Custodian Quech bit off a fat chew of sombol gum while Blaph, her eight-limbed deputy, dragged bodies from the canal beneath Confrontation Bridge.
The witness continued his breathless narrative. “My friends and I were drinking swallowsap and reciting bluster-follies at the Fervent Monogram when we saw the flashes of a sorcery duel in progress.”
Quech exhaled a lungful of sombol vapour, lighting it with a fingertip flame. “You ran towards a duel, Master Grumble?”
“It’s Grimble. And we certainly did. Poets and intellectuals have a duty to give enlightening accounts of the world, for the benefit of those too ignorant to understand it.” His attempted smile emerged as a grimace. “We were also very drunk.”
Blaph hauled the last corpse onto the bank at the foot of the bridge. They looked like four burnt matches arranged in a line. Three were soaked through, mucked with float moss, and charred beyond recognition. The fourth, a worryingly student-like male, was burned down to the shoulders.
“When we arrived to find you going through this one’s pockets, what account did that enlighten?”
Grumble frowned. “I wanted to establish this unfortunate’s identity.”
“And did you?”
“No. His face is burned off.”
Quech rolled the smoking corpse over with her boot to confirm the diagnosis. Blaph ran the feathered tips of two tentacles over the bodies. “Wet, cold and dead. No wounds, just burns.”
“Hmm. Tell me about the duel.”
“Two sorcerers of magnificent prowess and potency joined in battle.” Grimble had evidently decided to compose a monograph. “They cried blasphemous declarations in the forbidden tongue and rained the ancients’ own fire down upon each other. Flames sprayed and billowed in pure primal fury.”
“Fire sorcery.” Quech shook her head. Destructive sorcery was illegal within the city limits of Penchant. Uncontrolled fire magic was madness. “Go on.”
“Alas, we did not see its end. A stray ball of fire, like the sun broken free of its shackles, crashed upon us. My companions flew one way, all afire. By luck alone I narrowly escaped.”
Quech breathed out a soft plume of amber flame. The sombol was starting to take effect. Her senses felt sharp. The pre-dawn dimness became clear as noon’s light. And she smelled a rat.
Confrontation Bridge connected the Conservatorio Esoterica’s student refectories to the high-walled botanical enclosures, where ambulatory plants were penned. Little traffic at this late hour. They were lucky to get a witness.
“Lots of scorching here. Must have been a ferocious skirmish.”
“It was quite spectacular. Absolute chaos.”
Quech walked the bridge. “Where did the duellists go, I wonder?”
Blaph raised itself to full height on its trunk-like telescoping lower limbs. “Maybe everywhere.”
Following his swivelling eye line, she climbed onto a broad handrail and turned a wide circle. “Oh I see.”
From the elevated position, a discoloured ring was visible, centred on a point near one side of the bridge. She kneeled for a close inspection. “The marks are tiny charred fragments. Human remains?”
Blaph feathered up a smear of the charcoal and sifted with its taste-feathers. “Yep.”
“So one of them exploded. What about the other?” Quech glanced toward a particularly dense concentration of scorch marks at the bridge’s apex. Had one of the duellists weathered a particularly heavy assault from their opponent? Was it the obliterated one or the presumed winner?
Grimble added, “The victor’s clothing must be in a ruinous state, Inspector. I’d bet my last sonnet that if you inspected the student dormitories right now, you would catch them attempting to dispose of a smoking ensemble.”
Quech realised what else her deputy had noticed – the scorch marks were obscuring a pattern. She chewed over an unsettling new thought. Sombol gas built in her lungs like the air before a storm.
“Blaph, Master Grumble is undoubtedly correct. This was a class two unsanctioned duel. We should begin our questioning with the Master of Pyromancy, I’ll be bound.”
“Good luck then,” said Grimble, turning to depart. “My bed awaits.”
Blaph raised its upper arms in a six-limbed salute. It described a tumbling hurricane of joint flicks, elbow pops and tendril twitches. Then it made a noise like a sink full of pewter beer mugs.
A magical symbol appeared around Grimble’s feet and ankles. He stumbled but was held in place, unable to fall.
“What is this? You deceivers! You sneaks!” He pounded his fists against the bars of an unseen cage.
“Binding circle,” said Blaph. “Only works on otherworld aliens.”
“Good work, Blaph.” Quech breathed a long sigh into Grimble’s face. The sombol fog glowed a delicate pink in the first rays of dawn.
Then she lit it with a finger-fire.
A miniature fireball engulfed Grimble’s head. The skin blistered away in an instant, replaced by a sizzling reptilian face of rust-red complexion and incendiary expression.
“A salamander,” said Quech. “Thought so. We didn’t catch you going through a bystander’s pockets. We caught you stealing his face, didn’t we?”
“How did you know?”
“This isn’t the first time a drunk conjuration student has skipped ahead and tried to summon up a greater entity you know. Did you really have to kill them for getting you instead?” Quech totted up the offences against campus regulations. “By my count you’ve murdered your summoner and four witnesses, attempted identity theft and committed multiple breaches of the fire code.”
“This pitiful magical cage won’t hold me long.”
Blaph, not insulted, shrugged in agreement.
Quech said, “Outer entities have immunity under the Conservatorio accords. We can’t legally touch you.”
“Well, then,” sneered Grimble the Salamander. “Soon we’ll see how flammable your face is.”
“Not so fast. I can’t take you into custody or exact punishment, but I am required to remove you from the university grounds. To anywhere of my choosing. Blaph, do you know the cosmic frequency of the elemental plane of water?”
Blaph began a new sequence of gestures. Quech blew out the last of her sombol dose.
“I hope you’re a good swimmer, Mister Grumble.”