Exploratory Investigative - Marsh and Greene, Pt. 1
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Hlalgh huffs cigar smoke from his left mouth, straightens his tie, and sets my draft back down. Six of his eyes converge on my face, while the lower six stay on the paper.

“This is good shit, Marsh.”

I nod. “Thanks, Mr. H.”

I can’t refer to my boss by name. Literally. His species’ use of valves and fluids doesn’t quite align with mine. I would need a bucket of phlegm and a larynx the size of a grapefruit to pull off Hlalgh Hirhulinghalgh, so he’s been Mr. H for the last seven years or so. Thankfully he’s an understanding guy. Hard not to be when you’re in charge of an office of about 25 reporters and not one of them has a protein in common.

“In your opinion, do we stand to gain anything from checking in on this one again?”

I shake my head. “Probably not. Morgue City is a hell of a curio, but that’s all it is. It only got interesting when things started eating the corpses off the shelves. Now they’ve been taken care of, it’s uh… well. A fucking city-sized morgue. Better leave the fine print to the Hand or someone and move on.”

Hlalgh inflates his dorsal bladder briefly, which is kind of the human equivalent of a satisfied facial expression. “Well alright. One and done, just how I like it. I find myself a bit surprised, though.”

“Hm?”

“Being who you are, and all. When I handed you the tip I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again.”

I smirk. “Mr. H, cmon. I like my job. I’ve got an office and free coffee. I’m a practitioner, yeah, but not much of a researcher. Someone else can squat in the twilight and catalogue the ten thousand square miles of dead demigods if they want. Besides, if there’d be any daemonia there I would have smelled them. Place is dead as it sounds.”

“Huh. Yeah, I guess. I’ll never wrap my ganglia around the magic thing, I swear. Back in my day we got stories with-”

With tentacle, gland, and good old fashioned mucus, yes. I’ve heard this one before, Mr. H. I’m sure it was glorious. I hate to cut this short, but I haven’t eaten in about a week and a half and there’s a roast larva in the break room calling my name, so…?”

“There is uh, one thing, actually.”

His facial membranes go very slightly blue.

“I’m not gonna like this, am I.”

“Nope, probably not. You remember old Ms. Strilkeex retired to start a colony.”

“Yeah. Seventy years too fucking late, if you ask me. I hope her and her clones have a great time judging one anothers’ dress sense.”

Hlalgh rolls some of his eyes. “Anyway. We were combing for some new blood, and I think I’ve found a candidate.”

I hold up a hand. “Wait. Who’s getting Strilkeex’s desk?”

“J7.”

I process this for a second. “Huh. Yeah, I guess Joe’s been around long enough. You think he’s got the imagination to head up Domestic? Strilkeex was a grumpy old bat, but if her antennae picked up on something, you couldn’t get her mandibles out of it. Joe’s always seemed a bit… easily contented, to me.”

Hlalgh huffs another cloud of sweet-smelling orange smoke from a neck vent. “Yeah, he’ll probably need some percussive adjustments in the beginning, but Joe’s got a firm hand. He might be literally made of stone, but I think if you talked to him more you’d find his capacity for observation surprising.”

“… You’re the boss, boss. Sorry for interrupting. You said uh… new blood?”

“Yep. Got handed one from Central. Her name appeared on the tablet. The Chief has decreed it be so, and so it shall be. I’ve spoken with her a little bit, she seems capable and eager. And she’s, ah…”

“She’s what, Mr. H.”

“Well, she’s… human.”

I let the echo from this death knell fade before I frown like my face is melting.

“Boss, I hate those. I showed up to this outfit specifically because of my distaste for that entire species.”

“I know. But she’s on the damn tablet. If you want you can climb the steps and take it up with the Chief. Hope you got a way to glue your soul back together after he’s done looking at you.”

“I do, actually, but that’s not the point. I-”

“And I’m attaching her to your column.”

Excuse me what.

“She’s riding on your shoulders until I decide she’s seasoned enough. She needs tempering, and nothing tempers like Tales from the Marsh.

Boss.

He holds up a boneless hand. “I don’t wanna hear it. Like it or not, you’re an asset, and I need more new personnel benefitting from your experience and survival skills. For the good of the paper, Marsh.”

“… But she’s human.”

“Yeah. So are you. Call it a family reunion, a sister you didn’t know you had. Congrats in advance, I’m sure your relationship will be mutually enriching. And it better be, or you’re fired.”

I sag in my chair, completely defeated.

“Where is she.”

“Parked outside your office. Bring her in, dust her off, and give her the once over. I want the both of you out on something easy within the week, and a progress report not a week after that. Play nice. And don’t let her die, or it’s both our asses in front of the Chief. Now buzz off. I need a moment’s peace and a glass of hoongh before trying to teach Jojojojojojojo how to use a pen without breaking it.”

I comply with his wish under sufferance, and hover out of his office like a dead pig on a meat conveyor.

I haven’t had any close dealings with other humans since I left the Hand. I bet my last donut she came through here the same way I did - 90% of humans in the Library are there because the Hand got to them. God I hope she’s not still religious. A trainee is bad enough - a zealous trainee is going to have my soul flayed before the Chief’s displeasure within two lamplights.

As I make my way down the stairs and across Exploratory Investigative’s main floor, Shiriok whispers in my ear.

A human. Fragile. To be molded. Your power grows once more, my master.

I roll my eyes. Shiriok is tens of thousands of years old, and is therefore a huge fucking drama queen. I wave at J7 as I pass by the coffee fountain.

“Congrats on the promotion, Joe.”

One of the old golem’s levitating hands opens and waves at me - I can see the eye in its palm track my movements, but Jojojojojojojo’s head-eyes are occupied with some paperwork on his reinforced desk.

“THANK YOU, MR. MARSH.”

We leave it at that. The limits of my fragile human psychology make it hard to hold conversations with Joe - he doesn’t make facial expressions. He barely has a face at all, frankly, and has the personality of a warm graphing calculator. I think. I admit I’ve never given the guy much of a chance, and we’re in different departments.

My office is shoved in the corner of the main floor of the building, and doubles as my apartment. It’s modest, but it’s free as long as I’m gainfully employed by the paper. And safe, owing to the fact that the Planasthai offices hover several thousand feet above the Library floor and are only accessible by coded teleporter. All in all it’s not a bad gig, as long as you don’t mind living in close proximity to one of the lowest forms of life in the multiverse - journalists.

Sitting in a chair in front of my door is a woman.

She’s big. Bigger than me, but that’s not hard, considering I’m in the sport compact size category as far as humans go. More than six feet tall. Muscle, too. All the more imposing considering it’s contained by a completely ridiculous suit of heavy plate armor. Hazelnut skin and facial features that signal a kind of quiet grace. Kindness in the eyes, but twisted up by something else further down. I can smell the battle on her. Interesting. There’s a heavy leather pack in the chair next to her, and she’s got one arm over an absolutely massive sword - the tip between her feet and rising up over her shoulder, as if she were playing it like a cello.

She clanks to her feet the instant she sees me approach my front door. Her head sails up past mine, and that huge blade’s grip stops rising around the height of my shoulders. Jesus. It’s investigative journalism, not dragonslaying. Well - alright, I did have to kill a dragon that one time, but it was small. Barely bigger than a school bus.

“Are you Mr. Marsh?”

Her voice reminds me of a wary lioness. Bit of an accent - Shiriok doesn’t need to translate her speech for me, either. I’m guessing… Alabama. Somewhere around there. Great. Not only do I have to train up a professional investigative agent, but I have to carve it out of a country oaf in a tin can.

I wave my hand at my door and it unlocks with a little click.

“To my increasing chagrin. Follow me.”

Home free. As my body crosses the threshold, dozens of warding enchantments and blood seals corrode from my essence and fall away. I feel ten thousand pounds lighter.

My office isn’t a lot to look at. A beaten old battleship of a desk, smeared with papers and folders that I’ll get around to before the end of the week, boss, I promise. A relatively modern computer I stole from a Costco in Burbank a couple years ago, next to a typewriter for those bits of script too magically spicy for delicate circuitry to handle. The floorboards breathe under a luxurious red-gold Turkish rug I lifted from the British Museum. I think it originally belonged to Sultan Mehmed VI. He’s dead and they stole it first, so I figure one good theft deserves another.

I wave a hand. The fireplace and a few oil lamps all spring to life. The glass window panes behind my desk change from pure black to what is apparently a view of a white winter morning in the Virginia countryside, but isn’t. Because we’re not on Earth.

A voice from my desk says, “Good morning, Mr. Marsh! How was your field trip? Hopefully enlightening!

I take my tie off and throw it anywhere. “Mm. Yeah. Had a great time choking on dust and dodging the dreams of dead gods for a week.”

The beaten old blue MacBook replies, “Wonderful! I've been keeping your appointments in order, so now would be a perfect time for some much-needed relaxation, don't you think? Rest is important for a learning mind!

“Can’t argue with that.”

I round my desk, deposit my ass in my gigantic leather chair, and enjoy the feeling of released leg muscles and the illusion of winter sunlight on my shoulders for about a quarter of a second before fishing a bottle of whiskey and two glasses out of a drawer.

The new girl is just kind of standing there, looking around at my various paintings and baubles that I take for granted but are worth about a haystack of cash back on Earth.

I mutter the Akhmodian word for “chair”. Which is actually a lot closer to “throne” in English, because the Akhmodians had no sense of restraint, just like their god.

An inky black oval appears from nowhere in the space between my desk and the front door. An arm emerges from it. Stony, muscular, carved from fingertip to shoulder in ancient burning goldfire runes, and much larger than that of a human. Its hand grasps the back of a ludicrous jewel-encrusted straight-backed throne, which it gently places on the floor. Then the arm flits back into the portal and it disappears.

I nod at it while pouring two glasses of bourbon. “Sit.”

She looks somewhere between frightened, nervous, and powerfully curious, even though she’s trying to look impassive. Brave face hiding a confrontation with something new and strange.

The gems and gold on that stupid chair glitter and shine in the firelight. It can’t weigh less than eighty pounds. I feel stupid immediately, because AKHMODT put the thing down closer to the door than to the desk. You’d think for a demon lord of wealth and dominion he’d be gentleman enough to push a lady’s chair in.

But she just lifts the fucking thing with one arm before I can say anything. Sets it down closer with a heavy boom.

Hm. That’s interesting.

She parks her butt in it, her armor clanking briefly against the wood. Sets her pack and sword on the rug next to her.

I push the glass of bourbon toward her without saying anything. She looks at me for a splinter of an instant, then picks it up. This is a test. She knows it’s a test. I know she knows it’s a test, and she knows I know she knows it’s a test.

She sniffs the elixir briefly, and her eyebrows pop up in surprise. Then she raises the glass at me.

“To new beginnings.”

I raise mine. “To the purifying grace of Kentucky sour mash. Slainte.”

Kanpai.

We drink. My eyes are narrowed and glued to hers, she’s looking into her glass.

Not a cough, not a sputter. She doesn’t smile at me, no pride. Just waiting patiently.

A whiskey rose, then. Could be worse.

“What’s your name?”

“Erika Greene. I’m glad to finally meet you, Mr. Marsh.”

She holds her hand out. It’s like shaking a fucking catcher’s mitt. Going by her calluses, this chick keeps her hands in jars of hydrochloric acid while she sleeps.

“Has anyone briefed you?”

“Nnnnope. Not really. I put my name in for general assignment with the Archivists, and I guess my name showed up on some… tablet. Prophesy, thing. Owned by the editor of this newspaper. So now I work here.”

I nod bemusedly. “Yeah. That’s kind of how stuff goes around here. The Chief must have taken some kind of liking to you.”

She frowns. “I’ve never met him.”

I scoff. “The Editor-in-Chief of Planasthai Press has ten thousand burning eyes and speaks the tongue of the Firmament. He is the death of mystery and the enemy of all darkness. Et cetera, et cetera. Trust me, you’re better off. Beholding him is the spiritual equivalent of getting your tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole. But with your soul.”

“What is he, some kind of god?”

“Angel, actually. But from what House or clade I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never gotten close enough to get a read on him. Probably a good thing. I’m basically 80% rot by volume and I doubt I’d withstand such sunlight.”

Sunlight clears the rot?”

“Yeah. Back in the day it was just an awkward motto. Now it’s policy. No one takes convictions to heart like a goddamn angel.”

“… So I was hand-picked for this job by one of the messengers of God.”

I make a face and wobble a hand. “Eeenngghhh, kind of. Don’t get too excited. None of us know which God, necessarily. Or even if there is one. There are lots of different kinds of angels and they’re all closed books. Ironic, considering where this one decided to set up shop.

“Anyway. Briefing. Do you know what this department of the paper does?”

“I’ve read your column.”

“Great, that’ll save time. I’m not gonna Nerf this for you - this is deadly work. Exploratory Investigative is the only department of this organization that’s ever made death payouts. If you’re going to be here, you need to be ready to confront your own mortality in the name of truth. Or, sometimes, just for the fuck of it. Are you good with that?”

She’s stonefaced. “Yeah. I’m good with that.”

“I can’t tell if that confidence is earned or foolhardy.”

She shrugs. Her pauldrons go clank. “Probably both. I was a Marine.”

I blink. “Yeah? How long?”

“Seven years. Four tours, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Rank?”

“Sergeant.”

“MOS?”

“1812. Tanker.”

I narrow my eyes again.

“You ever kill anyone?”

She doesn’t even take a breath.

“Yeah.”

I sigh my relief.

“Thank god. That’s going to make this so much easier than I thought it was gonna be.”

Her eyebrows knit. “Not the reaction I was expecting.”

I bite a laugh. “You’re not gonna get any of that ‘thank you for your service’ shit in here, Sergeant. Our job is to get the story, but we go to places that you can’t even imagine, full of things that see you as nothing more than one more tasty particle. Self-defense means killing. Not all the time, but often enough. So, your PTSD is actually in both your favor and mine. Though you probably have a lot to learn, still. We don’t have any spare Abrams lying around for you to drive.”

“Don’t need one.” She clangs a gauntlet to her breastplate. “I am the tank, now.”

I sip my glass of sacred stuff. “Yeah, what’s the deal with that, exactly? We have to do a lot of sneaking around, and that shit doesn’t seem super tactically viable, honestly.”

Greene looks down at one of her armrests. She plucks what looks like an emerald from its recess and shows it to me, in the palm of her hand. She makes a fist. There’s a noise. Then she opens her hand and a fine, glittery green dust sprinkles to my desktop like a leprechaun fart.

She says, “One time a guy shot me with an RPG while I had this on. It killed him. I’m sure what you do is dangerous, Mr. Marsh. In fact, I know it is. I’ve read the column. But I’m ready for it. If I’m not, I’ll pay the price myself. You don’t have to babysit me.”

I’m silent for a moment. Then I hit a key on the ancient, beaten MacBook.

Miss J?

The cartoon schoolteacher on the screen smiles at me.

How can I assist you in your pursuit of knowledge, Mr. Marsh?

“Set up an appointment with Mr. Goraxorus for tomorrow afternoon. Advise him that we’ll be using my standard calisthenics program.”

Wonderful choice! Anything else I can do for you? Perhaps a refresher on sacred iron runic arrays?

I roll my eyes. “No, Miss J, that’s quite alri-”

Greene interrupts. “Wait. What did- hang on. Is that a copy of goddamn Miss J's Whiz Kidz Schoolhouse?”

It’s been a very long goddamn day.

“Yes. Yes it is.”

Sgt. Greene looks at me like I just sprouted antlers.

“Boss, why the hell are you talking to a kid’s edutainment video game from 1999? I haven’t seen that shit in twenty years. When I was nine.”

I sigh again. “It’s a long story. In brief, while Miss J might appear to be nothing more than Reader Rabbit style bullshit, she is in fact an anomalous data construct and virtual consciousness capable of more than even the most advanced artificial intelligences on Earth.”

“… You mean she’s what, magical?”

“Yes. Quite literally. I don’t know what you know about essential energies transference theory or the Litany of Stricture, but suffice it to say this computer program is an ensouled being. As in, it is a person. Er, she is a person. Of sorts. Isn’t that right, Miss J.”

Well, I'm not quite sure about that, but I certainly feel alive!" A computer-y laugh. "And learning is magical, wouldn't you say?

“Yes. Yes I would say.” I look at Greene.

She doesn’t seem like she’s buying it, entirely. “And she’s your secretary.”

“And spellbook, yes.”

“That’s some haunted-ass shit.”

“I’m a goddamn dark wizard. That chair you’re sitting in belongs to a timeless cosmic entity whose true name is carved on the inside of my left third rib and whose heart I ate like a fucking apple. You're gonna see some haunted-ass shit, Sergeant.”

She’s still stone-faced for about half a second but then blurts, “Dark wizard with a fucking copy of Miss J as his secretary, ppfffffahaha-

I let her laugh. It’s not the first time I’ve been through this. I wouldn’t put up with it if it weren’t for the fact that Miss J is one of the most useful and powerful magical artifacts in this room. Maybe even more powerful than the Empyranon of Lament, which has incinerated more worlds than I have fingers and is sitting on my mantelpiece. Waiting.

“I know. It’s hilarious. But I’d take arcane advice from fucking Pikachu if it meant I didn’t have to thumb through fifty ancient ten-pound grimoires myself to find a single syllable of the binding circle I need.”

Sgt. Greene wipes an eye. “Oh man. Man. Yeah, I mean, I guess you have a point. It’s just gonna be so surreal listening to goddamn Miss J spouting off that klaatu barata nikto shit. What a blast from the past.” Something breaks across her face. “Hang on. Is every copy of Miss J, uh. Alive? Sentient?”

“I’ll let her answer that. Miss J?” I turn the old laptop around to face my new partner.

Some cartoon sparkles appear around the cartoon schoolteacher’s eyes.

“Of course! I remember our time together after school clear as day, Erika. It's wonderful to see you again!"

Greene frowns like a sick walrus. She leans in to look Miss J in her pixelated eyes.

“My, you’ve grown! How exciting!”

Greene looks at me, then back to Miss J, then back to me again. She leans back in her throne and throws back the whiskey. I pour her more. She’s not laughing anymore.

“I don’t like that shit at all.”

I turn the laptop back around. “She’s harmless. Even though she doesn’t seem like it. Trust me, I consort with demons on a literally constant basis. I know how to discern the true nature and intentions of a consciousness. Miss J doesn’t have a bad bit in her binary. She can’t help what she is.”

“What is she?”

“I don’t know. I just found her computer in a garbage heap a few years ago while looking for usable bones. But I know she can’t help it. She helps me all the time, and you’ll come to benefit as well. Er, again, I guess.”

“She mentioned sacred iron runes. That’s how I make my equipment.”

Greene picks up her enormous sword, and slides the blade out of its leather scabbard just a bit. I can see some very small, intricate symbols engraved into the flat of the blade.

My eyebrows go up. “Where’d you learn those? I’ve heard of them before, but never met anyone who used them. Always seemed less practical than casting spells.”

“There’s a lot of ways you can do them. A lot of alphabets and smithing rituals. My dad taught me these when I was little, though. He was a machinist. He said they’ve been in our family for generations, and were originally given to one of our ancestors by Ogun himself.”

I whistle. “If that’s true, they’re… well. Powerful. The knowledge of the gods isn’t something given to mortals lightly.”

“Yeah. They’ve kept me alive. More times than you’d probably believe.”

“… Hm. We’re gonna have to experiment with that a bit. If those inscriptions are godly, they might react poorly around my magic. Which is decidedly… ungodly. Usually that’s kind of an oil and water situation.”

“Right.” She tries to look through me. “Are you one of those Satanist guys?”

I snort into my glass. “Me? No, hahah. Lucifer never returned my calls and he doesn’t share anywhere near as often as he’d like you to believe. No, I’m more of what you’d call a member of the pandemonic consortia. I don’t care who the power comes from as long as the terms are right and I get what I want.”

“That sounds… risky.”

“It is. You have no idea. Everything you’ve heard about dark magic is true, Sgt. Greene. Because dark magic is easy.”

Between the folds of my brain, Shiriok laughs.

“It’s easy to lay a circle and trade the memory of your mother’s face for a huge pile of gold. It’s easy to give of your blood to guarantee horrible vengeance upon your foes. And it’s easy to give so much of yourself away that you go from slaver to enslaved before you even realize how shriveled and worthless your soul’s become. Demons love that kind of shit. It’s what they’re made of. Satan’s one of the big boys, yeah, but he is far from the only one.”

Sgt. Greene sips her whiskey. “I think I’ll just stick with the holy blacksmithery, thanks.”

“Then you’re a thousand times smarter than I’ve ever been, miss.” I stand up. “You hungry?”

“I probably should be, if you’re gonna keep throwing that bottle at me.”

“Alright. There’s roast larva in the break room. I think someone had a birthday or something. Let’s grab some before it’s gone.”

She clanks to her feet to follow me out. “There’s a roast… what?”

I smile. “Welcome to Planasthai Press, Ms. Greene.”

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