“Have you ever noticed? A cat doesn't simply sit down. It takes a seat on a throne.”
I yawn and follow the guards down the corridor. They are sweeping the area with heat-lamps, checking for signs of the metamorph. At the same time, the fairies are taking care of the ventilation system. Squinting my eyes, I check the holographic map which is hovering in front of me. It would be annoying if we had a hole in our search pattern. Having to do everything again wouldn’t be fun.
“I don’t understand how it manages to evade our attempts at pinning it down,” Tristen murmurs while he sucks on his pipe. He has his sword drawn, which glows in an eerie, yellow light. As the leader of this operation, I included Willow and him. Tristen is the captain of our ground troops, while Willow has the connection to the fairies who are living in the palace's ventilation system.
Tristen tilts his head to take a look at the holographic map in front of me. “It’s been three days and it killed three more people. That means that it kills one person per day.” He shakes his head. “Twenty-four hours between each hit. That’s not much time to find a target and hide.”
I clench my jaws in renewed frustration. Moping about our failure doesn’t help. After a few moments, I realize that I am being unreasonable. Three days of hunting the metamorph without success got me tired and edgy.
In an attempt to cool my frustration, I humour Tristen by replying, “It also didn’t exactly choose meaningful targets. Two soldiers and one of the accountants. This thing simply lashes at a target of opportunity and retreats after the deed is done. It also attacked in entirely different locations within the palace, so it doesn't seem like it has found a safe hiding spot somewhere.” Glaring down the corridor, I see the soldiers leave yet another room and seal it.
“What if it isn’t hiding inside the palace? What if it leaves every time and hides outside among the population?” Tristen asks, chewing on his pipe.
That would be bad. There are simply too many people on Illum. I shake my head. “It must have found a way to hide inside the palace. We used force fields to shut down every possible entrance and are checking on everything that goes in or out. Nonetheless, we had several attacks. All of them within our restricted area. If it has a way to get past Illum’s force fields, we are well and truly fucked. There must be something we aren’t thinking of.”
Although, I know that Lucifer can walk through Nova’s force fields. I don't mention it in front of Tristen. The possibility that the metamorph can do it too exists. I bite down on my lower lip and cross my arms in front of my chest while I study the map. If the force fields don't work, we don't have anything to pin the creature down.
Tristen furrows his forehead. “What would I do if I can take any shape? How to move around unseen? Maybe it’s riding piggyback as a garment?”
I scowl. “We already checked on that possibility. Besides, we are testing everyone by using heat-lamps on them. That also affects their clothes. It must be something else.” Sighing, I decide to give up on the map and turn to face Tristen. “How are Brian and the others doing?”
Brian was the first victim of the metamorph, but Castella managed to revive him as an undead. Aside from that, she managed to save two others by turning them. For one man, a guard, all help came too late. He was found hours after the attack. By that point, his soul had already departed and was out of reach.
According to Castella, after death, there is a time window of about half an hour to reconnect a soul to its old body. Sometimes a revival succeeds after a longer time-frame, but the person in question would be unstable, unable to regain some of his or her memories. That would be a problem if the memories are important ones, resulting in an unpredictable change of character.
Such resurrections are therefore to be avoided, so Castella outright refused to perform the ceremony on the guard.
Tristen shifts his weight around. “The two who got revived are employees of the palace. They are older men who already have a family. I had them talk to Castella in order to learn about their new… condition. They are taking it reasonably well, given the circumstances. Brian isn’t doing so well.”
I wince. “What’s the problem? Yesterday, I went past the training hall and he was screaming like a madman. I saw you were with him, so I fled the scene.”
Tristen clears his throat. “Yeah, well. That’s the issue. Brian can’t use his light-magic without damaging himself. Most of his favourite spells are aimed at fighting the undead and now he is one himself. Calling on a power which is bound to harm yourself isn’t a good idea. Though, he tries to find ways to overcome the issue. Stubbornness is one of his most distinctive character traits.”
Ouch! It must be horrible to wake up and find out that all of your magical abilities became useless. “Does he even have a hope of making it work?”
Tristen shrugs. “Maybe. Brian is an idiot, but he has a talent for light-magic. If anyone can find a way, then it’s him.”
Nodding, I return my attention to the map. Giving in to a sudden inspiration, I mark the locations of the attacks. Then I ignore the first attack on Brian, assuming that the metamorph changed its pattern after the first strike. Brian was the first target and the metamorph had all the time in the world to get close to the victim. Now, the thing is operating under the assumption that it is being hunted.
“Fuck me sideways with a stick. I am an idiot!” I call out and kick the corridor’s wall, causing Tristen to jump in surprise.
“What?” Tristen asks.
“All three attacks happened near public restrooms.” I point at the map and highlight the locations.
Tristen’s eyes widen slightly as he makes the connection. “Yuck! You want to say that it’s using the palace’s plumbing system to escape the heat treatments!?”
“The metamorph can take any shape and according to Castella, it isn’t even alive. Surely it can survive for a few minutes in cool water,” I explain.
“If that’s the case, then we have it now. Nova can surely heat the pipes if we ask her.” Tristen retrieves a communication crystal from his pockets. “To all search teams. Head to the nearest restroom and make sure that you have at least one person with a flamethrower. We assume that the metamorph is hiding in the palace’s plumbing system.”
I use my ring to contact Nova and explain my theory to her.
Half an hour later, we are ready to begin. It took Nova surprisingly long to reprogram Illum’s spellwork, but she explained that she never intended to heat up all of the palace’s plumbing system at the same time.
I press the button which is supposed to heat up the pipes and wait. A minute passes without any report from the search parties. Then, a scream from down the corridor draws our attention.
Snarling, I sprint down the corridor towards the security offices. “This will end today!” I prophesy and turn around the corner, finding myself close to the guard’s break room. Two men are firing their weapons into the room, while a third tries to torch the entire space with his flamethrower.
A charred, silvery mass lunges out of the room and barrels into the guards. It tries to form a humanoid shape, but the attempt fails and the thing ends up looking like a cancerous monstrosity. The flamethrower did a lot of damage to it, but clearly not enough to kill the creature.
“Step aside!” Tristen jumps past me, raising his sword, which ignites with yellow flames. He exchanges two quick blows with the thing before he jumps backwards to get out of its reach. His aggressive attack didn’t do much damage and the charred cuts on the creature close quickly, but it allowed the three guards to retreat to the other side of the corridor. The creature is now boxed in between the guards on one end and Tristen and me on the other.
“Step back!” I order Tristen and raise the hand with the ring. Pointing at the creature, I activate the arrest-command. The area around the thing is immediately closed off by force fields.
Realizing what happened, the metamorph tries to flee back into the restroom but runs into a wall. Turning desperate, it hits the force field and jumps around, flowing along the surrounding force fields with surprising agility, searching for a hole in its prison. Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be one.
A ventilation shaft above my head pops open and spills out Willow with two more fairies. “Whee! Where is it?” She buzzes around, swinging the miniature flamethrower in her hands. Then she notices the imprisoned creature. “Aw! I really wanted to use this thing.” She looks down at her weapon, disappointed.
I clear my throat and focus power on my fingertip, drawing a directed ignition rune. “You still can. We are using the flamethrowers because flames aren't stopped by force fields. They are directed against physical objects.” My spell activates and shoots a torrent of fire at the creature.
From the other side of the corridor, the guard with the flamethrower joins in and the monster starts wailing with a high-pitched scream.
Willow aims her weapon at the creature and unleashes a jet of flames which is much larger than herself, laughing crazily. She is using her magic to amplify the attack.
“Mad fairies,” I mumble. Though, I admit that finally roasting this thing feels very satisfying.