“No Books of Men: Vol 1” – Shadow of Doubt

Another short vignette from the No Books universe. This one happens roughly concurrent with the last one and as such does tie into tat event, though exactly how no one knows just yet. A different set of characters here, but that won’t exactly be uncommon in these. Lots of characters to be found in that Valley and we’ve barely scratched the surface so far…

Also note: I’m not 100% set on the ending. I might add more, I might change it around a bit.. I’m just not sure yet. Comments, as always, are appreciated.

Disclaimer: This project is heavily based on the roleplaying experience I ran on the site No Books of Men, and while the plot and overall arcs are about 95% my creation some of it did change in the course of that site’s existence. The characters are probably about 60-70% mine too, but there are others mixed in there which were Player Characters created by others. In such cases I will attempt to give credit for those I have permission to use, and those I cannot get permission for will have names and basic elements changed to “protect the innocent” (and my own butt).

This story contains characters owned by others. Tobias Fenwick belongs to my friend Angie and is used with permission. Herbert Silverman belongs to my wife, Elysse and is used with permission.

“So… What’re you thinking, sir?” Officer Feely was in uniform for once, but that wasn’t wat was significant about today. What was, was the body he had called Steven Lestran in for a consult. Didn’t make much sense to him, but the Chief had given the order and who was he to argue? “Worth calling an ambulance, or…?
“It’s worse than that, she’s dead Jim.” Steven poked the body with his foot while narrowing his eyes.  He glanced over at the young man in a police uniform with an incredulous eyebrow. “So. No. No ambulence. At least, not one with its sirens on…”

“Um… My name’s Keith, Dr. Lestran. You know that…” Feely looked at Steven with a mix of confusion and insult etched on his face.

“Yes. Of course, Keith.” Steven sighed, his attempt at humor wasted on the daft officer. “And you know that, while I have numerous doctorates from institutions around this country and the world, I prefer none refer to me as ‘doctor?'” He preferred his actual title of Grand Gardener, but as most mundanes would never know or understand its significance, it was a moot point. “Nor do I hold any form of medical degree. Not that this is a medical problem any longer, rather one for a coroner or a forensic scientist…” He tapped the woman’s body again. “So why did you call me down here?”

The officer looked over at Steven incredulously. “Uh… Well… Sir, it uh, seemed something in your wheelhouse. Y’know… Cause…” He cleared his throat a few times as he struggled for the right words and failed to find them. Clearly this wasn’t going as he had planned. “I mean… She’s… Well…”

“Flayed? Why, yes. Yes, she is. And right in the middle of the park, no less. Hanging upside from a tree, her blood having pooled beneath her in the vague shape of a map of this very valley, complete with a large “X” marking the spot. Only to have her ropes snap and she falls atop what looks to be where the illustrious academy would be on this crude map…” He rubbed his goatee lightly with a smile and leaned forward, noting a tearing around the neck tissue. “I mean, it all seems rather cliched if you ask me.” He lightly patted the young officer’s shoulder. “You were certainly right in calling me, Keith. Very right. This is indeed ‘my sort of thing’…”

Steven trailed off,  distracted as his gaze lingered on a pair of faces in the growing crowd. The pair of figures stood off to one side, their sunglasses glinted faintly in the sunlight and their nicely trimmed black suits stood out against the green of the park. A moment later the crowd shifted and he lost track of the figures. Before he could even remark on the strange pair, he noted a young man in the crowd that he certinly recognized. “Speaking of a coroner…” He waved to the young Herbert Silverman to join them beyond the police line.

As Herb approached, Steven muttered a small incantation and spoke in a voice soft enough to seem discreet but loud enough to be heard by those with the ‘right’ ears. “I need your help. We need to look past this tawdry spectacle and find the real crime scene. There will be more blood, likely spread about more haphazardly, and, if we’re lucky, the murder weapon… My guess? A dog…” Most of the crowd were mundanes, so much of what he said would find little purchase in their minds. Sure they lived in the most magical valley of North America, but knowledgeable sheep were still sheep weren’t they?

Herb, for his part, had spent most of the last budle of minutes tpping away at his cell phone. He was sending a pic and texting very bout the mess in front of him. Once he had been called over though, he shrugged and went along for the ride. Sure, as an apprentice coroner and employee of the hopsital morgue, he had the knowledge to help out. Sady, he lacked certifications. So his assistance wasn’t exactly legal, but Steven wouldn’t care about such trivial things as legality. Results were what mattered now, and Herb already had an opinion on that. “Pffst… This wasn’t done by a dog.”

Steven sighed nd shook his head. “I meant the dog as murder weapon, not perpetrator. Even I’m not so…” Steven never got to finish his statement as he was interrupted by a pair of motorcyclists pulling up to the park and making their way through the crowd. Steven recognized the two, Nick and Anne. The King siblings were known to Steven, and he honesty didn’t care much for either of them. The pair dabbled in Necromancy far too much for his tastes, but as members of House Mara he couldn’t claim surprise. Besides, he knew them to be trustworthy enough through their loyalty to the Gardeners.

Nick walked a few steps ahead of his sister, a pair of cheap looking 3D glasses on his face. Even with Steven’s assumption that the glasses were enchanted he still thought they looked ridiculous on the leather clad young man. “There’s an easy way to find out. Find the place where she died…” Steven was about to make a remark about summoning the dead being distasteful, but Anne interrupted him.

“Besides, we have better things to be doing. So let’s get this over with, avenge the girl, and go on with our lives…” Always the charmer.

Steven nodded to Feely to start dispersing the crowd and containing the crime scene. Just before he was shooed away by the officer, Steven noticed another figure in the crowd. This wasn’t one he recognized, but there was the clear aura of another Magi about the man and he seemed eager to join the preceedings. He merely nodded for Feely to let him through. He nodded to the man. “Any capable assistence will be appreciated.” Steven quirked an eyebrow. “Thank you for the offer…?” He trailed off, implying he wanted a name.

The man smiled strangely with a nod. “Tobias. Tobias Fenwick.” Fenwick. There was a name Steven knew all too well. A family tree twisted at the roots if there ever was one. He should have guessed from the black and grey streaked hair. 

Looking to the Kings, Steven shook his head “I appreciate that some of us are ready to charge ahead, but…” He turned to Herb. “I do not wish to go off half-cocked. I realize you are still a student, but is there anything else you can find useful about the body before we leave it for the police?”

“Heh…easy, sure. Why not?” He squatted down to take a look at the foliage, checking for any tracks. There were none. That meant there was only one potential source of information. Herb made a face as he stood, more annoyed at the cracking in his knees then any actual disgust of having to deal with the body. He turned her head to reveal puncture wounds on the neck and shrugged. “Jaw length and width is far too short and wide for a wolf, probably something from the molosser family…mastiff maybe. Big anyways. It punctured her carotid arteries on either side, causing her to bleed out almost immediately. She probably didn’t even know what hit her.” He pointed down on the ground-

“Which I can assure you…didn’t happen here. This is too clean a scene. She wasn’t killed or skinned here.” Herb was being lightly conversational as he went, a bark of dark laughter finally broke past his lips. He coughed and then covered his mouth awkwardly. “Hmm…excuse me.” Herb ducked his head down and going back to what he was doing, but not without reaching in his coat and whipping out a pair of glasses to get a better look.

He slowly circled the body, gloved hands ghosting the flesh as he tittered his strange little noises, “Her epidermis was case skinned, a small incision probably along the back…no lesions to the underlying flesh or membrane. So the skinning tool had to be a sharp, a scalpel I would bet…” He trailed off…

…As Tobias began to convulse. The distictly glazed expression told Steven that the other man was experiencing some sort of vision. Not common, but common enough to recognize. The man stumbled closer to the body and muttered a jumble of words. “Dog no, wolf no…” He paused. “Bigger… Stronger… Stranger…” He shuddered. “Looks… Wrong… Killed… Dragged to master… Fed the skin…” Steven was glad that Feely had pulled the crowd away to have missed most of those staggered words. After another moment, the man shook himself, as if waking up from a nap. “Ahem. And it came from that way.” He pointed towards a path leading into the deep woods.

“Of course it did…” Steven sounded exasperated and unsurprised. Before he could say anything more, Anne was off and moving without a word. Nick was only a few steps behind her. Surprise surprise, the Mara members were first into the breach. With a shrug and a shake of his head, Steven followed, with Tobias and Herb a few steps behind.

“We shouldn’t stay too close anyway…” Herb said, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. “I don’t care what the horror movies say… Big groups are just as dangerous as being alone.”

Tobias chuckled and said, “Yeah, good point. C’mon, me and you.” The two hung back as the group entered the woods proper. Steven kept an ear tuned to the pair, but looked ahead. Though Herb might have a good idea, Steven worried they were already too spread out. The Anne girl was too far ahead already and she showed no signs of stopping.

Nick hung back, though whether it was lack of desire to catch up to his sister or a desire to oversee the welfare of thee group wasn’t clear. Steven figured the latter, but the difference was largely semantics as far as he was concerned. “The girl has passion, doesn’t she…? Seems reckless, but I can admire the dedication if not the execution.”

“Believe me sir, I don’t want my sister to get there first but not because she can’t handle this alone. I would like a chance to ask the psycho that did this a few questions before we put it in the ground. If she runs into it before we do that won’t be an option.” The young man was being very respectful. Given their respective ranks behind closed doors, that would make sense. There were others present, so Steven worried it might seem strange.

“Now that we are away from slumbering ears, I must say I’m surprised that you haven’t queried after my presence at such matters, young man. Though I do appreciate your discretion around the mortals…” He smirked. “Now that we are away however, ask away if you wish.” He raised his voice. “And that goes for you two as well.” He glanced back to see a very nervous looking Herb practically being dragged along by Tobias.

Nick shrugged. “I merely assumed you had your reasons, sir.” He paused. “Though, now that you mention it… I was wondering why it was that you didn’t seem surprised by what we saw back there…?” He paused. “Did you think this is related to… the thing…?” He trailed off trying to be covert but only seeming all the more suspicious.

Steven sighed lightly and shook his head at the attempt. “In short, yes. Though ‘the thing’ as you call it isn’t exactly a secret, so there is no need to be discreet.” He paused and glanced back at Herb and Tobias, noting both their location and their interest. The latter proved to be ‘not much’ as they seemed to be currently engaged in discussion of the finer points of some sort of wager. Knowing the age, well Herberts twenty-something and Tobias’s apparently similar mental age regardless his physical age seemed closer to Steven’s forty-seven, said wager likely had to do with the scene for which they searched.

Speaking of searching, Steven turned his attention ahead once more and noticed that he had lost sight of the young Miss Anne. He glanced around and tried not to alarm anyone at her sudden absence, particularly not her brother. All he needed was to lose track of another of the impetuous duo. In his distraction however, Steven missed a crucial detail. A detail that was not lost on his companions.

“What happened to the forest…?” Nick was looking around, worry very obvious in his face. Steven opened his mouth to respond only to realize what Nick meant. The woods had grown silent and eerily so. Where there had been birdsong and the insect calls of late summer, there was now nothing. Total silence. The type of silence that seemed almost tangible and hung close in the air. An ominous sort of silence.

“Well. That isn’t good.” Tobias chimed in from behind. “Especially since the spirits have gone silent too…” He trailed off, worry clear in his voice. Herb, for his part, had begun clinging to Tobias’s arm like an overwhelmed woman from a Civil War era drama. Tobias made no attempt to remove the worried younger man. Indeed, he almost seemed comforted by the attention.

Steven looked around cautiously, uncertain of what this silencd fortold but certain he woudn’t like it. In hs search for an assailant, he noticed something which he dreaded. Kneeling down, he grbbed hold of the small tattered piece of black cloth, apparently torn from Anne’s clothing. Shaking his head, he stood and held the cloth up without a word, letting the implication settle in the others.

Nick stepped forward and took the cloth from Steven with a worried expression. He knew this didn’t look good, but the steady look in his eye said he also doubted the worst. The faith he had in his sister was admirable, to say the least. Instead, he focused on the matter at hand and silently put the cloth away in his pocket and pulled out thos ridiculous glasses again. Placing them over his eyes, he scanned the area. “The area around us in a constant state of flux. There’s a powerful darkness, an emptiness, being held in place by equally strong Essence keeping it from spreading….” He paused, glancing to Steven. “…Either way, we seem locked in.”

“It’s called a Void.” Before Steven could say anything, Herb interrupted him. Steven quirked an eyebrow and smiled mysteriously. The Silverman boy had surprised him in knowing of such a thing. After a moment, it became apparent that Herb didn’t wish to elaborate, so Steven explained to the curious expressions on Nick and Tobias.
“Young Herbert is correct. Though rare, Voids are not unknown to me. They typically manifest only with the deliberate actions of a very powerful Magi and not one with good intentions. They are most commonly used as a form of trap for one’s enemies or to contain viscious entities for future use. While within, time does not turn nor can one leave the designated space. What is strange however is that most who utilize such spels rarely leave them unguarded…” He trailed off before grinning cryptically. “Ah, there we are…!” He pointed to the edge of the small clearing where a number of indistinct and shadowy figures watched the group with eyes of burning coalfire. “As expected. Now, the question becomes… Was this Void intended to ensnare those who came looking for answers, or is there another sinister sort of thing in play here…”

Steven was so wrapped up in his pedagogy that he didn’t notice the horrified expressions on the others’ faces until it was too late. Turning to follow their gazes, he gained only a glimpse of  large and tumourus beast standing behind him before he was knocked bodily to the ground by a massive paw.

Tobias recoiled in shock and horror at the creature, shouting “Oh shit…!” as he leapt backwards. His trajectory should have sent him outside of the Void, but instead it was as if he had it an invisible wall instead. A surprised glance behind him revealed no wall, but the shadowy creatures did seem to have taken notice and were now crowding around the space directly behind him. Reflexively, he jumped back away from them and into something else. Said something turned out to be Herb who was standing still, with wide eyes and a mouth trying to form words which couldn’t escape his throat. Both merely stared at the the vaguely canine, but bear shaped creature covered in tumours which now stood over Steven with spittle ominosly dripping on the panicked man’s face.

Nich however, this was what he did for a living. Never losing his cool, he pulled out a small silver tube from his pocket and dove for Steven. Sliding like a baseball player aiming for home base, he slid until he was next to Steven and directly below the creature’s maw. The creature seemed confused but pleased that its prey was coming to it instead of running, but its pleasure was short lived as the tube was pointed directly in its eyes and a blinding blue flash erupted from its end as Nick yelled “Close your eyes!”

Needless to say, the beast was stunned. It recoiled with a roar reminiscent of a paradoxically louder silence and stumbled backwards a few steps. With a shove from Nick, Steven tumbled away from the creature and rolled to his feet. Barely missing a beat, Steven held out a hand wreathed in glowing blue runes which flew towards the beast and freezing it in place. Before their eyes, the creature began to age. Fur turned green then gray before falling out. Flesh swelled with more tumours before collapsing under their own weight as its frame began to fail. Eyes grew cloudy and were then themselves taken by tumours. Finally, the beast collapsed with a loud thud and it expired. Rot set in quickly and within minutes it had turned to nothing but a pile of bones.

Steven looked shocked. While his spell had been intended to lock the creature in a temporal loop, it had interacted strangely with both the creature’s obviously unnatural biology and the strange time distortions of the Void. The creature had aged to extinction in a matter of moments, instead of simply being frozen in place. Not that he minded however, as the creature was finally free of the torture its existence had likely become since it had been warped for nefarious purposes. “Fortunate timing, Nicholas. My thanks.” He nodded respectfully to the younger man before glancing out at the shadowy figures. “And while I think we solved the mystery of this Void’s purpose, I fear we may still be trapped…”

Nick shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. if anything, we’ll just say you owe me a beer sometime.” He Then walked to the edge of the barrier and watched as the shadows congregated before him. “But yeah. Seems we’re stuck. At least as long as these things’re watching…’

“Um… Voids aren’t always port-proofed are they?” Despite Herb’s obviously shaken demeanor, the tone of his voice showed that his question was more rhetorical than not and he didn’t even wait for an answer before drawing out a small circle in the dirt and humming.

Steven quirked an eyebrow and started to say, “Well no, not always but to take the time and effort to build a Void and allow spatial magicks ingress or egress seems like an egregious oversight…” He trailed off when a small glowing sphere of Essence appeared above Herb’s circle. Slowly, the small sphere gre in size and seemed to ‘sharpen’ before turning in place and ‘tearing’ through the air above the circle. Herb, hair now soaked with sweat and apparently ready to collapse waved a hand towards the tear. “Ta… daa…”

“Niiiiiice.” Tobias threw Herb a thumbs up as the portal opened up. Stepping forward to grab and prop up Herb, Tobias grinned.

Steven did not share the man’s excitement. “Even if that does indeed lead out of this Void, there’s no guarantee that it will remain stable.” He looked very worried, knowing all too well that Voids were effectively spiritual and mystical vacuums and spatial magicks were unstable enough at the best of times. To use such energies to penetrate a Void’s barrier wasn’t much different than opening a portal from Earth into the emptiness of space. “We have to close it immediately, or the consequences could be dire!”

“Yeah, I’m gonna go with the ‘get outta dodge’ approach but hey, you do what you gotta do, man.” No hesitation on his part, Tobias was off, halfway through the portal before he even finished his statement and dragging Herb through with him.

Steven hummed and hawed with annoyance, before finally shrugging. “Escape is a necessity, particularly before whomever created this Void returns to find its pet destroyed… And the exact circumstances are largely irrelevant I suppose…” He sighed and gestured for Nick to enter the portal. “Shall we?” He waited until Nick was fully through the tear before entering himself. His final thought before the spell took hold was to wonder just what had happened to Anne…

Once the wrenching sensation of the displacement spell was done, he found that they were now standing outside of the auditorium on campus. A scant moment later, Steven heard a very loud and terrible crunching sound could be heard while a large “crack” arced into the sky above where they had been moments ago. “Well. That isn’t good. I suspect that will have to be investigated and contained before too long…” He sighed as he glanced between the haggered and dirty crew he had set out with only an hour before. “…which can wait I suppose. You did well, gentleman. My thanks. I doubt I would have survived without your assistance…”

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