Something had to happen for an alchemist to be called to a crime scene, but after all these years, that something had never been anything like this.
This, being countless gargoyles laid on the ground, just a few feet apart from each other in an orderly manner in the middle of an aspen forest just a couple of hours from the capital city of Arlinshill. The gargoyles—a product of alchemy misconduct—lay lifelessly on a fading trail surrounded by fallen aspen leaves. There is no evidence of any disturbance to the surrounding area, the birds are chirping and the aspens wilt in peace as autumn approaches steadily to the Kingdom.
“Leonard,” calls someone from behind.
Seth glances at the caller, unable to turn away from the sight before him. It was Fransiska “Frans” Kirana, the lead investigator of this case, who also happens to be a personal old friend.
“Kirana,” he nods at the woman. “What happened here?”
“That’s what we’d like to know.” Frans takes a step forward and looks back, motioning him to follow.
Seth can feel his breakfast at the back of his throat as he follows her. They follow the trail that the gargoyles have created, and he grimaces at the sheer number of them. The gargoyles lie on the ground, their scent putrid, and flies circle on top of them, eating off their rotten flesh. Yet, that isn’t the most unnerving thing that he finds from the gargoyles. It is their form—their hideous form that sets off his gag reflex.
These creatures have their spines twisted, their limbs contorted or fused with body parts that aren't supposed to be anywhere near said limbs and internal organs that are not located internally. They’re sprawled next to another, creating a ghastly trail that leads to an old, abandoned school building.
“Are the gargoyles all dead?” Seth asks as they walk, his nose scrunching in disgust as he follows Frans closely behind.
She glances at the closest gargoyle to her, her eyebrows twitching at the sight before answering, “As far as we’ve checked, yes.”
“What else have you checked?”
“The school.” She closes her eyes and takes a deep inhale, choking at the putrid scent that she must have forgotten. Her pale blond eyelashes flutter as they close, looking translucent as the morning sun hits them. “See for yourself. I’m afraid it’s too much for words.”
The school, for the most part, appears to be an ordinary school or a dormitory, if not for the presence of empty dark rooms where the windows are boarded so tightly no light can get into said room. There is nothing in those rooms except for a worn carpet on the floor and nothing more. An ominous aura lingers in those rooms—suffocating and choking Seth’s breath whenever he steps into the room. The hair on the back of his neck stands erect as he shudders and hurriedly gets out of the room.
The building is clearly an old one, probably over fifty years old looking from the architectural style, yet none of the paint has chipped, no part of the floor creaked, and every furniture polished to perfection; everything about the old building is very well-maintained. Magic, Seth supposes, can do a lot of things.
The school has five floors. The first one is where the assembly, dining room, cafeteria, and church are; the second has laboratories and bedrooms, where every room has about fifteen beds lined up inside. The bedrooms are simple and tidy—too tidy—Seth muses, like they have never been used before; and the rest of the floors are just filled with bedrooms. Nausea rushes back to his stomach, thinking about the number of people who had lived here before, and of the gargoyles, they had potentially become. This isn’t his first time dealing with gargoyles, but the sheer number of the gargoyles in this case—he has so many questions.
Aside from the gargoyles on the first floor, Seth can’t see why Frans would describe the building as too much for word, seeing it is as normal as could be—considering the time they’re living in. He had seen plenty of buildings like this before; old buildings that are being reused as a place of refuge from the outside world. He descends to the first floor and walks toward Frans who is now talking to one of her subordinates.
“Looks pretty normal to me? Aside from the gargoyles, I mean,” Seth started, raising his eyebrows at her.
Frans sighs. “Have you seen the bedrooms?”
“Every single one of them.”
“Seeing gargoyles and diapers in the same building is normal to you?” she growled at the end.
His throat feels tight as the realisation dawns on him. He had seen some tables with stacks of small, toddler-sized cloth diapers, but he didn’t think much of it. His eyes were glued to the medicine cabinet on the wall of every single bedroom that as far as he could peek from the dirty glass on the cabinet’s door, stored well-used syringes, pills, and some sort of liquid. With his mind working on countless deductions of what those things are used for, his mind brushed off the existence of the diapers pretty quickly.
“Then, some of these gargoyles are-”
Gargoyles are failed alchemy transmutation, because instead of transmuting the subject meant to be transmuted, the transmutation transmutes the alchemist instead, fusing the alchemist with whatever they were trying to transmute—which is why they end up deformed. An unnatural half-human being that cannot live long due to the deformity of their organs.
Some of these gargoyles were children. Seth empties the content of his stomach for the second time.
Frans scrunches her nose in disgust when he returns to her side and hands him a white handkerchief without saying a word.
“So,” Frans started, glancing at Seth who is wiping his mouth with her handkerchief. “How young can people start practicing alchemy?”
Seth groans before answering, “I’m not very sure. I was seven when I started, but I’ve known people who started younger. But never, never have I ever met someone starting from the age when they’re still in their diapers.”
“This might sound absurd,” Frans starts, “But what if instead of having very young alchemists’ failed alchemy project, what if-”
“What if someone tried to transmute the children instead?” Seth cuts, trying his hardest on stopping himself from throwing up the third time.
The lead investigator nodded.
“That idea, unfortunately, isn’t that absurd. Some people had attempted it before; Alchemist parents with kids born with brittle bones disease, there was a case like that long ago that I read on the paper when I was young.”
“Did they succeed?”
Seth shakes his head. “Of course not. Alchemy is not to be used on other living creatures. Even if it’s being used to ourselves, we can only transmute our blood. We transmute inanimate subjects. If we want to mess with living beings, magic would be the safest option.”
“But with these many gargoyles, they couldn’t possibly have hundreds of children to be transmuted. Perhaps, perhaps some of them were animals?”
“Even so, it doesn’t answer why they chose to do this simultaneously, though. Why here? Why with these people? How are they related? What exactly is this place?” she said as she scribbles on her notepad.
Seth inhales deeply, suddenly feeling drained and exhausted.
“Have you checked the bedrooms to see if they have any kind of identification object?”
She shakes her head. “We’ll do that after we’re done taking pictures.”
“I’ll be outside if you need me.”
Frans grunts in reply and waves him off when he gets out of her hair.
Seth hears a distant sound of water as soon as he comes out of the school’s backdoor and sighs in relief, feeling the fresh air gush into his nostril to the back of his skull. He walks towards the source of the sound, passing some of the investigation team members on the way, and greets them simply, not wanting to interrupt them with their job. When they ask him where he’s going, Seth waves them off, he wouldn’t be too far, he promised them.
The sound of water, as it turns out, came from a creek that hides perfectly out of sight from the school ground, where the ground level is lower than the school; which explains why he couldn’t see the creek even though the two are pretty closely located. He scoops some of the water with his hands and washes his face with it, feeling refreshed from the cold water. He cups his hands again to scoop some more to drink, but just before he puts his hands in front of his mouth and lifts his face, his gaze is met with another person’s gaze from the reflection on the water.
The alchemist yells in surprise and backs away from the water while the other person, a teenage girl, looks at him with a blank stare.
“I wouldn’t drink the water if I were you,” she says. The girl turns her head towards the upstream. “Father lies there, you see. He was bleeding very badly.”
He doesn’t know what to say, the girl terrifies him with her blank stare and passive tone, but he cannot ignore her word. Something tells him she plays a role in the ominous thing that she had just said to him. Seth inhales deeply and swallows down his fear.
“What is your father doing there? Is he alright? Show me the place, we need to help him!”
The girl, however, shakes her head calmly, “No.”
Something is definitely wrong with her and Seth isn’t sure if he’d like to know. However, seeing as she is located very close to the school, he begins to think she might be knowledgeable about the school and the gargoyles. He observes the specter-like girl in silence, assessing her as she stands knee-deep in the creek, silently observing him back.
“Why wouldn’t you help him?” he asks.
The girl’s face turns sour, it’s the first emotion she had shown to Seth. “Because everything was his fault. He deserves it.”
Seth exhales deeply and swallows his own saliva, slowly reaching his back pocket to fish for a small knife—just in case. “Tell me, what did he do that he deserves to die?”
Instead of answering, the girl lifts her face and stares in the direction of the school, and images of gargoyles flash in his mind. The creatures—shaped like humans who hadn’t been fed for years, bare of either fat and muscles, and yet not anywhere short of limbs and organs, stuck together, stitched and bunched up to a revolting pile of human remains.
Seth retreats, feeling sick, the mere memory awakens a new, different kind of nausea in his stomach, and if it hadn’t been emptied earlier, he’s sure he’s going to empty it right now. Chills running down his spine as he forces himself to point to the school.
“He—he did that? He did that?”
The girl nods.
Seth’s heart fell. His legs are paralyzed with fear and when he opens his mouth to talk, his voice betrays him. Images of the gargoyles and the diapers flashed in his mind. In front of him, stands the daughter of the alleged criminal who made it happened.
She’s just a girl, he says to himself, just a girl.
When he takes a deep breath, he can hear footsteps of people approaching his whereabouts.
“So,” Seth started, but his voice breaks at the end and he coughs to steady himself and repeats, “So, so you harmed your father?”
The girl shrugs and looks away. “He deserves it.”
Seth opens his mouth again, but several investigators arrive behind him, asking him if he’s okay. The rustle of their feet halted for a second, no doubt surprised to see a teenage girl so deep in the woods, standing in front of Seth, knee-deep in the water. They continue approaching the two of them, their footsteps so loud, he doesn’t need to even glance at them.
The girl stares at them blankly and only looks down to her stomach when it growls.