The murder of a departed brother and a strange mage found at the scene of the crime. But who is more of a mystery to Phoebus -- the man who shared his blood, or his fellow mage?
The first line was given to me as part of a prompt. The setting is an alternate version of my webcomic -- one where things end badly. Unlike most of my other stories, this would require adaptation to make it work for the novel, as the Selkie aren't much like the Soksoon.
The staff in the closet should have been his first clue. It was a calling mage's staff, relatively new, wrapped in a cloth. Phoebus studied it. There was the token of a water spirit looped around where the head of the staff joined the shaft. The glassy remains on the head showed that there might have been others once.
It was certainly not his brother's. Philandre had never really shown much interest in magic. He had entirely the wrong temperament for calling magic, anyway -- Phoebus remembered him to be brash and rather callous. A lot could have changed in the ten-some years since he left, but it wouldn't be likely.
It was also possible it was a friend or lover's, but it had been locked away, and near the back of the closet -- not a place where anyone could easily get at it. He himself had almost missed it, save for Slyph's urgings. He had to remember to thank his spirit companion later.
Phoebus reached for the token. It would be horribly rude to summon a spirit bonded to another mage, but the house was eerily quiet and there were questions.
He heard the sound of a scream -- more of rage than pain or fear -- and the thud of something hitting the floor. He paused, then let the staff clang to the floor, running to find out where Phaedra had wandered off to.
His sister was in what looked like a servant's room. There was a boy... no, a man on the floor, curled up in a ball. He was nude, and Phoebus caught what could have been dried blood on his face. His hair was a light brown, with a few traces of red near his forehead and he lacked clan markings on his back, which ruled out a selkie, but he was far too pale to be a djinni, at least not an unshapeshifted one. His eyes were scrunched shut, and he was biting his lip in pain. Phaedra stood over him, her eyes closed tightly in a mix of barely controlled fury. She turned to look at Phoebus as he entered. The man on the floor relaxed a bit. /She was using a pain spell on him/, Phoebus realized.
"He killed our brother. He killed Philandre. Give me one good reason I shouldn't twist his mind inside out for that." Phaedra glared at him, challenging him to object.
Phoebus paused. "What?"
Phaedra pointed to the bedroom across the hall. "Go in there. You'll find our brother's corpse. And this pile of fishguts," she kicked the prone man, who didn't do more than flinch, "admitted to killing him.
"I believe you," Phoebus said. "Who is he?"
"Like I know. A servant or something."
The man croaked something. Phoebus bent down, looking at him with healer's eyes. He seemed to be in poor shape -- there were bruises on his forearms and back, bruises that were too old to be inflicted by Phaedra. He reached for the man's chin, to get a better look at the blood on his face, but the man jerked back, an almost-crazed look in his eyes, and hissed something unintelligible.
"Phaedra, could you knock him out for me?"
"What are you doing?" she asked. "You aren't thinking of healing him, are you?"
"Philandre did have someone else living with him -- a calling mage. So I'm investigating this person. If he killed Philandre, the village elders will want a full report when we bring him in. Without harm to him." He used his professional voice there, speaking slowly and with purpose.
"Fine." She tossed her head a bit, the only indication of her using her magic, and the man slumped. "But his life is ours as next of kin. Once the elders declare that, I intend to make him suffer for killing a Murchadh."
So that's what this was about, he thought as he examined the now-unconscious body. Neither of them had really known their younger brother well -- both of them had been in the early stages of apprenticeship when Philandre was a toddler. They heard the fights, though -- Philandre had never gotten along well with their father. He had left home as soon as he was able to, over ten years ago. Until a friend had mentioned seeing him a couple of weeks ago in a nearby village, neither sibling had seen him since.
This death... he was surprised how little this hurt. It was more regret that a man who was his brother lived and died, and he knew nothing about the man he had become. Philandre might as well have been a stranger to me. I've felt more towards my patients than my own brother, I've /known my patients better than my own brother. What sort of man were you, brother?/
The blood on the man's face was an odd color -- too bluish to be real blood. There was similar stuff on his hands. Phoebus wet a rag, and wiped at it a bit -- it seemed to be coming from cuts across his cheeks. /Exile's cuts -- recently done, but ragged. There could be clan markings under them, but the blood and cuts are covering them. /The blue-violet of the blood would match the blue-violet of some markings, like his own.
Who are you? /He wanted to ask him. /What were you to my brother? Are you a servant? A burglar? A friend? A lover? If you bear exile's cuts, what clan markings did you bear under them and how did you get them?
He remembered the staff, and stood up. "One moment," he told Phaedra. He ran out, and grabbed it off the floor, taking it back into the room. He held it out in front of himself, feeling the unfamiliar currents of power. Phaedra stared at him, as if to ask what he was going to do. "/Water spirit without a name, bound to my brother mage's power, please speak to me."/
The spirit was avian, with a human face. It asked.
"Yes. Who were you bound to, Spirit?"
The spirit pointed with a talon to the unconscious man.
"How does a calling mage kill someone?" Phaedra asked. "You all practically exhale rainbows and piss light."
"There is a way," Phoebus said, remembering half-whispered stories he was told as an apprentice. "Are you familiar with the Fellowship of Starlight? The greycloaks?"
"Some crazy cult that's a good way to get killed." Phaedra shrugged as if that was all that really mattered. For such a bright woman, she can be remarkably uncurious.
"They go after calling mages and break them," Phoebus said softly. "A calling mage cannot perform his magic without empathy. Cause him to close off and become afraid of his fellow people, and you cancel his magic. You also create someone with little empathy and no reason to like you." It was too terrible to believe. The greycloaks had always been a sort of bogeyman for apprentices. You always knew someone whose brother's cousin's teacher's former student had been caught by them, or reports of them in towns comfortably far away. Never here. Never someone you knew.
Yet there was the fearful remains of a calling mage on the floor who has just confessed to killing a man in cold blood./Which do you believe, Phoebus Murchadh? That the brother you barely knew is capable of such atrocities, or that somehow you have a person who breaks all of the magical rules you learned?/ It was tempting to believe that Philandre had taken this boy in, rescued him, and had been killed protecting him.
"Spirit, is this one capable of calling any more?"
He looked over to Slyph, who nodded agreement.
Phoebus examined the cloth the staff had been wrapped in. It was a grey hooded cloak, with a star clasp.
Brother mine, man I never knew, how could you do this to my brother mage? And, were it me who had lied before you, an unrepentant calling mage, would I have ended on this floor, exile's marks on my face and your blood on my hands?