Part I: Blood and Thunder

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What remorseless emperor commands me
I no longer govern my soul
I am completely immersed in darkness
As I turn my body away from the sun

"Blood and Thunder" by Mastodon

1

Blood.

He smelled blood. Had to be. Its coppery wafting notes tickled his nostrils. Acrid, too. Stale, maybe? Long dried? His eyes narrowed and a hand shot to his hip, extracting his service slugthrower from its holster. Its cold, square barrel rested against his thigh. The weapon's weight was a comfort to him. He pressed his shoulder to the door, some of its peeling paint chips falling onto the shoulder of his navy uniform's shirt.

"Francesca, this is district four Sigil. We're servicing a missing person's search permit. You have one minute to open the door before we force entry."

He didn't think that'd work. The case was rather new, but the blood smelled old, maybe multiple weeks old at this point. If someone was in there, they weren't going to be answering doors ever again.

The case was simple; missing persons. Francesca Grude, a member of the engineering firm Totalis. She had graduated from Chop City Alchemical Academy, a sprawling-campused engineering school. Got out with honors, immediately called up to service by Totalis. Her history was benign, no red flags, no known reasons to go missing. At first, he had simply placed it with the other missing person cases he'd seen come across his desk. Ninety percent of the time, the missing parties showed back up after a day, a week, a month off from life. Driven mad, wild, or madly wildly in love, they nearly always came back. Or were found in their place of residence, nesting or hermitting away their problems.

A tap came to his shoulder. He shot a glance at his partner Tamara, his partner and fellow Seeker. She was a rare one; a hybrid of an Animas and Hume. Her face was tinged with fur but mostly bald, ears feline, mouth and nose of a Hume. She had a tail and padded Hume fingers with longer-than-average nails. As far as he knew, her feet were typical of the Hume variety. What she lacked in physical conformity she made up for in toughness and self-depreciating humor. He imagined the latter was a defense mechanism formed as she grew up. He wouldn't really know. She didn't talk about it much.

"It's been two minutes," she reminded him in a gruff, hushed tone.

He nodded and twisted off the door. "We're coming in," he announced as he shot his partner a glance.

Tamara nodded and shifted in front of the door. She twisted the door knob, found it locked, and then drew back. In one swift shift of weight, he booted foot slammed into the wood just under the door's knob. The jamb splintered, the door buckled, and it swung open violently.

"Careful," she intoned to him.

He nodded and raised his slugthrower, both hands gripping it at eye level, elbows bent slightly.

The stench of stale, dusty disuse filled his nostrils. And there was the blood again. Stronger now. Tamara coughed. He could only imagine how strong the stench was to her.

"Blood," she whispered to him.

"Right," he agreed. "Francesca?" he asked the entryway. No response.

They moved through the foyer and into the living room, two electric braziers casting the room in a dingy orange glow. The small living area had a telescreen, a couch, a televoice, and at least five bookcases sagging under the weight of a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, of thick looking technical books. He looked over his shoulder and saw his partner clearing the adjacent galley kitchen. It was small and cramped and dark. He heard her try a light switch but no light responded to the call.

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