Senior Sergeant Gordon Richards had been about to leave his house when the ringtone of his mobile phone suddenly went off, the muffled strains of a very upbeat Ninth Symphony remix emanating from his shirt pocket. Letting slip an expletive in exasperation, he answered it gruffly. "Yes?"
"We have just questioned a young man whom we believe may know something about the murder." The voice was that of Senior Constable Scott Harris. To have found someone who may have had something to do with the murder so quickly after the crime happened was quite unusual.
"Who?" demanded the Senior Sergeant impatiently. No doubt the fact that the questioning had taken place without his approval had something to do with bloody Matheson.
"His name is Eamonn Codds."
"Well?" Richards knew he sounded unimpressed. And really, he was. "And what does he have to say for himself?"
There was a cough on the other end. "I think we, er, have another case to investigate."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Codds seemed to believe that one Professor David Bloom was abducted."
"Abducted?" echoed Richards.
"At the same time as the murder?"
"Actually, Codds told us that the abduction was the primary objective, and the murder most likely took place before the Professor was taken. The cases are linked."
Well. This was very strange. Those role-play groups or cults or whatever were most definitely getting out of control.
"Look, Harris," he sighed. "I'm going to the university now where we'll decide what to do." And that includes putting Matheson into his place before he starts trying to run the whole damn thing.
"And what should we do with Codds and his girlfriend?"
"His girlfriend?" Richards repeated. He felt rather stupid. If his wife (who, he suspected, already thought he was crazy), were not standing in the room, he would have smacked himself upside the head. He was meant to be in charge of the whole bloody investigation and here he was sounding like a freaking parrot!
Senior Constable Harris was patient. "There's a really edgy-looking young woman sitting around outside in the foyer and we're assuming it's his girlfriend."
"Oh." He stroked his greying beard in thought. "Does she have anything to do with it?"
"She might, but we haven't subjected her to interrogation yet, sir. She looks like she's just killed someone."
It suddenly occurred to the Senior Sergeant that there might have been else entirely something going on here, something rather nasty. Could it be that the cult they had been after for years but never caught was behind this? But why would they want some random Professor? And why did they use primitive weapons to hack a security guard to death? The questions just kept coming but none of them were being answered.
"Did—did Codds or his girlfriend say anything about who might have been responsible?"
There was a pause on the other end, as if Harris was unsure of what to say. "Well…" His voice trailed off. Richards felt himself becoming impatient again.
"What?" he snapped.
Harris' voice sounded hesitant. "They seem to reckon that monsters called Orcs did it."
Somewhere in Hazel's Wood
Professor David Bloom heard the voice of the young man next to him over the racket of his hideous captors arguing with each other in their harsh, guttural tongue. After he had woken up to find himself dangling over the stinking back of something that looked like it belonged in a horror or fantasy film, he remembered hearing the hysterical yells that issued from his own mouth until he was hit over the head and the darkness claimed him. Since then, he had been slipping in and out of consciousness and was only vaguely aware of the fact that he was being carried off to some place.
At first, he had thought that he had been kidnapped by a group of fanatical role-players, but now that he was somewhat conscious he seriously doubted that. Their masks and costumes were certainly excellent, the attention paid to detail fastidious but altogether revolting. Generally the people in his acquaintance did not smell like sewers, no matter how crazy and "in-character" the role players were supposed to be. And they certainly did not…ugh. He shuddered in horror.
Recently he had been witness to a frightening scene of ruthless murder, followed by cannibalism that effectively disposed of the body and fed the hungry men (that is, if they actually were men). Though he did not understand the language, it was not hard to see, through watching the various snarls and gestures being rapidly exchanged between the two, that the Head Monster was having a dispute with one of his subordinates. The matter was finished off quickly, the body disposed of with the help of the rest of the crew, and had the poor Professor had the energy, he would have vomited. Like Nethir, he wondered why they had bothered to keep either of them alive when they could not even refrain from eating each other.
His fellow prisoner, he thought, must have been someone of importance. And if that was true, he could see why the creatures had him. They could use him as a hostage, but what kind of payment they would exact for his return eluded the Professor. They did not exactly look like the sort that would need money. Perhaps they wanted something else.
It still didn't explain why they had gone to the trouble of capturing him, Professor David Bloom, PhD. He certainly would not have identified himself as someone of importance, at any rate.
At the sound of his fellow prisoner's voice the Professor weakly tilted his head in his direction. The language that he spoke was in all ways unlike the speech of their captors. It was only a brief phrase but it sounded gentle and flowing. And it sounded quite familiar, in a way, though he understood not a word of it.
That was when it hit him.
Men dressed in tunics and leggings. Ugly, leprous things who looked only half-human and whose behaviour was worse. Odd languages that he had never heard spoken except in movies.
He knew that he must have looked like an idiot, jaw hanging open and glasses sitting at a crooked angle on the bridge of his nose. They had not sat properly ever since one of the creatures had tried to wear them. But his head was swimming in such a bewildering maelstrom of emotions that he didn't care. It was not possible! And yet, he had the proof here right before his very eyes. This was no psycho role-playing group. This was the real deal.
If what he guessed was true—no matter how utterly ludicrous the idea was—then these monsters were none other than inhabitants of some place like Narnia. Or maybe Middle-Earth. Somehow they had managed to walk right into Hazel's Wood from wherever they were supposed to be. But how? There was only one way possible.
For a moment the Professor's love of study overshadowed even concern for the rather nasty quandary he had found himself in. For years he had been extensively investigating the existence of alternative dimensions in present time and space as according to Einstein's string theory, and with it the Professor had become fascinated with studying the possibility of alternative dimensions outside of the modern times they lived in. This was an exciting find. Finally he would be able to prove that he was not vainly researching myth—that there really were doorways into other times and lands. In addition—and it was a strange thought indeed—it proved the existence of a world long thought to be fictional.
His mood turned grim again when remembered that he would have to escape first before he could prove anything. And escape was not looking like a viable option right now; not when there were at least a dozen huge monsters - or whatever they were - armed to the teeth guarding them. Regardless of what kind of mission they were on, the Professor had no doubt that they would kill him if he tried to run.
Instead, he turned his attention back to the matter at hand: namely, the fact that the other prisoner was trying to speak to him. The Professor assessed his appearance for the first time. Light brown, slightly wavy hair tumbled over his eyes, which were an unusual grey colour. Though he was sitting down, the way he had his legs stretched out in front of him told the Professor that he had to be quite tall.
He repeated that nice-sounding phrase with a slight inflection at the end which told the Professor that he was asking a question. What sort of question it was, he had no way of knowing.
The look of confusion on the Professor's face must have said something, because a knowing look came over the young man's face. "Nethir." He placed a hand over his chest and then gestured in the Professor's direction. He was trying to tell him what his name was.
Strange name, thought the Professor drily, before remembering that he was, after all, speaking to an inhabitant of Middle-Earth, if he surmised correctly. This day was becoming stranger and stranger.
So he did the same thing, pointing to himself and saying, "David."
"Day-veed," repeated Nethir slowly then cracked a grin. The Professor found himself smiling back, despite all he had been through in the last few hours.
Perhaps there was some hope yet.
The Police Station at Tending, ten minutes away from Churchdale
With her iPod on but not really listening, Eryn sat quietly on a chair near the service desk, anxiously waiting for the police officers' questioning of Eamonn to finish. They had already been a while—though whether it was half an hour or an hour she did not know—and she was expecting the door to fly open at any moment now, but she knew that often police interrogation took a long time…especially when it involved serious matters.
I hope he's alright, she thought worriedly. They'll have a hard time believing what he says. She gave a soft snort. She'd had a hard time believing him and she was his best friend! She would still have doubted him if it hadn't been for…
She swallowed thickly and squeezed her eyes shut, as if to squeeze the memory of the Orc she had faced out of her mind. The thing obviously would have been trained in the art of efficient if not messy and pitiless slaughter by whatever means possible. She really was lucky to have gotten away with her life and with hardly more than a scratch on her arm.
Eryn pitied the next unfortunate person who would walk into the house they had just left. They would find a dead Orc with a kitchen knife in its neck and that half-surprised, half-anguished look forever fixed on its ugly face. Its tongue was lolling out in a way that was nearly hilariously funny in a morbid sort of way.
The sound she made was halfway between a sob and a hysterical giggle.
One of the doors creaked open, startling her out of her thoughts; and truth to be told, she was glad of the distraction. Eamonn's tall form came into view, followed by Officer Fielding and some other cop who had introduced himself before as Senior Constable Scott Harris.
Eryn leapt to her feet, yanking the headphones from her ears. "What's happening now?"
"We're going to Hazel's Wood," answered Eamonn evenly, but Eryn knew him too well not to miss that underlying hint of worry in his voice, or the apprehension in his eyes. The two police officers headed out the automatic glass doors without a word. Eryn looked up at her friend uncertainly.
"What did they say? Did they believe you?" She knew that she sounded panicked.
Eamonn ran a shaky hand through his hair, which Eryn knew was his standard nervousness gesture. "I…I don't know. I can't say."
"If the both of you would follow me, please?" Officer Fielding's voice cut through their conversation before Eamonn could say any more.
Eryn peered behind Eamonn as they went outside, where her sight was met with a four-wheel-drive police vehicle with the standard blue and white checks and "Police" written on each side. The police officer gestured at the duffle bags she and Eamonn were carrying.
"You can chuck your junk in the trunk. I mean—er, your stuff can go in the back."
Despite her mood Eryn felt a grin threatening to split her face and she bit her lip to prevent it. Eamonn's barely stifled laugh came out as a cough at the last minute, threatening to erupt at the expression of embarrassment on the officer's face.
She slid into the front seat purely out of habit then instantly regretted it, feeling rather uncomfortable sitting next to someone she did not even know that well. Especially given that the aforementioned someone had recently had to remove her from campus in her pyjamas.
Meanwhile, Eamonn gracelessly managed to pull himself with his long legs into the back seat of the car. It was nearly immaculately clean, except for an empty McFlurry in the drink-holder at the front near where Eryn was sitting.
Any conversation was killed by the inevitable barrier between student and police officer, though this one didn't look much older than either of them. They must think I'm lying, Eamonn thought worriedly, again running his hand back through his chestnut-coloured hair. Either that, or they think I'm crazy.
Eryn's stirring in the silence made him look up. "So…um, Officer?"
A look of pity came over Officer Fielding's face as he cast a quick glance at Eryn. "There's no need to stand on ceremony," he said in the gentlest tone Eamonn had yet heard him use. "I'm a constable but one of the juniors. Up there they still think I'm fresh off my cadetship." He grinned. "You can just call me Pat."
She gave him a small, hesitant smile. "Okay. Pat. Um, why are we going there?" A rough gesture in the direction of Hazel's Wood accompanied her words.
"Well, around here the police believe that there's some sort of cult that occasionally gathers somewhere in the woods to make mischief."
Eryn's eyes widened. "Whoa. Really?"
"Yeah. People go missing, weird things going on at night, all that kind of thing."
Eryn looked puzzled, and Eamonn started to feel interested in spite of himself. "What, so like, rituals and stuff?" he asked, though his skin crawled at the thought.
"That's what they say, anyways," answered Pat with a shrug. "I haven't been working here long enough to know the details, but I'm thinking there might be some truth in it. We're going to see if there's any more evidence of a ritual killing or something at their usual haunts. Sergeant Matheson and his team should be following behind us pretty soon. So," he said, turning around in his seat to face Eamonn as they stopped at a turn-off onto an unsealed road, "if you saw ugly people, they might have been wearing ceremonial dress or something."
Eamonn snorted. "It sounds pretty crazy. I mean, ritualistic cults playing dress-up and whatever…"
He could see Pat's smile in the rear view mirror. "No weirder than seeing Orcs running around on campus in the middle of the night."
"That's true," he murmured. "But doesn't this cult do things pretty cleanly? Like, no one's found any bodies around their little ritual sites, have they?"
Pat shook his head. "Nope. We just know it happens, because there are similar patterns in other ritualistic groups in other states and overseas."
"Right. But Billy's body was found in a complete mess, all over the place."
There was a moment of silence as Pat considered this.
"No, you're right," he said slowly. "I think you're onto something. It's not their usual pattern, as far as I know, and I don't get why they didn't just knock Billy out if they wanted him out of the way." Eamonn could nearly see the cogs turning in his head. "Or if they really wanted to get rid of him for good, I don't get why they did it so viciously. It's going to be practically impossible to conduct an autopsy on the corpse, what with things hacked off and thrown all over the place."
"Oh, God," murmured Eryn almost prayerfully, looking rather pale and lifting her eyes to the car roof.
"Sorry," said Pat, sounding sheepish. "I probably shouldn't have said that."
"Did the guy who questioned me believe what I said?" asked Eamonn quickly, to turn the subject away from dead bodies. The relief on Eryn's face was painfully obvious.
Pat looked uncertain. The car rattled over a particularly rough patch on the road. "Bloody hell," he muttered to himself. "You'd think they woulda gotten rid of any dirt roads that were still around here."
"Isn't this considered a rural area, though?" asked Eryn. "They don't bother sealing the roads when there's no people around."
"Hey, this isn't rural—this is regional," corrected Pat. "That's what makes it worse." His bright blue eyes met with Eamonn's in the mirror. "I don't know if he believed you, mate," he sighed. "There'll be more questioning later on, and you'll probably have to speak to the Senior Sergeant at Tending."
"But do you believe me?"
Awkward silence reigned over the three of them for what seemed like the umpteenth time. The stones that rattled beneath them on the old road flew up in clouds of dust, obscuring the trees with their tall, peeling trunks. The condition of the road seemed to be getting worse and worse as they went along, with grass sprouting up through the dirt. Eamonn only hoped no one would come careering round the corner because the road had gotten so narrow that it would be practically impossible to fit two cars on it. A few odd noises came from Eryn's phone. She glanced at it and muttered something about crap reception.
"I don't think you're lying," said Pat eventually, in answer to Eamonn's question, but the emphasis told Eamonn that he might have been the only one. "I believe that you saw something strange and I don't think you were involved in any way with the murder or the abduction. But I have a hard time believing that mythical creatures were responsible for either crime. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. Or one of those fanfiction things that my younger sister's always writing."
Leaning back against the seat Eamonn closed his eyes, repressing the feelings of anger and frustration threatening to boil over. He expected that he wouldn't be believed. But being confronted with incredulity at every turn was evoking every sensation of annoyance from his usually calm, collected self, seldom ruffled by anything. Anything, it seemed, except where his innocence was concerned.
Most likely the police would pursue the idea that it was some cult or whatever that committed the crime but they would probably still think of Eamonn as a suspect all the same. That thought alone was enough to unsettle him.
Pat nearly seemed to read his thoughts. "We just need to find the evidence," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "And that's what we're off to do now."
"If you want evidence," said Eryn quietly, "there's plenty of it in House Number 32 at the student housing campus."
There must have been something in the way that Eryn said it which disturbed the young police officer. He pressed a button on a very modern-looking piece of technology, whose screen lit into life quickly. That's a step up from walkie-talkies, thought Eamonn, wondering when the police had upgraded their equipment.
"That you, Fielding?"
"Yes, sir. I've just received some information on the case and I think someone should be sent down to the student houses."
There was no reply. The screen flickered.
"Crap reception," muttered Pat, giving the device a futile whack.
"There's a lotta that going around today," sighed Eamonn, checking his own phone as Eryn had done. The name of his phone company and the nearest reception location were still there but flickered on and off the screen a few times. Obviously Hazel's Wood wasn't the best place to update his Facebook status from.
A sudden gasp from Eryn nearly made him hit the ceiling. She was wildly gesturing at two figures ahead, dashing their way through the trees.
One of them was the Professor.
Questions? Comments? Fire away! :)