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Rust Lake

written and illustrated by Ptarmigan

The sun is hours away from rising, but most of the people of Rust Lake are already up and starting to go about their day in the dark of night, streets alight with artificial lamps as flurries of snow swirl lazily in the illuminated beams. In a tiny cabin at the edge of town, a young-looking elf with wild red hair lays face down in his bed, a patchy comforter sloppily thrown over him, his arm dangling over the side. He’s only been asleep for a couple of hours by now, for the watery tracks from the snow on his boots still not completely dry and his parka hung dripping in the doorway even though it’s only six in the morning.

A sharp, loud knock on the door cracks through the entire house like a shotgun firing, followed by a woman’s hoarse call: “This is the police, open up!”

The voice all but drags Cicada out of bed by the scruff of his neck, sitting bolt upright and cupping his hands around his mouth to call back. “Ey, gimme a bit to put my leg on and I’ll be right there, eh!”

“Alright buddy, but if ya don’t come to the door soon I’m gonna bust my way in,” the woman’s voice replies, her tone urgent and stern. “I don’t wanna hafta do that, so make it quick!”

Cicada’s ear swivels back in confusion as he pulls himself up to the side of the bed, groping around in the dark for the hand-carved wooden leg leaning against the nightstand. He’s barely awake enough to string together a coherent thought beyond guiding the prosthetic up his pants leg to affix to his knee, but something about this feels extraordinarily off and he can’t put his finger on why.

At least he didn’t even bother to change into his pajamas when he got home earlier. That saves him time in getting to the door once he’s sure his leg is attached and his pants leg is rolled back down. He slides his feet into a dingy pair of novelty fox slippers and makes his way over to the front of the cabin to answer the officer’s call in dirty flannels and a pair of jeans that are still wet on the bottom hems.

Standing on the other side of the door is a stout elven policewoman in a fur bomber hat and a leather parka, her expression unreadable behind reflective aviator sunglasses. Cicada blinks a few times, staring at her for a few uneasy moments before glancing up at the still dark sky.

“…Ey, you know we don’t even get no sun ’til about 10 or so, why you wearin’ those sunglasses there? You got redeye or somethin’?” He smiles uneasily at the police officer, attempting to lighten the mood with some good old-fashioned controlled substance jokes. “Harvest’s not for another week or so, ya know.”

A stiff, snowy breeze blows between them as they look at each other before the woman mechanically reaches for his arms and holds them out, turning him around with her other hand as she clicks handcuffs around his wrists. “You’re under arrest, buddy.”

“Wait–” Cicada looks over his shoulder with the face of a dog that’s being punished for something he doesn’t know that he did wrong. “Is this about the troll? He wasn’t hurtin’ no one, I was just helpin’ him get back to his reindeer and I went back to make ‘im some dinner.”

“You know trolls don’t come down this way, buddy…” The officer’s voice is barely audible above the wind, but there’s not much emotion almost like she’s reading from a script. She reaches for his upper arm, clenching her hand into a fist around his sleeve and pushing him in front of her as she wordlessly begins to march him down the front steps towards her cruiser. “Your neighbors reported you entering your cabin at after midnight last night, then leaving again around 2:30 and not comin’ back ’til around 4. Kinda funny hours to be out at night, innit?”

“I had to go back and make ‘im some hotdish,” Cicada frowns, trembling and looking weakly defiant as he’s herded into the back seat of the car, the door slamming behind him. “And I know you’re not arrestin’ me for cookin’ dinner for a troll, so harp it out for me already, eh!”

The officer climbs into the front seat of the car, closing the door and taking her metal thermos out of the cup holder. She refuses to look at his wounded, angry face in the rear view mirror and unscrews the cap, staring into it for a long time before taking a sip.

“Chairman Al’batros was found dead at the lodge this mornin’,” she finally says, quietly.

“The Chairman?” Cicada is taken back, and zones out for a few tense moments before shaking his head to clear his thoughts. “I hated that fuckin’ guy, but…”

“But you got a motive.” The officer completes his sentence as she puts the thermos back where it was and puts the key in the ignition, starting the car. She never takes the sunglasses off. “You got a motive and the prosecutor says we have good reason to believe that you’re our primary suspect.”

“Wait, what?!” Cicada takes a few seconds to process the accusation. “You don’t really think that, do ya?”

She says nothing to him, instead reaching for the police radio and speaking into it. “Ey Halsten, I got our guy.”

The police radio beeps and crackles, a male voice heard on the speaker, sounding pleased. “You got da guy already, Alva?”

“Yah, I got da guy, Halsten,” Alva replies as she speaks into the radio. “He went down real easy. Didn’t put up much a fight at all.”

“Good, good,” the voice clucks in approval. “We got a whole slurdge of questions waiting for ‘im back at da station. I’ll see ya soon, den?”

“Darn tootin’ Halsten, be there in a few.”

That delivery had to have been least enthusiastic ‘darn tootin’ Cicada’s ever heard in his many, many years of living.

Alva hangs up the radio and exhales a heavy sigh, flicking on a local polka station and turning the volume up as high as she can tolerate it before pulling out into the icy dirt road to leave Cicada alone with his questions for the rest of the drive.

Natural light is finally starting to wash over Rust Lake, and a pair of elves are seated in a booth at the Moose’s Uncle diner on the corner of Little Pine and Iron Way. With their form-fitting, elegant white uniforms trimmed in gold and worn over black bodysuits, the two of them stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of flannels, Nordic sweaters, and parkas sported by the rest of the elves populating the dimly-lit, busy diner. A group of drunken men and women are seated at the bar, their arms draping over each other as they sway and sing a cheerful folk song with lyrics celebrating a woman wielding a greathammer smashing away at their miseries, likely dwarven in origin but elven in melody.

“You know, Larus, it’s hard to believe the people in this town descended from Skog elves,” remarks the taller elf, his lavender-tinted hair tied back in a sloppy braid. He’s sprawling his arms out across the bench seat and absently chewing on a toothpick, watching people mill around the diner. “Everyone here’s so nice and not one person so far has insinuated they’ve wanted to rip my throat open with a flock of ravens just for being from the coast.”

Across from him sits a shorter elf with silver hair cropped in a sharp chin-length bob, his expression uncomfortable as he drums his gloved fingers on the table and looks out the window at the snow drifting along the wind.

“Albedo,” Larus says, addressing the other man, “Don’t you think it strange that we were summoned to investigate a murder in a small logging town like this?”

“Naturally!” The detective lazily grins as he snaps the toothpick in half. “It beats the humdrum of solving magical crime up in Thalasseus, doesn’t it?”

“That’s the thing,” Larus frowns after some deliberation. “Isn’t this rather unprecedented? Most of the people around here seem to be about as magically proficient as a chunk of granite, since this town was deliberately built between a gap in the leylines and surrounded by mountains loaded with iron veins. And the suspect…”

Albedo swivels an ear forward. “Cicada Ahlgren, right? What do we know about him?”

“Not much, at the moment. We know that he was born here and that he currently works for the Sevenleaf Logging Company. The prosecutor described three-legged fox tracks in the blood at the scene of the crime, and this guy’s missing a leg and supposedly has a motive,” Larus says, flipping through his papers. “That’s about all I’ve had a chance to read up on since we landed.”

“Interesting,” Albedo takes a sip from his coffee cup, lifting it to his face with both hands, his thumbs curled into his palms. “And they think a guy who works for a logging company in a magical dead zone can do something like that?”

“That’s what I’m getting at,” Larus says. “If they’re not pinning the crime on the wrong person, then we might be dealing with an even bigger problem than we realize.”

“That might be,” Albedo closes his eyes, knitting his fingers together. “To carry out something like that in a magic void like this doesn’t seem like the sort of that should happen in the first place. I’ll see what signatures I can pick up when we visit the scene of the crime today.”

“You’re right. What time is it?” Larus asks.

Albedo looks at the tacky, antler-rimmed clock on the wall. “Uh, looks like just after 10. Weird, I thought it was a lot earlier than that…”

“Mm. I guess it’s just jet lag, then, that was a very long flight. We should get going though,” Larus says, pulling up an empty cat carrier and putting it on the table, facing its opening towards his companion.

Albedo eyes the carrier briefly, then motions to Larus’s plate. “You’re not going to finish your breakfast?”

“I’m not hungry,” Larus replies, pushing the plate across the table. “You can have it.”

“What a good and righteous friend you are, Larus.” Albedo’s eyes light up as he ungracefully gobbles down the remainder of the eggs and sausage left on his assistant’s plate, not even bothering with any utensils or using his hands. Larus wrinkles his nose with disgust.

“You need to spend less time as a cat,” he says.

“Absolutely not.” Albedo looks up from the now clean plate, licking his chops. “I wouldn’t be as good of a magic-seeker if I did.”

“Just get in the carrier, Albedo.” Larus rests his hand on top of the mesh cloth container. “I’ll call the station to let them know we’re on our way.”

The Warden’s Lodge sits on top of a hill like an old, sullen guard dog, a good drive away from the residential cabins and overlooking the small downtown area of Rust Lake on one side, and the frozen lake itself on the other. The building’s architecture harkens back to the days before the elves of the coast split off from the elves of the woods with its high, bough-like trusses weaving together as though nature had intended for it to look that way, painted over in an uncharacteristic cold, bright white with a gaudy gold trim and blue roof tiles that would never be seen on any native Skog elf buildings. The building had to have been at least a few centuries old, if not older than that, in shockingly good condition despite its age as it had been recently renovated.

A number of police cars are parked in the front of the lodge already when Larus pulls in with his rental car. He unzips the carrier in the passenger seat to let Albedo out, who is now in the shape of a long-furred white housecat with weirdly elongated features and wearing a little custom-sized police vest. Larus holds out his elbow for the cat to perch on.

As they approach the opulent building, they are greeted by a short woman with tightly-curled brown hair tied up in a loose bun at her neck, wearing a light blue police uniform with long sleeves. Fresh nicks and bandages cover her fingers from what looks like small animal bites, which strikes Larus as strangely familiar as a man who spends a lot of time handling someone that regularly takes on the shape of a cat. She has a relieved look on her face when she sees them coming up towards her.

“Hiya! I’m Officer Alva Lindstrom,” the woman introduces herself, holding out a hand to Larus. Her accent is unlike anything he’s heard before in Thalasseus, a friendly-sounding, somewhat lilting intonation with rounded consonants and quick cadence. It seemed reminiscent of what little of the old Skogish language he’d heard, laced with the long vowels favored by the dwarves in this area. “You boys must be the magic-seekers we called in from the mainland, yah?”

“Indeed we are,” Larus says as he smiles and shakes Alva’s hand, then notices her bandages as he pulls back and reaches into his pocket for his badge, holding it up for her to see. “Larus Sovat’ye, and my occasionally feline companion here is Detective Albedo Al’satye. He doesn’t bite unless you ask him to.”

“Oh fer cute, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a seeker that looked like a little kitty cat before,” Alva says, wiggling her index finger at Albedo. “I mean, I’ve never met a seeker in real life, ya know, only seen ’em on TV crime dramas and they’re always foxes in the shows.”

“A good seeker can take whatever form he wants within reason,” Albedo says, reaching out with a paw to tap Alva’s finger, “While a paid actor probably can only become a fox because that’s all they can turn into. You’ve never had a magic-seeker here before?”

“We sure haven’t,” Alva shakes her head, withdrawing her hand. “We’ve never needed to ’til today. Thank you so much for coming down on such short notice.”

“Oh, it’s no problem at all, I’m actually really excited to be here,” Albedo grins. “It’s really different from what I’m used to, I can’t wait to find out who– or what– caused this.”

“We’re investigating a murder, Albedo,” Larus reminds him.

“Oh, I know,” Albedo says. “But given the context, it makes me feel like a big game hunter.”

Larus good-naturedly rolls his eyes. “He is very passionate about what he does,” he tells Alva.

“Well I like the sounda that, then! The crime scene’s been waitin’ all mornin’ for you fellas, come on in!” Alva motions for them to follow her into the lodge. The foyer is an uncomfortably stuffy room despite the staggering amount of space it has, lined wall to wall with ancient, hideous taxidermy mounts with patchy, dusty fur, garish purple carpet on the floor, and a bombastic, accordion-led waltz wafting out from wood-sided old speakers mounted in the corners. An enormous, dramatic painting of a silver-haired elf with his leg propped up on a slain moose is proudly hung up between the two sets of stairs on either side, directly beneath a chandelier that ensures that any guest will be dazzled by its heroic presence.

Larus stares at the display of the mounted creatures with disgust, particularly the taxidermy bear standing on its hind legs in the center of the room beneath the painting, its mouth contorted into a toothy, exaggerated grimace that looks more like it smelled a particularly rancid fart than anything resembling a fierce roar.

“It’s hard to believe elves could still have such bad taste this day and age,” Albedo whispers to him, a smirk on his muzzle. “The decor in here is so six centuries ago, isn’t it?”

“It’s…” Larus pauses, searching for the right words. “It looks like a very historical place, yes.”

A huge number of police officers are already milling about the lodge searching for clues, and Alva pauses for a moment to scan the crowd for someone before deciding to lead Larus and Albedo down a side hallway to a locked off room near the end of the corridor.

She takes a deep breath, reaching for the key in her pocket. “I hope you boys are ready, this crime scene’s a real doozy. Worst I’ve ever seen in all my years here, ya know.”

“Honestly, I’ve been eager to get my paws in there all morning,” Albedo says as he climbs across Larus’s shoulder, craning his neck towards the door. “We’re not even in the room yet and my fur’s just tingling with energy. If you could please let us in, I have to see it for myself!”

“I sure will, Mr. Al’satye,” Alva turns the key and pulls the door open, and almost immediately Albedo’s fur stands on end and his tail twitches like he’s stuck his claws in an electrical outlet. He runs down Larus’s arm to leap down onto the floor and run inside.

Alva reaches around the doorway to flick the light switch on, but doesn’t go in herself. Torn books and papers are strewn all over the floor and curtains inexplicably shredded as they hang pitifully off the rod above the window overlooking the frozen lake. The body had been removed for autopsy, a chalk outline in its place, but the blood is still everywhere — mostly pooled on the floor, but there’s streaks strewn haphazardly across the walls and ceiling like someone had taken an open bucket of paint and spun around the room on a computer chair. Perhaps most damning of all, though, is the presence of fox tracks meandering along the floor, which — if one traced the steps, their movement pattern didn’t make any sense when coupled with the splashes of blood, weaving in random directions.

Larus flinches at the sight and mutters a curse under his tongue in shock, covering his mouth and not sharing Albedo’s enthusiasm for exploring the gory little parlor.

“Oh, this is fascinating,” Albedo murmurs under his breath, gauging a jump onto a bookshelf and steadying himself with his tail, landing gracefully on top to survey the room. His purple eyes are practically bugging out with excitement. “This is some serious… serious… primal magic we have here, wow! I don’t think they’ve ever taught this sort of stuff on the mainland at all. Larus, catch me some samples if you can, please!”

“Right away, sir!” Larus follows the detective into the room, holding out a gloved hand and draws some of the magic from the air in a bright flash. The sickly energy hanging in the air condenses into a pallid, swirling mana crystal in his palm that practically radiates malevolence, and he deposits the gem into a leaden vial.

“Far as I can tell, all the damage in this room was done by wind, I don’t detect any other strong elemental signatures here…” Albedo jumps down to the desk and gingerly steps over scattered papers and inkwells, careful not to walk into any blood or spilled ink. “There’s not a single scorch mark anywhere, no water damage, no arcane signatures, but a whole lotta popping dark magic residue on the air. Whoever did this was incredibly, profoundly dedicated to ensuring this guy wasn’t gonna see another day.”

“Can you tell us more about the victim, Officer Lindstrom?” Larus asks Alva, taking out a pen and notepad.

“Well sure, he’s been runnin’ the lodge since the penal colony days,” Alva says. “The mainland put ‘im in charge and he’d been there ever since, up until now. He was… he was a difficult fella, sometimes, and not everyone agreed with him on things all the time.”

“He was a magic user?” Larus asks, briefly glancing at Albedo jumping up to the windowsill and arching his brows at the fact that it was closed.

“Yah, he sure was,” Alva says. “Strongest magic guy in the town for sure, or so we thought. He wasn’t from the woodsy stock like us, ya know, he was from the same place you guys are and he didn’t get ironed like we did when things started out so he had a better knack for it than the rest of us. That’s what makes this so freaky. Nobody in Rust Lake shoulda been able to do this sorta thing.”

Albedo peers down at her, his ears forward. “But you arrested someone for it already, didn’t you?”

“We did, but the magic stuff of it don’t really add up, that’s why Chief Halsten had you two called in from the mainland,” Alva sighs and looks down at her feet, her ears pulling back. “…Mr. Al’batros was a complicated figure in town. And our suspect, I think, would definitely have had a motive for it… but what happened was so long ago, why would he do something now?”

“Grudges can take time to fester,” Larus says calmly. “Do you know if the victim interacted with the suspect in the days or weeks leading up to this?”

“Not to my knowledge, no. Nobody’s ever seen Mr. Ahlgren even go near the lodge,” Alva shakes her head. “But…”

Larus looks up from his notes. “But?”

“Some few decades back there was an incident in this town,” Alva says, guardedly. “Something Mr. Al’batros personally saw fit to put a stop to himself, and they think the suspect wanted to get payback for what happened there…”

“An incident, huh,” Albedo says, now noticing the fox tracks in blood and leaning forward, interest piqued. He springs to the floor to get a better look, circling the chalk outline of the body, idly padding alongside the prints around the room to trace the path of the fox, ending up back at the desk and hesitating as his tail magnetically points towards something beneath it. “…Hey, Larus? There’s something under the desk.”

“Hm?” Larus walks over to the desk and kneels down, turning on the flashlight on his phone and peering behind the chair — stuck to the floor in blood, a glossy black feather curls up towards the ceiling. He reaches past Albedo to carefully pick it up between two fingers, tugging it up off the blood with a grimace. “How’d that get in here?”

“I don’t know, but the energy radiating off that thing was putrid.” Albedo’s eyes follow the feather, his tail involuntarily pulling towards it as Larus quickly seals it in another vial. He turns to Alva. “I take it your crew already did the standard stuff like dusting for prints, right? Did anything stand out at all?”

“Our forensics team didn’t find anything amiss, Mr. Al’satye,” Alva shakes her head. “Not even prints on the doorknob belonging to anyone that wouldn’t be touching it in the first place.”

Albedo gazes up over his shoulder, his fur starting to smooth back out. “And nothing on the window?”

“Nothing,” Alva shakes her head. “Nobody seems to know how anyone could have gotten in there to do it. The door was shut when Miss Omdahl found him this morning… but they could’ve just as easily been wearin’ gloves.”

“Do you know of anyone in town that can go incorporeal?” Larus asks, looking up from taking pictures of the bloodied paw prints on the ground.

Alva looks at him like he’s grown another head. “No, Mr. Sovat’ye, I do not.”

“It could have been a targeted, long range spell,” Albedo suggests. “The scene’s too messy to be a suicide, so I’d personally rule that out.”

“The Chairman was the only person here who could do those kindsa spells,” Alva says, then holds up her hand as both men turn to her after a long pause. “I’ve got another place for us to investigate if you’ve got the time.”

“If it’s relevant to the case, I don’t see why not.” Larus straightens up and pockets his phone. “Does that mean we’re done here for now?”

“Yeah, I think I could use a change of scenery,” Albedo agrees, jumping back up on top of the chair to climb back onto Larus’s outstretched arm. “I’ve gotten a good read on this room, but I’ll have to study that mana crystal more closely later today and see what we can pull up on the scryer.”

“Well let’s get goin’ then,” Alva says, stepping back to let Larus out of the room and gently closing the door behind him. As they’re turning to leave, a frazzled-looking woman wearing a blue corded sweater three sizes too big and clutching a file under her arm attempts to rush past them, accidentally bumping her shoulder into Alva.

“Oh, so sorry about that!”

Alva reaches out to gently grab for the small, wiry woman. “Hey, Lyyli! Where’s the fire, eh?”

“Officer Lindstrom,” Lyyli pauses, turning around and temporarily halting her charge across the lodge. “I’m sorry. Everything’s really busy here right now…”

“Hey, no, you’re okay, Miss Omdahl. You’re doin’ good,” Alva says, smiling reassuringly. “Shouldn’t you be takin’ the day off?”

“There’s too much to do here, Alva,” Lyyli says breathlessly, pushing a strand of dirty blonde hair behind a pointed ear. “With Mr. Al’batros gone the whole place is in disarray. He’s been there since the town was founded, ya know, we’re all runnin’ around like headless geese tryna figure out what to do now.”

“Yah, yah,” Alva nods in somber agreement. “I know, it’s gotta be a mess for you guys right now.”

“Just a little one,” Lyyli says. She finally notices Larus standing just past Alva, her gaze lingering on his odd, foreign uniform and the white cat perched on his arm. “…The police chief called in magic-seekers?”

Larus steps up next to Alva, offering his free hand to Lyyli with a pleasant smile. “Larus Sovat’ye,” he says, then holds up the arm holding Albedo a bit higher. The cat shifts, reestablishing balance. “And this is Detective Al’satye.”

“We’ve never had magic-seekers in Rust Lake before! Although I wish it were under better circumstances,” Lyyli hesitantly shakes Larus’s hand, then raises her hand to Albedo. The cat leans forward and allows her to pet him on the head, and she gives a small smile. “Are you both from the mainland then?”

“We are, yes!” Albedo says, cheerfully shutting his eyes. “This is a nice little town. I never would have thought of visiting were it not for this job, maybe once the dust settles you guys could set up a tourism board or something.”

“You can talk!” Lyyli gasps at Albedo, clutching her hands to her chest. “I always thought that was something they did on TV to make crime shows more dramatic.”

“Oh, no, magic-seekers can definitely talk,” Larus chuckles. “Perhaps a little too much, sometimes.”

Albedo playfully swats at Larus. “I talk in just the right amounts, thank you very much!”

Lyyli tries to hide the smile on her face behind a hand, and Alva shakes her head as they watch Larus shove his palm in Albedo’s face. The cat wraps both paws around Larus’s gloved hand and softly bites at his fingers a few times.

“I didn’t think they acted like real animals, too,” she asides to Alva.

“Oh, they’re very professional,” Alva says, smirking. “But they’re the right fellas for the job, they’ve already picked up some leads in the investigation.”

“Already!” Lyyli looks impressed, then looks away, her eyes downcast. “I hope you find out what happened… Mr. Al’batros ran a very tight ship, ya know. It’s going to take a lot of getting used to not having him around anymore.”

Albedo and Larus quit goofing off and straighten back up, and Larus holds his free hand over his chest in a salute as he does a half-bow towards Lyyli.

“Detective Al’satye and I will do everything we can to get to the bottom of this,” he says. “You have our word, we’ll find out who did this and they will be brought to justice.”

Lyyli returns the bow and smooths out her sweater upon getting back up. “Well, I better get going. Alva, will you be coming to that there festival today or are you going to be tied up in investigation?”

“Well I dunno, maybe I’ll swing by and get a lunch there later on,” Alva says. “I’ll hafta see. We got a lot goin’ on today with the investigation, ya know.”

“Oh yah, same. If Prosecutor Kathar’ya will let me go, I hope to make it out there before it gets too dark then,” Lyyli says, then warily glances over her shoulder like she’s invoked a curse.

“Oh.” Alva’s expression falls at the mention of the prosecutor. “I hope he’s not giving you too hard of a time, eh.”

“He’s very serious about the investigation,” Lyyli says after a long pause.

“There’s a festival in town?” Albedo butts into the conversation, craning his neck out and his ears piqued up in interest. “Officer Lindstrom, could we stop by after we check out the other site? I’d love to soak in the local culture a bit!”

Alva eyes him hesitantly, and Lyyli looks between them. “…Yah, sure, you betcha, Mr. Al’satye! If there’s time, we can go check things out for a bit, sure.”

“You should try the winter sausage,” Lyyli adds. “The local dwarves have a special spice blend that’s only used for festivals, ya know. Real treat!”

“Oh! I’m more a pastry person myself,” Alva says, “The deep-fried gryphon claws they sell are to die for, I’d get fat off ’em if I could. OH! And you fellas should come here in the fall sometime, we have a great harvest festival with deep-fried everything. It’s so bad for you!”

Larus discreetly swipes a string of drool from Albedo’s chin, wiping it off on his pants. “We’ll consider it. Should we…”

“Oh, right, right,” Alva waves her hand. “We gotta move on with this investigation. Lyyli, I’ll be seeing you later, yah?”

“Yah, yah, I better get going then,” Lyyli nods, then motions to the two men. “Oh! And you guys should check out that there music at the festival too!”

Alva’s face lights up. “OH! Yah, the music is great! Aren’t the Grey Ducks supposed to be playing today too? I haven’t had a chance to see the whole program yet…”

Lyyli nods vigorously. “Oh yah, the lineup’s lookin’ great this year, eh. Hey, how’s your boy doin’ Alva?”

Larus and Albedo look at each other, and Larus awkwardly clears his throat. “…Our next investigation site, Officer Lindstrom?”

“Right!” Alva takes a step back, apparently grateful for the timing of Larus’s prompting for departure and resting a hand lightly on his shoulder. “We really should be goin’ back out now.”

“Oh, yah, yah, sorry about that! Take it easy, Alva,” Lyyli waves, then turns back around, shuffling away down the hall. “I’ll see ya later then!”

“Yah Lyyli, see ya later,” Alva says, turning Larus around in the opposite direction and briskly starting to walk away towards the foyer, still brimming with police officers. Unlike earlier, now there’s a slender, gaunt man in a high-collared purple coat and a white, ruffled tie at his throat like the feathers of a vulture’s neck standing at the top of one of the sets of stairs, almost as if he was waiting for them. Even by elven standards the man looks positively ancient, with long, ice-colored hair brushed back over his shoulders and tied in a loose ponytail at the nape of his neck, prominent crow’s feet on his face, and hollow cheeks.

As Alva and her entourage enter, the man swiftly descends the stairs in an uncannily smooth, swooping movement and takes long, delicate strides across the floor to approach her, a vicious sneer on his face.

“Officer Lindstrom,” he says, looking at Alva and motioning to Albedo with a disgusted curl of his lip. “I see you got promoted from talking curs down from cliffs to zookeeper. Excellent job, I always knew you were good with animals.”

Albedo’s ears instantly go flat as he levels his head at the older man, his eyes narrowing defensively. Larus unconsciously rests a hand on the cat’s chest, holding him back.

Nearby them, the front door of the lodge clicks open, causing Larus’s and Albedo’s ears to involuntarily turn towards the noise. They glance over to see a tall, dark-skinned woman with a gleaming badge on her lapel, although she’s too far away for them to see what sort of official she is. She looks around the lobby for a few moments, stopping when she notices the prosecutor and deciding to keep a wide berth from him as she hurries over towards the hallway they just left from before he can see her.

Alva appears to have not noticed at all, her eyes locked on the skeletal-looking man as her teeth dig into her bottom lip. Her earlier warmth had all but completely evaporated with just one interaction with him.

“Prosecutor Kathar’ya,” Alva coldly addresses him. “I see you’re hard at work crackin’ the case.”

“Of course,” Kathar’ya says, grinning viciously as he looms over the shorter woman. “And what about you? Has your little pet project bore any fruit yet?”

“We got some leads,” she tells him simply, keeping her expression neutral. “We’ll find our guy.”

“I hope you do,” Kathar’ya says, lidding his eyes and smiling. “But you should be careful about letting your emotions get in the way of the investigation, should things not turn out the way you want.”

Alva’s face goes dark as she clenches and unclenches her fist. “Duly noted, sir.”

“Good,” Kathar’ya says, crossing his arms and puffing out his chest. “I’m looking forward to the reports on your findings later.”

“We’re about to move on to our next site,” Alva says tersely. “We should get going.”

“Oh, certainly. I wouldn’t want to impede you,” Kathar’ya steps away, putting his hands behind his back with a look of amusement on his face. “Best of luck, Officer Lindstrom.”

He gives her a sarcastic salute and turns away to stalk down the side of the foyer towards a small group of officers to speak with them, and Alva finally gets to make her departure from the lodge with Albedo and Larus in tow.

“That’s quite a name you got there, Mr. Ahlgren,” speaks the woman sitting on the other side of the glass from Cicada, reading off her files and adjusting the spectacles over her golden eyes. She is a tall elf woman with skin the color of walnut wood and wavy black hair styled in a clean ponytail, wearing a formal silver-threaded vest over a black blouse and a skirt the same color as her vest. An enameled badge engraved with a set of scales is displayed on her lapel and her nails are painted a sunny golden yellow to match.

“Eh.” His right ear twitches in irritation as he folds his arms across his chest, slouching into his chair. His accent is far thicker than most of the people here in spite of his relative youth, with almost every spoken word dripping with aggressive, almost confrontational regional pride that’s all but rubbing itself against the bulletproof glass between them. Had she not been from the area herself, Katja might have had a hard time understanding him. “Everyone says that. I’m just some guy, ya know.”

“I am Katja Eklund, and I have been assigned to your case as your civil defense,” she continues, smiling pleasantly as she puts her thumb under her lapel, flashing her badge for emphasis. Cicada tilts his head at her, squinting at the pin suspiciously. Katja looks back down at the file and takes in a deep breath, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Could you tell me about what you were doing last night?”

“Same as what I’ve told everyone else that’s asked me that today,” Cicada sighs, looking tired. He continues on like he was scripted. “I was out in the woods and while I was walkin’ back to my truck I ran into a troll who got lost, so I ran back home and made ‘im hotdish and drove back out and it wasn’t exactly no candlelight dinner but I was as far from the lodge as anyone could be, ya know. Can’t be more clearer’n that.”

“Right.” Katja nods, looking back down at the papers, flipping through to the autopsy report to briefly skim over it. Her brows go up in surprise as she reaches for the paper coffee cup sitting on the table. “I… I can see why no lawyer in town would even touch this.”

Cicada leans forward. “What’s it say?”

“They think the murder weapon is something magic-related?” Katja says incredulously before taking a long sip of her coffee. “That’s, uh, that’s rather unprecedented for this area, idn’t it?”

“Eh,” Cicada says, his expression flat. “I’m about as magical as a toaster, so you’d think that alone would rule me out, yah?”

“Depending on who you’re asking, a toaster can be plenty magical.” Katja pointedly looks at him. “You haven’t been dabbling with magic, right?”

“‘Bout the only magical thing I can do is turn into a fox, and I been doin’ that since I was a kid,” Cicada says. “An’ startin’ campfires, I guess, but I think a match is more reliable, eh.”

“I see,” Katja says, frowning a bit. “The case report did mention finding three-legged fox tracks in the blood at the scene of the crime…”

“I’m repeatin’ myself here Miss Eklund, but I was in the woods,” Cicada says. “Run all the way out to the end of the 101 where the pavement stops an’ all past that.”

“Can I ask what you were doing out there, Mr. Ahlgren?” Katja says, leveling her gaze at him as she looks over the rims of her glasses. Cicada flinches and looks down, his right ear lowering until it’s level with his permanently-flagged left ear.

“I was just goin’ for a walk, eh,” he says after a period of silence.

“Driving all the way to the end of the 101 seems like quite a distance to go for a walk in the woods, Mr. Ahlgren,” Katja says calmly. “If I’m to be representing you in court, I need you to cooperate with me so I can do my best to get your name cleared. Remember, I’m not a police officer, I’m not with the prosecutor, I’m civil defense — I’m here to help you. At the very least, I’ll try to get you a lighter sentence if I can’t prove your innocence outright.”

Cicada’s eyes drift searchingly down to look at Katja’s wrists, which are covered by her sleeves, then up at her neck. She looks back at him for a few moments, her gaze briefly pointed at his own wrists and what looks to be faded animal bites along the insides of his forearms. He self-consciously tugs his sleeves down, looking away. “I wanted to go spend some time with my mother.”

“You’re–” Katja gasps and jolts up like she’s realized something, then briefly looks away, recomposing herself. “I– I’m sorry. I never knew Ingegard had a son.”

Cicada’s ear flicks as he smirks at her, unable to hide the sadness in his eyes. “You’re gonna tell me I’m a lot smaller than you imagined, arencha?”

“I just thought the family name was coincidental,” Katja admits, looking apologetic. “’Just some guy,’ huh.”

“Well, let’s just say they won’t be makin’ songs about me anytime soon, eh,” Cicada laughs, smiling for the first time since this morning. “At least I hope they won’t.”

Katja doesn’t say anything to that for a long while, her expression grim as she downs the rest of her coffee in one determined gulp. “…Yes, let’s hope this doesn’t end in a way where you have a song dedicated to your legacy.”

“Unless that legacy involves encounters in da men’s room at da bar,” Cicada says brightly, holding a finger up and playing the accent up for comedic effect. Katja just looks at him dubiously and he sheepishly puts his hand back down. “Sorry, sorry. Was a yoke.”

“If you say so,” Katja says after a long pause, pressing two fingers into her temple. “If you were at your mother’s grave that night then you likely have a pretty solid alibi — do you mind telling me approximately what time you were there?”

“Uhh…” Cicada touches his chin, stroking his short beard in thought. “I went down there sometime in the evening or so, eh, and ended up takin’ kind of a nap out there, eh. It was dark when I woke up, but ya know how early it gets dark this time a’ year–”

“–You took a nap in the woods?” Katja asks, peering over her glasses again.

“Well, I kinda just curled up next to Mom’s stone and slept there.” Cicada scratches the side of his chin. “Had kind of a weird dream and woke up all covered in snow like there’d been a storm or somethin’, eh.”

Katja looks up from taking notes. “Weren’t you cold?”

“Eh, nah.” Cicada shrugs a shoulder. “I had fur so’s I was fine. Was stickin’ up all funny when I woke up though, eh.”

“So you were a fox,” she says without a beat. Cicada nods in affirmation as she writes that down in her notes. “Alright, so it shouldn’t be too hard to go down there and look for some fur samples or something to submit as evidence you were there last night. –Your truck wouldn’t have a GPS, would it?”

“Ehh I gots a cheap one for when I go offroadin’, never really use it though,” Cicada says. “Phone’s got one too though so youse could probably do some noodlin’ in that an’ pull up somethin’ that says I was out there and the times an’ stuff, eh.”

“Alright, this sounds like a pretty good foundation for a case,” Katja says, looking relieved. “Of course, it’d be even better if you had a witness. Could you tell me about the troll you helped?”

“Well, I’m not about t’make ya go out into the other sides a’ the woods for me,” Cicada says, “But if ya run into ‘im, he’s a big fella with li’l nubby horns and fluffy black hair, eh. He’ll probably be hangin’ out around a reindeer herd or somethin’, goes by Halvar. He’s probably more scared a’ you than you are of him, eh.”

“I’ll see what I can turn up,” Katja says as she finishes writing. “If you have anything else you’d like to tell me, please do, the more information that can help your case the better.”

Cicada thinks for a moment. “Oh!”

“Oh?”

“Iunno if it’ll be useful but you could probably go to the station and ask my Ma for keys to my cabin, eh,” he says. “Ya know, ‘cause I forgot to get rid of my kitchen trash from when I cooked for that troll an’ left the casserole dish in the sink ‘cause I got arrested before I could clean it.”

“That… could be useful, yes,” Katja says, hesitating. She looks unsure about something. “But who are you referring to when you mentioned… your ‘Ma’?”

The roads furthest away from the lodge are cracked and in terrible condition, having not been repaired in a good few years and riddled with potholes, but at least they’ve been plowed of snow and salted recently. Albedo has now taken the shape of a larger, fluffy big cat with white fur and long pointed ears, sprawling across the back seat of the police cruiser as Larus sits in the front passenger seat with Alva driving towards the residential district of Rust Lake.

“You know, I’ve always wondered what it was like in the back seat of one of these things,” he says, resting his chin on the side door. “Probably less comfy if I had two legs.”

“Probably,” Larus says, holding his hands in front of the dashboard’s heat vents and seriously contemplating asking Alva to take them to the clothing store so he can buy a good coat. If he was going to be here for a while, it might be a worthy investment so his ears don’t fall off from frostbite. “Where are you taking us, by the way?”

“Oh, down to Mister Ahlgren’s house,” she says, making a turn down a dirt road. “You know, see if you boys pick up any of those magical jobbies up in there or not. If he was practicin’ somethin’ magical under our noses, you fellas would find traces of it, right?”

“We would, yes,” Larus nods, turning to look out the window and observing the rows of quaint little cabins and snowed-over yards, many of their occupants out and about. He touches his mouth in thought, motioning to a man shoveling snow off his driveway and a woman scraping ice off the windshield of her truck. “…Why don’t they just use fire magic to do that?”

Alva glances at Larus, chewing on her lip but not saying anything. There’s a long, uneasy quiet in the patrol car, and Alva turns back to concentrating on the numbers of the houses before pulling the car in front of a cozy little cabin at the end of the street. “Hey, fellas! We’re here!”

A beat-up, faded red pickup sits in the snow-coated driveway to the side of the cabin, covered in frost and plastered with bumper stickers loaded with gay innuendo and a large decal of a cicada on the back window, its wings spread and its thorax marked with a circular glyph with two arrows radiating diagonally out from the top, one of them crossed, and a bottom cross pointing straight down. A few patches on the truck look like they were spraypainted over in an attempt to match the original base coat — particularly, the paint and stickers alike look like they barely obscure the words ‘COCK ROCKET’ printed across the tailgate, still faintly visible if someone’s looking hard enough. The truck’s hood looks like it was taken from a completely different vehicle and welded on there by force, with a pair of antlers glued on top like a figurehead. Hanging off the axel between the back tires of the truck is a pair of glittery purple silicone balls and the trailer hitch looks more than a little suggestive.

Larus just stares at the truck incredulously, trying to imagine the type of person that would drive this thing. He can’t decide if it’s better or worse than the decor of the lodge he saw earlier.

“Cute place,” Albedo says, raising his head up for a better look and lingering on the vehicle in the driveway with an amused grin on his muzzle. “Nice truck.”

Alva gets out first, opening the back seat door for Albedo to climb out. Larus looks reluctant to leave the heated front seat of the car but steps out as well, tugging his jacket collar up around his neck and keeping his arms close to his body.

Albedo bounds ahead, pouncing into the snow and rolling it flat with his large feline body as Alva and Larus walk up the icy path to the front door. Larus moves slowly and precariously behind Alva, staring at the ground and trying not to slip on the wet ice in shoes that were very much not made for the weather. Once he makes it to the door, he notices some movement out the corner of his eye and looks up to see a raven drifting idly overhead, banking on the wind and disappearing towards the woods.

Larus looks towards the trees crowding the end of the street, covered with snow and some of them barren of leaves, then turns his attention back to Alva. She’s giving him a look of grave concern, pointing towards the big cat rolling around in the yard.

For a few moments, she looks like she’s trying to find the right words to say, torn between embarrassment and guilt for pointing it out in the first place. Larus arches his brows at her, tilting his chin up to prompt her to speak.

Alva lowers her voice, leaning in close. “Does… does he just let his little danglies hang out like that all the time?”

Larus gives her a very, very tired look. “Officer Lindstrom, have you ever tried putting pants on a large, four-legged animal with claws and teeth and a whole lot of loose skin?”

Alva makes a face and turns away, producing a key from her pocket. A suggestive plastic chainsaw sculpture hangs from the key ring, as well as keys to the truck. “Well at least he likes the snow. I liked ‘im better when he was a little housecat.”

As the door clicks open, Larus is the first one inside. Alva cups her hand to her mouth, turning to Albedo in the yard. “Hey, kitty! You wanna go find some magic?”

Albedo stops rolling around in the snow, laying upright before standing up and shaking himself off, trotting up towards the front steps. He chuffs at Alva, smirking as he drags his long, fluffy tail along her coat as he enters the cabin. She looks down at the shed white hairs left behind on her parka, vigorously brushing herself off before following him inside and closing the door behind her.

The interior of the cabin is certainly well-lived in and not the most orderly, with dirty rugs and spots of mud flung on the walls near the front door. Yellowed and age-stained posters are taped up on the walls, some for local bands and kitschy movies along with animal skins and a few pinups of hairy, older elf men posing seductively with rustic instruments over their laps. A huge blue, pink, and white flag is pinned up over the fireplace and various animal skulls decorate the mantle, immaculately cleaned and put out on display.

On the kitchen wall hangs a calendar featuring a leather-clad dwarf railing an elf, with a sticky note covering up the action between them reading “SORRY MA! =(” and yesterday’s square on the calendar circled and marked with ‘VISIT MOM.’ The counter is littered with garbage and crumbs from the last time something was cooked, with a bag of tater tots and an empty can of cream of mushroom soup laying on its side amid frozen vegetable bags and unrolled butcher’s paper. A dirty casserole dish sits in the sink, filled with water to soak.

Albedo’s tail swings as he stands in the entryway, raising his head to sniff the air. The whole house carries a slightly musky scent about it, which catches his interest as he bares his upper teeth and holds his mouth open for a few seconds before grinning and flashing his tongue across his muzzle in approval.

Larus realizes what he’s doing and shoots him a dirty look from the side, shaking his head. “You’re shameless.”

“What? I was just trying to pick up some magic,” Albedo says defensively, lowering his ears back against his neck. “What about you, can you draw anything at all?”

“I can’t even draw a stick figure,” Larus deadpans as he enters the living room, holding out his hand. The air around it flashes as a plume of vapor rises pathetically from his palm and dissipates as quickly as it formed, with not even a hint of residue left on his glove. “…Nothing here.”

“Figures. I’m gonna go see what he’s got in his room,” Albedo says, padding back towards the bedroom with a friendly hike of his tail. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of his drawers unless I detect something off there.”

“You better,” Larus teases him as the cat steps over a filthy bong laying on its side on the floor. “I don’t want to have to start carrying a spray bottle to investigations.”

Larus approaches an open laptop sitting on the coffee table next to the fireplace, his ears turned back towards the bedroom. “Does anyone else hear crickets?”

Albedo looks up and notices the terrariums stacked on top of the dresser beneath a heat lamp, each containing convincingly reproduced, colorful habitats for their occupants — mostly various praying mantises in their individual containers, and one big fish tank brimming with very lively crickets. Another small fish tank sits nearby, stocked with a handful of fat, lazy cockroaches swaying their antennae as they rest on a branch and up the sides of the tank. He rests his chin on the dresser top to watch the crickets climb over each other for a bit, fascinated by the constant movement and sound of the insects.

“Oh! …Oh,” Alva turns around and hurries for the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door to take out a leaf of lettuce and running back into the bedroom with Albedo, gently nudging him out of the way to remove the lid of the tank. “I better go take care of these little guys!”

As Alva is diligently shredding up lettuce to put in the cricket and cockroach tanks, Albedo wades through dirty clothes on the floor and circles around the unmade bed, peeking beneath the dust ruffle before quickly withdrawing his snout to sneeze. “I found a colony of dust bunnies under the bed but they’re pretty inanimate, not quite familiar quality here.”

The feline then stands up on his hind legs to inspect the bookshelves, finding only schlocky horror movies and bootleg DVDs with handwritten labels for movies he’s never even heard of that sounded like they featured cheap rubber monsters flailing at each other on a backdrop of miniature cities. An accordion is neatly folded up on the bottom shelf next to a fiddle case.

Larus squints over his shoulder towards the bedroom before sitting down on the stained, battered green couch in front of the fireplace, pulling the laptop into his lap and zipping a finger over the touchpad to wake it up. The machine whirs to life and opens straight to the desktop. “No password…?”

The wallpaper loads in, showing a praying mantis wearing a little birthday hat standing before colorful streamers and a ‘1’-shaped candle with a little piece of miniature cake in front of it. Larus stares at it for a little while before clicking on the browser icon.

Albedo fumbles with the closet door with his paws until it opens, and warm artificial light and with the smell of skunk wafts out through the bedroom. His ears go up in surprise. “He’s running a grow and didn’t even bother with putting a basic protective ward on it?”

“Oh!” Alva replaces the lid of the cricket tank after grabbing a handful to take out, looking over her shoulder towards the closet. “I should water those for him after I feed his other little buddies!”

Albedo turns an ear, then looks over towards Alva with an arched brow. “Water them…? He’s not exactly growing tomatoes in his closet, Officer Lindstrom.”

“Well yah, sure, but they’re still plants, right? They need water,” Alva says matter-of-factly as she drops crickets individually into the mantis containers. “We legalized those guys here a good while back, it’s no big deal and it’s only four little plants in there. Not exactly a drug kingpin here.”

“Well,” Albedo says as he rests on his haunches, pressing his jaw back into place with the back of his paw. As Alva finishes up feeding the mantises, she hustles over to the closet and reaches over him to grab a watering can hanging up from a hook on the wall. “I can’t say I was expecting that.”

“Why’d ya say that, Mr. Al’satye?” Alva asks, going into the bathroom to fill up the watering can. “You guys still got it banned on the mainland?”

“W-well, no, not for a few decades now, I just… well, I guess I just figured such a small, rural place… well…” Albedo sheepishly scuffs his paws. “It doesn’t matter, when it’s too cold to do anything else you might as well just light one up and put on a dumb movie, right?”

“Right!” Alva says as she starts watering the plants. “Not that we really cared out here when it was still illegal anyway, ya know? It’s like tellin’ dwarves to ban ale, it’s just too ingrained with us and a plant’s gonna grow no matter what laws ya try to implement on it. Plants do their own thing, they don’t care.”

“Life finds a way,” Albedo laughs, then gets up and pads over towards the living room. He props his paws up on the back of the couch as he looks over Larus’s shoulder, peering at the screen. “So, find anything on the computer, Larus?”

Larus’s face and ears are as red as a winter bauble as he turns to face Albedo with an otherwise deadpan expression. “Nothing pertaining to any sort of magic, sir.”

“Phew. Wow. Okay, he’s a very enthusiastic fan of photography, isn’t he?” Albedo is looking right at the open documents folder on the screen, pinkness showing under the thin fur of his ears. Larus presses his palm into the cat’s nose with a mortified look on his face, pushing him down behind the back of the couch before clicking the window shut.

“So his browser history showed mostly stage makeup tutorials, guides for knitting and embroidery, a membership to a professional wrestling fan forum, and… well, you know, things a healthy adult man of his persuasion would have an interest in,” Larus reports as neutrally as he can manage, closing the laptop and gingerly placing it back on the coffee table. Like the truck outside, stickers coat the lid of the laptop, most of them in colors like the flag above the fireplace along with stylized graphics of insects. “He also runs a blog where he takes pictures of his mantises wearing tiny paper hats and recently put in an order for some exotic cockroaches from the tropics.”

“Huh, I think I’ve seen people reposting stuff like that on my feed before,” Albedo says, putting his paws back on the ground. “But a guy named ‘Cicada’ running a bug blog? That’s a little on the nose there, huh?”

“Nicknames tend to be, sir,” Larus says.

“Oh, no!” Alva peeks out from the bedroom, clutching an armful of dirty clothes to her chest. “Cicada’s his legal name. He picked it out himself, donchaknow. The boy just really loves bugs more’n anything, they’re his babies.”

Albedo and Larus look at each other, blinking as Alva ducks back into the room.

“Well, huh.” The feline shrugs. “Everyone needs a hobby, I guess. As long as there were no Bluetube videos about inciting ancient dark magic for beginners on his computer, there’s probably a very good chance he’s not our guy.”

Albedo pauses to turn around and watch Alva mill about tidying up the room and shaking her head at the state of things. She doesn’t notice him until she looks up from dumping clothes into the hamper, self-consciously straightening herself up and shutting off the light as she approaches the couch with a nervous smile.

“So what’d you boys find? I couldn’t see any scrolls or tomes or nothin’ of the sort in his room back there.”

“Nothing,” Albedo says, shaking his head. “Not a single hair stood up on my body this entire time I’ve been in here. In fact, if you ask me, this guy doesn’t strike me as the type to keep any secrets. Like, none. They’re plastered all over his walls and on the back of his truck for everyone to see.”

“His laptop didn’t even have a password,” Larus adds in. “His browser history went back all the way to when he got the computer and I don’t even think he knows what private browsing is. There was nothing magic-related I could find anywhere in his history or documents.”

He carefully omits mentioning the folder right there on the desktop labeled ‘PORN’ or the bizarre but probably harmless video history.

“Oh!” Alva’s shoulders relax as her expression brightens a bit. “Well innit that somethin’.”

“It’s probably safe to say that we’ve ruled Mr. Ahlgren out,” Larus says, hesitant to continue. “Unfortunately, I feel like that prosecutor is going to pull out every stop he can to get his way.”

“I know,” Alva frowns, crossing her arms. “We gotta find our real guy or he’s gonna be strung up as a scapegoat so everyone goes home happy.”

“I still would like to know how Prosecutor Kathar’ya saw a pretty blatant magical attack and concluded that a logging person did it,” Larus muses. “I mean, I’m assuming Mr. Ahlgren was never too magically-inclined?”

“No, the most I’ve ever seen him do is turn into a fox and a use few practical cantrips,” Alva shakes her head. “Ya know, cookin’ hot dogs and stuff, nothin’ major. Nothin’ near what we saw up at the lodge today.”

“That seems more than what I’ve seen most people here able to do,” Larus says, lifting a brow. “On the drive here, I didn’t see anybody using magic to get rid of snow from their driveways, clear frost, or anything else. Even with a gap in the leylines like this, a basic heating cantrip like that could still be able to be used…”

“It happens sometimes,” Alva shrugs, looking away towards the novelty cat clock on the wall. “You know, I think we oughtta go to the festival now. I’m gettin’ kinda hungry, how ’bout you boys?”

“I’d be okay with that!” Albedo rises to his feet with excitement, his tail swishing eagerly at the prospect of food.

“If you don’t mind,” Larus says, “I’d love to buy a coat before we go, first.”

“Oh sure, yah, we can stop by the store and get you boys a sweater or somethin’! That uniform doesn’t look very weather-appropriate at all,” Alva says, nodding.

“I should get one too!” Albedo chimes in. “You know, for the approximately twenty minutes a day I spend on two legs instead of four.”

“They make cat sweaters too, you know,” Larus says, turning around and poking Albedo in the nose with his finger. “And I’m sure we could fit a big dog sweater on you now.”

“But I don’t need a sweater, I’ve got fur!” Albedo laughs. “I think you’ll look good in one of those little moose sweaters I see people wearing around here, Larus. Don’t you want cute little snowflakes across your chest?”

“I get enough of that already from your incessant shedding, you big fleabag.” Larus grabs the ruffs of Albedo’s cheeks and squishes them around, momentarily forgetting that they’re not alone as the big cat snorts in his face and playfully sticks out his tongue. Alva chuckles behind them, covering her mouth with a hand, and Larus looks up at her. His face and ears burn a bright red again. “…Sorry, I got carried away.”

The bell at the door of the Coat Cabin tinkles pleasantly as Albedo and Larus enter the store, trailed by Alva. The young man at the counter tenses when he sees the two silver-haired men, unsure if he should be alarmed by their presence but quickly relaxing when he realizes they’re only there to shop. An ancient-looking fox naps in a soft cat bed on the counter by the cash register, a faded pink shawl tied around its neck, its ears barely flicking in indifference to the guests. Cheery, old-country folk music sung in Skogish plays in the background off of an old, time-warped record.

The whole place smells like fresh pine needles and fur, decorated with antlers and replete with racks upon racks of winter wear, all handmade by members of the family who staff this shop, as well as bags of homemade jerky, dried trail mix, and assorted outdoor gear. A taxidermy moose head hangs prominently in the center of the back wall of the tiny shop, curiously with tape residue over one of the eyes.

Albedo goes straight for the sweaters, absolutely charmed by the rustic patterns of reindeer and snowflakes woven into the knit as he pulls a blue one off the rack and holds it up to himself with a big smile. “Larus, look!”

Alva touches her fingers to her cheeks. “Oh, you’ll look good in that, Mr. Al’satye!”

Larus turns around from looking at the parkas to find one that would look even the tiniest bit good on him. All of the coats feel unfortunately bulky, but then again, having thick insulation is probably the point of them. “That does look cute,” he says with a muted smile.

Albedo grabs another, smaller sweater with a similar pattern, but in black, holding it out to him. “Here, one for you!”

Larus looks at the sweater foisted upon him, an ear turning back as he tries not to blush. “Maybe. I want to get something more practical for outdoor stuff, first.”

“I’ll get it for you,” Albedo says, draping it over his arm with the other sweater. “I guess I should get one of those jackets too, huh?”

“It might be a good idea,” Larus says as he finally decides on a bleached white leather parka lined with soft rabbit fur, pulling it over his shoulders to try it on. He finds it a tad smothering, but it’s either that or freezing to death in below freezing cold at an outdoor festival. He goes to look at the hats and scarves next, looking for the plainest ones he can find, keeping in mind something he can match with that sweater Albedo picked out for him.

“Do you think we’ll be here long enough to need boots?” Albedo asks, looking up and down the wall of shoes on display while stroking his short beard. Larus glances over but doesn’t answer right away, not wanting to express his displeasure at the idea of spending time outdoors in front of Alva.

“It can’t hurt,” he finally says, settling on a matching navy blue knit hat and scarf. He spends a minimal amount of time trying on shoes before taking a pair that felt comfortable, running over in his head what else he might need to get to survive the weather. Apparently satisfied, he heads to the counter with his arms full to get rung up.

As he’s about to pay, the cashier gives him a skeptical look, holding the bills up to the light and squinting at them. He turns them to make the holographic strips shimmer, long enough so that Larus realizes he’s not just checking to see if they’re counterfeit – he’s checking to see if the bills are real at all. A quick glance at the open register drawer shows Thalassean notes that are decades old and worn thin, mixed in with newer dwarven currency marked clearly with runes and a single human quarter laying bizarrely alone in the coin sorter.

The boy gently nudges the fox on the counter awake, holding the bills in front of her nose. “Mummu, do we take these?”

The fox reaches a bony, greying paw out to tap a pair of folded, thick-lensed bifocals next to the bed, prompting her grandson to put them on over her muzzle flecked thick with white hairs as she studies the bills, then turns her head up to look at Larus and his modern, otherworldly uniform.

Larus clears his throat at the elderly fox, nervously smiling. “We– We’re visiting from Thalasseus, ma’am.”

The fox looks back at the boy and gives him a taciturn nod, keeping her head up long enough to make sure that he saw it. She then tilts her muzzle down to slide the glasses off her face, curling up and sighing back into sleep as her grandson gives the bills one last uncertain look, counting out change.

“Here you go, sir. Sorry about that.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” Larus says, carefully tucking the nearly disintegrated bills into his wallet. “Thank you very much.”

Albedo waddles up behind him as he steps to the side, eyeing the hideously bright purple parka in Albedo’s arms along with the rest of his winter wear (along with a bag or two of jerky, because of course). Alva is also standing patiently behind him in line as well, holding a solitary white linen work shirt that seemed a bit small for her.

Larus motions to the parka. “Where did you even find that, Albedo?”

“Clearance rack!” Albedo beams, full of pride at his masterful bargain hunting skills.

“Ya know, I was startin’ to think bein’ a magic-seeker meant he wasn’t able to turn into an elf no more,” Alva whispers to Larus with a grin as she motions towards the bipedal detective standing over the sausage cart. Albedo seems to be cheerfully grabbing one of everything, wearing the clothes he got at the Coat Cabin earlier.

“It’s a rare treat,” Larus smirks. He’s also wearing his recent purchases and doesn’t look entirely thrilled by the getup, finding the coat to be rather bulky, but at least he’s not shivering anymore. “I’d like to see him on two legs more often.”

Alva shrugs, taking a sip of beer from a plastic cup. “I guess if I was workin’ and had to choose between being a furry animal or a guy in a place fulla kids, drunks, and stoned folks, I’d definitely pick bein’ a guy just so people wouldn’t be tryin’ to pat me on the head all the time.”

Larus looks out towards a mixed group of elf and dwarf children armed with inflatable hammers playing in the square. “No, I’d probably do the same.”

Albedo maneuvers around the group of kids, holding a paper plate stacked high with sausages and a leg of mutton as he joins his companions, sitting down at the bench table. Alva leans back a bit at the sight of the contents of Albedo’s plate, moving her plate aside so he can have room to put his monstrous meat tower down.

Larus watches the children take turns holding out their wrists and bonking them with their hammers to shrieking cheers, turning back an ear in confusion as he picks up some linked together onion rings from his plate to nibble on. “Is this some kind of dwarven festival?”

“Oh, kinda,” Alva says, breaking a festive doughnut in half and biting into it. “The Hammer Festival’s a celebration of unity for us here in the valley, Mr. Sovat’ye. The dwarves are our neighbors, ya know, and we’ve been workin’ together and tradin’ since the town was founded… Our festival seasons overlapped, so it kinda became a thing, ya know?”

“I see.” Larus idly turns to look at the dancers in the square, wearing vests embroidered with colorful flowers and weaving into lines in front of two people holding a wreath in tune with the music being played onstage. Each dancer raises their arms, pretending to swing a hammer at the wreath as the people holding it pull it apart, only to bring it back together for the next dancer in line to ‘break.’ “I never thought I’d see so many dwarves voluntarily above ground and not looking like how a wet cat feels.”

Alva laughs good-naturedly at the comparison. “Well, when ya make friends on the surface it motivates ya to come out to see ‘em more, ya know? It’s an important time of year for us and a lot of us come out to see old pals from the loggin’ days, reminisce, an’ all that stuff. Dwarves’re plenty comfy above ground s’long as they got good company and good drink, ya know.”

The song comes to an end to a cheering audience, but the dancers continue their revelry. On the other side of the square, Larus watches a dwarf charge up to an elven friend and leaps into his arms, getting lifted up and twirled around affectionately before getting lowered back to the ground. Most of the people here seemed just as jubilant despite the cold weather, not letting the snow ruin their good time.

“Well alright, thank ye! Thank ye verra much!”

A wild-haired old dwarf with an untamed beard stands in front of the microphone, taking a swig of beer and raising his arms as he pulls himself up on a stool. The dwarf has a short-necked banjo strapped over his shoulder and is accompanied by his all-dwarf band, each wielding traditional string instruments such as guitar and mandolin.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the effigy burnin’s been cancelled this year,” the dwarf announces with a big grin as a few of the audience members laugh, “So that just means we got time to play you one more song! Let’s make it a special one, aye?”

The other banjo-wielding dwarf takes hold of his microphone and speaks into it. “Aye! So this next here song’s one that’s been banned on the radio fer 85 years, but because of special circumstances–” A few members of the audience whistle and whoop as the dwarf winks at them. “–We’re gonna be playin’ the Ironbreaker’s Ballad here for ya all today.”

More people whistle in response. The first dwarf leans into the mic, grinning shrewdly like he’s divulging a secret. “And fer any o’ you silver-hairs out there in the audience, ye better not go runnin’ to the lodge about it or the dwarves’ll come get ya!”

The audience laughs and cheers and a few of the elves near the bench-table glance in Albedo and Larus’s direction. Larus self-consciously tugs his hat down over his hair while Albedo leans forward with interest, popping another sausage in his mouth. Alva smiles awkwardly at the two, reaching out to pat Larus’s shoulder reassuringly.

A woodcut image of a heroic, defiant-looking elf woman holding a sledgehammer appears on the projector screen behind the band as they begin to play a spirited tune. The dwarf with the banjo begins to sing in a gruff, throaty voice.

The folks in the valley, they was havin’ it rough,

Ev’ry elf had been shackled with the thick iron cuffs

The silver-hairs said it was ’cause they did wrong,

So they’re sent to the woods to cut timber

They worked day after day and night after night,

But one woman there, she’d had enough of their plight

She went to the mines and took a great hammer,

To lib’rate her sisters and brothers

Albedo is enrapt, listening intently with his elbows propped up on the table and his fingers knit together. Larus crosses his arms and recoils back, his ears up and eyes when he realizes what the song is about in the context of the festival.

He looks to Alva to ask her something, but her eyes are glued to the stage. She’s covering her mouth with a hand, and the sleeve of her uniform is pulled back just enough to reveal old calluses on her wrist. A quick scan of the other elves in the square show similar marring on the forearms of the older-looking elves, some of them even with marks on their neck like something was burned into their skin long ago.

He swallows uncomfortably and pushes away his plate, pulling his parka tighter over his body. It doesn’t make him feel any less cold.

But the men at the lodge caught word the next day,

And sent out their cronies to whisk her away

They strung Ahlgren up on a big iron pike,

And told her to say her last words

She said “Always strike back and never give in,

Fight for your rights for yourself and your kin

I’ll return soon enough so remember this day,

For we elves of the woods are undyin’!”

The band transitions to an instrumental portion, the music becoming more somber but no less rebellious in tone. A few of the people in the square take off their hats, others cheer and hold up their fists in the air. Albedo looks around and holds his fist up too, which gets some odd looks from some of the nearby people. Larus reaches over and taps him on the shoulder.

“What?”

“Look around you,” Larus whispers.

“Uh…” Albedo lowers his hand, squinting as he studies the crowd. “What am I looking for, exactly?”

Larus looks at Albedo and points to his wrist, but the detective isn’t picking it up. For all his magical observation skills, he was lacking in other areas.

“Huh, you want to know what time it is…?”

Larus sucks in a breath through his nose, biting his tongue hard. Before he can say anything else, the dwarf resumes singing and Albedo slowly turns back to looking at the stage.

They filled her with lightning and said she’d been slain,

In a casket of iron in the ground she was lain

‘Twas not a week later the elves organized,

Invoking her name for their freedom

Now think back today about all of your rights,

And to all the old timers who kept up the fight

Feel your bare wrists and look out to the woods

In the mem’ry of Ingegard Ahlgren

Albedo stands up and applauds wildly. “Bravo, bravo! That was quite a song!”

Other people in the square cheer and whistle at the song’s conclusion, and the dwarf and his band take a bow. An elf dressed in an embroidered floral vest hurries up to the microphone as the band departs, pulling it up to his height and smiling. “Give it up for Barney Stoutbrew and the Mountaineers, everyone! Up next, we have our wonderful Grey Duck Polka Band from right here in Rust Lake…”

“FOR INGEGARD!” A woman shouts.

Alva rubs her face and looks over at Albedo and Larus, self-consciously tugging her sleeve back down. The moment is only slightly ruined when she glances down at Albedo’s plate, already completely empty with naught but a grease stain and a clean bone from the mutton. “–Jeez-o-pete, how did you already eat all that?!”

Larus gets snapped back into reality, having retreated to his thoughts and realizations about just what that dispute was that Alva mentioned earlier. He looks between her and Alva, blinking blearily at the empty plate. Come to think of it, his plate looks rather empty too and he certainly hadn’t had the appetite to finish it himself.

“Oh, he’s just a living garbage disposal,” he shrugs nonchalantly. “I’d be more worried if there was anything actually left on the plate.”

“Hey,” Albedo pouts. “I was starving.”

“Officer Lindstrom,” Larus gently touches Alva on the shoulder. “Is there a place we can go to pay our respects? A statue, or something?”

“To Ingegard?” Alva blinks, her ears tugging back. Larus nods at her. “Well, the Chairman never let us put up a statue for her, but I could take you to her gravesite… It’s a little outta the way, but I know how to get up there and I wouldn’t mind taking you fellas to see her if you’ve got time.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Larus smiles softly. “It sounds like she’s done as much for this town as the dwarves, it’s the least we could do.”

Alva returns the smile, but her eyes remain sad. “Of course, Mr. Sovat’ye.”

The drive to Ingegard’s gravesite is an even longer one than the drive to Cicada’s cabin, to the point where Larus could swear they left town long ago as bare birch trees roll past them down the bumpy dirt road. Alva hasn’t said anything the entire drive, and the silence is impenetrable and uncomfortable.

“Did we miss our exit or something?” Albedo asks from the back seat, staring out into the empty snowfields and encroaching forest ahead.

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t even one exit, it’s just a straight dirt road that looks like it hasn’t been cared for in ages,” Larus says, noting the unnerving lack of signs other than mile markers. He hasn’t even seen a single oncoming car the entire time. “Did this used to be a route for loggers?”

“Long time ago, yah,” Alva says, her voice distant.

“It’s a nice view, at least,” Albedo says. “If a little creepy. It just looks like endless snow for miles around and dead trees in the distance.”

“It’s much nicer when it thaws out for spring, ya know,” Alva wistfully says. “The trees’re far from dead, they’re just takin’ a break for the winter. Can’t blame ’em, makes me kinda wish we could hibernate too.”

“I imagine many people feel the same way,” Larus says. “Do you come out this way a lot, then?”

Alva is quiet for a long time as the road rumbles beneath the tires of the cruiser, her gaze focused on the barren forest growing ever closer in the distance. “Yah… Sure. It’s a nice drive to collect my thoughts. Sometimes you just gotta go out on a big empty road and just meditate on things, ya know.”

The road is now barely visible beneath the snow, with tire tracks from earlier already nearly covered as a set of grooves going both ways. Mile signs are now replaced by posts of wood sticking out of the ground with numbers spraypainted on them.

Larus can’t help but feel unsettled by the distance they’re going to visit a grave, and how difficult that must have been to travel 85 years ago before snow tires were invented. The contempt the Chairman must have had for Ingegard and what she represented seemed immense, and the length of the drive gave him plenty of time to reflect on that and the present state of the town and people of Rust Lake.

“You know we actually used bolt cutters to take off the irons?” Alva idly says, looking at her passengers. “Doesn’t sound as pretty in a song, though. Can you imagine?”

“It doesn’t quite have the symbolic punchiness of a hammer, no,” Albedo says. “It also seems a lot less likely to accidentally shatter someone’s hands.”

“Inga had a lotta crazy ideas but usin’ a hammer on people’s irons wasn’t one of ’em,” she laughs. “Especially since the actual convicts wore ’em on their necks in addition to the cuffs? Imagine getting those off with a hammer without splattin’ someone’s head on accident.”

“That does seem like a highly unpleasant outcome, yes.” Larus says, then his eyes widen with surprise and horror. “Wait– what do you mean by, ‘actual convicts’?”

“You know, like people who got rounded up from the homeland and sent here on a ship for somethin’ or other,” Alva says, her tone casual like she’s talking about the weather. “Mostly folks were sent here for really small time stuff, like public intoxication an’ stuff that’d just get you a warning today. Nothin’ really dangerous, just people who fell on hard times or got on the wrong side of a silver-hair, ya know. I didn’t mean to make ’em sound scary!”

“It wasn’t that, trust me.” Larus says.

“Heck, Inga herself was a convict taken straight from the forest,” Alva continues. “From what she told me, a bar fight spiraled out of control, the constable rounded up everyone involved, and that was that, eh.”

“And what about you?” Albedo asks.

“Oh, me?” Alva shakes her head and chuckles. “I was just born here! Never did anythin’ that would warrant gettin’ a collar…”

Larus covers his mouth, remembering the sight of those faded iron-burns on her wrist earlier. If she was cuffed just for happening to live here… “O-of course not. They wouldn’t have let you become a police officer if you were, right?”

“Right,” Alva says, nodding. “Though nobody sent here really committed the type of crime that’d prevent you from joinin’ the force, ya know. Heck, you’ll never guess what our own Chief o’ Police got shipped out here for!”

“What did he do?” Larus asks.

“Got busted for fishin’ in an ‘illegal stream’,” Alva says, grinning. “To this day none of us know what that really means, not even Halsten ‘imself.”

“That… doesn’t make any sense,” Larus says.

“Well, it kinda does,” Alva says. “Chief Halsten spends more time fishin’ than he does policin’ and I guess he just chose the wrong stream on some silver-hair’s property one day.”

“I meant more the ‘sending someone to another continent over a minor fishing infraction’ thing,” Larus says, looking uncomfortable. “Although, yes, the phrasing of ‘illegal stream’ isn’t very clear, either.”

Alva is quiet for a long time.

“…Oh.” She tilts her head to crack her neck in an attempt to break the awkward silence. “Well, yah, that’s just how things were back then. A-Although I’m sure things are different now, yah?”

Larus doesn’t have an answer to that. The Thalassean penal system was very much an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing that he’d never put much thought toward as he’d always been raised with the idea that if someone had done something wrong, they’d face consequences for it and that would be that. Are there more towns like this in other remote parts of the world? Even if the practice stopped about a century ago, that’s still only a handful of decades before he was born.

“I would think the punishments aren’t so severe now as opposed to two centuries ago,” he finally says. “A lot has changed since then.”

The road gradually comes to an end, stopping directly at the edge of the forest as Alva pulls the cruiser in and parks it at the end of the road.

“Hey fellas, I forgot to mention somethin’ before we got here,” she says, forcing a smile and reaching over Larus to pull her bomber hat out of the glove box. “One, we gotta walk from here on out. Two, the trolls like to winter their herds out here, so don’t freak out if you see one about–”

Larus startles, visibly shaken. “Wait, you have trolls out here?”

“Oh, there’s nothin’ to worry about, boys,” Alva chuckles reassuringly, pulling the hat over her head and buttoning up her parka. “The trolls here are pretty harmless and tend to leave people alone when we come out here. Just make your intentions clear, give ’em space, and they usually walk away.”

Albedo and Larus look at each other, unsure.

“I really don’t think ‘trolls’ and ‘harmless’ belong in the same sentence,” Larus points out.

“You’ll be fine!” Alva reaches across to pat Larus’s shoulder, trying to sell it with an overly confident grin. “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry about trolls. Forget I even mentioned it, yah?”

“I’m convinced,” Albedo says. “Larus, how ’bout you?”

Larus turns an ear back with uncertainty. “Well, we made it this far…”

“I’m serious,” Alva pops the door open, turning to get out of the car. “The trolls won’t hurt ya boys, but we do got a walk ahead of us so we should get goin’ then.”

After weighing his options of staying in the car and not getting eaten by a troll or following through on something he requested of Alva in the first place, Larus steps out into the cold, scrunching his face into the frozen breeze blowing towards him. He pulls his scarf up over his nose and wraps it around once, looking over at Alva letting Albedo out of the back seat and envious of his companion’s apparent indifference to the freezing weather.

Wading through shin-deep snow was not mentioned in the job description, and Larus is thankful he had bought more weather-appropriate footwear as he and Albedo follow Alva through the forest on a footpath through bare birch trees and snow-coated evergreens. Small songbirds and jays flit through the branches, collecting berries in their beaks and seeming to argue with each other over their finds before darting off further into the woods. Larus can’t help but to notice the raven perched on one of the high branches, seeming to watch the three of them go deeper into the woods.

Out of nowhere, a snowball hits Larus in the shoulder from behind and he whips around to face Albedo, who’s sticking his hands behind his back and looking away in feigned innocence. “Really?”

“Sorry,” Albedo grins as he rubs the back of his neck, “Been wanting to do that ever since we got here.”

Larus sighs. “I’m surprised you’re still on two legs,” he says. “Aren’t you cold?”

Albedo shrugs and puts his hands back in his pockets, taking big strides to catch up to Larus. “I’ll stick my hands under your coat if I get too frosty.”

“You do that, and I’m letting you sleep on the floor when we get back to the hotel tonight,” he smirks.

The forest only seems to be getting denser as Alva leads them ahead, surrounded by tall, ancient trees that nearly block out the already waning light. The ground beneath them feels uneven and a bit slippery.

“Watch out for roots under the snow, fellas,” Alva warns them, looking back over her shoulder. “Don’t get your foot caught.”

They make it to a tiny clearing, shafts of light washing over a solitary, snow-covered tombstone that looked more dwarven in style than elven, a blocky boulder with the front part carved flat and engraved with angular knots on the sides. Alva takes a deep breath as she walks across the snow to the grave, tenderly brushing the snow off of it with a gloved hand and kneeling before the stone.

Larus moves forward with her, not yet noticing that Albedo has stopped halfway towards the grave. Not hearing the creaking of snow behind him, he looks over his shoulder to see the taller man lurched over, his hair standing up and his arms awkwardly held out in front of him.

“What–” His expression turns from concern to fear as he sprints back towards his faltering companion, holding his arm out to catch him as he falls over, his entire body involuntarily convulsing. “Albedo!”

Alva looks in their direction and runs over to them, her eyes widening in shock as she kneels down in the snow to provide extra support for Albedo’s seizing body. “Oh, that’s not good!”

“There– There aren’t any magical wards on this gravesite, are there?” Larus asks Alva as he reaches into his parka to fish a stringed lodestone out of his uniform pocket, gently lowering Albedo into the soft snow. He reaches around behind Albedo’s neck to unzip the high collar of his bodysuit, rolling it down as he plunges the stone against the bare skin of his throat and holds it in place. Light begins to envelop the seizing man’s body until he starts to go slack. “Or any magic at all?”

Alva shakes her head, visibly worried. “N-no, there shouldn’t be that I know of. Will he be okay?”

Albedo’s body lays exhaustedly in the snow, shrinking into the shape of a small Arctic fox, his fur standing on end. Larus fastens the lodestone to his neck by the string, then scoops Albedo up and cradles him in his arms, hugging the unconscious fox to his chest.

“He should come to soon enough.” His shoulders drop in relief as he feels the little fox breathing, huddling over Albedo protectively. “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, that’s what seeker’s assistants are for.”

Alva reaches over to gently stroke the fur on Albedo’s forehead. The fox stirs, opening his eyes and staring blankly out before closing them again. “What happened to him? It looked like a seizure.”

“It was,” Larus says, his voice calm. “Do you know why magic-seekers tend to take animal forms, Officer Lindstrom?”

Alva shakes her head.

“They’re really sensitive to magic,” Larus begins as he stands up, unbuttoning his parka to put Albedo inside the front of his coat to keep him warm. He’s still supporting the fox’s weight on his arm, and tilting his muzzle sideways out of the parka so he doesn’t choke. “Having fur is both insulation and a diffuser for magical energy for them. Without it, contact with magic can overwhelm them, and… things like this can happen.”

“I had no idea,” she says quietly, getting back up. “So that’s why his hair got all frizzy like that at the crime scene, huh?”

Larus nods somberly at her. He’s about to speak, when he hears a soft yip and feels Albedo squirming in his arms.

“Larus…”

He looks down at the fox in his arms, smiling warmly. “You back with us, Al?”

Albedo looks up at him with worn, heavy eyes and a tired grin on his muzzle, his voice barely audible. “Do you have any food?”

For a long time, Larus says nothing, hugging the fox tightly against his chest with a relieved look on his face. “I’m afraid I don’t, my friend.”

“We should order some takeout later,” Albedo says, sounding a little dazed as he snuggles into Larus’s parka.

“When we get back,” Larus lowers his head to kiss Albedo on the forehead, brushing his thumb on his fur. “But you should rest for now.”

“Why is there magic at a gravesite, anyway?” Albedo asks, flopping his head over to the side to look out of the parka. “I mean, hauntings can be a thing, but usually they don’t come with magic.”

“I’d be interested in findin’ that out, myself,” Alva says, eyeing the grave with suspicion and clenching her fist. “If someone’s been messin’ with Inga, I’d really like to know who.”

“Only one way to find out,” Larus takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, walking towards the tombstone with his hand stretched out to draw the magical energy from the air. A vibrating crystal forms in his open palm, the same sickly pale color as the mana crystal he drew at the lodge. His brows go up in surprise as his ears nervously pull back. “Officer Lindstrom?”

The branches above them rustle, and they both look up to a flock of ravens staring down at them from the trees, surrounding them on all sides of the clearing. One of the birds caws as it circles to the ground, landing in front of them and folding its wings as it struts up close as though it were trying to get a better look. Larus scrambles next to Alva, and she holds her arm out in front of him.

Another large raven glides down from the trees, landing on Alva’s shoulder and leaning into her face, tugging out a lock of hair from beneath her hat before spreading its wings and jumping over to inspect Larus. The wind picks up as the trees start to sway, and brown needles get blown off the firs.

Larus’s heart is racing as the raven gets uncomfortably close to his eyes, pulling his head away from it and clenching his fist around the mana crystal. Albedo nips at the bird’s tail from below and it flutters away in surprise.

“Alright, f-fellas,” Alva tells the ravens, her voice wavering as she lowers her arm. “We’re not here to cause trouble…”

A few of the ravens lean forward or tilt their heads, as though considering her words. The wind starts to die down.

“I don’t know who ya are, or why you’re here,” she continues, stepping forward with her hands up, “But we came here to pay our respects. See? I got nothin’.”

The ravens look at each other and briefly chatter amongst themselves in their incomprehensible, raspy tongue, then all leap off the branches at once to fly away into the forest, disappearing into the treetops like smoke. Only the raven on the ground stays behind, looking up at Alva before jumping into the air to land on her shoulder.

“Oh… hey there,” Alva leans her head away from it, nervous. “Aren’tcha gonna go off with your little buddies?”

The raven wordlessly gazes at her, angling its head down at her and sidling closer to her face, croaking softly at her with its feathers fluffed up. It gently nuzzles the side of its beak into her cheek, closing its eyes and making what sounds like a wistful sigh before propelling itself off her shoulder and into the snowy forest, vanishing from sight.

The trees around the gravesite are still and quiet. A long silence passes between the three of them as they gaze into the empty sky for any signs of the ravens, but not even the boughs are stirring.

“Does that happen often?” Larus asks as he holds Albedo closer to his chest.

“That’s never happened,” Alva says, tears rolling down her face as she touches her cheek where the raven had pressed its beak. “Weirdest darn thing I’ve ever run into out here, that’s for sure.”

“Mm.” Larus can feel the small hairs of his neck standing up, and while he’s not as magically fine-tuned as Albedo, he can still sense that the ravens didn’t take the magic energy with them. He quickly takes out a leaded vial and puts the crystal into it, sealing it and stashing it with the other vials he collected at the crime scene. “Do you think they’ll be back?”

“I dunno, but I’m gonna do what I came here for before they do,” Alva takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, walking back towards the grave. A light snow falls from the sky above as she clasps her hands together in front of her, bowing her head for a few silent moments of reflection.

Larus joins her, supporting Albedo with both arms now. The fox rests his weary head against Larus’s chest and sighs into sleep, closing his eyes as his fur frizzes up from the remnant energy. There were far too many questions at the back of Larus’s mind, ones that he realizes scrying might not even answer when he gets a chance to analyze the mana crystals later tonight. He trains his eyes on the dwarven knots carved into the squat, bulky tombstone, and on the inscription on the face of the stone:

IRONBREAKER

INGEGARD AHLGREN

28th MAY 5468 – 21st DECEMBER 5693

MOTHER, SISTER, LIBERATOR TO THE FOREST’S CHILDREN

TAKEN FROM THE HOMELAND AND RETURNED TO THE WOODS

“Uff da,” Alva murmurs softly, rubbing the back of her neck as she straightens up from her silent prayer. “Is it weirdly colder’n usual over here or is it just me?”

Larus looks up, ears perked with interest and concern. “There’s a lot of strong ambient magic energy in the air here, you might be reacting to it…”

Alva looks at him with one eye squinted in suspicion, then forces a smile and shakes her head. “No, no, I wouldn’t be able to feel that, donchaknow, got about a century of iron exposure on me. I can’t.”

“Your body can still react to magic even if you can’t personally do anything with it,” Larus calmly says. “Every elf should be able to.”

“Hmm.” Alva bows her head, frowning. “I guess. Until today I’ve never really encountered it otherwise, the only other time I’ve ever been around magic was, well, ya know…”

“Right, sorry,” Larus says, flinching. He hates how easy it is to forget that there are pockets of elves that don’t have regular contact with magic on a day-to-day basis, so Ingegard’s execution would have likely been the first and only magic that many people born here would have had encountered. “I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”

“Eh.” Alva shrugs, looking to the trees as she wipes her eyes. “Like I said, I can tell you I’ve been here many, many times and I’ve never seen no weird flocks of ravens or felt that weird hair-tinglin’ thing before.”

The thought crosses Larus’s mind to hold Albedo out in his arms like a magical dowsing rod to see if they can’t pinpoint a source for the energy or some other trace of who might’ve been here earlier, tasteless as it might be, because searching for magical artifacts when you don’t have a keen sense for it can be like playing a divine game of hot and cold that you may never win if the wards are strong enough.

He looks to the ground to see if there’s anything amiss, noticing the faint hint of reddish-orange earth that can be seen beneath the snow in their tracks closest to the grave, along with something black smeared into the dirt.

“After the festival, I figured the reason this place might have been called Rust Lake was because of something to do with the irons,” Larus says, idly squatting down and letting Albedo rest on his leg as he pushes some of the snow aside, pulling a wet, black feather out of the mud below. “I didn’t realize the ground here was rust-colored, too.”

“What?” Alva turns around to look at Larus digging in the snow. “No, the ground here’s always been regular dirt-colored, what do you mean by rust…?”

Larus sweeps aside a large patch of snow with a gloved hand, revealing a ground littered with sodden black feathers as he looks up at Alva with an unreadable expression. “You mean this isn’t normal?”

Alva holds her arm out to the front of the clearing where they had come in. “Look at the ground over there. Guarantee you won’t find any feathers out that way, either…”

A deep cold penetrates Larus’s veins when he uncovers a charred, ragged-looking fetish beneath the snow, carefully picking it up off the ground. It’s made of twigs and bound with cloth, with those same black feathers poking out of the fabric and generously dusted with flakes of rust. He carefully puts the object into an evidence bag and seals it, tucking it in his front pocket, his eyes widening as he looks around the clearing. “–We should probably leave soon.”

“Huh? But we just got here,” Alva says, pointing her thumb over her shoulder, “Are you really worried about those ravens coming back?”

“They might if they see us sifting around in the snow out here,” Larus says, standing up quickly. “And personally, I don’t think the two of us alone are even remotely equipped to deal with the type of magic I think this is. I’m going to get a few photos, and then we should get going back to the car.”

The branches of the trees sway in a breeze but Alva doesn’t flinch, instead folding her arms defiantly over her chest. “What’re you gettin’ at, Mr. Sovat’ye…?”

“I found a fetish on the ground,” Larus says, reaching for his breast pocket to show Alva the evidence bag containing the delicate object, “Under the snow.”

Alva touches her hand to her chin, studying the object and thinking over what Larus has said, then clears her throat.

“Ya know, most people don’t pick dose up off da ground der, eh,” she quips, intentionally making her accent thicker for comedic effect. Larus squints at her with suspicion. “Dose usually come from some odd wirin’ in yer brain durin’ puberty an’ dey kinda stick wit’chya all yer life, donchaknow.”

Alva winks and holds out both her hands while grinning broadly at Larus. For a few moments, he stares at her, his expression deadpan before exhaling a loud, disgusted groan.

“I’m resigning from this investigation right now,” he says flatly. “Effective immediately.”

After a fit of laughter at her own terrible joke, Alva clears her throat again and adjusts her parka, looking around innocently. “–Sorry, sorry, just wanted to lighten the mood a bit ’cause things were gettin’ a little creepy out here. So, uh, what’s the deal with the fetish? Izzat some kinda magic thing there, eh?”

“It is a witchcraft thing, yes,” Larus says, putting the fetish back into his pocket and going for his phone to document the rusty earth. “Such practices are banned on the mainland and have been for centuries, but…”

“Oh.” Alva’s expression drops. “But why here…?”

“I can’t say for sure.” Larus walks along the clearing, circling the grave and getting pictures from various angles. “I’m hoping Albedo and I can run a scry on the things we’ve collected when we get back to town, but I’m thinking this is more connected to the case at the lodge than our logdriver here is.”

“And I know you know I’m gonna say this,” Alva says, sighing, “But I don’t know a single person in town that can do no witchcraft, eh.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, no. Witchcraft tends to be secretive by its very nature.” Larus is about to put his phone away, having finished photographing the gravesite, when he looks up and notices the warm violet hues of the sky, then back down at his phone to double-check the time. “Is that normal?”

“Huh?” Alva looks around in bewilderment. “Is what normal?”

“It’s not even four o’clock and the sun is setting,” Larus says, grave concern in his voice as he starts back towards the way they came. “I think our witches are onto us–”

“–Mr. Sovat’ye,” Alva interrupts him, grabbing for the back of his coat with one hand and covering her mouth with the other, barely restraining her amusement. “You’re not serious, are ya? It’s midwinter!”

“What do you mean it’s midwinter?” Larus freezes up, refusing to turn and look at Alva as his entire face turns a deep beet red. “I’m just saying should get back to the car before it gets dark,” he says through clenched teeth.

“Oh fer jeez,” Alva doubles over in laughter, not letting go of Larus as she slaps her knee. “You’re serious! Donchaknow it always gets dark at four this time a’ year, eh?”

Albedo stirs in Larus’s coat and wakes up, sticking his head out. “Huh, wha, what’d I miss?”

Larus starts moving again, his face flushing anew. “Nothing–”

“Buddy didn’t know about days bein’ short in the north, eh! He was all, ‘Oooh, der’s some spooky witchin’ goin’ on der with da sun der’, eh,” Alva says jokingly, and Larus picks up his pace to get away from her.

Albedo yips and chatters his teeth in laughter, rolling around in Larus’s coat. “Really, Larus? The sun rose at ten here this morning!”

Larus lowers his gaze and flattens his ears to the side of his head, his entire body feeling hot despite having spent the last hour or so out in below freezing temperatures. “I’m taking the cruiser and leaving you both in the woods.”

“I mean, you were pretty spot-on with the rest of the witchy stuff though,” Alva says, straightening up and dusting herself off before reaching over to pat Larus reassuringly. “Sorry for laughin’ at ya, Larus.”

“Hmph.” Larus stops to look over his shoulder at her, exhaling through his nose. “I concede that was a really stupid thing for me to say.”

“It wasn’t stupid, ya know, just…” Alva pauses, searching for the right word. “Kinda goofy, ya know. I’m no witchcraft expert or nothin’ but I don’t think controllin’ the sun is somethin’ witches can do, eh.”

“I realize that now.” Larus resumes walking, his complexion returning to normal as he shifts Albedo’s weight to another arm.

“So wait,” Albedo says, pointing his snout up at Larus as he puts his paws on his chest. “Why are we talking about witchcraft?”

“I’ll tell you when we get to the c–” Larus gets cut off.

“Mr. Sovat’ye found a fetish on the ground,” Alva butts in from behind.

“You shouldn’t pick those up from the ground, Larus, you don’t know where they’ve been,” Albedo says, touching a paw to his chin. “It’s safer to find those on the internet.”

Alva starts laughing again as Larus lets out a longsuffering sigh, hiding his face in his palm. “I hate you both so much.”

“But wait, hold up, you found like an actual witchcraft fetish as in a potentially harmful enchanted object?” Albedo asks, his ears up.

“Among other things, yes,” Larus says. “Which is why I felt it prudent to discuss somewhere further away from here, in case they’re listening from the trees.”

“Well they probably got an earful of bad jokes if they are,” Alva says, grinning brightly as she briskly walks up to Larus’s side. “And I sure got more where that came from, ya know!”

“Oh, no,” Larus says, walking as fast as he can manage in ankle-deep snow.

Albedo pulls himself up to rest himself on Larus’s shoulder to look at Alva behind them. “Oh, yes!”

Larus breaks into a clumsy sprint down the way back to the car, not realizing that he’s about to bump into another person coming up the path. Albedo yelps in surprise on impact, leaping out of Larus’s arms and landing on his feet in the snow as his companion so elegantly falls on his ass.

“Oh jeez, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

Larus’s eyes unfocus and refocus, with the dark-skinned woman he saw entering the lodge when they left coming into view standing over him. She’s wearing a thick magenta parka, heavy snow boots, and a cozy yellow knit hat, holding her hand out to him.

“Sorry, I didn’t think anyone else would be out here…” Larus says, taking the woman’s hand and pulling himself up, brushing snow off his backside.

Alva catches up with them, stopping in her tracks as she looks at the other woman and puts a hand on her hat, taking it off. “Miss Eklund! What’re you doin’ out here, uh?”

“Oh! Officer Lindstrom,” Katja says, relief on her face, striding across the snow to meet with the policewoman, thumbing under her lapel to show off her badge. “There you are, I was looking all over town for you!”

“How’d you know we’d be here, uh?” Alva asks, smiling while putting her hands on her hips. “We were all just about to head out, ya know.”

“Well, running into you was mostly an accident, to be honest, I was coming out here on behalf of Mr. Ahlgren,” Katja says, rubbing the back of her neck. “He told me he came out here to take a nap yesterday so I wanted to go see if I could find some evidence of that. You know, fur samples and stuff.”

“Oh, you took his case for ‘im did ya?” Alva asks, wiping her forehead. Katja nods at her. “Well, I’ll have ya know I pulled some strings at the station and got us some real magic-seekers sent right from the mainland on our boat and we’ve been collectin’ a whole slurdge of evidence that we’ll be happy to send your way later!”

“That’s wonderful! Wait– this case actually merited magic -seekers?” Katja motions towards Larus and the fluffy white fox in the snow beside him before stepping forward and offering her hand to them, and proudly flashing her badge with the other. “Katja Eklund, public defense! It’s a pleasure to be working with you!”

“Larus Sovat’ye,” he says, shaking her hand and kneeling to pick Albedo back up, patting the snow out of his fur.

Albedo rubs his face against Katja’s hand, completely indifferent to the fact that he’s a fox acting like a cat right now (habits die hard). Katja can’t help but pet the soft fur around his head, barely containing her joy as his tail wags. “Albedo Al’satye.”

“It’s a pleasure. We were mainly called in to investigate the murder of a high ranking official–” Larus says.

“I mostly wanted to see what kind of magic would spring up in a place like this,” Albedo says, cutting him off. “And the results so far are really interesting.”

“Yes, volatile magic springing up in a dead-zone like this is quite fascinating,” Larus concedes.

“And so far it’s looking very different from what we’re used to investigating!” Albedo grins.

“Yes… ‘different’.” Larus suppresses a shudder at the word, never thinking he’d end up missing the more urbane magic practiced by the elves of the mainland. The magic he’s detected here, on the other hand — perhaps primal, croaking, and raw would be more apt descriptors. It’s living magic from the times before his ancestors tamed and refined it on the foggy coast, the magical equivalent of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh.

“Anyway, if you wish to investigate the gravesite for fur samples for your client, you should make it quick. It’s getting dark soon,” he says, taking a step to the side to allow Katja to pass. “I… wouldn’t recommend lingering if any ravens show up.”

Katja blinks at him, moving forward. “Ravens? Oh, those’re just part of the local wildlife here. Nothing to be afraid of!” She stops a few feet away from the grave, looking over the upturned snow and the scattered feathers, brushing down her arms. “Oh, jeez. It sure looks like someone killed a raven here, though. Poor thing! Was it like this when you came here?”

“Ah, no,” Larus says, sheepishly shaking his head. “The snow was undisturbed when we got here. Sorry, I didn’t think it would be related to our case.”

“It’s fine, I just need to get some proof that he was here,” Katja says, reaching for her phone to use as a flashlight as she runs the light along the stone and pulls back some of the snow with her hand. Stopping the light, she fishes a plastic bag out of her pocket and some tweezers, carefully picking up tufts of red fur out from being sandwiched between layers of snow. “Ah! Here we are! These’re a very different color from the fur I sampled from the crime scene earlier, so we should have this one in the bag…”

Alva’s brows shoot up in interest. “Ya don’t say, Miss Eklund? What color was it?”

“What I found was kind of a lightish blue-grey,” Katja says, sealing the bag and getting up. “I don’t think it belonged to the Chairman, his hair wasn’t so blue and it was darker, besides.”

“Now that’s real innerestin’ information there, Miss Eklund,” Alva says, falling silent for a few moments and crossing her arms in thought. “Don’t know too many people in town with that hair color, donchaknow.”

Katja looks off to the side to think, then startles, looking back up. “Oh, jeez. Ohhh jeez! Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘im,” Alva says, pursing her lips. “So I’d say you oughtta keep that under your hat ’til the trial tomorrow, eh.”

“Oh, you betcha,” Katja says to Alva, then takes a step back to address the group. “So, I don’t suppose you guys saw any trolls around here?”

“Thankfully no,” Albedo says, shaking his head.

“That’s a shame, I was hoping I could find the guy Mr. Ahlgren mentioned for some questioning,” Katja says. “It’s probably gonna be getting too dark for us to go out to where the herds are, though.”

“Eh, I got a flashlight on my belt,” Alva says.

Larus looks at her with wide, frightful eyes. “I’d– I’d like to go back to town so we can run an analysis on these mana crystals, if you don’t mind…”

Alva and Katja look at each other, then back at Larus expectantly, crossing their arms.

“Mr. Sovat’ye, I know you’re not a fan of trolls, ravens, or the sun settin’ before 7 o’clock, but I think it would really help our case if we found us a troll before the trial tomorrow,” Alva says, firm in conviction but unwaveringly polite in the way that if you turned her down, you’d be feeling guilty for it for at least a week.

“She does hold the keys to the car, Lar,” Albedo reminds him. “Besides, who wouldn’t love a little friendly troll-hunting at night?”

“That’s three against one,” Katja grins, putting her hands on her hips. Larus pins his ears back, looking uncomfortably between the women.

“Ugh. Very well,” Larus sighs in resignation, although the tension doesn’t leave his body. “If one of us gets eaten, I’m sure someone will survive and submit a report to the mainland, right?”

“Yah, sure, you betcha.” Alva clucks her tongue sarcastically, looking smug. “Mr. Sovat’ye, do you know what lives ’round here and’s more deadly’n a troll?”

Larus looks at her with skepticism. “Besides witches? Tell me.”

“A moose,” Alva states, dead serious.

“A moose?” Larus repeats, angling his head at Alva. Albedo starts cracking up. “Surely you don’t mean those really large deer with the weird noses?”

“I certainly do, Mr. Sovat’ye.” Alva nods solemnly. “You’ll have better luck keepin’ yer guts intact gettin’ caught under a runaway log pile, far as that goes.”

“Aren’t they herbivores?” Albedo asks, narrowing his eyes and tilting his head.

“They sure are,” Alva says matter-of-factly. “And they’re also ’bout half a ton of pure hatred for all livin’ things if you don’t keep your distance.”

“A troll will at least listen to you if they don’t feel threatened,” Katja adds helpfully. “So, you know, don’t do anything that makes a guy feel unsafe. Moose on the other hand, you basically gotta hope it doesn’t see you before you see it.”

“Mmn.” The idea to look up the statistical probability of getting killed by a moose hits Larus, so he takes out his phone. Upon unlocking, he’s met with the flashing ‘NO DATA’ symbol and frowns hard at the device. He’s not even sure why he did that, since he’s thoroughly unsurprised that the cell tower wouldn’t reach this far out in the wilderness. “Okay, moose. Apparently more likely to put you in the hospital than a troll, got it.”

A few minutes wandering in the snow with a flashlight feel like hours, and the temperature is steadily dropping the longer it stays dark.

“Ya know, hate to say it but we might have to call this search off for now,” Alva says as she wraps her scarf around her face. “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of our troll fella and my nose is ’bout ready to fall off. Whaddya say we head back to town and get somethin’ warm to eat, eh?”

“I like the sound of that!” Albedo says, walking alongside Larus’s feet. “The cold’s even starting to get to me with all my fur. I’d love to just bury my face in some hot soup right about now.”

“For once, I agree with him,” Larus says, his arms clasped over each other as he shivers. “We’ve done all we can out here, so I wouldn’t mind calling it a day and going back to analyze the samples we’ve collected.”

“I– I guess, yeah, I could use some more coffee for now.” Katja looks unsure, but if Alva says it’s time to stop, it’s probably good to listen to her. “Let’s hope the case can either get dismissed tomorrow or I can drag my feet enough that the trial gets extended, yeah?”

“Yah… let’s hope,” Alva says.

They make their way back to the footpath, the empty snowfield coming into view of Alva’s flashlight beam, when Larus hears something coming from behind them, heralded by rustling, snapping branches and the sound of breathing echoing through the lungs of something easily twice their size, if not bigger.

Alva hears it too, stopping in her tracks as she lowers the flashlight and clicks it off, leaving only the moon to cast its dim light over the area.

The snow crunches beneath plodding, heavy footsteps, similar to the hoofbeats of a horse, but magnitudes larger. The creature snorts, seeming to stop a good distance from them.

“Alright fellas,” Alva says, her voice barely above a whisper. “No fast movements unless it decides to go after us. Put somethin’ big between it and you, and make sure you’re givin’ it space…”

Larus dares to look over his shoulder, but all he can make out in the darkness is the form of an enormous beast with wide, heavy antlers, its hackles raised as its head is lowered like it’s ready to charge forward and scoop the four of them up in its horns like nature’s bulldozer. It stamps its hooves, pawing at the ground and kicking up a spray of snow behind it, ready to charge.

“Uh, it looks like it wants to do the first thing,” Albedo says, looking up over his shoulder. “I’m, uh, I’m just gonna go run under the car since we’re pretty much there anyway–”

The moose breaks into an earthshaking gallop down the path. Before he can even register what he’s doing, Larus finds himself shrinking into the shape of a grey and white fox, down on all fours and darting into the underbrush with Albedo, and from the looks of it, Katja’s done the same, diving behind a tree and poking her slender black snout out to look after the beast as it charges past and stops just short of Alva’s cruiser.

Alva’s the only one remaining on two legs, holding onto her hat as she’s standing next to a tree off the edge of the path with a look of surprise, but otherwise completely unruffled by the moose stomping ahead and looking around in bemusement for those four people it was trying to charge just now. She clicks her flashlight back on.

Larus’s fur is standing on end as he cranes his neck out of the bush. The moose stamps around before circling and disappearing back into the woods, apparently satisfied at having made its intruders disappear.

Albedo is the first to trot out of his hiding spot, his ears and tail up. “Anyone else suddenly feeling very sympathetic to bowling pins right now? No? Just me?”

Larus turns back into an elf before anyone else can notice him, dusting off his jacket and walking back out onto the path very casually like nothing had happened. “Those things are a lot bigger in person, aren’t they?”

Katja is also quick to return to a more bipedal form, striding forward to make it back to her car before the moose can return to menace them some more and keeping an eye on the woods until Alva and her crew emerge from the trees.

“We’ll see ya back in town, Miss Eklund?” Alva asks, opening the passenger door for Larus to climb in with Albedo in his lap.

Katja nods. “Yah, sure. Meet up at the station later?”

“Sounds good to me!” Alva says, getting into the driver’s seat of her cruiser. After waving Katja off and shutting the door, she turns to Larus and Albedo with a wide smile. “…So, you boys like yokes?”

“That’s a food, right?” Albedo asks, ears perked.

Alva starts the car, still grinning. “Yah, sure, it’s food for the soul, alright!”

“…And so, after a few minutes of thinkin’, Lenadil says to da obituary guy, ‘Oleanor died. Boat for sale.'”

Albedo laughs uproariously from Larus’s lap as his companion presses the side of his head against the window of the police cruiser, smiling despite himself. They had made it to the car without any intervention and were well on their way back to town, the lights of Rust Lake’s homes and businesses growing nearer. Albedo was becoming more of himself, although he’s remained in fox form the entire trip.

“Okay, that one was actually pretty good,” Larus says, covering his mouth. “There are a lot more of these jokes than I anticipated.”

“They’re not jokes, Larus, they’re ‘yokes,'” Albedo corrects him. “And they’re all extremely good, yes?”

“By some definition of ‘good,’ sure,” Larus smirks.

“You guys don’t have jokes like that in Thalasseus?” Alva asks, looking over at her passengers.

“Mm… Thalassean humor is kind of, uh,” Larus twirls his index finger in the air as he attempts to search for a word.

“It’s mean-spirited,” Albedo says, hesitantly. “I like these kinds of jokes better.”

“Well, that’s good then!” Alva looks back at the road, even though they haven’t seen a car coming in the opposite direction since they left, both ways. “If we can get Cicada off the hook in court maybe he’ll tell you his world famous leg joke. He tells it at every potluck, ya know.”

“His… leg joke?” Larus lifts a brow, tilting his head.

“Yah, you know how he’s got one leg, right?” Alva asks, and Larus nods, recalling the case file and those contentious tracks in the blood. “It’s about that. I don’t wanna spoil the punchline by tryin’ to retell it, it’s his delivery that really makes it work. He’s so proud of that thing, ya know.”

“What happened to his leg that he felt he could make a joke about it?” Albedo asks.

“Oh, I can’t just give that away! You’ll have to ask ‘im later,” Alva says.

Albedo touches a paw to his chin. “I’ll have to remember that!”

They finally pull back into paved road, sparsely lit were it not for the old neon signs belonging to a local motel proudly boasting color TV and other businesses, mostly hardware stores and rental equipment companies, lining the street. The signs and their respective buildings look like they’ve been there for at least half a century if not longer, the paint beneath the neon tubes cracked and rusted over on some of them, and huge swaths of evergreen trees between the businesses.

Larus looks out the window at the signs illuminating the otherwise dark street, creating soothing points of light along the black sky. He can’t help but appreciate the soft, colorful glow reflecting off the snow covering everything around it.

Albedo stands up on his hind legs against the car door to watch the signs float by with Larus. “I just want to let you all know that if we all end up getting eviscerated by primal death magic, I don’t regret coming down here and this really is a lovely little place.”

“I would have worded that a bit more tactfully, but my sentiment is the same,” Larus says. “I do prefer being in the heated indoors, of course… but it’s nice to look at from here.”

“Well I can assure you boys the evisceratin’ an’ stuffs don’t really happen that much out here,” Alva says with a smile as she rolls to a stop at the only traffic light in town, its solitary red glow casting over the car’s interior despite being the only vehicle at the intersection. “Things’re usually pretty quiet these days.”

Larus only now realizes that they’re next to the diner, and it still looks quite busy despite the darkness outside. The cars parked in the street are caked over with snow and revelers are leaving the festival grounds from further down the road, some obviously very drunk as they prance down the salt-covered sidewalk with their arms linked and singing. Despite (or because of) the recent murder of the chairman, the people of Rust Lake seem to be high in spirits. The light turns green after too long of a wait, and Alva proceeds onward back towards the lodge.

“You know they only had that light put in two years ago?” Alva asks, looking over at Larus as she thumbs over her shoulder. “Some people made a huge stink about it sayin’ it was unnecessary, but I think it’s doin’ a fine job, ya know? Sometimes it’s nice to just have a stop an’ look around.”

The Warden’s Lodge somehow manages to look even more ominous and unpleasant at night, the impression largely unhelped by the bright, almost orange underlighting cast upon the structure from lights on the ground. Any light trying to escape from the inside is smothered by curtains and blinds, so only the faintest hints of illumination radiating outward in thin tendrils. A few police cars are still camped out in the parking lot as Alva pulls in next to Larus’s rental car, a large, faded sedan that had to have been at least 20 years old (it was, incidentally, the nicest thing available on the lot since everything else was older or smelled like decades of sweat barely masked by a suffocating amount of air freshener).

“So, you boys gonna head to the diner?” Alva asks as Larus pops the door open.

“Actually, I was kind of thinking about takeout,” Larus says, smiling with Albedo tucked under his arm. “We could use a little downtime at the hotel after everything today.”

“Oh! Well donchaknow I know just the place for carryout comfort food,” Alva says, holding up a finger. “You fellas ever tried dwarf food?”

“Ooh! I haven’t had dwarf cooking since I was in the Navy,” Larus says, his ears perking up. “They really know how to make a hearty meal, don’t they?”

“Oh, you betcha,” Alva grins, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb. “You’ll wanna head down to Karnur’s on Birch Avenue then! Their mutton stew is to die for, ya know?”

“That sounds absolutely divine,” Albedo says, his mouth watering.

“And that sounds to me like the perfect way to close a long day,” Larus says. “Thank you for the recommendation.”

“Darn tootin’, see you boys at the courthouse tomorrow then?” Alva asks.

Larus smiles, giving Alva a crisp salute. “You betcha.”

Larus is thrown by the faint smell of musk buried under air freshener when he enters the motel room, depositing Albedo on the bed as he places the bags of food on the nightstand table. It doesn’t necessarily surprise him that in a town this isolated and small the motel would keep the lights on by offering residents a discreet place to fuck since hosting visitors from abroad would not be the most viable business model outside of festival times. He’s actually kind of surprised he doesn’t hear anyone shrieking next door when he comes in; rutting elves can make some positively dreadful noises when you’re not a participant and serves as an oft-denied reminder of how their entire people descended from foxes instead of something more noble and dignified.

The first thing he does after emptying his arms is remove his parka, hanging it up on the hook on the door. He then pulls off his hat, faced with a violent urge to brush his hair back into the clean bob it’s supposed to be had he not been forced to suffer the indignity of facing the elements head-on today. At least the room is heated, which feels supremely rewarding after stomping around in a dark, snowy forest for longer than he ever wanted to.

“I need to go spend some time in front of a mirror before we do anything else,” Larus says to Albedo as he takes his comb out of his jacket pocket. “I trust you’ll leave me some food when I return?”

The chubby fox rolls lazily on his side, a sleepy grin on his muzzle. “I’ll do my best not to gorge on everything but I can’t make any promises.”

Larus smirks as he enters the bathroom, turning on the light and leaving the door open.

“What is it that people say here…?” He murmurs to nobody in particular as he fingers his hair back into place, starting to comb it over the sink. “Oofa-dah?”

“Uff da,” Albedo calls from the other room. “I have no idea what it means.”

“Yes, that, thank you,” Larus says. “The wind did a number on my hair, so it seemed like the appropriate thing to say.”

He’s allotted a few quiet moments of brushing his hair when he hears the TV turning on with the telltale high-pitched squeal of a cathode ray tube that softens into the time-distorted voice of a weather announcer on the backdrop of smooth jazz.

“Larus, you’re not gonna believe this,” Albedo says.

Larus doesn’t look behind him, continuing to focus on his reflection as he straightens his hair up. “What is it?”

“They really do have color TV here!”

Larus snorts, amused. “Well, they did put it right there on the sign…”

“Also, they’re saying it’s gonna snow all week.”

“I’d be more surprised if it didn’t, to be honest.” Larus is almost done with getting his hair perfect again, combing down those last few strands when he suddenly feels hands sliding up the bottom hem of his uniform jacket. The lycra bodysuit serves as a barrier preventing something that would have been a freezing, sensory disaster had he not been wearing it beneath his regular clothing. A sly glance over his shoulder tells him all he needs to know, and he lids his eyes with a smirk at his companion.

“I really should put a bell on you,” he says to Albedo.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate workplace attire,” Albedo purrs, sliding his arms to Larus’s front and wrapping them around his waist, running his hands along the smooth, stretchy fabric hugging his body.

Larus reaches behind him and affectionately scruffs Albedo’s chin beard with a finger. “Technically we’re off duty now…”

Technically, I think we’re supposed to be analyzing those mana crystals, but those can wait,” Albedo grins, tugging down the zipper at the back of Larus’s bodysuit to gently bite at the nape of his neck.

Larus begins to unfasten the buttons of his jacket, which Albedo is all too glad to help him shrug it off down his arms and onto the bathroom counter. He then turns around to face Albedo, leaning against the counter as he reaches up to unbutton Albedo’s uniform jacket, admiring his musculature beneath the form-fitting, long-sleeved bodysuit.

“It never ceases to surprise me how good you look on two legs,” Larus says, pressing his gloved hand against Albedo’s chest and splaying his fingers, moving up to his shoulder and pushing the jacket off in frictionless movement.

“Pfft, like I don’t look good on four, too,” Albedo says as he lets his jacket drop to the ground and leaning over Larus, putting his hands on the other man’s hips. “You’ve certainly never complained when I’ve mounted you before…”

Larus blushes a deep red as he turns his face away, pinning his ears back. “Yes, but you know what I mean.”

“I suppose when it comes to partnering with a shapeshifter, having them in a more regular form is a novelty in and of itself,” Albedo says, smirking as he curls his finger under Larus’s chin, bringing the man to face him again as he brushes their noses together.

“Much nicer to kiss, too,” Larus says, leaning in. “As handsome as you are as a lion, you don’t exactly have lips.”

“Yes, that is a fair point,” Albedo concedes, cupping Larus’s face in his hands. “I’ll just have to make it up to you, then.”

He presses his lips to Larus’s as the other man holds him close, pulling their bodies together as Larus sighs softly into the kiss and runs both hands through Albedo’s hair.

Albedo pulls back, flashing his teeth and licking his lips. “What do you say we eat our food before it gets cold?”

Larus seems a little lost in the moment when he breaks the kiss, his face flushing as he feels the need to adjust his pants. “Oh, right…! That… would be a good idea, yes.”

“You know, dinner and a movie before we carry on our business.” Albedo hooks his fingers into Larus’s waistband, winking suggestively at him before heading back towards the bed to kick off his boots and open the takeout bag. Larus follows suit, removing his shoes and climbing into bed with Albedo as he lays out the plastic utensils and hands him the styrofoam bowl containing the mutton stew he had ordered earlier, still tantalizingly warm and provoking his stomach to growl.

“What movies do they have?” Larus asks as he pries off the cheap plastic lid and drinks some of the savory broth off the top. “Anything made within the last twenty years?”

Albedo grabs the dust-caked remote after tearing open a plastic fork wrapper with his teeth, navigating to the pay-per-view menu and scrolling through the titles, quickly whipping past what were almost certainly porn titles for whom he was not the target demographic until he gets to the section where it seemed to be mostly movies about sad loggers and schlocky horror films about people getting lost in the snow to be chased by witches and ghosts.

“Oh! Here’s one about a bunch of guys getting high and going ice fishing,” he says, stopping at a blurry movie poster of what looked like a comedy from exactly twenty years ago — the kind of movie that was likely chock full of terrible jokes and universally panned by critics, featuring a moose with stupid, cartoony eyes looming over the sweatered protagonists holding fishing poles and improvised plastic water bottle bongs. “It’s called ‘A Talking Moose!?!’ and it looks terrible. It’s free, so it’s gotta be good!”

“Sure, put that one on,” Larus says, already having devoured half of his container of stew. He looks down at the foam cup in surprise, then shrugs and continues to eat — he hadn’t realized just how hungry he was, and is secretly thankful that Albedo reminded him that they had food since he’d barely had an appetite all day otherwise.

Albedo presses play and peels the plastic bag off his foam clamshell, pulling it into his lap and cracking it open to the smoked lamb on rice inside. It’s hard for him to not just dive in there with his face and start tearing at it with his jaws like he’s used to, instead gingerly pulling at the meat with his fork like he’d forgotten how to properly use the damn thing.

Larus finishes off his stew and puts the empty cup aside, scooting over and leaning on Albedo. “Do you need help with that?”

“Ah, I think I got it,” Albedo beams as he gives up and uses his hands to shred the meat apart and loads it onto the fork with his rice. “Who needs knives, right?”

“Not you, clearly,” Larus grins, resting his chin on Albedo’s shoulder and briefly watching the movie on TV, featuring shaky footage of a stoned dwarf and an elf trudging across a frozen lake on a backdrop of humorous stock music. “Did they film this with a camcorder in someone’s backyard here?”

Albedo looks up from eating before bursting into laughter. “Holy shit, I think you’re right!”

The elf on the screen slips and falls on his ass, complete with slide whistle noise as he holds up a thumbs-up at the cameraman. ‘I’m okay, eh!’ The cameraman shouts back, barely containing his laughter and quite audibly stoned himself: ‘Good yob, buddy! Ya doin’ great there, eh!’

“This is off to a great start,” Larus deadpans.

“As always, I have impeccable taste,” Albedo says, proudly sticking out his chest. He looks at Larus. “…Are you finished eating already?”

“I am,” Larus says, putting his arms under Albedo’s and lacing his fingers over his chest. “It was quite delicious.”

“You finished before me, that’s a first,” Albedo smiles, loading his fork. “No leftovers?”

“None,” Larus says. “I ate the whole thing, broth and all. There’s one thing I’ll never turn down, and that’s dwarf cuisine.”

“And potato fries,” Albedo points out, holding a finger up. “You go nuts for those things. Remember that time you almost ran down some guy selling them at the boardwalk because you saw the sign from like sixty feet away?”

“I do not regret terrifying that man at the food cart because those fries were quite amazing,” Larus says. “Potato fries are the absolute perfect form of food and I’d live off them if I could.”

“I mean, you probably could,” Albedo says as he rips off a shred of lamb and offers it to Larus, letting him eat out of his hand. “…Here, Lar. Try this stuff, it’s incredible.”

“Oh, that is good,” Larus says, his eyes widening. “We definitely have to go back again before we leave for Thalasseus.”

“For sure,” Albedo says, preparing to tilt the container and dump the rest in his mouth. “Did you want any more before this all goes down the hatch?”

“Let me try some of the rice,” Larus says. Albedo scoops some up into his palm with the remainder of the meat and holds it up to his face, and Larus eats it without question, his teeth and tongue grazing the skin of Albedo’s hand. “Ohh! This seasoning is wonderful, thank you!”

“We should have asked for some sides,” Albedo smiles as he finishes off the rest of the tray and throws it aside, wiping his hands on his pants. “Oh well, next time!”

The nonsense on the TV has transitioned to the heroes being chased by two people in a moose costume with random cuts to someone off-camera waving an obviously taxidermied moose mount with googly eyes taped on over its normal eyes, snorting for dramatic effect and apparently talking with a heavily accented voiceover rambling about a hidden cache of super legendary weed under the lake or something. One of the googly eyes falls off the moose and the cameraman dives to retrieve it: ‘Cheese and crackers! Dern thing just came right off there, eh!’

The crew laughs as he slaps the eye back on, patting it in place. The person ‘playing’ the moose smoothly tells the viewers to forget they ever saw that, tongue in cheek and completely in-character before going back to waving the mount around and continuing their monologue about the amazing lake weed prophecy.

Larus absentmindedly alternates from kissing and nibbling on Albedo’s neck as he watches the movie with feigned disinterest. “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen put to film.”

“It’s a powerful story about the struggle of man versus nature, man versus… moose,” Albedo says, leaning back until he’s sprawling across Larus’s lap, looking up at him. “I think it deserves an award.”

“Only you would say something like that,” Larus says, smiling fondly as he rubs Albedo’s chest and stomach, inching ever closer to his belt before dragging his hand back up.

“Mmm…” Albedo settles against Larus, widening his legs and reaching down to undo his belt buckle before Larus gently smacks his hand away to do it himself. His deft fingers unbutton Albedo’s pants, pulling down the zipper and sliding his hand down the front to feel the bulge of his cock beneath the clingy fabric.

“Oh,” Albedo bites his lip and bends his knees involuntarily, loving the soft hiss of Larus’s glove against his bodysuit and instantly growing hard. The material and Larus’s hand both ensure that his cock lays flush against his body, and Larus gently slides him down to the bed as he unbuckles his own pants and slides them down his thighs. Albedo reaches out to put his hand on Larus’s hip, his eyes locked on that stretch of lycra where the outline of his cock is visibly straining against the fabric containing it.

Larus is never sure if it’s the feeling of full-body compression or just being conditioned by getting horny in uniform so often that makes wearing a bodysuit during sex so appealing, but there’s nothing he loves more than the sensation of it on his own body, practically a second skin in and of itself. Seeing the contours of his partner’s form wrapped in the sleek, smooth suit is also especially pleasing to the eye, and a man who spends most of his time as a feline of some sort has that reflected in the way his body is toned when he’s bipedal. He slides his pants off, then Albedo’s, positioning himself above the taller man and lowering his hips so their cocks are laying against each other.

The noise that comes out of Albedo is uncharacteristically cute as Larus drags his open hand down his chest, stopping at his hip to hold him in place as he starts to slowly thrust against him. Albedo hikes his legs up around Larus’s waist and puts his arms around his shoulders, rhythmically rocking his hips back to the sound of lycra brushing against lycra. Sweat beads on Larus’s forehead as he leans down to cradle Albedo’s neck and kiss him more deeply than earlier, then pulls back to gently nip at his exposed neck.

Albedo shuts his eyes, overwhelmed by the sensation as he suddenly jerks his hips up and sharply bends his knees. It doesn’t take long before he’s sent over the brink, a wet spot oozing out from the tip of his cock and soaking into the lycra surrounding it as he buries his face into Larus’s shoulder to muffle his moan. He relaxes into the bed, panting heavily and lazily reaching up to run his hands along Larus’s face and down his body, resting them on his ass as Larus pulls his gloves off. Larus knee-walks forward until he’s straddling Albedo’s waist, stroking himself until he’s ready to pull down the zipper to tug his cock out and blow his load over Albedo’s chest. Exhausted, Larus lurches over and lays on top of Albedo, sighing into the crook of his neck and closing his eyes.

“I hope this place has a laundromat,” Larus murmurs tiredly.

Albedo laughs from beneath him, reaching around to tug the zipper down Larus’s back as he starts to peel the bodysuit off. “You didn’t make that big of a mess,” he says, smiling languidly. “Besides, these have seen a lot worse and you know it.”

“I don’t want my luggage smelling like randy fox all the way home,” Larus teases, not wanting to pick up his head as Albedo works his arms out of the suit. His sweat-slick skin feels pleasantly cool against the air once exposed, small goosebumps rising on his back as he groans. “…That was so nice, though. I needed that.”

“Like that’s worse than randy cat smell?” Albedo chuckles, rolling the sleeves off Larus’s arms and giving his bare hand a squeeze. “Kettu forbid people find out that you get horny sometimes, Lar.”

“They don’t need to know and I don’t even think there’s such a thing as randy cat smell, Al.” Larus sits up just enough to tug the rest of the bodysuit off, dropping it on the floor and repositioning so he’s snuggling against Albedo’s chest. “Unless you count marking, which I don’t, because that’s crass and disgusting.”

“Just like me, right?” Albedo laughs as he pulls Larus into a hug, kissing his forehead before getting up to sit on the edge of the bed. “So, shower and then we check out those mana crystals?”

“Sure, that sounds good.” Larus reaches out to pull the zipper down on Albedo’s suit to tenderly kiss his exposed back. “…Can I braid your hair after we’re out?”

“Larus, you know how much I love it when you play with my hair,” Albedo grins as he slips out of the suit and piles it onto the floor. “You don’t even have to ask me, seriously, just grab the brush and go wild whenever you feel like it.”

“Y-yes, of course!” Larus touches both hands to his face in joy. Albedo was usually so terrible at personal grooming that overcoming the urge to brush it himself is usually a terrible challenge for Larus, from which the only respite was when his partner was in animal form where brushing was not only acceptable, but encouraged. It makes sense that he’d be so receptive to it in his elven form too.

Albedo laughs as he gets up. “You’re really cute when you allow yourself to be, you know that?”

On the TV screen, the protagonists of the movie eagerly strip off their clothes and dive naked into the frozen lake to uproarious laughter from the guy holding the camera. He runs up to the hole in the ice as his friends come back to the surface to proudly hoist a giant bag of weed, frozen in a cartoonish and plastic-looking block of ice, in the air as credits start to roll.

Larus turns off the TV and follows Albedo to the shower, looking forward to the rush of hot water and attempting to figure out how best to split those tiny complementary travel bottles of shampoo. Unsurprisingly, the shower is large enough to fit both of them in it, likely because the hotel anticipated two people sharing when it was built.

Albedo turns the water on as Larus reaches up to undo the other man’s hair, using his fingers to break up the sloppy braid and give it some much-needed detangling.

“You need to brush more,” he says to Albedo.

Albedo laughs. “When squirrels start living in my hair, that’s how I know it’s time to brush.”

Larus makes a face as he starts lathering up, working shampoo into Albedo’s hair. “I won’t let you get to that point, then. One animal is enough to look after.”

Albedo slouches a bit to let Larus have easier access to his head, taking the shampoo bottle from him and plopping out a small amount to rub into his companion’s hair, idly humming to himself. “You know, Larus…”

Larus looks up from working shampoo into Albedo’s scalp. “Yes?”

“I wouldn’t mind it if you let me wear your scent sometime,” he says, grinning lazily as he scratches the side of his cheek. “I think it’d be pretty hot.”

Larus’s face turns completely red and he looks away, his ears flattening as he feels his erection returning. “I carry you around on my arm all day, I don’t think that would be very appropriate.”

“I know,” Albedo says, blushing a bit. “But it’s a nice thought.”

“It’s an incredibly basic one,” Larus says with a flat expression, refusing to look at Albedo or acknowledge his arousal. The undeniably canid origins of his people is a hard call to ignore, where scent rules everything and communicates so elegantly when one is, as the kits say, ‘DTF.’ “You know how above that we are.”

Albedo glances down, smirking as he trails his soapy fingers down Larus’s stomach. “Well, I can see at least one part of you is clearly above it all.”

Larus gulps and crosses his arms, the redness not leaving his face. “I’m not marking you when we’re attending a trial tomorrow.”

“Hm, ah well,” Albedo smiles, brushing his hand on Larus’s cock. “Was worth a shot. Do you want me to help you with this, then?”

“It’s not going away on its own,” Larus sighs with embarrassment, covering his face in the guise of washing it.

“Well, fancy this thought,” Albedo says, kneeling in the cascading water as he wraps his fingers around Larus’s cock. “What if I marked you? What if we both marked each other at the same time?

“Extremely inappropriate,” Larus says, feeling his erection strengthen in Albedo’s fist. “You’re so basic sometimes.”

Albedo laughs as he starts to stroke his partner. “I spend all day as an animal, what do you expect?”

“A sliver of decorum,” Larus says breathlessly as he braces himself against the shower wall, closing his eyes.

“’A sliver of decorum,’” Albedo repeats huskily, “Like jerking off your assistant because he got a boner from you talking about doing crude, indecent things, right?”

“Hng–” Larus buckles, feeling his mind start to drift as he shifts his footing. “How did I ever end up pairing with you?”

“You tell me,” Albedo says, quickening his pace and leaning forward to tongue the slippery bead of pre at the tip of Larus’s dick.

“–Fuck,” Larus hisses through clenched teeth. “You’re terrible.”

“Mm-hmm,” Albedo purrs, smiling as he puts his lips around Larus’s cock and presses his head against the roof of his mouth, savoring the taste.

“Completely–” Larus puts his hands on Albedo’s head. “–Undeniably–” Albedo grabs his hips and pulls him further into his mouth, wrapping his arms around his legs. “–Awful!”

Albedo gets a nice mouthful of his partner as he rears his head back, trailing cum on his chin as he licks his lips and flashes his teeth in a big, wide grin.

“Someone got wre-ecked,” he sing-songs as he gets up to kiss Larus, brushing his hair out of his face. Larus makes a small, animalistic whine as he tilts back his head, panting heavily as he slides down the shower wall with a vacant smile on his face.

He picks Larus back up and lets him lean against his chest, reaching for the bar of soap and lathering it up with his hands. “So, what do you say we both get cleaned up so we can get to work, yeah?”

“Mm,” Larus murmurs, snuggling against Albedo in a daze. “Sure.”

They finish washing up and turn off the water, emerging into a thick blanket of steam as they each reach for a towel and dry off, heading back for the bedroom. Larus, returning back to the earth, lays open his suitcase to pull out clean pajamas and a metal case containing scrying equipment. After he gets dressed he begins to set the equipment up on the table by the window, hesitating.

“Oh.”

Albedo looks at him after pulling on a Fulmar University t-shirt, his hair wrapped in a towel. “Hm?”

“The crystals are still in my jacket,” Larus says, hurrying back into the bathroom to retrieve them, laying the glass vials out on the table when he returns. He pulls up the chair and sits down. “Do you think it will be safe for you to handle them or would you like me to seat them?”

“Hmm…” Albedo tilts his chin down and thinks for a moment. “Let’s play it safe today.”

“Good call,” Larus says, uncorking the first vial and shaking the crystal out into his hand, the hair on his arms raising from contact. He puts the crystal into a set of clamps on the device, which is hooked up to a screen with a recorder.

Albedo walks up from behind him, his hands in the pockets of a pair of baggy pajama pants patterned with kittens and paw prints as he chews on a toothpick retrieved from the takeout bag. “Which one are we starting with?”

“Let’s start with the crystal taken at the lodge,” Larus says, leaning to the side to search for an outlet to plug the scryer into. The screen blinks to life, and Albedo reaches over to type in the keycode to unlock the device for Larus when he sits back up.

A loading bar rolls up as the crystal is registered into the system and a green play button appears onscreen, next to a red recording button. Larus taps the red button as Albedo leans over his shoulder, his hand resting on the back of the chair as they both watch the first scene unfold. It’s a short clip, but there’s enough to make them both lean back and cover their mouths in shock.

“Hold up.” Albedo reaches over and taps the replay button. “What is that thing?”

It’s taking every fiber of Katja’s being not to pace nervously in the defense lobby, reviewing her files one last time before the trial starts. The one thing that’s been vexing her all morning was the emails of the reports from Larus regarding the mana crystal analysis, and not just because the magical terms flew over her head, but the fact that the magic described was unlike anything she’d ever heard of or encountered before, and the source they traced was… murky, at best. The videos Larus sent of the scrying didn’t make any sense to her. None of it did, but she reckons it’s enough to at least clear her client because it’s not her job to suss out the actual killer — but the vagueness of it worries her, and there might be some hidden foothold that the prosecution could latch onto to pin the blame on the defendant.

Cicada sullenly crosses his arms as Alva brushes his hair, having hand-picked his outfit herself in an attempt to increase his appeal to the judge as an innocent, hard-working boy with his clean linen work shirt and embroidered floral suspenders tucked into the nicest pair of jeans he owned.

“This is complete moose shit,” he says, glowering.

Alva patiently shushes him as she brushes his hair over his shoulder. “Oh, don’t you worry one bit! Miss Eklund’s got a great defense ready for ya and before you know it you’ll be back home with your little bug pals!”

“Just sit back and let me do the talking,” Katja tells him reassuringly. “Prosecutor Kathar’ya isn’t the type of person to roll over, so anything you say can and will be used against you…”

“Well I got a few things I wanna say to ‘im if I get the chance then,” Cicada says, flashing his teeth as he punches the palm of his hand.

“That’s what I’m afraid of, Mr. Ahlgren.” Katja turns her head as the guard approaches them to inform them that the trial’s about to start. “–Looks like it’s time for us to go on in there, then. Just… don’t do anything too rash, okay?”

“Good luck, you two! Knock ‘im dead!” Alva says, patting Katja on the shoulder and pulling Cicada into a hug. “And you, young man, you better be on your best behavior then! I’ll be watchin’ you from the gallery!”

“Yah, sure,” Cicada says, hugging her back. “You owe me dinner for a week if we win this.”

He follows Katja through the giant set of wooden doors, being taken aside by the bailiff to be seated in the defendant’s box.

The courtroom is brimming with energy as Katja takes her place at the bench, file tucked under her arm as she tunes out the din from the gallery. The judge presiding over the trial is a man who looks even older than Prosecutor Kathar’ya, albeit a fair bit less menacingly skeletal and dressed in humble black robes, his grey hair tied back with a loose ribbon and ears drooping slightly with age. A thick pair of round-rimmed glasses perch over the bridge of his nose, giving him an owlish look.

The elderly judge slowly reaches for his gavel and brings it down against the sound block, rapping it twice. “This court is now in session for the case of the Warden’s Lodge of Rust Lake versus Cicada Ahlgren. Are both sides ready?”

“The prosecution is ready, Your Honor,” Kathar’ya says, proudly puffing out his chest as he rises to his feet. He seems to be reveling in being in the spotlight of such a high profile case for this area. Proudly on display around his waist is a large, decorative leather belt with a gaudy gold plate on the front, displaying an embossed set of scales surrounded with dazzling rhinestones that glimmer in the light.

Katja takes in a deep breath, standing up straight as she nervously flexes her fingers. “The defense is ready, Your Honor.”

The judge nods, then motions to Kathar’ya. “You may give the opening statement now, Prosecutor Kathar’ya.”

“Of course,” Kathar’ya sneers, putting his hands behind his back. “The defendant has been charged with the murder of our esteemed appointed official, Chairman Lanius Al’batros, at the stroke of midnight–”

The courtroom’s lights flicker violently as a tremor shakes the room, and everybody looks around in bewilderment before the lights come back on. Katja looks towards the cat perched on Larus’s arm and the worried look on his face, realizing that she can feel the hairs on the back of her neck standing up when she notices the puffed up state of Albedo’s fur. Larus notices it too, quickly patting down the cat before anyone else can notice.

Kathar’ya narrows his eyes with suspicion as he looks up at the nearest lamp, making sure that the lights are staying on before he continues. “At the stroke of midnight on December 21st, 5778, evidence was found showing that the defendant broke into Chairman Al’batros’s parlor at the lodge and violently mauled him while in the shape of a fox. There is evidence of his three-legged paw prints in the blood at the scene of the crime and a rather transparent, if tragic, motive of avenging the execution of his mother on that very day 85 years ago.”

The sneer on his face doesn’t go away when he says the word ‘tragic.’ Kathar’ya looks back towards the gallery as they murmur amongst themselves, then back to the judge. A few members of the gallery hold up hand-painted signs with slogans like ‘#FREEAHLGREN’ that are quickly snatched away by the bailiff.

Kathar’ya takes a dramatic bow and turns over to Katja.

“Your Honor, under law my client is innocent until proven guilty and not only does he have a solid alibi for the night of the murder but I have evidence of his whereabouts on the night of December 21st, 5778,” she says, confidently crossing her arms. “On that night and at that time, he was nowhere near the Warden’s Lodge, instead spending time in the woods at the far end of Parish Road 101.”

The judge’s brows gradually raise as the faintest hint of a smile graces his weathered, ancient lips. “Most interesting,” he says with deliberation. “Prosecutor Kathar’ya, if you may call your first witness.”

“I call Lyyli Omdahl to the stand,” Kathar’ya says without a beat, giving a flourishing gesture towards the witness stand as the nervous blonde woman speed walks up to it, hugging a small log to her chest as she faces the courtroom behind the podium. She’s wearing a brown baggy sweater with a little evergreen tree pattern woven into the torso. Kathar’ya squints at her. “Miss Omdahl, what’s with the log?”

“S-she’s my emotional support log, sir.” Lyyli defensively cradles the log in her arm like a baby and runs her fingers down its bark as though she were petting an animal. “I carry her around when I’m not running files across the building or picking up coffee for the Chairman.”

“Oh, my,” the judge says, leaning over the podium with interest like he’s cooing over a toddler. “Your log doesn’t have something to tell us, does she?”

Lyyli looks at him with a wide-eyed, confused expression. “No, Your Honor, she does not. She’s a log.”

The prosecutor’s hand hangs in the air like he’s about to say something, then puts it back down, deciding that whatever he might have had to say may have been too mean. He simply nods and clears his throat. “Miss Omdahl, if you could tell us your name and occupation?”

“Lyyli Omdahl, I work at the Warden’s Lodge as the assistant to the late Mr. Al’batros.” She gently pats the top of the log and nervously glances around.

“Tell me, Miss Omdahl, how did you find the Chairman on the morning of the 21st?”

Lyyli tenses, breathing in through her nose. “It was… well, ya know, he hadn’t buzzed me all morning and I went to go check on him, ya know? Usually he wants me to bring him his coffee at six on the dot and run all his calls and read his emails for him but he wasn’t in the office then. So I go to check on ‘im in his parlor, and the door’s all locked…”

She shifts the log to her other arm. “I have a backup key to his parlor so I decided I’d open it up and take a look in. The lights were off, so I flipped ’em on, and the first thing I notice is just blood all over the darn place and I’m thinking, ooh, I’m thinking that there’s gonna be a nasty cleanup job then! And then I look down and there he is, just laying there on the floor, and the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw ‘im was–

“I guess I was too late in bringin’ ‘im his coffee, then.”

Katja quickly covers her mouth, suppressing laughter while a few chuckles are heard from the gallery.

Prosecutor Kathar’ya draws in a ragged breath, running a hand down his face. “Miss Omdahl, this is a murder trial, not a standup comedy show. Please describe the scene of the crime.”

Lyyli makes a face. “What, do I have to talk about what color his entrails were or something? He was laying face down so I couldn’t really see what that was all about, so I thought I’d get a few pictures on my phone before calling the emergency line in case law enforcement wanted ’em later. Except I kinda forgot to send it to ’em.”

“Miss Omdahl,” Katja says, speaking up. “May we see the pictures on your phone?”

“Well yah, sure! I got my phone with me,” Lyyli says, beginning to reach into her pocket.

“OBJECTION!” Kathar’ya barks, “There is already a crime scene photo taken by professionals. A blurry cell phone photo is unnecessary.”

“Hey, my phone pictures aren’t blurry,” Lyyli huffs, defensively holding the log close to her as she holds up her phone in its cutesy pink case, a plastic deer charm dangling from its corner. “See ’em for yourself.”

The judge bangs his gavel. “Bailiff, please take the witness’s phone and hook it up to the courtroom projector.”

The dwarven bailiff comes over and takes Lyyli’s phone after she unlocks it, plugging it in to the projector and navigating past a few pictures of her log in a festive sweater until he finds the picture of the crime scene. A screaming emoji sticker is placed conspicuously in the upper corner, along with white text over a semi-transparent black bar across the middle of the picture: ‘i hope he’s okay’ with a sad sweatdrop emoji.

The judge’s eyes widen in surprise. “Why that’s a very professional quality photo! Good job, Miss Omdahl!”

Lyyli’s face brightens up. “Thank you, Your Honor!”

“This is a colossal waste of time!” Kathar’ya growls, gripping the bench. “We already know what the crime scene looks like without emoji stickers!”

“No, no, I think this is valuable evidence,” Katja says, as she opens up her file and takes out the official photo submitted to the court, looking up and down between it and the photo on the projector. Lyyli’s photo was missing a few things that were present in the photo taken by the police, namely fox tracks — that and it had a whole lot more feathers than in the other picture. “Your Honor, I would like to bring to your attention crucial differences between this photo and the one submitted to the court–”

Kathar’ya slams his palm on the bench. “OBJECTION!”

“Overruled,” the judge says calmly, deliberately shuffling his papers and sliding out the crime scene photograph, adjusting his glasses. “Miss Eklund, can you tell us what you’re seeing?”

Katja stands up, holding the photo in her hand as she raps the back of her fingers against it. “Your Honor, please look at the floor of the scene in both photographs. Notice anything?”

The judge squints and studies the photo in his hands for a bit, then looks to the projector. “Oh! Oh, yes, Miss Omdahl’s picture seems to be missing the fox tracks.”

“Not only that, but look closer at the tracks,” Katja says, pointing to them in the official picture. “Notice how on some of them, the back foot print points in a different direction than they should be. If it were truly my client who laid those tracks, those toes should only be facing one direction.”

“Hmm, I see,” the judge says, bringing the picture closer to his face and looking back over to Lyyli’s photo. “He is missing his right leg, isn’t he, so he wouldn’t be able to make tracks like that. There’s also… confetti? In the other picture? Was Mr. Al’batros celebrating something…?”

“Feathers, Your Honor,” Katja says, taking a plastic bag out of her file. “This was found tucked under the desk at the crime scene–”

“So what you’re implying is that a bird flew in through the window and assassinated Chairman Al’batros, then?” Kathar’ya interrupts her, jeering.

“No, if you’ll notice in both pictures, the window is locked shut,” Katja points out. “Another crucial detail in Miss Omdahl’s testimony is that the victim’s door was locked when she found him. If the door and window are both locked from the inside, how do you believe that my client entered and left the scene of the crime?”

“Ghh–!” Kathar’ya clenches his fists and grits his teeth, briefly caught off guard as Katja smirks at him from across the aisle. Before he can get a word in, Katja continues to speak.

“Moreover, how does one get ‘mauled by a fox’ out of ‘multiple lacerations’ on the autopsy report? My client’s jaws were not the murder weapon,” Katja says, producing a leaden glass vial out of her briefcase and holding it up. “A fox bite wouldn’t look so clean, and his jaws would be too small to produce some of these very deep, long cuts described in the autopsy. There was evidence found that the attack was carried out with magic–”

“OBJECTION! That doesn’t rule out the accused,” Kathar’ya says, scowling. “That mongrel may well have been studying magic right under our noses to craft his plan for revenge–”

“OBJECTION!” Katja shouts back as she loudly smacks her open palm on the desk. “Prosecutor Kathar’ya, you must know that registered magic-seekers were called in from the mainland to assist with the investigation, do you not? You should have copies of their reports of their findings. I request Larus Sovat’ye to the stand to testify, Your Honor.”

“Request granted,” the judge says without a beat. Kathar’ya shoots Katja a hateful look, angrily clenching his fist around his sleeve. “You’re free to go, Miss Omdahl. Thank you for testifying and sharing your wonderful photography.”

“You betcha!” Lyyli cheerfully says as she scurries back to the gallery, waving good-bye to the judge.

Larus takes to the stand with Albedo perched on his arm, standing up straight and holding his other arm behind his back. He breathes in through his nose, surveying the courtroom while keeping his expression neutral.

“State your name and occupation,” the judge says. “The both of you, please.”

“Larus Sovat’ye, first class registered seeker’s assistant,” he says, giving a crisp salute.

“Albedo Al’satye, first class registered magic-seeker,” says the cat on his arm.

“You may begin your testimony,” the judge says.

Larus nods. “On the morning of December 21st, 5778, my companion and I were called in from the mainland by the Rust Lake Police Department to assist in the investigation of the murder of former Chairman Lanius Al’batros. We did a draw on the magical energies in the room and concluded the murder weapon to be a ranged magical attack. We also investigated the defendant’s cabin and found no evidence of magic usage, nor anything on his computer suggesting an interest in magic or possession of magical tomes or scrolls.”

“Hmm.” The judge closes his eyes and lowers his ears in thought, then opens them again. “Does the prosecution take any issue with this testimony?”

Kathar’ya crosses his arms and looks down, frowning. “Actually… Yes, I do have a few questions for Mr. Al’satye and his puppeteer.”

Larus puts his hand on Albedo’s breast as the feline’s hackles raise. “Ask away, sir.”

“Ah, yes, well, for starters…” Kathar’ya grins viciously at the two as he picks up the typed report and jabs a finger at it. “You ran a scry on those magic samples you collected, didn’t you?”

“We did, sir,” Larus states.

Kathar’ya knits his fingers together in front of him with a pleased look on his face. “Why don’t you tell the court where those scries lead?”

“The source of the magic was traced back to the gravesite of Ingegard Ahlgren–” Larus freezes in place as the prosecutor flashes his teeth like a wolf ready to go for the throat of his prey.

“And tell us, Mr. Sovat’ye, where the gravesite of dear old Ingegard is located?” Kathar’ya has a manic look on his face, gripping the bench as he leans forward. “No, don’t bother, you’re from out of town. But the rest of us know where she’s buried, don’t we?”

Katja’s stomach drops as Larus looks at her with a mortified expression. Kathar’ya continues, his stare boring into her.

“You can find old Ingegard after a short walk in the woods at the very end of Parish Road 101. Which, incidentally, is where the defense alleges the accused was instead of the scene of the crime, is it not?”

“No–” Katja grips the collar of her blouse.

Kathar’ya looks at her, smirking. “‘No’…? No, he was not really there, or did you have some other objection? I thought you had collected evidence that he was.”

“I did, but–” Katja quickly flips through her files, pulling out the report Larus wrote. “I object on the grounds that my client doesn’t have the magical proficiency to carry out this kind of attack!”

“Hm, I see,” Kathar’ya lids his eyes at Katja, curling his lips into a sneer. “Why don’t we bring Mr. Ahlgren up to the stand and see for ourselves? Mr. Sovat’ye, you and your ventriloquist dummy are dismissed.”

Larus clenches his fists and stands bolt straight as he leaves the stand, staring straight ahead so as to avoid looking at the prosecutor. The members of the gallery murmur amongst themselves, then break out into a commotion as a raven zips overhead from the back of the room, soaring along the high ceiling of the courtroom. Larus and Albedo both look up, the cat’s fur frizzing like static towards the bird.

The judge loudly slams his gavel onto the sound block. “Order, order! Bailiff, open a window and let that bird outside,” he says. “How did it even get in here?”

The raven banks along the corner, flying in a circle and cawing in protest as the dwarf bailiff chases it with a broom, trying to herd it towards the newly opened window. The bird refuses, instead swooping over the judge’s podium as he ducks to avoid it, and lands on the corner next to the sound block. The judge straightens back up, brushing hair out of his face and trying to reach for the gavel as the bird opens its beak at him like it wants to bite him.

“You’re being very unreasonable, you know,” he tells the raven, trying to distract it so he can go for the gavel. The bird flutters and hops to the side as he picks the gavel up and raps it against the sound block. “Order!”

The bailiff with the broom runs up to the podium, threatening to sweep the raven away before the judge holds out his hand and pushes the broom down.

“Let it stay for now,” the judge tells the bailiff. “If it wants to watch, it can watch. If it wants to leave, the window is open.”

“Hmph.” The dwarf lowers the broom as the raven playfully bites onto the bristles, letting them slide out of its beak.

“Anyway, where were we… Ah, yes! Bailiff, please bring the accused to the stand,” the judge says as the raven walks along the edge of the podium and decides to perch on the opposite corner nearest to the stand.

Cicada gets walked to the stand as the bailiff stands back, close enough to tackle him should he try to get away. His head is bowed and his good ear is pulled back in anger when he gets to the platform, refusing to look ahead.

“What a pleasure it is to see you again, Mr. Ahlgren,” Kathar’ya says, steepling his fingers. “Not so full of vinegar now, are you?”

Cicada is silent. His hair and the angle of his head obscure his eyes from view as he grips either side of the stand, breathing slowly.

“You can answer some simple questions, can’t you?” Kathar’ya walks up to the stand and leans in uncomfortably close, gingerly pushing back some of Cicada’s hair with his finger. “I know you haven’t gone feral on us already. Speak, boy.”

Cicada keeps his head down, a low growl rumbling out of his throat. “What’s there to say, uh?”

“Why don’t you start by telling us what you know about magic?” Kathar’ya takes a step back, putting his hands behind his back.

“Can’t say nothin’ ’cause I don’t know nothin’,” Cicada says. “‘Bout all I can do is turn into a fox and start a campfire. Don’t know how to use magic to kill someone, much less fire off a whatever it is you think I fired, eh.”

“Is that so,” Kathar’ya says as he withdraws his hand, putting it behind his back with the other. “These mana crystals suggest otherwise–”

“Objection!” Katja holds out her index finger, pointing at Kathar’ya. “It’s already been established that the defendant has no magical proficiency. His entire cabin was searched and there was no evidence of magic use or study or even a cursory interest in the subject!”

The prosecutor turns on heel to face Katja, thrusting his chest out and holding his head up high, seemingly unbothered by her declaration.

“Then you clearly didn’t search hard enough…” Kathar’ya struts over to his bench and picks up a tome, emblazoned with faintly glowing orange runes, wrapped in plastic. He brandishes it like he’s taunting a dog with a steak. “You simply wouldn’t believe what my detective crew found in there under his bed.”

“OBJECTION!” Katja reels back, her eyes fixed on the tome and frantically trying to recall her files. “That’s not even the right class of magic!”

Kathar’ya stops short of her bench, dangling the tome just out of reach. “Oh? And what do you know about magic, daughter of rust?”

“Personally, not much,” Katja admits, but her determination doesn’t waver. “I went to the mainland to study law, not magic–”

“–Oh, good, you actually went to real law school instead of being one of those backyard lawyers I see here a lot,” Kathar’ya remarks, interrupting her.

Katja glares at Kathar’ya, narrowing her eyes at him. “–Yes, I went to Ardea University for seven years. I watched enough TV when I was there to know what fire runes look like and it’s been established that it wasn’t fire magic that was used to kill Mr. Al’batros at all. Even if you did find that book in my client’s cabin, it has absolutely nothing to do with the case. And furthermore–”

She stands up straight, clenching her fists and taking a deep breath as she looks at Kathar’ya head on, stabbing the air with her index finger to emphasize her words. “The type of magic described at the scene of the crime is one that’s been banned for over two centuries — longer than my client has even been alive. Any books on the subject would have been caught in customs before they even made it to his door!”

The gallery bursts into outrage, with people chanting angrily at the revelation. “IT’S PLANTED!” “HE PLANTED THE BOOK!” “PEN-AL-TY! PEN-AL-TY! PEN-AL-TY!”

“ORDER, ORDER!” The judge loudly raps his gavel onto the sound block, barely heard over the angry crowd. “ORDER! Stand down, all of you, this is a court of law!”

A person with a hand painted ‘DISBAR’YA’ sign gets escorted out of the gallery by the bailiff, a different person from who was holding the ‘#FREEAHLGREN’ sign from earlier.

“I’m going to call a recess until all of you can settle down,” the judge says like he’s scolding a group of rowdy children, looking stern for the first time since the start of the trial. He raps his gavel three times. “Go fight it out in the lobby, we’ll reconvene this trial in fifteen minutes and you all better be able to sit still.”

Katja exhales a sigh of relief through the commotion. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for her to coach Cicada on what to say as he’s on the stand while planning her next attack.

Cicada stands in the defense lobby with his arms crossed, tapping his foot. “I can’t believe he fuckin’ planted some magic book in my room. Under my bed? Really? If he actually looked there he would’ve mentioned the shit I actually keep down there which is way more embarrassing than a damn magic book.”

“Mr. Ahlgren, I know this is a small town trial, but he’s still a professional,” Katja says, touching his shoulder. “You need to be careful with how you answer or he’s going to try and bait you into a trap like he did Mr. Sovat’ye.”

“I woulda just told that guy to suck my dick, eh,” Cicada says, sticking out his tongue. “I didn’t do nothin’ out there but sleep, have some fucked up dream, and go home.”

“If I may ask, what was the dream about?” Katja asks, remembering the weird stuff recorded from the scry earlier.

Cicada looks a bit uneasy.

“Well, I dunno what this has to do with anythin’, but I dreamed I woke up and there were these three weird ladies comin’ up to the grave,” Cicada says, holding up three fingers. “All speakin’ some funny language an’ wearin’ deer skulls for hats or somethin’, approachin’ where I was…

“I didn’t want ‘em to see me so’s I hid behind the stone to watch ’em then,” Cicada continues. “And donchaknow, they’re kinda doin’ some weird screamin’ and dancin’ thing around a lantern ‘fore they stick this weird little twig doll thing into the ground, ya know?”

“A… ‘twig doll thing,'” Katja repeats, touching a finger to her chin. “That sounds a lot like a piece of evidence Mr. Sovat’ye recovered yesterday. Are you sure this was a dream?”

“Uh? No, no, lemme finish,” Cicada says, gesturing. “So’s the ground starts shakin’ all like, and the witches stop. All’s a sudden there’s this explosion of rust or somethin’, all kinda just flutterin’ down like snow but it’s rust. So then’s this burst a’ light’s all goin’ up–”

“–Mr. Ahlgren.” Katja pulls out her phone, opening up her email app and going to the message Larus sent her the previous night with the video attached. “I think you need to watch this.”

Cicada hesitantly cranes his neck over to look at her phone as she presses play, rolling the video of a lantern in the dark exploding as a surge of light shoots into the sky through a cloud of rust flakes, and three skull-wearing people on the ground looking up at it with their arms raised. He clasps a hand over his mouth. “Cheese and crackers, there’s no fuckin’ way– But–”

Katja plays the video again. “Was… was your mother brought here on charges of witchcraft, Mr. Ahlgren?”

“What? You’re kiddin’, right?” Cicada recoils his head back, his ear flattened in offense. “She got brought here on public disturbance charges, there’s no witchcraft anywhere an’ that’s public record. People attribute a lotta weird stuff to my mom but bein’ a witch ain’t one of ’em, eh.”

“I-I’m sorry if I insinuated anything with that,” Katja says, wincing a bit. “I just don’t think these skull women you’re talking about are random strangers who arbitrarily decided to show up one day and use your mother’s grave to charge a spell targeting the Chairman, of all people.”

“Well if you’re askin’ me if they’re my cousins or somethin’, I got no idea, then,” Cicada shrugs. “If Mom had family back in the homeland, she never told us about ’em, eh.”

“Mm. I see,” Katja says as she presses the play button again.

Cicada reaches over to tap at the screen and point at a blurry orange blob next to the gravestone before the light launches off. “Hey, I think that’s me! So wait, that means–”

Katja just looks at him and nods as she pulls her phone away and navigates to the next video, muting the volume and hesitating to show Cicada the next clip. Considering it showed the actual murder in progress and was pretty damn gory, it’s not the kind of thing she wants to be seeing again so soon. “Did… did your dream also involve some kind of weird monster, by any chance?”

“What, you’re gonna tell me that part’s real, too?” Cicada asks in disbelief, but before Katja can play the video for him, the security guard comes up to them to let them know that the trial is ready to resume.

The first thing anyone notices upon re-entering the courtroom is the fact that nearly every raised surface now has a raven perched on it — the backs of the gallery seats, the railings, the lamps. Any attempts to get them to leave only results in the birds stubbornly relocating, fluttering up the rafters as people start filing back in and taking their places.

“I hope you all have calmed down,” The judge says as he shoos a raven away to pick up his gavel. “Maybe we should have shut the window before we filed out for recess, eh? Didn’t think our friend from earlier would bring in the whole flock.”

The people in the gallery chuckle, but Kathar’ya looks unamused.

The judge raps his gavel twice. “Court is back in session for the case of Rust Lake versus Cicada Ahlgren. The prosecution may resume questioning the accused.”

“Gladly,” Kathar’ya says, visibly grateful for the distraction of the gallery earlier. He’s completely recomposed himself, having apparently dodged a penalty for planting fake evidence in the form of that tome. He strides up to Cicada at the stand, arms behind his back. “Glad to be chatting with you again, Mr. Ahlgren. Can you tell the court what you were doing out in the woods at the end of Parish Road 101 on the night of the 20th?”

“I was visitin’ my mom’s grave,” Cicada says. “I ended up takin’ a nap, fell asleep, had a weird dream, and ran home.”

“Your neighbors reported you entering and leaving your cabin at unusual hours that night,” Kathar’ya says. “Returning home to collect essential ingredients for your vile spell, were you?”

“Unless hotdishes count as a form of magic now, then buddy, yeah, you kinda need ingredients to make those,” Cicada says. “Hamburger, green beans, cream of mushroom, tater tots, cheese, you know how how hotdish goes, doncha?”

Kathar’ya curls his lip, disgusted. “That sounds like it barely qualifies as a dish at all, to be honest. You people eat that? Moreover, why would you come back home just to make that slop after midnight?”

Cicada scoffs and rolls his eyes. “What’d hotdish ever do to you, uh? We can’t all eat endangered crane eggs for breakfast, guy.”

The judge bangs his gavel. “Please answer the prosecution’s question, Mr. Ahlgren.”

“Jeez! Alright, so you wanna know what I was doin’ at my cabin so late, eh?” Cicada says, crossing his arms. “Well, I had time to kill while the hotdish was cookin’ and I needed a change of clothes so I went to take a shower…”

Kathar’ya twirls his index finger in boredom. “Yes, yes, we get it, you forest people bathe every once in a while–”

“–I was jerkin’ off in there, buddy.” Cicada looks up, leveling his gaze at the prosecutor and looking him dead on in the eye. “Just closin’ my eyes and thinkin’ of a crusty old blue wolf stickin’ his nasty grey muzzle right up in there between my cheeks and eatin’ my entire asshole clean, ya know, takin’ deep, long laps with his rotten tongue juuuust all up in there. Don’t figure you wanna meet up with me after the trial’s done and reenact that eatin’ my ass bit, doncha?”

“LANGUAGE, young man!” Alva calls from the gallery amid laughter from those around her.

Katja hides her face behind both hands and drags them down in exasperation. “Mr. Ahlgren, please remember what we talked about.”

Kathar’ya grabs the collar of Cicada’s shirt and pulls back his fist, following through and punching him squarely in the face with a loud, meaty crack. It seems he took extra care to aim his rings at the man’s jaw, and Cicada is dazed for a few seconds.

“Now that’s why I go to trials!” A man in the gallery shouts. “Hit ‘im again!”

“While that probably wasn’t unwarranted, the prosecution should be firmly advised not to assault the defendant for any reason,” The judge says as he calmly holds his gavel in the air, waiting to see if Cicada will react in a way that would require bailiff intervention. “I realize the courts in Thalasseus are very different nowadays but we’re a bit more traditional around here.”

“Uff da.” Cicada staggers a bit, his head bowed as he rubs his cheek, tonguing something around the inside of his mouth. Blood trickles down his chin. “Didn’t ‘spect some skeleton-lookin’ law fucker like you to hit so hard, eh.”

Kathar’ya doesn’t release his grip on Cicada, flexing his fist like he’s going to punch him again. “Oh, I thought a logging dog like you could take a knock better than that?”

Cicada rears his head back and snorts, spitting his bloodied tooth out in the prosecutor’s face along with a hearty helping of phlegm. “If you don’t wanna eat my ass, buddy, then how ’bout you suck my dick instead?”

The gallery whoops and hollers as the tooth rolls down Kathar’ya’s face, leaving a trail of blood on his otherwise clean cravat. He wipes the reddish spit off on his sleeve with contempt, letting the tooth fall to the floor with a dull clatter.

“As your legal advisor, I suggest that it would be in your best interests to not hit back,” Katja sighs as she hunches over the bench in embarrassment and frustration. This was starting to look like one of those tacky, scripted televised trials more than what she thought a trial should be, and Cicada being an aggressive shithead really isn’t helping his case. He’s just lucky he got accused of something that could be demonstrably proven not guilty solely on the basis of his lack of magical ability, no matter how much Kathar’ya could lie.

“Well yeah, then I really would be guilty of murder, eh,” Cicada says, sliding his tongue into his shiny new tooth-hole with a crooked grin.

Kathar’ya pulls Cicada over, leaning in uncomfortably close. “The more you talk, the more I realize just how eager you are to be reunited with your mother,” he says only loud enough for Cicada to hear, grinning languidly. “Your bravado is cute, but ultimately remember who calls the shots here.”

“Who, the judge?” Cicada asks, opening his mouth so the prosecutor can see him tonguing where his tooth once was. “‘Cause I’m no expert, but I don’t think you’re runnin’ a good show tryna convince everyone a dumb fuck like me can astrally project my ass into the Chairman’s office and gut ‘im or whatever it is you’re sayin’ I did, eh.”

“Well, buddy, unless you can name another one-legged cur in town with a score to settle…” Kathar’ya slowly loosens his grip on Cicada’s shirt, allowing him to stand back up. “You might as well confess it now, you might end up getting a better fate than your mother.”

“Seriously? You’re givin’ me way too much credit,” Cicada says. “You wanna know how long it took me to learn to read?”

“Let me give you a recap on what your investigation has yielded, then, since you were obviously picking your nose and zoning out during the entirety of your own trial,” Kathar’ya leans in close again, planting his index finger in the middle of Cicada’s chest. “After all, we wouldn’t have gotten this far without all the help from your wonderful little defense team, they all but did my work for me in proving your guilt since you’d rather be throwing your little tantrums on the stand.”

“You know, ‘cept the part where I can’t do magic to fix a hole in my pants, eh,” Cicada says, recoiling back with his good ear pulled flat.

“Ah, yes, that little detail. Well…” Kathar’ya angles his head, lidding his eyes. “We know you weren’t physically present at the lodge when the murder happened, but we do know that you were visiting your mother’s grave — your defense attorney picked up your fur there, and those magic-seekers traced your nonsense all the way back to where you were. You were alone, were you not?”

Cicada looks helplessly towards Katja, backed against the wall as Kathar’ya leans over the railing of the stand. “Well, I– I think there was these three witches out there–”

“Oh, witches,” Kathar’ya says, dramatically turning to face the gallery and shrugging. “Yes, because we have a problem with those in this area, don’t we?”

“It wouldn’t be unheard of, given the ancestry of the people here,” the judge points out.

Kathar’ya shoots him a withering glare. “Then maybe that wouldn’t be an issue today if we had kept the irons on those dogs, now would it?”

Outbursts of choice language directed at the prosecutor are heard from the gallery. Someone throws a shoe at Kathar’ya, bouncing off the stand as he jumps out of its path with an all-too-sadistic grin at the negative attention he’s enjoying.

Cicada laughs behind his hand, and Kathar’ya whips around to stare him down again.

“There are no witches in Rust Lake and lying about your magical ineptitude can only get you so far,” the prosecutor says, reaching to grab at the air in front of Cicada’s face. He curls his fingers into his palm with a vicious sneer. “Enough of your insipid games. Why don’t you show the court what sort of monster you really are?”

“Wait, seriously? The fuck are you–” Cicada’s jaws begin to ache, and Kathar’ya pulls his hand back, drawing a vulpine muzzle painfully out of the other man’s face as his lips tear open against newly-sharp teeth. “Urgh!”

A plume of orange fur then erupts from under the collar of his shirt, spreading up his neck like a rash.

“You pitiful, wretched animal,” Kathar’ya purrs, fanning his fingers to draw out more animalistic features on Cicada’s body. Black fur starts to sprout on his forearms, his fingers beginning to shorten as he hunches over the stand with the prosecutor’s hand on his head. “You wanted to tear his throat out for killing your mother, didn’t you?”

The power begins to flicker again as a bald tail bursts out over the top of Cicada’s jeans, fur bristling out of it like an unfurling fern. He snarls out in pain, blood-stained saliva dripping from his chin as he maintains whatever grip he can on the stand with his paw-like digits, newly-formed claws digging desperately into the wood.

“Would you look at that,” Kathar’ya says, smiling wickedly. “You’re bleeding so much magical energy the lights are going out! And you say you can’t use magic? That you’re not the beast captured in that scrying video?”

“Fucking… stop…” Cicada can feel his body shrinking as his clothes begin to sag loosely around him. He stumbles, almost losing his balance when his heel elongates into a paw and his shin shortens to compensate. The stand is the only thing holding him up right now, but it’s unknown how long he has before he’s forced to the ground. He can already feel his thigh stump becoming too small to fit inside the socket of his prosthesis as it tilts inside of his pants leg. “Stop!”

The raven that was perched on the judge’s podium swoops down at Kathar’ya, angrily shrieking and violently pecking at him before he can force along more of Cicada’s transformation, and the prosecutor throws up both arms in front of him in surprise as he tries to swat away the bird to no avail.

The power goes completely out, and all that can be heard is the shuffling of feathers and the rushing of wind towards the middle of the courtroom floor. The rest of the ravens leave their perches and coalesce together into a larger form, filling the air with the smell of burnt wood and rust. A single bulb flickers back on, casting a lonely beam of light on Prosecutor Kathar’ya thrown back on the floor, propping himself up on his elbows as a large, feathered figure crouches over him, planting a clawed foot on his chest.

He looks up into the face of the creature, blanching like he’s seen a ghost as he attempts to scuttle backwards and away from it. His shoulder bumps into something sharp, and another light turns back on, revealing an enormous black feathered construct behind him, bound in rags and gripping a bladed staff in clawed hands of charred, living wood, its skeletal body topped off with three large fox skulls, the middle head bearing a rack of antlers. Dark, ashen smoke radiates out from beneath the construct’s cloak and eye sockets as it leans over the man, staring wordlessly as it points the staff at his back.

Panicked whispers can be heard from the gallery, and some reach for their phones to record it while others get up and make it for the door. Katja peeks out from beneath her bench, and the judge is hiding behind the podium.

Cicada looks up, pushing back some of his hair back with his wrist as he strains to remain standing in his half-transformed state, panting as his limbs shiver uncontrollably. He finds himself unable to speak through the pain and the animalistic shape of his jaws.

“Didn’t think a gutless sack of shit like you would ever come back to this town,” says the figure, stretching out her arm and poking the very tips of her talons into the soft skin under the prosecutor’s chin. “I thought for sure you’d be living a comfortable life back in Thalasseus after throwing your weight around here, but I guess you just can’t get off without tormenting the forest’s children one last time, can you? Someone had to be made into an example for the new generation, right?”

“You…” Kathar’ya lifts his chin to get away from the claws. “You were sealed in iron, how did you get out?”

The construct sprouts an extra set of arms and holds them out, palms to the air.

“We… found her…”

“Found… our sister…”

“Freed… her…!”

Three separate voices hiss from the mouths of the skulls of the construct, heavily accented by a raw Skogish tongue untouched by dwarven influence. Every word from the construct is sharp and piercing, like long, cold iron nails.

“She was taken…”

“…Stolen…”

“And then you killed her!”

“I-I didn’t kill you,” Kathar’ya says, looking around in a wide-eyed fear. “It was the Ward– the Chairman. He did it, not me!”

“You were the one who ordered it, you spineless shitmouth,” the figure grabs Kathar’ya’s shirt collar in a fist, pulling him up from the ground to meet her. “Every word from that outhouse flap you call a face is a lie. You even lied about walking me to the gallows yourself, and you were too cowardly to even do that. And now you’re bullying my own son to make it look like he did it? The fuck’d he ever do to you, uh?”

Cicada presses his muzzle back into his face in shock with his stubby, paw-like hand, his fingers elongating back to normal as the transformation slowly begins to reverse itself. “This is another fucked up dream and I’m gonna wake up back in the detention center right after I piss myself again, aren’t I?”

“If you do that, then I’m sentencing you to mopping it up,” the judge says from behind the podium. “Is it safe to come out yet?”

“You can come out, Your Honor,” the figure says, not turning her gaze away from Kathar’ya. “The only person I’m after here is that chicken-hearted fuckbuzzard in front of me.”

“Y-Your Honor, sir, may I suggest perhaps we drop all charges on the accused and forget this all ever happened?” Kathar’ya pleads with the judge.

“I, uh, hm,” the judge sputters, peeking over the podium. “I would like to know what’s going on, first…”

“Don’t think that’ll spare you my wrath, fucko,” she says to Kathar’ya, pulling him up as she stands, turning to face the judge. She doesn’t release the prosecutor from her grip as she steps into the light to fully show her face — freckled skin, ember-red hair, and a pair of long, pointed ears, with one limp, tilting ear just like that of Cicada’s. Black feathers cover the rest of her body from the neck down, transitioning into fur at the waist. Her forearms scaled like a bird’s legs, and her legs digitigrade like a fox’s, with a shaggy, matted tail. Wisps of mist emanate from her form. “Does the name Ingegard Ahlgren ring a bell?”

“Ingegard Ahlgren!” The judge gasps, bringing his glasses closer to his eyes to verify that he wasn’t imagining things. “I never thought we would ever hear from you again.”

“The iron box… denied her an afterlife…”

“She wasn’t allowed to pass on… We couldn’t find her…”

“Until we came here!”

The construct angrily rattles its skeletal body, raising its arms and ragged wings.

“Yeah. I did it. I was the one who killed Warden Al’batros on the night of my release,” Ingegard continues, placing a taloned hand on her chest. “I wanted to go after this worthless birdshit of a man, too, but he was conveniently out of reach that night…”

She yanks Kathar’ya forward and up to his feet. “Like my sisters said, I spent 85 years in a box because of this dog vomit’s orders. Whatever judgment you bring to me now can only pale in comparison, for he made sure not even death could free me of this miserable, frozen place.”

The judge frowns down at her, knitting his fingers together with concern. “If you must enact your vengeance on the prosecution, please do it in a way that isn’t so messy that we have a giant cleaning bill…”

Kathar’ya looks nervously between the two. “You– you’re letting her do this?!”

“Sentencing someone that’s already deceased is very much out of my jurisdiction,” the judge says, ‘accidentally’ letting the sleeves of his robe slip down to reveal old, faded iron scars as he picks up the gavel. “I’m afraid you’re on your own pursuing that verdict. For now, though…”

The judge bangs his gavel loudly on the sound block with a sense of finality. “I’m dropping all charges on Cicada Ahlgren and declaring a mistrial. Prosecutor Kathar’ya, if you are still alive by the end of the day, I would like to have your credentials reviewed on the basis of falsifying evidence and attempted framing. Case dismissed with prejudice.”

The lights flicker back on as the bailiffs boredly throw confetti around and the people in the gallery look at each other, murmuring in disappointment and confusion. The construct’s glowing eyes flicker as though they’re blinking as it picks colorful bits of paper out of its cloak, casting them to the ground.

The gallery begins to empty out once it becomes clear Ingegard wasn’t going to do anything to the prosecutor, chattering amongst themselves as they head for the exit.

“Aw man, I was kinda hoping she’d rip that guy open. That woulda been sick, eh.”

“Wait, so that there ghost bird monster thing’s really Ingegard then?”

“I can’t believe that little piss goblin at the bar was really Ingegard’s son all along!”

Cicada makes a face as he straightens back up, now fully an elf again, adjusting his prosthetic leg back into place and twisting his shirt back into proper orientation. “Ya know what? I’m pretty okay with never bein’ in another trial again ’cause that was a whole lotta fuckin’ bullshit, eh.”

He hops out of the stand as the judge steps down from the podium, his head bowed and hoping that his mother’s too preoccupied with wanting to rip Kathar’ya to shreds to notice him because talking to her now felt kind of awkward. When your mother’s been dead for 85 years and gets pseudo-resurrected by some vengeful aunts that ends up getting you accidentally framed for murder, how do you even start a conversation at that point?

“Hey…”

He stops, turning his head slightly towards the source of the voice as his ear shyly twitches. Ingegard is looking at him, Kathar’ya’s shirt still clenched in her fist as the prosecutor tries in vain to tug away from her and escape.

Her gaze softens as she looks at Cicada with pride. “I’m glad to see you walking on two legs this time.”

Cicada’s ears turn pink as he stuffs his hands in his pockets, trying not to smile as he looks at the floor. “You mean one leg,” he says, scuffing his prosthetic foot on the ground.

Ingegard beams at him. “You know what I mean, tripod.”

Cicada hesitates for a bit, then grins, winking while proudly showing off his newly missing tooth. “Hey, it’s not that big yet, eh.”

Ingegard looks at him with a sidelong squint, processing what he said before her ear goes up in realization and jokingly facepalming.

“—Oh jeez, I’m gonna hafta have a word with your mother about your language there, then,” she grins, feigning offense as she puts her hand on her hip.

“Go ahead, she’s right there in the gallery!” Cicada smiles as he points a thumb over, and Ingegard looks out towards the emptying seats, her expression hopeful.

Larus stands at the top of the courthouse stairs outside, blowing into his hands to get them warm as snow falls in big, lazy flakes around him. Albedo is laying on the concrete banister, paws tucked beneath him in a perfectly comfortable loaf as they watch people leave the building. Katja stops just at the entry, briefcase in one hand and coffee in the other, tilting back her head to down the entire cup.

“Hope I never have to do a case with magic again…”

“Hey, Miss Eklund!” Alva hustles outside after her, a raven nested down the front of her parka and Cicada following close behind. Katja turns around to face them, pushing her glasses up her nose. “My boy and I wanted to thank you for helpin’ us out in court, you were doin’ a great job out there ya know.”

“I– I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t have the ghost showing up, but I’m glad to have helped,” she says. “What happened to Kathar’ya?”

“If he’s smart, he’s gonna be leavin’ town,” Alva says, putting her arm around Cicada’s shoulder. “If he idn’t, well, s’not gonna be a mystery who did it, then.”

Katja eyes the raven in Alva’s parka as it fluffs its feathers up and contentedly shuts its eyes, looking incredibly smug for a bird. “I don’t even know how the legal system is supposed to apply to ghosts when that happens.”

“It’s… complicated,” Larus says, looking up at them. “We’re lucky this isn’t the mainland or this whole case would have been an even bigger mess than it ended up being.

“Yeah, no,” Albedo says, “Prosecuting the unliving is a legal cat circus. I mean, you can’t easily throw a ghost in prison so you have to get some special equipment, if they refuse to move on then you gotta call in priests, it’s a real cluster. That’s not even counting if they happen to be a particularly violent spirit and don’t take well to counseling, and then there’s all these clauses for justifiable revenge, because rarely does a ghost kill someone without good reason for it–”

“–I’ll take your word for it, Mr. Al’satye,” Katja says, making a strained smile. “I think I’m good here ’cause I could really do without seeing another screaming bone construct for the rest of my life.”

“Well, I thought it was pretty cool,” Albedo says, shrugging. “You have no idea how much I wanted to roll in its ashes after it left but Larus wouldn’t let me.”

“Leftover magic-dust from a Skog construct is the last thing I need you ingesting when you groom yourself, Al.” Larus playfully rolls his eyes as he picks Albedo up off the banister and holds him to his chest.

The cat struggles around Larus’s grip, flailing his back paws as light envelops his body. He takes on the shape of a man, holding out his arms in a shrug. “What about now? Should be easier to clean, right?”

Larus releases him, stepping away. “The answer is still no, Albedo.”

“I’ll do it for ‘im,” Cicada volunteers, sticking a hand in his pocket and pointing back towards the courthouse with a grin. “I’m an expert in rollin’ around in garbage!”

Alva sighs and grabs onto the back of his suspenders. “Nobody here’s rollin’ in anything, alright?”

“Aw jeez, Ma.” Cicada crosses his arms and humphs, making a face. “I was just tryna make ‘im feel better.”

“I like this guy, Larus,” Albedo says as he points his thumb at Cicada. “He gets me.”

“You fellas have fun with that,” Katja looks at Albedo and Cicada like they’ve lost their minds. “Tussle with that thing all you want, I’m going back to keeping people out of jail who don’t need to be there.”

“Seriously, though,” Alva reaches out to pat her on the shoulder. “I wanted to thank you again for fightin’ for my boy, Miss Eklund.”

“Eh, yah,” Cicada sheepishly scuffs his shoes on the ground. “Sorry I was such a shithead in court an’ all that, eh.”

“Just keep your nose clean and we’ll be even, alright?” Katja says to him with a grin.

“I will s’long as nobody else tries to frame me for murder, eh,” he laughs.

“Alright, well you all take care then,” Katja waves goodbye and starts descending the stairs. “I’m taking the rest of the day off once I turn this evidence in to the station.”

“You betcha, Miss Eklund!” Alva waves her off. “Doin’ anything special tonight?”

“Not really,” Katja says. “Waste time on the internet and fall asleep watching movies, probably.”

“–Have you seen that talking moose one?” Albedo asks, his ears perked.

Katja scoffs, laughing. “Oh jeez, that one’s awful! I think my neighbors were in that one. No, I don’t really watch too many ‘locally sourced’ movies anymore…”

“I told you it was filmed in someone’s backyard,” Larus says, elbowing Albedo.

Albedo crosses his arms with an amused chuckle. “And I still insist it was a very professionally-produced and masterful film deserving of every award.”

“Ey, I got paid a bag a’ weed and a six-pack to do the camerawork so that’s enough award for me, eh,” Cicada says, holding his arms out and grinning widely.

“I never knew we had such a celebrity in our midst!” Albedo gasps, turning to Alva. “Officer Lindstrom, did you know your son’s a famous cinematographer?”

“Of course! He’s a boy of many talents,” Alva beams with pride, putting her arm back around Cicada’s shoulder. “Aren’cha, buddy?”

“Oh, jeez.” Cicada hides his face in embarrassment. “I dunno if I’d call it that, eh. I could film myself takin’ a crap and someone’d call it art.”

“It does make a statement,” Albedo says, holding up a finger.

“I’ll abstain from watching that one,” Katja says, smiling and turning to head down the stairs again. Maybe this time they’d let her go, people take way too long to say goodbye in this town. “I gotta get going, then. I’ll see you all later?”

The attempt was a success, and Katja is free to escape to her car, waving the entire way down the stairs with Alva turned around and waving back at her. “Seeya, Miss Eklund!”

Larus and Albedo look at each other, then at Cicada, who lowers his hands from his face. Larus puts his arm around Albedo’s waist and smiles pleasantly.

“So, we heard you had some kind of ‘leg story’…?”

Cicada’s entire face begins to light up.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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6 thoughts on “Rust Lake

  1. So you know some of this already because I was cheerleading on Discord, but this turned out just fantastic, especially given its scope and just how much it changed from its original concept to what it became! Present-tense stories are a hard sell for me but this kept me happily reading until the final title card. I know you were worried about all the elements gelling but it feels cohesive, like every little detail belongs, and the song you referenced for the Ironbreaker’s Ballad still gets in my head occasionally. Your art is a great match for the story as well. Gotta love those courtroom sketches!

    Also: Larus mooshing Albedo’s face like a goofy pet owner and Albedo going along with it? Just delightful.

  2. Aaaa I love this. I love all the little references but how it definitely felt like its own thing.

    I was also not at all prepared for a story that would make my immigrated-to-Minnesota accent stronger but I came home after reading this on the bus and sounded like a Fargo character when I talked to my wife lmao

    • Haha oh gosh, this is the highest compliment one can receive, thank you so much!! I’m glad I was able to get the dialect across that well lmao, I hope you told your wife your elevated accent was because you read a gay story about gay Minnesotan elves ☺️☺️☺️

  3. YES I am so here for hot-dish-making fox-elves!! This story kept me company on a long plane trip this week, thank you. It’s clear that you put a lot of thought into worldbuilding & cultural details and it makes the setting feel recognizable not just as “fantasy Minnesota” but as its own place with its own history. I would love to see more written in this setting!
    Also I got astrong Manfred von Karma vibe from the illustration of Prosecutor Kathar’ya, which seemed extremely fitting.

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