Prompt Short Story: Failure (Interviews with a Sorcerer #9)

CWs: death, murder, accidental suicide, mention of baby death but not shown

Are you picking these questions out by, I don’t know, pulling words out of a box, or something? You want a story that’s set somewhere by the ocean? Why?

I suppose…I was talking about before the Fall wasn’t I, last time. And unless you’ve been fortunate enough to find pictures or films or something in your archives, wherever you are, you’ll never even have seen the real ocean. What you have now is just floodwater. Filth and bits of a dead world floating around in grimy saltwater. It’s not the ocean. Not how it was. The waves, the beaches, the piers with the rides, the utterly predictable groups of people and even more predictable merchandise. Alright. I’ll do my best to give you a view of an ocean pier, along with a story.

I assume that you know a little about before the Fall, enough to try and imagine a time when there were multiple oceans, land masses that could take days to travel across. Now, you’re all squished into the islands that are left, building up because you can’t build out. There’s no technology that can quite replace the things that were lost. Even the attempts to build out onto the water are only as good as the level of flotation you can manage. There’s no direct parallel for me to hook you onto, but let me see what I can do.

Imagine the sound of a moving ocean. Waves, breeze, the scent of saltwater. You know these. Waves lapping gently, but unlike now, they lap on sand. You don’t have beaches now, but there used to be long expanses of sand and rocks – it varied depending on where you were; in colour, in how wet or dry, in whether it was more rock or more sand. But for this story, imagine golden sand. Sand is just stone that’s been ground down by water. Years, and decades, and centuries, of friction. Unceasing movement, taking microscopic parts away, moment by moment, until one day it’s just tiny particles. That’s real sand. Water eventually turns everything into nothing. Sand? It can be fused into glass, used as part of a makeshift filtration system; you can make it work for you. But sand left to form an expanse by itself, that’s how you get a beach and there’s nothing quite like hot, dry sand. You take a step onto it and your foot sinks beneath it, warm – sometimes too warm, but still comforting. Sand holds the heat of the sun and sends it back to you when you touch it. Walking in your bare feet, even when it’s too hot, is a beautiful, gentle feeling. It’s not easy, mind, on the softer sand, gets to the calf muscles real quick.

When it’s packed tighter by water, it’s stodgier, it sticks to whatever it touches. Walking through that requires a wash afterwards, but it’s fine, because beaches are places that, even when crowded, are calm. The sound of the ocean, gulls circling, pigeons pecking for crumbs, sparrows flitting by. Oh the ocean roared, sometimes. The birds sounded like they were screaming, as they whirled in the sky, searching for food. Beneath the surface the ocean was busy as a packed city. Birth and death, life and evolution. We never conquered the oceans, for all our technology and desire to rule the earth. It was chaos, and not everyone found it calming. I did. It was a place I could think, or listen to the waves, or weep into them.

Oceans were cold. The transition from hot sand to cold water could take your breath away. But swimming in an ocean was like nothing else. Waves that could lift you, or wash right over you. Swimming against the current. When there were fish, you could just duck your head under and see them swimming by.

A pier was made of wood stilts and board, and was something to be found somewhere along most beaches. It lifted you up from the sand so you could see all the way to the curve of the world on the horizon. And because no tourist destination could be complete without them, they were usually lined with tat and food sellers, and sometimes ferris wheels and other rides.

A ferris wheel was a nice ride. It was a giant wheel, with carriages attached, and you’d sit in one and it would slowly move around, taking you even higher, and then back down. Provided you weren’t scared of heights, they were amazing. You could see far out to the ocean, and back into land. “I can see my house from here!” was an old and often used joke, for rides like that. I don’t know where or how that started, but it was like a genetic marker – everyone knew it, and everyone, at some point, said it. Even if they couldn’t see their house (or hotel) from there. It wasn’t even a good joke, just a…comfortable one.

Piers were big, and they were popular. But at night they could get pretty creepy. Everything would close up, the crowds would disperse, and they became a playground for rats; and dealers; and teenagers…and sorcerers who needed a secret spot to do spellwork.

Piers at night were always out of the way, and easy to clear out with a small spell if anyone was looking shiftily at us. A quick shield to conceal us and our magic, and we had privacy and the whole night to do whatever we needed.

It is technically possible to do the conceal during the day, but people are much more likely to notice that suddenly nobody can enter a specific area, and a concealment spell can only hold up so long against so much curiosity. So it was safer at night when nobody else would come looking. Rats and dealers wouldn’t generally think twice about an area at the end of the pier where they didn’t feel like going – and if one showed any continued interest it was easy enough to remind them they had something important to do elsewhere. And teenagers needed to be seen hanging out at the dark pier, or it wasn’t a proper rebellion, so they rarely ventured far in.

So it’s night. The tide is in, and lapping at the the stilts on the pier, just a couple of feet below us. I’m there with two others. I’ll call them Mill and Deets- and don’t ask why because I won’t tell. We’re trying to work out the right spell to get some information without resorting to any sort of violence or intimidation, or revealing ourselves. But it’s incredibly important that we get the information.

There’s a killer on the streets of this beach town. Taking out tourists, and clearing out their hotel rooms so it looks like they’d just checked out in the night. One of these people, mistaken for a tourist by the normie police, is – was by that point – a friend of Mill.

I haven’t touched a lot on the other supernaturals in your world. Werewolves and sorcerers, I think, are all I’ve talked about. Well, there are plenty more you don’t know about yet, and this story will introduce you to one. Mill’s friend, Loughlin, was a Changeling. Yes, they’re real; no, they’re not what the legends say. They don’t steal babies. That’s not a thing. A Changeling might replace a baby that was stillborn, or died in their crib. But they’ll only do this before they’re old enough to have any sort of personality, old enough for the parents to realise there was a change – no more than 3 months.

They also don’t get to choose this. Wherever it is that they exist when not here – something even they don’t know – when a child dies or is born dead, their essence leaves, and a Changeling is sometimes forced into that tiny body. They retain awareness of who they are, but that isn’t something they understand until they’re old enough to face it. Some Changelings never do, and live and die never fully knowing they aren’t entirely human. Others, like Loughlin, come to that awareness of who they are, and that enables their supernatural abilities. Unfortunately, those abilities are often enough to drive them to suicide, a psych ward, or into the wastes of the world to be a hermit – the kind that really doesn’t want to be found

Changelings are able to see evil in people. A cloud forms around them, I’m told, and they can see, if they focus, echoes of their evil deeds. So if they meet a cold-blooded killer – they see a very dark cloud around them, and can, if they choose, see the echoes of their murders.

It sends a lot of those that learn to deal with it into helping professions – police, social services, counselling, charities that deal with domestic violence, that sort of thing. Loughlin was a therapist. He helped people deal with the grief and shock of losing someone to violence. Helped them find a way to reconcile it, to deal with things in healthier ways, and to get back to their lives. Mills told us he was a gentle guy, with a keen sense of justice, who spotted the killer one evening on his way back from one of the various shows that were put on during tourist season. He was there to consult with the police and help the bereaved, which meant he knew a lot about the case, including the fact that this killer had turned up a number of times over the preceding years. They seemed to arrive with the tourist season – a different place every year – and leave again before it got too sparse. Loughlin was there to help the bereaved, sure, but he was certain the killer just went elsewhere and continued killing.

It was a strange thing, though. The killer didn’t quite fit any of the expectations about serial killer behaviour. So the detectives in this place said, anyway. They weren’t going on a spree – they took 3 or 4 people, tops, every year. They were always controlled, never a thing out of place, never a body or a skin cell to be found. No evidence, nothing. Only the pattern was recognisable, and how clean they left things, and that was all shared with other jurisdictions as something to look out for. Organised type, for sure, but the moving around didn’t quite fit. Also I suspect, still, that the detectives there just wanted them to go away again so someone else could deal with it next year.

But Loughlin was certain they just left to continue somewhere else. The police here disagreed. They thought the killer saved it all up, let it loose over the course of 2 to 3 months, then left again. Which meant Loughlin’s hands were tied. He couldn’t step outside of the jurisdiction – he wasn’t even an investigator – so all he could do was help the people that were there.

He’d written a lengthy email to Mill about it, and Mill had promised to come down and try some tracking spells as soon as he was done with another thing he was working on. A few days, max, he’d told Loughlin.

But there was nothing to stop Loughlin from walking the streets. In his email he said that wherever he went, he took the long way around all of the tourist traps, looking for the telltale cloud. Most of the ones he saw were minor, but eventually he found a dark cloud. Darker than any he’d seen before. It obscured its owner, shifting around them like a mist and concealing most of their face and body. He followed at a distance, and noted which hotel they went into. Then he called the police. They dismissed him, because he couldn’t explain why he knew it was this person.

He called Mill, who was some distance away on that other job. Mill promised to be there by the next afternoon, so Loughlin said he’d stake out the hotel through the night. It was good that he did, because the killer came out again at around 2am, carrying a bag – so said his text to Mill. The last thing anyone heard from him.

Loughlin’s text said he couldn’t be certain that they were off to commit another murder, but one was due, and Mill told us Loughlin wouldn’t have been able to just let it happen. He would have followed and tried to stop them. We didn’t know anything for sure beyond that, just that he’d disappeared – his hotel room cleaned out just like always when this killer struck.

Mill called in Deets and I for help, because we both had some experience in finding and extracting usable confessions from normies, in order to present the normie police with their criminal to lock away. But of course, we still didn’t know who this killer was, or if they were even still here. We needed to find out, and Loughlin could tell us, but only if we could find his body.

We spent a while arguing about how to do that. Because…sorcerers. We all had different ideas, and of course none of us wanted to accede to the others. I do include myself in that, please note. I could be just as stubborn and egotistical as the rest of them when I felt I was in the right.

Mill wanted to try a finding spell, using something of Loughlin’s. Except that we had nothing of his, which meant performing a summoning spell first in order to get something. A combination that might have worked, but not without serious potential issues and failures.

Deets wanted to be more direct and just cast a spell so that we could see the trail of the killer, and track them from Loughlin’s hotel room. Except that we had no way of distinguishing the killer’s trail from anyone else’s – including the hotel staff and the hordes of police that had been through that room since he disappeared.

My idea was to summon his corpse, reasoning that the best way to dispose of bodies was in the ocean, so we could draw it close enough to then use another spell – one I’d created myself – to use whatever essence remained in the body to track the last person that came into contact with someone. There was always a tiny trace, as long as you did it in time, and I was pretty sure that time would be rather less for a body that’d been getting nibbled on by fishes, so I admit I got a little impatient in my eagerness.

In the end. we managed to agree to each do our own spell, and see what happened.

Truth be told, any of them would have worked in some way, and gone much easier if all three of us had leant our power to it, but…well you know. The big E. So we did our own thing.

Obviously mine worked first. At least, the first part of mine beat out any of theirs. The body was on its way, and I carefully got their attention to let them know. By the time they were done grumbling, Loughlin had arrived.

…Well, sort of. His body was near to us in the ocean, but it clung to the bottom like it was weighed down. It wasn’t, I could tell by the drag, and did a quick enhanced sight spell to be sure. It was definitely not weighed. It was nibbled and its skin was starting to slough off, and it should have easily come to the surface.

I threaded a rope of string around the body and pulled. It moved ever so slightly, then settled again. Even the three of us working together didn’t manage anything more than accidentally tearing an arm off. And the arm stuck itself to the ocean bed too!

So by this point we’d all figured out how the killer stayed completely unknown, how their victims were never discovered and they never left anything identifiable at a crime scene.

They were a sorcerer themselves. They had to be. There are ways to stay hidden, ways to keep from leaving evidence, sure. But even if the killer had been incredibly lucky as well as incredibly careful, the chances of nothing being found ever was already hard enough to believe. But it was theoretically possible, at least.

Sticking a body to the ocean floor so it would never float to the surface and risk discovery, though? That’s the work of a sorcerer gone bad.

Knowing what to look for made it easier to figure out what was happening. The killer had contained the body within a cage of strings, clamping it down. It could move horizontally, but not vertically, and by the time the magic degraded, the body wouldn’t be able to tell anyone anything.

So we had a body, but it was far enough down that getting to it wouldn’t be easy. The cage had a clever little knot that seemed to prevent it from going any farther than a certain depth, and that left us with a problem.

Mill quickly decided that the best thing to do was go down there and destroy the cage. It was too far to do from here, but neither me nor Deets thought that diving down to it and hoping we could get the body out before losing our air was worth the risk. Not even with some sort of spell to hold or filter oxygen. There were other options for us to try, before resorting to something that might wind up with another body down there.

But Mill…well he and Loughlin had been friends for a long time, and a truly grieving sorcerer is quite the thing. We don’t give our love and trust to many, but those we do give it to, we do completely. At the idea of not being able to get to Loughlin’s body now it was so close, he lost it.

And a sorcerer who loses their control can just about explode the universe around them. Mill screamed, and strings flew out, flinging Deets and I backwards along the pier. It was like having red hot wires flung around my torso – and they burned through my clothes and into my flesh. By the time we stopped sliding, recovered, and got to our feet again, Mill had wound a messy globe around his head, to trap oxygen, but it was clearly already leaking – it wouldn’t keep him breathing for long.

Deets and I, we just ran, trying to stop him, but he looked back at us as we ran into a wall that shot out of nowhere, and his eyes, his face, they were just dead.

“I’m getting answers. Whatever it takes,” he told us in a monotone quite unlike his usual voice. Then, he climbed over the barrier and stood, for a moment, on the edge of the pier. Then he dived in.

As he hit the water, the wall dropped, and Deets and I raced to the barrier and looked down. Mill was already struggling. Fully dressed, the shock of cold, his grief, the power he’d expended, he’d be lucky even to reach Loughlin, and he was too far away for either of us to reach. All we could do was watch, and hope he made it.

Ah, I tell these stories like it’s light entertainment for you. For all I know, it is. But there were real people in every one of them. And this person. Mill, he was suffering the worst thing any of us can suffer – a broken heart. His best friend was murdered, and all he wanted was to find his killer.

He didn’t get through the cage. By the time he got there he was floundering. His energy – physical and magical – was just gone. He tried right up to his last breath. Beyond his last breath. At the last moment, he managed to shove a hand inside the cage and wind it around some of the strings. He couldn’t save Loughlin, so he stayed with him.

We did find the killer, Deets and I. We made use of the spell Mill originally wanted to use; well a modified version of it. Instead of summoning something he owned we just went to his place.

Why the hell none of us did that at the beginning…I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Shit, we were so fixated on figuring the thing out right there and then, massaging our egos and getting revenge. Why would we think of something so simple when we could show off?

Anyway, then we used a second spell to trace Loughlin’s final hours. That showed us where the killer had been staying, and a quick bribe to the hotel manager gave us the rest.

I’m still fucking pissed off that we couldn’t get over ourselves to see this solution in the first place. But I can’t do anything about any of the fuck-ups I’ve made in the past. I just try to learn from them. And in quiet moments, often in the dead of the night, I replay them and see all the places I went wrong.

The killer was someone neither of us knew. He was old and bitter, brittle and angry at the world for reasons we never really discovered. We presented our evidence – repeatable, as required – to our lawmakers at the Secret City, and let them chase him down. Neither of us wanted anything to do with it anyway. Not after watching Mill die.

I heard tell that he just folded when they showed up at his door. I wonder if maybe he wanted to be caught. Then I wonder if that matters, against the things he did – and I know it doesn’t. It never does.

I visit the Secret City sometimes, to check in on folk I’ve helped to imprison there. I like to help rehabilitate them, make sure they’re comfortable. The prisons there dampen our powers, and that’s really punishment enough to a sorcerer, so the rest is all about whether or not they’re willing and able to learn to be a better person. So I help those that want to be helped. And occasionally, I check in on those who don’t, just to see how they are.

Except for one. There’s one woman I have never, and will never, visit. She can fucking rot there. But that’s another story altogether.

Are you picking these questions out by, I don’t know, pulling words out of a box, or something? You want a story that’s set somewhere by the ocean? Why?

I suppose…I was talking about before the Fall wasn’t I, last time. And unless you’ve been fortunate enough to find pictures or films or something in your archives, wherever you are, you’ll never even have seen the real ocean. What you have now is just floodwater. Filth and bits of a dead world floating around in grimy saltwater. It’s not the ocean. Not how it was. The waves, the beaches, the piers with the rides, the utterly predictable groups of people and even more predictable merchandise. Alright. I’ll do my best to give you a view of an ocean pier, along with a story.

I assume that you know a little about before the Fall, enough to try and imagine a time when there were multiple oceans, land masses that could take days to travel across. Now, you’re all squished into the islands that are left, building up because you can’t build out. There’s no technology that can quite replace the things that were lost. Even the attempts to build out onto the water are only as good as the level of flotation you can manage. There’s no direct parallel for me to hook you onto, but let me see what I can do.

Imagine the sound of a moving ocean. Waves, breeze, the scent of saltwater. You know these. Waves lapping gently, but unlike now, they lap on sand. You don’t have beaches now, but there used to be long expanses of sand and rocks – it varied depending on where you were; in colour, in how wet or dry, in whether it was more rock or more sand. But for this story, imagine golden sand. Sand is just stone that’s been ground down by water. Years, and decades, and centuries, of friction. Unceasing movement, taking microscopic parts away, moment by moment, until one day it’s just tiny particles. That’s real sand. Water eventually turns everything into nothing. Sand? It can be fused into glass, used as part of a makeshift filtration system; you can make it work for you. But sand left to form an expanse by itself, that’s how you get a beach and there’s nothing quite like hot, dry sand. You take a step onto it and your foot sinks beneath it, warm – sometimes too warm, but still comforting. Sand holds the heat of the sun and sends it back to you when you touch it. Walking in your bare feet, even when it’s too hot, is a beautiful, gentle feeling. It’s not easy, mind, on the softer sand, gets to the calf muscles real quick.

When it’s packed tighter by water, it’s stodgier, it sticks to whatever it touches. Walking through that requires a wash afterwards, but it’s fine, because beaches are places that, even when crowded, are calm. The sound of the ocean, gulls circling, pigeons pecking for crumbs, sparrows flitting by. Oh the ocean roared, sometimes. The birds sounded like they were screaming, as they whirled in the sky, searching for food. Beneath the surface the ocean was busy as a packed city. Birth and death, life and evolution. We never conquered the oceans, for all our technology and desire to rule the earth. It was chaos, and not everyone found it calming. I did. It was a place I could think, or listen to the waves, or weep into them.

Oceans were cold. The transition from hot sand to cold water could take your breath away. But swimming in an ocean was like nothing else. Waves that could lift you, or wash right over you. Swimming against the current. When there were fish, you could just duck your head under and see them swimming by.

A pier was made of wood stilts and board, and was something to be found somewhere along most beaches. It lifted you up from the sand so you could see all the way to the curve of the world on the horizon. And because no tourist destination could be complete without them, they were usually lined with tat and food sellers, and sometimes ferris wheels and other rides.

A ferris wheel was a nice ride. It was a giant wheel, with carriages attached, and you’d sit in one and it would slowly move around, taking you even higher, and then back down. Provided you weren’t scared of heights, they were amazing. You could see far out to the ocean, and back into land. “I can see my house from here!” was an old and often used joke, for rides like that. I don’t know where or how that started, but it was like a genetic marker – everyone knew it, and everyone, at some point, said it. Even if they couldn’t see their house (or hotel) from there. It wasn’t even a good joke, just a…comfortable one.

Piers were big, and they were popular. But at night they could get pretty creepy. Everything would close up, the crowds would disperse, and they became a playground for rats; and dealers; and teenagers…and sorcerers who needed a secret spot to do spellwork.

Piers at night were always out of the way, and easy to clear out with a small spell if anyone was looking shiftily at us. A quick shield to conceal us and our magic, and we had privacy and the whole night to do whatever we needed.

It is technically possible to do the conceal during the day, but people are much more likely to notice that suddenly nobody can enter a specific area, and a concealment spell can only hold up so long against so much curiosity. So it was safer at night when nobody else would come looking. Rats and dealers wouldn’t generally think twice about an area at the end of the pier where they didn’t feel like going – and if one showed any continued interest it was easy enough to remind them they had something important to do elsewhere. And teenagers needed to be seen hanging out at the dark pier, or it wasn’t a proper rebellion, so they rarely ventured far in.

So it’s night. The tide is in, and lapping at the the stilts on the pier, just a couple of feet below us. I’m there with two others. I’ll call them Mill and Deets- and don’t ask why because I won’t tell. We’re trying to work out the right spell to get some information without resorting to any sort of violence or intimidation, or revealing ourselves. But it’s incredibly important that we get the information.

There’s a killer on the streets of this beach town. Taking out tourists, and clearing out their hotel rooms so it looks like they’d just checked out in the night. One of these people, mistaken for a tourist by the normie police, is – was by that point – a friend of Mill.

I haven’t touched a lot on the other supernaturals in your world. Werewolves and sorcerers, I think, are all I’ve talked about. Well, there are plenty more you don’t know about yet, and this story will introduce you to one. Mill’s friend, Loughlin, was a Changeling. Yes, they’re real; no, they’re not what the legends say. They don’t steal babies. That’s not a thing. A Changeling might replace a baby that was stillborn, or died in their crib. But they’ll only do this before they’re old enough to have any sort of personality, old enough for the parents to realise there was a change – no more than 3 months.

They also don’t get to choose this. Wherever it is that they exist when not here – something even they don’t know – when a child dies or is born dead, their essence leaves, and a Changeling is sometimes forced into that tiny body. They retain awareness of who they are, but that isn’t something they understand until they’re old enough to face it. Some Changelings never do, and live and die never fully knowing they aren’t entirely human. Others, like Loughlin, come to that awareness of who they are, and that enables their supernatural abilities. Unfortunately, those abilities are often enough to drive them to suicide, a psych ward, or into the wastes of the world to be a hermit – the kind that really doesn’t want to be found

Changelings are able to see evil in people. A cloud forms around them, I’m told, and they can see, if they focus, echoes of their evil deeds. So if they meet a cold-blooded killer – they see a very dark cloud around them, and can, if they choose, see the echoes of their murders.

It sends a lot of those that learn to deal with it into helping professions – police, social services, counselling, charities that deal with domestic violence, that sort of thing. Loughlin was a therapist. He helped people deal with the grief and shock of losing someone to violence. Helped them find a way to reconcile it, to deal with things in healthier ways, and to get back to their lives. Mills told us he was a gentle guy, with a keen sense of justice, who spotted the killer one evening on his way back from one of the various shows that were put on during tourist season. He was there to consult with the police and help the bereaved, which meant he knew a lot about the case, including the fact that this killer had turned up a number of times over the preceding years. They seemed to arrive with the tourist season – a different place every year – and leave again before it got too sparse. Loughlin was there to help the bereaved, sure, but he was certain the killer just went elsewhere and continued killing.

It was a strange thing, though. The killer didn’t quite fit any of the expectations about serial killer behaviour. So the detectives in this place said, anyway. They weren’t going on a spree – they took 3 or 4 people, tops, every year. They were always controlled, never a thing out of place, never a body or a skin cell to be found. No evidence, nothing. Only the pattern was recognisable, and how clean they left things, and that was all shared with other jurisdictions as something to look out for. Organised type, for sure, but the moving around didn’t quite fit. Also I suspect, still, that the detectives there just wanted them to go away again so someone else could deal with it next year.

But Loughlin was certain they just left to continue somewhere else. The police here disagreed. They thought the killer saved it all up, let it loose over the course of 2 to 3 months, then left again. Which meant Loughlin’s hands were tied. He couldn’t step outside of the jurisdiction – he wasn’t even an investigator – so all he could do was help the people that were there.

He’d written a lengthy email to Mill about it, and Mill had promised to come down and try some tracking spells as soon as he was done with another thing he was working on. A few days, max, he’d told Loughlin.

But there was nothing to stop Loughlin from walking the streets. In his email he said that wherever he went, he took the long way around all of the tourist traps, looking for the telltale cloud. Most of the ones he saw were minor, but eventually he found a dark cloud. Darker than any he’d seen before. It obscured its owner, shifting around them like a mist and concealing most of their face and body. He followed at a distance, and noted which hotel they went into. Then he called the police. They dismissed him, because he couldn’t explain why he knew it was this person.

He called Mill, who was some distance away on that other job. Mill promised to be there by the next afternoon, so Loughlin said he’d stake out the hotel through the night. It was good that he did, because the killer came out again at around 2am, carrying a bag – so said his text to Mill. The last thing anyone heard from him.

Loughlin’s text said he couldn’t be certain that they were off to commit another murder, but one was due, and Mill told us Loughlin wouldn’t have been able to just let it happen. He would have followed and tried to stop them. We didn’t know anything for sure beyond that, just that he’d disappeared – his hotel room cleaned out just like always when this killer struck.

Mill called in Deets and I for help, because we both had some experience in finding and extracting usable confessions from normies, in order to present the normie police with their criminal to lock away. But of course, we still didn’t know who this killer was, or if they were even still here. We needed to find out, and Loughlin could tell us, but only if we could find his body.

We spent a while arguing about how to do that. Because…sorcerers. We all had different ideas, and of course none of us wanted to accede to the others. I do include myself in that, please note. I could be just as stubborn and egotistical as the rest of them when I felt I was in the right.

Mill wanted to try a finding spell, using something of Loughlin’s. Except that we had nothing of his, which meant performing a summoning spell first in order to get something. A combination that might have worked, but not without serious potential issues and failures.

Deets wanted to be more direct and just cast a spell so that we could see the trail of the killer, and track them from Loughlin’s hotel room. Except that we had no way of distinguishing the killer’s trail from anyone else’s – including the hotel staff and the hordes of police that had been through that room since he disappeared.

My idea was to summon his corpse, reasoning that the best way to dispose of bodies was in the ocean, so we could draw it close enough to then use another spell – one I’d created myself – to use whatever essence remained in the body to track the last person that came into contact with someone. There was always a tiny trace, as long as you did it in time, and I was pretty sure that time would be rather less for a body that’d been getting nibbled on by fishes, so I admit I got a little impatient in my eagerness.

In the end. we managed to agree to each do our own spell, and see what happened.

Truth be told, any of them would have worked in some way, and gone much easier if all three of us had leant our power to it, but…well you know. The big E. So we did our own thing.

Obviously mine worked first. At least, the first part of mine beat out any of theirs. The body was on its way, and I carefully got their attention to let them know. By the time they were done grumbling, Loughlin had arrived.

…Well, sort of. His body was near to us in the ocean, but it clung to the bottom like it was weighed down. It wasn’t, I could tell by the drag, and did a quick enhanced sight spell to be sure. It was definitely not weighed. It was nibbled and its skin was starting to slough off, and it should have easily come to the surface.

I threaded a rope of string around the body and pulled. It moved ever so slightly, then settled again. Even the three of us working together didn’t manage anything more than accidentally tearing an arm off. And the arm stuck itself to the ocean bed too!

So by this point we’d all figured out how the killer stayed completely unknown, how their victims were never discovered and they never left anything identifiable at a crime scene.

They were a sorcerer themselves. They had to be. There are ways to stay hidden, ways to keep from leaving evidence, sure. But even if the killer had been incredibly lucky as well as incredibly careful, the chances of nothing being found ever was already hard enough to believe. But it was theoretically possible, at least.

Sticking a body to the ocean floor so it would never float to the surface and risk discovery, though? That’s the work of a sorcerer gone bad.

Knowing what to look for made it easier to figure out what was happening. The killer had contained the body within a cage of strings, clamping it down. It could move horizontally, but not vertically, and by the time the magic degraded, the body wouldn’t be able to tell anyone anything.

So we had a body, but it was far enough down that getting to it wouldn’t be easy. The cage had a clever little knot that seemed to prevent it from going any farther than a certain depth, and that left us with a problem.

Mill quickly decided that the best thing to do was go down there and destroy the cage. It was too far to do from here, but neither me nor Deets thought that diving down to it and hoping we could get the body out before losing our air was worth the risk. Not even with some sort of spell to hold or filter oxygen. There were other options for us to try, before resorting to something that might wind up with another body down there.

But Mill…well he and Loughlin had been friends for a long time, and a truly grieving sorcerer is quite the thing. We don’t give our love and trust to many, but those we do give it to, we do completely. At the idea of not being able to get to Loughlin’s body now it was so close, he lost it.

And a sorcerer who loses their control can just about explode the universe around them. Mill screamed, and strings flew out, flinging Deets and I backwards along the pier. It was like having red hot wires flung around my torso – and they burned through my clothes and into my flesh. By the time we stopped sliding, recovered, and got to our feet again, Mill had wound a messy globe around his head, to trap oxygen, but it was clearly already leaking – it wouldn’t keep him breathing for long.

Deets and I, we just ran, trying to stop him, but he looked back at us as we ran into a wall that shot out of nowhere, and his eyes, his face, they were just dead.

“I’m getting answers. Whatever it takes,” he told us in a monotone quite unlike his usual voice. Then, he climbed over the barrier and stood, for a moment, on the edge of the pier. Then he dived in.

As he hit the water, the wall dropped, and Deets and I raced to the barrier and looked down. Mill was already struggling. Fully dressed, the shock of cold, his grief, the power he’d expended, he’d be lucky even to reach Loughlin, and he was too far away for either of us to reach. All we could do was watch, and hope he made it.

Ah, I tell these stories like it’s light entertainment for you. For all I know, it is. But there were real people in every one of them. And this person. Mill, he was suffering the worst thing any of us can suffer – a broken heart. His best friend was murdered, and all he wanted was to find his killer.

He didn’t get through the cage. By the time he got there he was floundering. His energy – physical and magical – was just gone. He tried right up to his last breath. Beyond his last breath. At the last moment, he managed to shove a hand inside the cage and wind it around some of the strings. He couldn’t save Loughlin, so he stayed with him.

We did find the killer, Deets and I. We made use of the spell Mill originally wanted to use; well a modified version of it. Instead of summoning something he owned we just went to his place.

Why the hell none of us did that at the beginning…I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Shit, we were so fixated on figuring the thing out right there and then, massaging our egos and getting revenge. Why would we think of something so simple when we could show off?

Anyway, then we used a second spell to trace Loughlin’s final hours. That showed us where the killer had been staying, and a quick bribe to the hotel manager gave us the rest.

I’m still fucking pissed off that we couldn’t get over ourselves to see this solution in the first place. But I can’t do anything about any of the fuck-ups I’ve made in the past. I just try to learn from them. And in quiet moments, often in the dead of the night, I replay them and see all the places I went wrong.

The killer was someone neither of us knew. He was old and bitter, brittle and angry at the world for reasons we never really discovered. We presented our evidence – repeatable, as required – to our lawmakers at the Secret City, and let them chase him down. Neither of us wanted anything to do with it anyway. Not after watching Mill die.

I heard tell that he just folded when they showed up at his door. I wonder if maybe he wanted to be caught. Then I wonder if that matters, against the things he did – and I know it doesn’t. It never does.

I visit the Secret City sometimes, to check in on folk I’ve helped to imprison there. I like to help rehabilitate them, make sure they’re comfortable. The prisons there dampen our powers, and that’s really punishment enough to a sorcerer, so the rest is all about whether or not they’re willing and able to learn to be a better person. So I help those that want to be helped. And occasionally, I check in on those who don’t, just to see how they are.

Except for one. There’s one woman I have never, and will never, visit. She can fucking rot there. But that’s another story altogether.

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Writing prompt used

She stood on the end of the pier, took a deep breath, and jumped int9 the freezing ocean. She was going to get answers, no matter what it took.

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