She bled stars.
Stellavia bled all over the altar, her mouth hung open, stars oozing from her back and onto the temple floor. The trail of blood led to a small groove in the stage merely a few inches away, where a puddle of it sat. I dipped my pinky in the puddle, then looked at it. In the dim light, my finger lit up.
I brought the blood to my nose and sniffed it. It smelled like a cold summer night. Put the smallest bit on the tip of my tongue. It tasted like sugar water.
Crouched there in the temple just before the Sun was about to rise, I caught a glimpse of my badge. It made me proud of who I was, or rather who I pretended to be.
I used to be a man stuck in the past. Now, at least, I pretended I had a life here in the present.
This lady was one of a kind in this part of the world. How the hell was I supposed to figure out her time of death? It couldn’t have been too long; the blood hadn’t coagulated. Yesterday’s worship had taken place in the evening, which meant there was only a seven or eight hour window.
Long ago she had told me her body was only an accurate representation of the stars when she was living. When she died, she became something more static, like a map.
I walked up to the body. Studied her corpse, looking for our planet. It didn’t take long to find: it was the area with the least number of stars. In fact, it only had one star. The planet was a hair’s width above the belly button. Our Sun was about two inches from it. And when I squinted, I saw our two moons. They were less than half an inch from each other. Given their location, and given their daily rotation around the planet, I figured she must’ve died about two hours ago.
I glanced at the temple’s stained glass window. It featured Val Rador, the creature of light and life, his sword arcing down to kill the Angel of Death.
I slipped a cigarette in-between my lips. “Fiat lux,” I mumbled, snapping my fingers so that a small flame shot out of them, lighting my cigarette.
I was about to turn for the door, figuring it’d be best to book it before the real cops arrived.
A pillar of light shot up from the ground right next to the corpse.
“Leaving so soon, George?” a booming voice asked from inside the light. The Angel of Death walked out of the pillar, which closed up behind her. I’d never admitted it out loud, but she was beautiful: long red hair, piercing green eyes, and two black wings that stretched across half the width of the church.
“Took you long enough,” I said.
“Death is a busy business, some days,” she replied.
“I bet it is,” I said.
She bent over to the starry corpse. She put her hand in its mouth and pulled a translucent sheet from it.
“I’ve got to take this soul to where it belongs,” she said. “Say hi to Val for me.”
“Fuck you,” I said, walking down the aisle and towards the door.
“Val already did,” she said, laughing.
That goddamn laugh of hers had haunted me for a long time now. It was good to hear it again.
I pushed open the thick wood doors and walked out of the temple, only to be greeted by two angry police officers, and the rising sun. I recognized the older one, Vicky.
“Put your hands on your head,” Vicky said with a bit of a drawl, her gun pointed straight at my heart.
“I didn’t kill Stellavia.”
Vicky’s eyes widened just a little. “Didn’t realize she was dead. Only heard that there was some commotion in the temple.”
Of course, I knew she didn’t know. She’s the one who tipped me off that there might be a story here. But I had to put on a show for the rookie.
“Well, she’s dead,” I said. “But I didn’t kill her.”
“Never said you did,” Vicky told me. “We still got you on tampering with a crime scene and impersonating an officer of the law.” She pointed her gun at the badge hanging from my neck.
“I know when she died,” I said.
“We will too, soon.” She took out a pair of handcuffs while her younger partner kept the gun trained. “Soon as we can take a closer look at the crime scene. Hold your hands out.”
She cuffed me and said, “Check the crime scene, rookie. I’ll take care of the perp.”
The kid looked nervous. He nodded his head and ran into the police station, while Vicky grabbed my arm and tugged me along.
“Thanks for the tipoff,” I said.
“You were supposed to be gone by the time we got here.”
“Ran into a little trouble,” I said.
“You were two blocks away and we were across town when I called. What kind of trouble could you have gotten into?”
“Angel of Death.”
Vicky stopped for a moment, turning to look at me.
“You didn’t shoot at her, did you?” she asked.
“You could have at least taken off the badge,” she said.
“Forgot I had it on.”
“Why’d you put it on in the first place?”
“Nobody asks questions when a cop slips into an empty temple.”
“Nobody except other cops,” she said. She opened the cop car door. I ducked my head and she threw me in. “If I’d realized the commotion was a murder, I never would have called you. I’m going to close this door and check out the crime scene. If you’re gone when I come back, so help me I’ll shoot your dick off.”
I believed her, too.
— — —
People never go to the police station to have a good time. I was no exception, but I’d been there often enough to avoid feeling too nervous.
“You disturb matters beyond your domain,” the Wise Tree said. I sat in a hard plastic chair, Vicky standing to my right. The both of us faced the Wise Tree, whose face was plastered across the police station wall. They’d built the station around the Tree, presumably because of how handy he was for scaring the shit out of perps.
“Death’s my domain. Death, sex, and embarrassment,” I said. “That’s the domain of every journalist from here to the Celestial Wall.”
He grunted at that. He’d been hostile since the first day he met me, because I was a journalist. The fact that I’d written Godkiller didn’t help things.
“Did you kill Stellavia?” the Wise Tree asked.
“No,” I said.
“Even though Death is your domain?” he asked, with more than a hint of irony.
“I didn’t kill her,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re the best suspect we have,” the Wise Tree said. “We found her blood on your hands.”
“One hand,” I said. “A finger.”
“You were at the scene of the crime.”
“Two hours after she’d died.”
“Doesn’t the killer always return to the scene of the crime?” the Wise Tree asked.
“Not two hours after it happened. Don’t insult my intelligence.”
“I’ll insult you however I care to,” he bellowed, his voice shaking my ear drums. I took in a deep breath of air, but the whole place smelled like a rotten forest. I wanted to gag. “You’re a gnat who had the audacity to kill a god. That makes you less than a gnat, in my eyes.”
“And yet a gnat doesn’t get the pleasure of your company,” I said. “You must care a little.”
Vicky cracked a smile while the Wise Tree roared with anger.
“Insolent, incompetent fool. You’d bring about the apocalypse with–”
“You know I didn’t kill her,” I said.
“What makes you so sure?” he asked.
“Because you know me,” I said. “You know I’m no swordsman. Would’ve shot her.”
“You could have a hidden talent,” the Wise Tree said. “Why would we fall for such a simple trick?”
“The swordsman who killed Stellavia was right-handed. I’m a southpaw.”
“Approach, Vicky,” the Wise Tree said.
Vicky did. The Wise Tree mumbled in her ear. She mumbled in his, then he proceeded to mumble into hers again. When they were finished Vicky walked over and unhandcuffed me. My wrists felt relief when the cold metal fell away.
She walked a few steps and turned around, taking a pen out from behind her ear and throwing it at me.
I caught it with my left hand.
“It’s not watertight,” the Wise Tree said. “I could hold you overnight, at least.”
A tense silence filled the air.
“Are you going to?”
“No,” he said. “Frankly, I want you out of my hair, and I don’t think you have the balls for murder.”
That suited me fine. I didn’t want him in my hair, either.
“But this could make things very difficult for you, if I wanted them to,” he said. “Instead, I’m offering you a choice: get out of this town in the next 24 hours, and never come back. Otherwise, you will feel the full force of the law. We’ll look through your life and air out your dirty laundry. I imagine you’ve picked up a lot of baggage in your 60 years.”
“I wouldn’t say you’re right,” I said, muttering “Fiat Lux” as I lit a cigarette. “Wouldn’t say you’re wrong, either.” I blew the smoke to the side.
“Will you take the deal?” the Wise Tree asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I could do for some travel.”
— — —
Arrived at the pub about fifteen minutes later. The first thing I saw when I opened the door was my reflection. Hated that. Baggy eyelids, unshaven face, and a crimson tie that weaved its way across my neck and down to my belt, looking like some open wound. I hated all of it.
The only thing I really liked about this bar was the smell: a cocktail of booze, sweat, and metal. It reminded me of the adventures I’d had with Val Rador. I was ashamed of them now, but I’d be damned if they didn’t comprise the best goddamn time of my life.
“Closed,” Evan said, his back turned as he wiped the bar down. He used his human arm for that, while his metallic right arm hung at his side. The arm looked cumbersome: a patchwork of wires and pistons. It was the sort of magic that went far beyond me.
“You said I could never drink here, anyway,” I said.
The rage built in Evan’s face as soon as he saw me. He was like that: never knowing what to say first, when he wanted to say absolutely everything. I figured he’d start with a curse word.
“Fuck you,” he said. And there it was. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Following a story,” I said.
“Just like a journalist. There’s a reason journalists don’t get access, you know,” Evan said. “Nobody likes a fucking journalist. They’re maggots, worming their way where they don’t belong, messing things up, asking the sorts of questions they shouldn’t ask.”
“How’d you get the arm?” I asked. It was far from the first time I’d asked that question.
“You’re a monster,” he said.
“You’re not wrong,” I said.
He let out a long, deep sigh, rubbing his eyes.
“What’s the story?” he asked.
“Stellavia died,” I said.
“Sword through the back.”
“You see my mother?” he asked.
“She mention me?”
“No,” I said.
“Figures,” he said, shaking his head. He let out a bitter laugh and threw his arms in the air. “I don’t know why I’m surprised.”
“I’m sorry, if it matters.”
“It doesn’t. Death isn’t supposed to make life. She and Val shouldn’t have made me,” he said. His defenses went back up, and he almost looked cavalier as he asked, “You think I killed Stellavia?” It was a challenge, as opposed to a point of curiosity.
“I don’t know. Temple’s only a five minute walk from here.”
“I’ve got the means, if not the motive.” Of course, Evan had motive. He hated everything Val had ever brought to this city at the end of his adventures. And Stellavia had come back with us after our adventure.
Still, I didn’t want to push the point.
“Means but not motive,” I said. “Wondered if you saw anyone here that looked suspicious.”
“No,” he said.
“Nobody drunk and belligerent? Nobody with a sword?”
“Nobody,” he said.
That was a lie, too. Nobody walked into this bar without some means of defending themselves.
“I wanted to talk to your father,” I said.
“He doesn’t want to talk to you,” Evan said.
“I need to talk to him.”
“You don’t need to write that story,” he told me. “You don’t need any of this. You want to know who killed Stellavia. You want to dig up your past yet again. But nobody’s interested, George. You had your adventure forty years ago, and that’s all you were ever good for. You and dad changed the world once. But that’s it. You don’t get to change it again.”
“All I want is an address,” I said.
“Too bad,” he said.
“The cops are going to come to this bar. They’re going to see if the murderer came here.”
“So?” he asked.
“So the article that I’m going to write about the investigation can go one of two ways. Either I write, ‘Police asked Evan Rador a series of questions regarding Stellavia’s murder,’ or I write, ‘Police canvassed the local area to see if anyone saw suspicious activity near the temple at around 3 a.m.’”
“You know her time of death,” Evan said.
“And you know where Val lives these days,” I said. “Help me out here.”
“My name doesn’t end up in your book?” Evan asked.
“Your name is erased from my memory,” I said.
He nodded his head. “Alright.” He searched his pants pockets, then found a pen in his shirt. Turned around to grab a pad of paper.
He wrote Val’s address down and ripped off a sheet, handing it to me.
“Pleasure doing business,” I said.
— — —
Val Rador had a nice place. That shouldn’t have surprised me. It made sense. But still, I’d never known him as a man of luxury. It was strange to think of how much he might have changed. I walked down the cobblestone path, striding between two patches of fake grass. When I reached the door, I saw that they had a dragon knocker.
“Who are you?” the dragon spat out. It wasn’t a full dragon, not really. It was a small, stone head. The knocker, a heavy brass ring, looped around the back of his neck. If I wanted to use it, I had to get his permission.
I flashed my badge, answering his question.
“What do you want?” he asked. He wasn’t getting any nicer.
“What people like me always want,” I told him. “Answers.”
“First I wanna know the questions,” he said.
“You’re not a cop,” I said. “So cut it out, alright?”
“No, I’m not the one who cuts stuff out. I’m not that sort of creature, you see?” he said. “I’m this place’s first and last line of defense. As a dragon, a creature of light and fi–”
I banged on the door, yelling, “Will someone shut this goddamn dragon up?”
A figure opened the door.
It wasn’t Val Rador, it was a Hyalu.
I couldn’t decide if her skin was the ocean or the sky. It was a soft blue, softer in some areas than others. There were small patches of white swirling around, moving across her body like clouds or sea foam.
“You’re not a fan of dragons, I take it,” she said.
“They’re not my favorite,” I admitted.
Of course, they weren’t most people’s favorite, and I couldn’t help but wonder why Val would have a symbol of the Death Cult hanging on his door. I cast the thought to the back of my mind, fishing for her name, “Mrs.–”
“Lusu,” she said. “Lusu Rador. You want to come in?” she asked.
“I’d appreciate it,” I said.
We stood there for several moments, neither of us moving, like we’d both been followers for so long that we’d forgotten how to lead. I made my way into the house. She closed the door and followed.
The house was even more beautiful on the inside: spacious, with tapestries hung everywhere. They displayed Val Rador’s false accomplishments.
“Nice house,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. It didn’t sound genuine. “Might I ask why you’re here?”
“I have questions,” I said, flashing my badge. “Do you know where your husband was last night?”
“Last night?” she said. “Last night’s barely ended. I just woke up.”
“Then do you know where he’s been for the past five hours?” I asked.
My heart beat four times before she responded.
“I don’t really keep track of his whereabouts,” she said. “He wouldn’t like that. Besides, I trust him.” That sounded like a lie, and I was glad. Trusting Val Rador would be one of the biggest mistakes of her life.
I would know. It was one of mine.
“So you don’t know where he’s been?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Is there any chance we could move into the living room? I’d like to sit down.”
“Certainly,” I said. “Lead the way.”
She hesitated for a moment, then walked. I gladly followed.
“This is a nice house,” I said. “What does your husband do?”
“He’s retired, mostly,” she said, the two of us standing in the living room. “Kills the occasional dragon.”
“Can I have a seat?” I asked, pointing at the red armchair. A small bookcase stood next to the chair. I noticed that my book, Godkiller, was shelved there.
“Certainly,” she said. “Would you care for a drink?”
“Had enough before I got here,” I told her.
“How about a smoke?”
“Got plenty,” I said, taking a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket for just a second to show her. I slipped them back in.
“I’m not sure whether you’re good at living or dying.”
“Mother always said you couldn’t be good at one if you didn’t at least try to be good at the other. Now, do you have any speculations about where your husband might have been last night?”
“No,” she said, sitting down on her white sofa. The white patches of skin peaked out from her white dress, and it looked like the couch was hugging her, enveloping her. “Do you?”
“I think he might’ve broken the law,” I said. “Would that change your opinion of him?”
“Show me a man too in love with the law and I’ll show you a man who doesn’t trust himself,” she said.
“That’s a bold thing to tell a detective.”
“You never said you were a detective,” she said.
“You couldn’t tell?”
“I’m not the detective.”
“Sharp tongue,” I said.
“You’ll forgive me,” she said. “I don’t like being interrogated about my husband’s whereabouts.”
“I can tell.”
“What do you think it is that he did, exactly?” she asked.
“You know Stellavia?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Didn’t die of natural causes, I take it?”
“Stabbed with a sword.”
“That’s sad,” she said.
“Do you think your husband’s capable of such a thing?”
“We all are, aren’t we?” she asked.
I wanted to say no, but I knew better.
“I guess so,” I said.
Her eyes stopped focusing on me. Instead, they focused on something behind me. I turned around and saw a window. Nobody there.
“You’d really better go,” she said. Her eyes looked tense, and the white pigment in her skin seemed to move just a bit quicker.
“What did you just see?” I asked.
“I said you better go. Now.”
“I know you’re not a cop,” she said. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but cops don’t ask questions about my husband. So get the hell out of here.”
“What are you hiding?” I asked.
“Get out of my house!” she yelled.
“What are you–”
The door opened. Val Rador stood there, sword in hand, face awash with anger. Then, perhaps recognizing me, his grimace turned into a grin. He let out a slow, menacing sort of laughter.
“George. What a surprise.”
His sword was drenched with blood.