Nautilus Than Perfect by K.L. Hiers
“GOOD MORNING,”Detective Benjamin Merrick greeted, sitting down at his desk across from Chase’s inside the war room of the Archersville Police Department. “I already checked with forensics about the residue from our stolen crystal shipment. Still no match. I reviewed our reports for the Lunderson case and turned them in to Captain Quinn. Oh, and I also spoke to the medical examiner about Mr. Destiny Unknown, and his identity remains unknown.” He paused. “How are you?”
Detective Elwood Q. Chase made a small grunting sound. He was recovering from a hangover and was in no mood for Merrick’s go-getter attitude so early in the morning.
Merrick could have walked right onto a movie set with his perfect suit and his stupid perfect face. Chase was rumpled and wrinkled, and the five o’clock shadow he’d neglected for weeks was now a full beard.
It was obvious that they would never see eye to eye on grooming habits, nor would they ever agree on what an appropriate time was for having to be so miserably awake.
“Here,” Merrick said, his voice suddenly dropping to a whisper as he slid something across his desk to Chase’s. “While I was heading back from forensics, I secured the last cream-filled eclair for you before Daisy could get it.”
“You’re a god amongst men.” Chase accepted the pastry and took a big bite.
“Just looking out for my partner,” Merrick said with an affectionate eye roll. “Besides, staff are encouraged to only take one pastry, and she was already on her third.” He cleared his throat. “She very clearly donut understand the rules.” He beamed at Chase expectantly.
“Yup. Got it.” Chase gave a thumbs-up.
Merrick frowned, looking over Chase more intently. “You look unwell. Rough night?”
“Mmm.” Chase grunted again, and he shoved the rest of the eclair in his mouth to avoid answering. He’d stayed up too late in the intimate company of a box of wine and passed out before he could use a sobering spell. He wasn’t in the mood for jokes.
“Well,” Merrick went on without missing a beat, “we have received reports of trespassing at the old Lieben factory, and we must investigate them.”
“Are you ready?”
“Almost.” Chase licked an errant bit of icing off his fingers. “Lieben factory. What’s that? One of the old shoe places?”
“You would know this if you had actually attended the briefing this morning,” Merrick scolded.
“I was working extra hard on my beauty sleep.” Chase gestured to his face. “You can’t rush a stunning vision like this. It takes time.”
“Uh-huh.” Merrick, as usual, was not amused.
Chase had learned some time ago that Merrick only laughed at the corniest of jokes and puns. It was endearing and equally annoying.
“Trust me. You should laugh at that one. It’s hilarious.” Chase staggered to his feet, checking the gun at his hip and the silencing flare next to it. He put his jacket on and reached for his hat, an old brown fedora. “Okay, Merry. Let’s fuckin’ go.”
“Wait, hold still,” Merrick said, reaching up to gently brush at Chase’s beard around his mouth. “The eclair does not need to come with us.”
Freezing in place, Chase gawked at Merrick as his fingers touched his cheek. His pulse picked up, and a swarm of butterflies promptly invaded his gut. He should push him away, stop him from being so invasive, but he didn’t want to.
It took all of Chase’s willpower not to stare at Merrick’s lips. It wasn’t often they were this close, and he didn’t want to be a lech. He said a silent prayer to the Lord of Light or Azaethoth or whoever was up there to let this moment last a little longer.
Merrick pulled away all too quickly. His face was unreadable, apparently not as affected as Chase was. “There. Now you look presentable.”
“Hey,” Chase scolded, unable to stop himself from grinning, “you don’t know that I wasn’t just saving that for later.”
“Next time I’ll make sure to get it on my pants.”
“You know fraternization is strongly frowned upon, Detective Chase. I do not like what you are implying.”
“You donut like anything,” Chase teased.
The tiniest smile cracked Merrick’s stoic stare. “I like catching criminals. Let us go.”
“You’re no fuckin’ fun.”
“That kind of language is unwelcome and violates the code of conduct for how an officer of the law should speak.”
“Eat a dick, Merrick.” Chase slid his hat on and tipped it. “How’s that for unwelcome?”
“Cute. I am still driving.”
Fuck, being in love with such a jerk was tough.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly when Chase had fallen for Merrick. As they drove over to the factory, he found himself staring out the window and trying to remember how he’d gotten into this mess.
Took some time, he knew that. Despite their differences, they had managed to find a solid balance as partners over the years. What started as bickering and resentment soon turned into cracking cases and arresting criminals left and right. Chase helped temper Merrick’s poor personal skills, and Merrick made Chase strive to be a better cop.
Maybe even a better person, though he didn’t think he had enough years left to catch up, being at least fifteen years Merrick’s senior. Merrick’s relentless determination and drive for justice was like a light, and Chase couldn’t get enough of it. He’d never met anyone as brave or courageous as Merrick, and he was in constant awe of him.
The best Chase felt like he could do was try not to hold Merrick back and bask in his beautiful fire.
And maybe get him to laugh on occasion.
That was nice.
More than that? Just wasn’t meant to be.
He’d never known Merrick to date before, didn’t even know what he liked, but it definitely wasn’t Chase. Chase was old, pasty and freckled, fat, his once deep red hair turning blond now, and every day he found a new crease beneath his eyes. Merrick was young, athletic, black, with gorgeous dark skin and the bluest eyes Chase had ever seen. There was no way in hell he’d give an old slob like Chase a try.
Not in a million years.
He wasn’t about to set himself up for rejection when he already knew what the outcome would be. There was maybe this one time he’d drunk dialed Merrick and asked him to come over. When Merrick asked what the nature of the visit would be, Chase had told him it was personal.
He’d said a bunch of other stupid things, though most of it was a drunken blur. He had definitely told him clothing would be optional and recalled Merrick promptly hanging up on him after that.
Not his proudest moment, but that had been months ago, and Merrick was polite enough to never mention it.
Chase was grateful and had resigned himself to admiring Merrick in secret. What they had as partners now wasn’t worth screwing up with his stupid feelings, no matter what some crazy love goddess said.
The love goddess….
There was something about that day he kept trying to remember, a piece of something lost he couldn’t get back. His head was already hurting from his hangover, and trying to think about it made it worse. He didn’t remember ever having headaches like this before, but he’d been drinking a bit more than usual.
He’d managed to lose his own damn badge a few weeks ago, and he had no idea what the hell happened to it. Its location was lost somewhere up in his brain with whoever that love goddess was.
“You okay?” Merrick asked suddenly, breaking into Chase’s thoughts.
“Mmm, yeah. I’m good.” Chase shifted in his seat. “So, tell me what I missed in the briefing. What’s up with this factory?”
“Lieben Boot Factory,” Merrick replied dutifully. “Foreclosed on five years ago, property still belongs to Archersville First National Bank. There have been several reports of unauthorized persons on the grounds, including one with a rotten face.”
“A ghoul?” Chase grimaced.
Ghouls were people on the brink of death who had their souls bound to a copy of their old body before passing. They fell under the branch of necromancy legislature and were a felony with severe consequences. Aiding in the creation of a ghoul or being raised as one meant decades in prison.
The practice was rare since the government had destroyed all trace of the necessary rites, but rogue witches like Sages were able to pass them down in secret through family grimoires. Ghouls could last for a while, but they were always eventually caught when their bodies began to rot.
“Possibly,” Merrick said. “That’s why we are going to check it out.”
“Figured it had to be something fun.”
“Fun? What do you mean by fun?”
“Magical, weird, and illegal,” Chase explained. “Being magic enforcement means that whatever we’re being sent out on is gonna be all three. It’s not like we get cases for assault and battery. No, we get the magical assault where some crazy guy tried to whack some other guy’s head off with a hammer made of ice.”
“I do not recall that particular case.”
“It’s just an example. I meant I knew there was more going on than regular ol’ trespassing.”
“Why did you not say so, then?”
Chase sighed and shielded his eyes from the sun.
Yup. This frustrating man was the love of his life.
The rest of the drive was silent, and Chase’s throbbing head was thankful for the quiet. When they pulled up to the old factory, he tried to focus through the pounding. He needed to be on high alert now.
If this really was a ghoul, they had to be careful. Decomposing or not, they were some nasty things to deal with—strong, fast, and usually very stinky.
Merrick slowly pulled the car around, making a full circle before coming back up front to park.
The factory was at least six stories tall, with a row of high windows on the bottom floor and corroded aluminum siding all over. There were several dumpsters full of big metal sheets, perhaps from when someone was trying to clear out the interior for scrap. The job had been abandoned, and what was left behind was a nasty-looking collection of thick, jagged metal.
There was a long row of windows on the top floor centered above the front door, and the dumpsters were positioned below, next to the door.
Chase suspected the factory’s offices must have been located up there, and he tapped Merrick’s arm when a shadow in one of the windows caught his eye.
“What is it?” Merrick asked.
“Saw someone,” Chase said, still focused on the windows. “One person, maybe two. Whoever they are, we’re not gonna be surprising them.”
Merrick looked around the vacant parking lot again. “No cars. Not even a bicycle.”
“Maybe they’re a jumper.”
“Do you mean a person who is suicidal or a person who possesses the ability to create portals?” Merrick made a face at the slang.
“The portal kind.”
Creating portals was a rare form of magic, but not unheard of. It was highly regulated because of obvious safety hazards, not to mention its potential to be abused for criminal purposes. There were only two people in the city who were registered to jump. One was a baker in her seventies, the other was a professor….
Shit. What was his name? Chase felt like he knew it, but it left his mind as quickly as he could summon it.
“A ghoul with that particular ability is very unlikely,” Merrick argued.
“Ghouls can still cast magic,” Chase countered stubbornly. “You don’t know.”
“No, I do not. And that is what I do not like. We could be walking into anything.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s a bunch of kids screwing around.” Chase shrugged, glancing over at Merrick to catch the familiar wrinkle of his brow that meant he was worried.
“Something does not feel right,” Merrick said at last. “We should proceed with caution.”
“Always do, Merry,” Chase agreed. He didn’t feel too great about walking into this place either, and being hungover certainly didn’t help.
They exited the car together and headed to the front door.
Chase held out his index fingers and thumbs to form a triangle, murmuring the words for a perception spell to check the doorway before they went in. He was an ordinary fire discipline, and he still had to chant out the words to cast even the simplest spells. “Shit.”
“It’s warded,” Chase replied grumpily. “Very fancy protection spells out the ass. Definitely not some fuckin’ kids. I haven’t seen some of these glyphs before.”
Merrick held up his hand for his own perception spell. He was able to look through the index finger and thumb of one hand without saying the words because having a flawless performance record, perfect physical exams, and more service commendations than anyone else on the force wasn’t enough. He was gifted in the divine arts, the most powerful school of magic that both encompassed and surpassed all the others.
Merrick could cast with nothing but a flick of his wrist, while Chase had to mumble each syllable like a first grader learning to read.
Bastard really was perfect.
Perfect and apparently annoyed, as he was studying the wards with an unusual scowl.
“You recognize ’em?” Chase pressed.
“Yes. They are old. Very old.” Merrick’s scowl deepened. “They are wards of protection with Salgumel’s blessing.”
“God of Dreams, right?”
“So, that’s bad?”
“Yes,” Merrick sighed. “He was the ruler of the gods here on Aeon before they went into the dreaming.”
“Right, right, went all crazy and ditched mankind for a big ol’ nap.”
Chase was a hopeful atheist—as in, hopefully he was wrong and he would manage to find some sort of faith before he croaked. His parents had been Lucian, but they were hardly devout. They never had Chase or his brother take the Litany, never had them baptized, nor did they ever participate in any Lucian communion.
Before they died, his parents had converted to the Sagittarian faith, the way of the Sages. The religion was a bit silly, based on fairy tales about monstrous gods with tentacles and swords made of starlight. His parents took their new beliefs very seriously, and Chase recalled they often spoke of the gods returning soon.
Whether it was the Lord of Light with his magical hands of pure sunshine or Great Azaethoth with his big horns and giant tentacles, Chase didn’t put much stock in any of it. He’d tried to go to a Lucian service and even joined his parents in Sagittarian circles, and he always felt nothing.
Whatever was up there, Chase hadn’t heard a peep.
“That is one interpretation,” Merrick said with an oddly perturbed glare. “What is important here is that Salgumel’s blessings are both powerful and corrupt.”
“Restricted?” Chase frowned. Some forms of magic were illegal, like necromancy, but he wasn’t sure about this Salgumel guy.
“I do not think there’s been a modern occurrence of this particular spell to warrant any legislature.”
“So what the fuck do we do?”
Merrick made a fist and squeezed. The frame of the door cracked, the wards broken in a snap. “We go through them.”
As always, Chase was impressed and annoyed. He didn’t understand how Merrick did half the things he saw him do. Damn divine magic.
Touched by starlight, as the Sages would say.
Lucian faith had shaped the modern magical system that was used to classify a person’s abilities. They were either fire, water, earth, air, or divine.
The Sages had a far more complicated system to quantify magical skills. Chase’s fire magic wasn’t just fire; it was the fire of Shartorath’s hearth, a bright and gentle flame that could heal and light a dark path.
It was good for lighting cigarettes and birthday candles, not so good for anything actually useful.
Like breaking protection sigils.
Wards removed, he and Merrick walked inside. The factory had been gutted, and all the machinery removed left it a vast and empty space. There was a single staircase leading up to the top floor, and Chase grimaced immediately.
“Flare?” Merrick asked in a hushed voice.
“You got it.” Chase took the silencing flare from his belt, set it down by the bottom of the stairs, and activated it.
It would prevent spell casting of any kind in the immediate area, hopefully giving him and Merrick the upper hand against whatever was waiting for them upstairs. It also meant they couldn’t cast, of course, but they had their guns. As advanced as magic was, primitive ballistics were still quite effective.
Up the stairs they went, Chase soon lagging behind. He was out of breath by the time they reached the top, cursing the eclair and every other baked good he’d ever eaten.
There was a single door in front of them, and Merrick cautiously reached for the knob. He paused to take out his gun, looking to Chase to confirm he was ready to charge in.
Chase could definitely hear movement and a few different voices now, and he removed his gun from its holster. He took a deep breath, nodding at Merrick as he whispered, “Go.”
Merrick flung open the door, leading the charge inside as he shouted, “AVPD! You are all under arrest for trespassing on private property, a violation of general statute two point six—”
“Oh shit,” Chase hissed, staring at the shit show they’d just walked into.
The office was big, dusty, and empty except for a few neglected desks, some large frames stacked up by the wall, and oh…
About eight men, all staring right at them.
None of them looked very friendly or happy to see them, and they were all definitely armed.
So much for a bunch of kids screwing around.
One of the men had a large bandage covering the side of his face, and he raised his hands as if to cast a spell. He scoffed in disgust when nothing happened.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Merrick went on, totally fearless despite how outnumbered they were. “You have the right—”
“Kill them,” Bandage Face ordered.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Chase hissed, grabbing Merrick and pulling him down behind the closest desk as the men opened fire.
“Attacking law enforcement is a felony!” Merrick shouted, ducking down next to Chase with a snarl.
“Go! Go!” Bandage Face was shouting. “Take the paintings!”
Chase ducked his head down as bullets whizzed all around them, reaching for his phone. “We’ve gotta call for backup!”
“We cannot let them get away!” Merrick shouted as he leaned around the desk to fire back.
“What the fuck do you suggest we do, huh?” Chase demanded, gritting his teeth.
There was a loud explosion from somewhere outside the office, and then Chase heard the pop of a portal.
No, that was impossible.
“Stay here!” Merrick shouted, suddenly jumping up from the cover of the desk.
“Merrick! You dumb fuck! No!” Chase tried to grab him, but he wasn’t fast enough. He saw a portal in the corner of the room, watching in shock as the gunmen began to retreat through it.
Bandage Face was still firing, and Merrick went right for him. He took him to the ground, and both of their weapons went flying. As they struggled, the bandage was ripped away, and Chase saw a rotten hole in the man’s face.
Fuck, it was shaped like a hand.
Chase was up, firing into the portal at the retreating men to cover Merrick as he fought with Bandage Face. He didn’t understand how a portal could have been opened while the silencing flare was up, but he didn’t have time to question it.
Bandage Face managed to get an arm free from Merrick’s grasp, hissing a chant and raising his hand for a spell. Light was bubbling up all around his fingers, but he wasn’t directing it at Merrick.
It was aimed right at Chase.
“Chase, look out!” Merrick shouted, letting go of Bandage Face and turning to grab the glowing ball of energy.
It exploded, and the next thing Chase saw was the ceiling as he landed flat on his back. Merrick had flown backward from the blast, crashing into the window, glass shattering as he fell right through.
“Merrick!” Chase screamed, his ears ringing as he fought to get to his feet. He ran to the window, looking down at the ground below.
Merrick had hit the dumpster full of scrap metal, and he was….
Chase forgot all about Bandage Face, racing back down the stairs as fast as he could. He barely noticed the pieces of the silencing flare as he sprinted by them, his heart in his throat as he burst through the front doors.
Merrick had to be okay.
He had to be!
Chase skidded to a stop when he found Merrick, dropping to his knees with an anguished sob.
Merrick’s body was nearly split in half across his middle from where it had struck the giant sheets of metal, and there were loops of guts hanging out. His eyes were closed, and he wasn’t moving.
Chase knew he needed to call someone. He had to call this in. But he felt too sick, his eyes filling with tears as he reached out to touch Merrick’s face with trembling fingers.
He should have been faster, reacted quicker; he should have done something, anything….
Now he’d never have the chance to tell Merrick how he really felt.
Chase forced himself to look up at Merrick’s torso again, sniffling miserably. It was then he noticed there wasn’t any blood. There wasn’t a single drop. What Chase had thought were guts and intestines were in fact….
Thick, writhing green tentacles.
“What the fucking fuck,” Chase whispered.
“Language,” Merrick scolded as his eyes fluttered open. “Chase, get a hold of yourself.”
“You…. You….” Chase jerked his hand away, nearly hysterical. “How… how are you even talking right now?”
“So,” Merrick said, surprisingly calm for someone whose body was nearly in two pieces, “we may need to have a talk about what and who I really am.”
“No fuckin’ shit!”
Merrick looked annoyed, pulling his lower half down from where it was caught on the edge of the dumpster. His body began to mend back together, tentacles vanishing back inside, and he stood up and brushed himself off. “Profanity is unacceptable, Chase. I have told you—”
“Fuck that!” Chase shouted as he backed away in horror. “I’ll use whatever fuckin’ language I fuckin’ want to! What the fuck are you?”
Merrick bowed his head, sighing heavily. He looked back up at Chase, and his eyes had turned into black pools scattered with thousands of little lights—no, with stars—and he said:
“I’m a god.”