“Ayashe Riverson is in mortal peril,” I rasped, leaning hard on Merrick's arm and trying to resist the slowly clockwise spin the room had unhelpfully developed. “There can be no good reason for a...creature...of this nature to desire possession of her. I seriously doubt it is for her inheritance.”

“So it seems.” Stahl agreed. “But before we can protect her, we must first find her.”

Random End of the Year Chapter

Ashatha
The owner did not, as predicted, love it. He failed to love it, as a matter of fact, at considerable length, volume, and vituperation for the best part of an hour and required phone calls to the chief of police, the district magistrate, and my boss before he even began to become slightly resigned to it and actual affection was, I fear, never truly attained. It was well after dawn before I finally managed to leave the scene, following the ambulance, bearing the corpse, back out of the hospital complex and toward the city.

In the gray and overcast light of morning I could see why my GPS had thrown up is little electronic hands and said “Screw it, Doc, you’re on your own.” The complex sprawled for quite a distance across the top of a long, wide hilly ridge line, almost a plateau, hemmed on one side by a deep, heavily wooded cut that probably had a stream running across the bottom of it and what had obviously once been miles of rolling farmland on the other, broken up with clumps of trees and divided by low stone walls. Suburban in-fill in the form of virtually identical housing developments was starting to encroach on the old fields but the bits that hadn’t yet been manicured into a vision of beige-and-green were overgrown in grass as tall as a man’s shoulder and scrubby trees and bramble bushes. The trees lining the cut, by way of contrast, were all tall, enough so that they effectively screened the complex from view on that side -- the side, point in fact, where the bypass ran about a mile and a half away. The whole complex was encircled in by fencing and was also divided internally into sections fenced off from one another complete with guard-posts and gates, most of them chained and padlocked, and all of them topped in coils of rusted razor wire, as was the outer perimeter fence. I passed a half-dozen buildings in various states of decay on my way out, some of which were obviously being rehabbed -- we had to stop more than once to let work crews cross the road and vehicles pull into their own parking areas -- and that length of the outer fence was hung with signage advertising ASYLUM OF TERROR COMING SOON in blood-dripping cartoon letters. Which neatly explained the protest groups, rounded up in their own little area behind yellow caution tape, their signs now readable as imprecations against the perfidy of real estate developers and the insensitivity inherent in turning an actual mental asylum into a cheesy haunted house attraction. The route out turned past their holding pen onto the exterior access road that ran the length of the hospital complex, a road that had itself seen plenty of better days. From what I could see of the grounds, at least some attempt had been made at upkeep -- the leaves had been raked and the visible expanses of lawn were obviously trimmed on a regular basis, though the concrete footpaths and parking lots were springing cracks and weeds, and most of the windows on the lower floors of the buildings were covered over in plywood tagged here and there with graffiti. The largest of those buildings, and which I took to be the main hub of the complex, absolutely dominated the far end of the campus, four storeys of imposing age-stained grey stone tall and three sprawling wings, still surrounded by a heavily overgrown garden that must have been impressive once upon a time. It remained visible, its weathered grey roof peeking out above the tops of the rusty-leaved trees, far longer than any other part of the hospital, even once we were on the bypass and headed back to the city.

I waited until we were well underway before I called into the office and was rewarded with the voice of the most unnaturally cheerful pathology assistant in the history of the world on the other end of the line. “Good morning, Dr. Harada. On your way in?”

Holly McAllister, pathology assistant, is genuinely one of the nicest, best-hearted people I know. Working in direct contact with the worst crap humanity has to offer on a more or less daily basis has not yet hardened or soured her, and I hope it never actually does, because that would be something close to a tragic loss. On the other hand, people who are irrepressibly perky from the moment their feet hit the floor in the morning sort of make me want to strangle kittens, or possibly them. I took a moment to discipline the desire to be rather curt and under-caffeinated with her. “From a scene, yes. What’s the floor look like down there?”

“It’s a mess. You talked to Dr. Weller, earlier? Six called at the scene and two more died of their injuries in the hospital within a couple hours of each other. All the senior pathology staff are wrists deep right now.” A sigh. “Two police officers and the rest look just about old enough to be my brother’s high school friends.”

“Ugh.” A drug-bust-gone-wrong was bad enough but police fatalities meant the office was going to be a zoo at best for the foreseeable future, between the media and the families and all the official organizational representatives and no doubt the district attorney’s office. “Miss McAllister, if you’d do me the favor of laying claim to one of the empty bays on the far side of the morgue, that’d be the most wonderful thing you could do for me today.”

“Certainly, Doctor. Anything else?”

“If there are any portable x-ray machines free, grab one for me and protect it with your life. Seriously, you’ve got my permission as the investigating pathologist to use whatever tool you consider appropriate to cut anybody that tries to take it from you.” Which rewarded me with a right out loud laugh. “Is Dr. Weller handy?”

“I just saw her scrubbing out a couple minutes ago -- just a sec, I’ll find her.”

The office hold muzak -- which might, at one point, have been something originally composed by Enya, and actually have been emotionally restful and soothing before it was arranged for synthesizer pan-flute -- spent five or so minutes drilling its way through my skull before my boss’ drawl replaced it with something infinitely more listenable. “Nate. Tell me that you’re not bringing in a gunshot victim.”

“Not unless this one was shot to death with an extremely powerful blow-dryer.” I gave a quick rundown of my observations thus far. “I’m thinking that we may need to go the minimally invasive route with this one -- the remains are both brittle and fragile, I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to lift prints no matter what technique I use to try to soften up the skin of the hands. Can you put a call in to the University of Pennsylvania Neurological Sciences Center and let them know we might need to book a slot in their lab to do an MRI investigational cross-section?”

She made a noncommittal noise. “I’ll see what I can do. How soon will you be here?”

“Forty minutes, give or take.”

“I doubt I’ll have an answer by then. Foul play?”

“Too soon to tell.”

“Observe standard protocol during your investigation, then, and try not to make too much of a mess of the body. Any clue on the ID?”

“Not yet. I have personal belongings to catalogue before I do any in-depth examination in any case -- there might be identifying documents among them.”

“Very good. I’ll make that call and see you in a bit, Doctor. Try not to run over any reporters on your way in.”

“Will do.”

I avoided running over any reporters by the expedient of pulling into the service entrance right behind the ambulance, parking in the back of beyond, and following the ambulance crew and the corpse down into the guts of the building. Even so, I could hear the kerfluffle from the more public areas echoing down the stairwells and I did not envy my boss her job one iota. I led the crew down into the receiving area to begin the chain of custody operations and flagged Holly McAllister down as she came buzzing past. “Suite set up?”

“Yes, Suite D17. The portable radiology rig is set up for both dental and general x-ray.”

“Good. Scrub in and go lay claim to one of the dieners -- Jerry Maltin, if he’s free. I’ll be down as soon as I’m done getting John Doe here checked into the system.”

Check-in duly accomplished, I led the ambulance team through the labyrinthine corridors to D17, one of the autopsy suites tucked in a corner in the oldest part of the building, where the body was taken into the care of my redoubtable assistants, Holly and Jerry, and I went to the personal protective gear locker room to get suited up myself. By the time I got back the ambulance crew and their gurney were gone, the body transferred to the examination table still in its sealed sheeting, and the belongings bagged up at the scene had been set out on a second table, Holly setting up the camera and Jerry making sure that all the documentary paperwork and specimen collection tools were ready to go.

I stepped on the hands-free trigger and started the voice recorder. “Dr. Nathaniel Harada, Philadephia County Medical Examiner's Office, investigating pathologist presiding. I am being assisted by pathology assistant Holly McAllister and deiner Jeremiah Maltin. The decedent is a John Doe recovered from the basement of an abandoned building on the grounds of Greyhurst Park Hospital.”

Jerry made a started noise and, at my look, asked, “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” I tripped the recorder again. “Due to the irregularities of the situation and the condition of the body, CSI has yielded custody of the decedent's personal effects for extra forensic documentation and processing. Due to the condition of the decedent’s body, we will be conducting a modified initial examination procedure. Miss McAllister, we will be momentarily be breaking the seals on the jacket and messenger bag. Please use the encounter sheets to document the contents of those bags – CSI already swept the externals for prints so be aware of investigational detritus. Mr. Malkin, I am going to break the seals on the clean sheet. I will require your assistance in moving the body for the purposes of removing its clothing, photographing it, and taking the investigational x-rays.”

I deactivated the recorder. “For the record, you two? I've only personally encountered one other corpse that looked even remotely like this one, and that corpse belonged to a guy who drove out to Death Valley to put an end to all his troubles and it was three months before the highway patrol actually found him. Just a word of warning.”

Holly glanced up from her own preparations and I gestured her over, just to get the shock over for everybody all at once, and broke the tape seal on the sheet, drawing it back slowly and carefully. Even with minimal manipulation and constriction, skin had flaked off the body in large, leathery chunks, exposing the equally desiccated flesh beneath, and hair had broken off the peeling scalp, where bone was starting to peek through here and there. Holly blinked rapidly several times and stepped back; Jerry whistled low.

“And, for the record? My guy back in Cali was actually in a lot worse shape than this. He ruptured.” Holly shuddered and went back to the side examination table; Jerry pulled the cart of instruments over as I finished folding the sheet all the way back and activated the recorder. “The decedent is an African-American adult, sex presently unknown. Due to the extreme desiccation of the remains, we must take particular care during the clothing removal process to avoid damaging the body. We will therefore take photographs both before and after to document its state as thoroughly as possible.”

Which we then proceeded to do, Jerry manipulating the body as little as possible – surface cracks spreading across the epidermis nonetheless. “Sorry, Dr. Harada.”

“Not your fault – nothing either of us could do to avoid it.” I selected a set of scissors and began cutting the shirt along its side seams, folding the fabric out on the sheet once I was done for additional photography. “As I noted in my initial observations, the decedent's shirt is symmetrically torn, back only. The tears are 2.5 centimeters in length from the neck of the garment to the mid-back.” I repeated the procedure with the pants but found no additional tears, only more flaked skin, and likewise removed the briefs. “The decedent is verifiably male.” We managed not to break off any toes removing his hiking boots and carefully folded all of his clothing into its own secure container for processing.

I angled the standing lights to get a better look at his back. “The decedent has what appears to be dermal puncture wounds between the first through seventh thoracic vertebrae, corresponding with the damage to his shirt.”

“Doctor.” Holly called me once we'd finished photographing John D's back, which was beginning to look in serious danger of becoming an exposed spinal column. “I think CSI might have missed this.”

She held up a small white-and-orange nylon pouch. “I found this in a tear under the messenger bag's bottom spacer, tucked down deep.” She opened it, carefully, and extracted a man's ring, lightweight but wide, its metal either naturally dark or darkened with age. “It's not on the inventory list.”

“Good catch.” I crossed back to the body and examined the hands under my portable magnifier. The hands were both badly cracked, too badly to determine if there had originally been any signs of long-term jewelry wear, third phalanges beginning to poke through the remaining tissue on the tips of seven fingers and if there'd been any chance of lifting prints right off the body there wasn't any longer. “Add it to the inventory in the system and flag it for Detective Archer's attention. And check it for prints.”

She did so with a cheerful CSI-scooping grin and Jerry and I finished with the photography and x-rays, extracted skin and hair samples for toxicological examination, and swabbed everything swabbable.

“X-ray examination indicates that decedent at one point had a broken arm, a healed fracture of the right radius and ulna, 4.5 centimeters superior to the carpus. All joints display severe cartilage degradation. On the other hand, the decedent also appears to have no fillings or other surgical metallic remnants in the body that would preclude a noninvasive MRI cross-section.” I deactivated the recorder. “Let's get him in the freezer until I hear back from the University neuroscience center.”

2014 Year In Review

Ashatha
Because I seriously doubt that I will be getting much more done in the next four days:

I apologize profusely for not being around anywhere near as much as I used to be. It's been a combination of a lot of things, including weird word, school, writing, family and assorted other stressors all coming together at once to make me pare down a lot of my previous socialization -- which I feel badly about because I have a lot of friends whom I only have contact with through LJ and DW. So just know that I think about you all the time, but I'm a terrible correspondent because I'm doing approximately four hundred thousand things at the same time and my internet access at work is spotty at best.

Writing of the Year:

13938K on original flavor Unnatural Causes.

https://drive.google.com/?usp=docs_home&authuser=0#folders/0BxCPi8IY4dhDQTdFV01wLVAzTnc

And then I was assaulted by the plotbunnies set upon me by my friends and colleagues Oakthorne and Mousferatu, Rodent of the Dark, and wrote:

79658K of Alternate Universe Steam Fantasy Unnatural Causes.

https://drive.google.com/?usp=docs_home&authuser=0#folders/0BxCPi8IY4dhDQTdFV01wLVAzTnc

And then I submitted it to Crystal Lake Publishing's open call for novels. Waiting to hear back from them now.

Among this, I picked up freelance work for Onyx Path (V20 Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand and Beckett's Jyhad Diary) and Green Ronin (for the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG).

WoW: Okay, embarrassing admission time....

Ashatha
I did not entirely loathe War Crimes.

THERE I SAID IT.

It wasn't the BEST WoW novel but it also didn't suck anywhere near as many rancid donkey cocks as I originally thought it would, and some parts of it were actually entertaining. Zaela gathering up Garrosh's lingering fanboys to assault the proceedings in Pandaria, holy crap does Christie Golden ever ship Wrathion and Anduin, the acknowledgement that yes Jaina is indeed suffering from severe and violent post-traumatic stress issues, and and and

Sylvanas and Vereesa. Plotting to murder Garrosh. Sylvanas not wanting to murder her nephews. Vereesa just wanting to be comforted by her last remaining big sister. I seriously fucking cried.

That being said there were still a number of places where I rolled my eyes so hard I saw my own brain but it was still at least READABLE which gives it a leg up on most of Christie Golden's other recent WoW novels.

Testing testing

Ashatha
Changed my LJ password and forgot to update Dreamwidth crossposting.

Dog Daies July 6th:

Ashatha
Consentacles

The 2014 Dog Daies List Is Live...

Ashatha
July 6: Consentacles
July 7: Lovemap
July 8: Polyamory
July 9: Star-crossed
July 10: Dragobete
July 11: Banquet of Chestnuts
July 12: The Screw of Archimedes
July 13: The Bucket In the Well
July 14: Love's Tailor
July 15: Soul With Soul
July 16: The Jewels of the Lovers and the Rejoicing of Souls
July 17: The Leaf of the Blue Lotus
July 18: The Coral and the Jewel
July 19: The Sixty-Four Arts
July 20: Milk and Water
July 21: Hips, Loins, Thighs
July 22: For Thy Love Is Better Than Wine
July 23: I held him and would not let him go
July 24: Whenever my shining desire wishes
July 25: Let us live, let us love
July 26: The Flower In Bloom
July 27: The Secret Offering
July 28: The Ardent Dreamer
July 29: The Forbidden Tree
July 30: The Ecstatic Dance
July 31: The Phoenix of Joy
August 1: The Snake Charmer
August 2: The Mysterious Liaison
August 3: But I would really enjoy it
August 4: Come back to bed, honey
August 5: Did you just romance Cthulhu?
August 6: Hemoerotic
August 7: Interplay of Sex and Violence
August 8: One Thing Led To Another
August 9: Stupid Sexy Friends
August 10: But liquor is quicker
August 11: You Sexy Beast
August 12: The Big Damn Kiss
August 13: Combative Sexual Tension
August 14: Friends With Benefits
August 15: Like An Old Married Couple
August 16: Love Is In the Air
August 17: Irrumatio

Sodzilla!

Ashatha
"The Dark Defiles," the next book in the Land Fit For Heroes, is available for preorder.
Ashatha
Okay, don't get me wrong. Garrosh Hellscream is the douchiest douche who ever douched douchily, an egomaniacal warmongering racist assmunch with Daddy Issues so massive they possess their own gravitational field. His "popularity" with the Horde and his "charisma" are deeply informed characteristics not even remotely borne out by his actual characterization.

But unless you're defining the Horde offensive in Ashenvale as "attempted genocide" and not a bog-standard land-grab that's been going on since *Vanilla,* then, no, Garrosh is not a *genocidal* egomaniacal warmongering racist assmunch.

On the other hand, the excerpt here seems to be somewhere along the lines of, "Well, we've got A former Warchief of the Horde in custody, so let's charge him with crimes committed by EVERY Warchief of the Horde back to Blackhand the Destroyer and see what sticks."

http://wow.joystiq.com/2014/03/10/world-of-warcraft-war-crimes-teaser-released/

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