Fiction Short Stories

Killing Words

NOTE: This is an incomplete short story which I wrote several years ago as an experiment. It’s extremely rough and likely filled with mistakes. I’m sharing it because I plan on taking elements of this story, tweaking them to fit my Covenant universe setting, and then expanding the story into a murder mystery novel. Look for more about that novel in 2023.

The day that Vernon was murdered, we forgot how to see green.

I know that we forgot green because the word still appears in dictionaries and books. I even know that it was often used to describe grass and trees and often counted as the opposite of red in indicators and children’s games. But not a one of us remembers what green looks like. I stand in the conservatory beneath the arching branches of the elder trees, gazing up at the old sun through leaves which tremble in the breeze, and I see the leaves and yet the color of their delicate veins and broad surfaces is indistinguishable to from that of the branches and trunks. It’s not grey. It’s not black and white. 

But I simply cannot think of it as green, because that color no longer exists. 

Like the numbers between ten and thirteen.

I know that they must have existed once, long ago, in the days before the Revelation, when there was yet a veil between the realms of man and the divine, but for as long as I can remember I have counted seven, eight, nine, ten, ten and one, two sixes, thirteen…

It was on the seventh day of the month between March and May when Detective Kline approached me as I sat at the picnic table beneath the trees that had been green. Since my retirement I have busied myself with attempting to compose poetry about that which we have lost. This is difficult, as the essence of loss is to know that you no longer have something and much of what was lost cannot be recalled, but with great effort I will often succeed in crafting a single evocative stanza in the course of a long morning spent amid the fragrant blooms of the morning glory vines.

Rosemont steps up beside me, her presence announced by the heady scent of coffee and the jangling, irregular step of her braced legs. Her obscura falls across my page, but I don’t look up from scratching out my final, fading memories of how leaves might once have appeared before the world was robbed of their name.

“We need you back,” she says, tossing a folio atop my notebook. 

“I’m retired,” I say.

“We lost another one.”

“We lose one every day,” I reply, pushing the file aside and scratching out one of the words in the ten plus oneth line. After a moment’s hesitation I cross out all the words. When I publish the poem I’ll replace this line with ten plus one hyphens, even if it interferes with comprehension. That’s the point. 

“It’s getting bad.”

I drop my pencil into the gutter of the book and stand suddenly, taking full advantage of my extra six inches to glare down at Rosemont. As if I need anyone to tell me that it is getting bad. I shove the folio aside, pick up my notebook, and give Rosemont one last withering glare before striding away across the conservatory, the white and grey bone of the path crunching beneath my soles. 

“It’s not just a regular murder,” Rosemont shouts after me. “The killer is looking for someone. They’ve already murdered three carriers and there will be more.”

I keep walking. Rosemont grunts and hurries to catch up, her uneven steps crunching arrhythmically on the bone path. Just as I begin to scent her coffee she slaps my shoulder with the folio and snaps, “We need to find this killer before they work out their target.”

“Who’s the target?” I ask. Immediately  I regret it. I don’t care who the killer is after. Rather, and worse, I do care and I with I didn’t. 

“We don’t know yet, and that’s what’s got me worried.”

I stop walking and turn to glare at Rosemont. 

She glowers at me and proffers the folio. 

Muttering oaths, I take the folio and flip to the summary report. Three murders, yes. In each case the victim’s throat was slit with an exceptionally sharp blade which was not found at the scene. A clay bead was found lodged in each victim’s neck, having been placed there postmortem. 

Rosemont nods when I look up from the report, one eyebrow raised. She knows what caught my eye.

A string of vile expletives pours from my lips and I return to reading. 

Flipping to the reports on the beads, my fear is confirmed. The balls measure just under three inches in diameter. Each has been hand crafted from marbled white and black clay and its surface engraved with sigils before being fired unglazed. 

“I don’t see anything about the effect of the sigils.”

“We haven’t cracked them, yet,” Rosemont replies. “The best our mancers can work out is that they seem to be related to forgetfulness, but the grammar is all wrong. The magic doesn’t work and the geometry is all wrong.”

“But they have a meaning to the killer.”

“They must.”

“Have there been other killings with these clay spheres?”

“These are the first. I mean, the first since —” She hesitates and I’m not sure whether she’s uncomfortable or simply having trouble remembering. So many people cannot remember once a name has been lost. 

“Is this why you want me?”

“This is why the commissioner doesn’t want you. When he can be made to remember you exist he is vehemently opposed to bringing in one of the forgotten to deal with a killer, but…”

“But since he doesn’t even remember me most of the time, you figure it’s safe to bring me in.”

She replies with an awkward shrug.

Around us, the young play in the grass, laughing as they chase one another through the open spaces. How long has it been since I could remember what we once called them? Certainly long enough that most people cannot even remember a time when they were known as anything other than the young. 

“The killer is looking for somebody. I’m sure if it. Every one of these murders has been ritualized. The sigils are nonsense, but they clearly indicate that the killer doesn’t just want to kill the people, but the semiote which they carry.”

“The sigil isn’t effective.”

“No, but take a look at page…” she hesitates. Swears and kicks at the bones of the path. Finally she says, “Eight pages after twenty nine. We’ll need to add a blank sheet to the file there if I can’t remember by tomorrow.”

I turn to page thirty seven, the number slipping from my mind as I glance at it, but I am able to bring it back with some effort. The carrier must have died recently. If a child is born soon there may be some chance of the semiote finding a new host, but I don’t have much hope. Rosemont, like many in the division, is more resistant to the vanishing than most people are, so if she is already forgetting about thirty seven then chances are good that your average person under the old sun has already forgotten. 

The page features a map of the city, with the times and locations of the murders marked in red. Another list, this in blue, marks the times and locations of births. The homes and workplaces of the victims are marked in… they are marked. All of the births took place far from the murders and none of the killings happened on the same day as a birth. In two of the three killings, the victim lived and worked several miles from where their body was found.  

“The killer is trying to eliminate semiotes. I’m sure of it. Why else take the trouble and risk to bring them so far from their homes before killing them?”

“I don’t know if I can be part of this,” I say, closing the folio and pushing it against Rosemont’s chest. “I’ve already lost too much.”

“And we’ll all lose more if you don’t help. If you won’t do it to save our world then do it to get some vengeance.”

“You don’t know that it’s the same killer.”

“We never released the detail about white and black clay to the public.”

“The clay could be a conincidence. The sigils are new.”

“An evolution of the psychosis. Please…” Rosemont grasps the folio and pushes it back towards me, covering her inability to remember my name with a grunt of effort. “Please, just help us catch this killer and I promise you will be taken care of.”

“I have what I need.”

“You’re one of the lost. Do you even have a home anymore?”

“Of course. Nobody knows who I am, but they know my poetry. Besides, one benefit of being forgotten is that nobody bothers to evict you.”

“You can’t be happy like this.”

I sigh and turn away from Rosemont, those who did not survive the Revelation crying out beneath my feet, reminding me with each grinding step that there are fates worse than being forgotten. I pause at the fountain and sit on a curved block of granite, watching as arcs of water chase one another around the statues of fallen Wardens. Young play amid the spray, the smallest of them giggling and chasing the streams as their elders stand above the nozzles, waiting for the spray to slam into the bottoms of their feet, knocking them off balance and spraying water all about. 

“This one is bad. I can’t put a finger on it, but I know that the killer is aiming for somebody in particular. My gut tells me that they want to kill a word.”

“Have you found any evidence of divination?” I whisper, my voice barely audible over the rush of water and laughter of young people. “Any sign that they are actively seeing out a particular semiote?”

“No direct evidence, but look at the victims.” She slaps her hand against the folio as she names each of them in turn. “The color of grass and trees. The flavor of bacon. The concept of… of…”

“Mercy,” I whisper. 

“I think so, but damn it all I can’t remember. Don’t you see, they are targeting major semiotes in different classifications. We’re not talking about forgetting the name of a historical figure or a cocktail recipe. We’re talking about essential concepts. Things that keep us human.”

The water dances across the plaza. The young people play. I try to remember the color of leaves, but even I am beginning to forget what… what… green… yes, green looks like. Rosemont stands beside me, rigid atop her artificial legs.

“Show me. I’ll do what I can.”

An hour later we stand in the morgue. Vernon’s corpse is laid on the cold steel table beneath an array of lights and imaging devices. Hard to imagine that this chubby man in his late forties carried the essence of green within his soul, but that’s the world we’ve come to live in since the Raveling. 

“Show me the semiotica,” I command the mortician’s assistant. 

“It’s gone.”

I roll my eyes and shoot Rosemont an exasperated look. “I can go back to writing poetry in the park. I really don’t mind it.”

“Just turn on the augur,” Rosemont snaps.

The assistant grumbles and activates the semiote imager. The room goes dark, then a feeling like a blast of cold air moves through my body and the cluster of lamps above Vernon’s corpse shudders, then pours out a sickly silver light. The light burrows into Vernon’s body, melting away flesh and bones until nothing remains but a ghostly outline atop the examination table. 

“I told you, the semiote has been gone for days. There’s no trail either. No sign that it found a new body.”

I step closer and study the translucent corpse. Most people can’t even tell that semiotes exist, wouldn’t even have known about them if the Raveling hadn’t so thoroughly disturbed the natural order of our world, but I’m different. That’s why Rosemont came for me, why she works so hard to remember that I exist, leaving little clues scattered around her office that tell her a forgotten, practically hopeless poet was the best semiotician in the city before their existence was erased. 

To my eyes, or my spirit, or whatever other sensory organs the Ravelors possess which were granted to some subset of humanity after the Raveling, there is something more to Vernon. A hollowness in the core of his ghost that once held something. Sussing it with the corners of my eyes, I can get the faintest trace of something that we’ve all lost.

“He was definitely the host to green,” I say. 

“That’s already in the report,” the assistant says. “Rosemont, I’ve got dinner plans. So if you could hurry this along and…”

I interrupt the mortician’s complaints, saying, “I’ve been out of the loop for a while. Have we managed to craft any portable augurs?”

“Not that I know of,” he replies. “I was at a conference four, maybe five months back, and the cutting edge seems to be systems about half this size. Not that The Ward is likely to upgrade any time soon, even if those systems feature automated trace-launching and registration.”

“Automated registration?” I look to Rosemont, concerned. “I’m unable to vote anymore, but I thought that compulsory registration was rejected at the last referendum.” 

“For the populace as a whole, yes, but all deaths are registered with the Wardens and we’re allowed to augur anyone who is arrested or comes into an emergency medical facility.”

“Another step towards victory for the Ravelors.”

“That’s one way to look at it. You might be surprised to know that not everyone is opposed to that.”

“At least it would bring some sense to the world.” The assistant throws a switch, extinguishing the augury lamp. After an instant of darkness and a brief shivering sensation, the real lights return to wash the room in sickly yellow-green. 

“I need to see The Ward’s registry,” I tell Rosemont as we ride the lift up from the morgue in the agency basement. 

“That might be difficult. They’re an independent agency.”

“And I’m an independent contractor. I hardly even exist.”

The lift halts at the office level. The doors open and I follow Rosemont through the scrum of messy desks, littered with paperwork and half empty coffee mugs. A couple of detectives are still here, scowling their way through paperwork or mechanically drinking coffee as they glare at pin boards covered in investigation notes. Nobody wants to be here this late in the evening. Rosemont’s office is at the far end, not far from the sigildry shredder. An ochre glow seeps from the shredder’s collection bin and curls across the floor, coalescing into a stream beneath Rosemont’s office door. 

“I’d think you’d be more careful around magic,” I say as I settle into one of the hard wooden chairs in Rosemont’s office. “Especially since the leg thing.”

Rosemont grunts and drops into the padded leather chain behind her desk. Her legs disengage with a hiss and click. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This agency follows the strictest procedures on aethereal containment.”

I look around the room, following the faint trail of ochre smoke across the floor. As with the semiotes, few few average people would even notice the smoke as it drifts over the floorboards and coalesces in a corner behind a ficus tree. Even though the Raveling affected everyone, bound everyone together in the aetherial skien, only something like ten percent of the population is actually sensitive to magic. People like me, the rare sensitives who can augur without a lamp and hold on to some fragment of memory after a semiote has been destroyed, are so rare that most who claim my powers are still just frauds. Most of us get snapped up by the Wardens, but there are always the dregs who wind up working for other agencies. 

I stand and walk over to the window behind Rosemont’s desk. The old sun hangs low over the tiled roofs, threatening to sink below the horizon at any moment, leaving what remains of humanity at the mercy of Jove and The Weeping Moon. We’re well due a spate of fresh moon children. 

“I need to see the Wardens’ records,” I say.

“I’ll send a request, but it could be a problem.”

“Don’t they want to stop this killer?” 

“I’m sure they do, but the Wardens are more concerned with rogue sigilborn and hidden moon children. My pet theory is that they are content to let the semiotes die off until people are desperate enough to enforce compulsory augury and registration. It’s power games.”

“Please try. I’m not finding much yet.”

Rosemont grumbles and flips a panel of her desk, revealing a keyboard and aetherial display. The air shivers as she releases the wards and the sigils binding the device to the agency mainframe come to life. A moment later the silence of the office is broken by the clatter and crackle of magically encrypted text.

With Rosemont distracted, I step closer to the ficus and study the current of ochre smoke. It appears to be coalescing into the base of the plant. I hesitate for an instant, then throw caution away. Rosemont knew what she was getting when she brought me back in. 

“Weeping moon what are you doing?” Rosemont shouts, turning away from her computer as she glares at me. 

“Really, Rosemont? Collecting aetherial waste from the sigil shredder?” I study the machine hidden beneath the false bottom of the ficus tree: A compact aetherial condenser crafted from brass, bone, and glass. The quality of the machining is impressive for black market artifice. I set the tree down beside the condenser, kneel, and extract a brass-caged ampule filled with a cloud of shimmering, folding, hungry aether. 

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“There’s enough potentia in here to burn out this entire floor,” I reply.

“Only if triggered.”

“I thought the agency was paying for your legs.”

Rosemont grumbles and turns back to typing. “Just put the damn tree back.”

“It’s dangerous to run on unrefined.”

“I just use it to supplement. Alternate with the refined potentia that the agency buys me. Have to keep a stockpile of the good stuff for when I retire.”

I put the tree back atop the condenser, walk to the door, and pause with my hand on the knob. “I’m going to go find someplace to sleep for the night. Find me in the park when you’ve figured out how to get me into The Ward’s records.”

Three days pass before Rosemont finds me again. Perhaps it took her that long to get permission from the Wardens, maybe she could not remember how to find me, or it could have been simple obstinance, frustration at me for pointing out the foolishness of her using a blackmarket aether condenser to fuel her legs. 

She found me sitting cross-legged beneath an elm tree in the park, trying compose a poem about the ring of black salt which I had drawn about me.

“You know that doesn’t work, I hope.”

I look up, unsurprised by Rosemont’s sardonic voice after hearing the clank and hiss of her legs approaching.  “I’m surprised you haven’t exploded yet.”

She kicks a wide scuff in my salt circle, doing nothing to the wards which were not protecting me, but breaking my concentration on the meter of the poem. “The Wardens say you can view their records this afternoon. I assume that won’t conflict with your busy schedule.”

“Unfortunately I had planned to spend my afternoon contemplating a new name for the month between March and May. I had thought that Moth would be a nice piece of alliteration, but then I realized that we already use that word for an insect which is drawn to its death by flame. I worry that devoting an entire month to that concept might be detrimental to the survival of our species.”

“Do you have any new insights into our problem?”

“The killer?”


I close my notebook and slip it into my coat. Slowly, with pained effort, I unfold my legs and push myself up to lean against the tree.

“You’re hurt,” Rosemont exclaims, staring the obvious as if it were a revelation. 

“It is nothing.”

“What happened? Were you attacked?”

“No. Well, not intentionally, I don’t believe.” I begin to limp towards the path, the pain my my side and leg working its way to a dull ache as I move.

“You’ve got to be careful,” Rosemont grumbles, catching up to me with ease. “You don’t want a doctor forgetting about you while you’re bleeding out in the emergency room.”

That isn’t so far what what happened. I didn’t intend to be struck by a velopod on my way to the park yesterday, but one manifestation of my curse is that most people have as much trouble noticing me as remembering me. I’m a ghost in this world, passing through on a thread of poetry and loneliness. Were it not for my books, I would likely be utterly forgotten. 

“I’ll be fine,” I mutter when Rosemont again comments on my pain as I climb into her velopod at the edge of the park. “I just need to walk it off.”

“Let me see it.”

“No. If I was going to die of internal bleeding, I would have already.”

The Wardens’ headquarters are a converted cathedral half way up the hill. Before the raveling this place must have been host to hundreds, if not thousands, of faithful who gathered to petition their god for mercy every week. Since the Raveling, when the world fractured and almost every prophecy came true, most houses of faith have stood empty, their prior residents carried away to glory, or annihilated in an instant of ecstasy, or thrust into the depths of the abyss. That leaves only the remnant here on this slice of eternity, with faiths all but forgotten, save the undeniable truth that we are bound to one another.

A warden greets us in the narthex, bowing his head and spreading his arms as he speaks. “We welcome you, Detective Rosemont. I wish only that our agencies had seen fit to cooperate under better circumstances.”

“Spare me the politics. We are here for the registry.”

“Of course. You and…” the Warden pauses, studying me with heavy eyes. “I am afraid I cannot find your name.”

Rosemont interjects before I summon the eloquence to reply. “My colleague’s semiote was killed a few years ago. Half the time I can’t remember they exist, and we were partners for seventeen years.”

“Ah, one of the forgotten. I am afraid that—”

“Stuff it. I’ve already got authorization form the magistrate. I can bring anyone I damn well please into your cathedral.” With that Rosemont unfurls a sheet of vellum embossed with anti-tampering wards and fixed with the magistrate’s own seal. That explains why she was so long in returning, and is demonstrative of her commitment to this case. You don’t get a magisterial waver without good reason. 

The Warden frets over the document, then turns and waves for us to follow him into the cathedral. He does not look at me. I would take offense, but in truth few enough people even notice me anymore that his intentional snub hardly registers.

The Warden pushes open the doors to the interior, from whence pours a golden light. The air within is thick with the ochre smoke of magical discharge. All of the pews have been removed and the space where they once stood replaced with an intricate maze of sigils traced across the marble flagstones. The black salt with which I surrounded myself in the park might be ineffective at warding off Moon Children and other fell beings, but these markings weigh heavily with the inherent magical power of their forms. At various places throughout the space, the path breaks free of the horizontal plane of the floor, climbing upwards in a gossamer carpet of immutable force suspended between parallel lines of sigildry. These lines twist through the air, folding, diverging, and turning about one another until they eventually return to the sold stone. The effect of this concentration of magical power is to create a three-dimensional maze complex enough to trap all but the most prescient of mystical beasts, and that’s assuming they manage to escape the cells in which they are kept. 

“Follow close. If you stray I can take no responsibility for what might happen to you,” the Warden says.

We follow. Our path winds through the chamber, twisting through the knot of translucent walkways. At one point our path convergent with that of another Warden, younger than our guide but no less serious of mien, whispering to herself as she strides purposefully along. Our guide stops her with a hand on her shoulder, placing his finger over his lips when she turns around. She understands his message and nods, then returns to her path in silence. Soon enough our courses diverge.

The import of this interaction rings loudly in the silence of the cathedral: The prisoners must be given no means of learning the paths which are walked to escape the Ward.

We arrive at the western nave of the cathedral and alight on the cracked flagstones. At the time of the Raveling, the dead arose from beneath these very stones, their spirits breaking through the stone and shooting into the heavens in a wash of light. 

“The registry is through here,” our guide says, leading us through a stone archway framed with leering gargoyles. 

Candlelight casts flickering shadows across the features of long forgotten saints hiding in niches along the walls. A squat arcane engine occupies the center of the chamber, its brass fittings glistening with condensed magic, the hissing and sputtering of its machinations echoing from the stone walls. Coiled antennae sprout from the top and, even as we watch, a few bursts of aetherial signal burst from the antennae and dissipate into the air. A moment later, a return message flickers through space and coalesces into existence around the antenna. 

“The registry receives updates from every hospital and morgue in the city. Our engine currently contains records of nearly twenty thousand semiotes and their corresponding hosts.”

As he speaks, another burst of arcane signals fizzle around the antennae. 

“Is the turnover this high now?” I ask. 

“It continues apace. Our registrars do tend to submit their findings in batches, however, so you would be forgiven for thinking that there are many transfers.”

“We need to see your data on these names,” Rosemont says, extracting the file she showed me in the park from her jacket. “Their semiotes.