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Deep Into That Darkness Peering (IC)

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GM

 

Claremont Academy, Headmistress's Office

Approximately 4:30pm, May 18, 2017

 

Four students had been called into Headmistress Summer's office, by way of notes handed over quietly early in the day (so as not to raise a fuss about the matter): Riley Smith, Winifred Wei, Matthew Rivera, and Raina Sanderson. Miss Summers sat behind her desk, typing away as the students filed in, a couple of quick clicks closing whatever she'd worked on, before she turned and faced the students. She sat back in her chair, folding her hands in her lap as she calmly regarded each of them for several moments. 

 

"To begin, understand that none of you are in trouble. Instead, this is me presenting you all with an opportunity for...let's call it something of a work-study program. I believe that, between your individual skills and your friendships with each other, you are well-suited to this task. I can't make you do this particular assignment, but you all do have hours and credits and the like to finish, so if it's not this particular assignment, it will be another. And unfortunately, I can't guarantee another opportunity that's as..."

 

She paused and thought over her words for a moment, apparently quite conscious of some of the strong personalities in the room.

 

"I can't guarantee you won't end up being forced to complete an assignment while working with one or more fellow students you do not get along well with. And don't think your companion's skills would let you bypass this requirement, Miss Sanderson; I'd know if he tried. Still, I have faith you all will be interested in this particular project."

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Raina smirked. "If I thought that would work, I wouldn't show up for nearly so many classes," she pointed out. "But I've already got a mentorship training thing setup that takes a lot of my time. What's this extra thing you want us to take on, and how much time are we looking at?" Raina wasn't about to admit that just keeping up with schoolwork and training at the dojo took nearly all of the hours she wasn't actually in classes or sleeping, because that would be admitting that she cared about the grades she was getting with finals coming up. "Do we get to go off-campus for it?" 

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Riley usually let Robin talk in these situations - but she wasn't here. So he stayed in the back of the group and did some hard thinking. The last time he, Raina, and Fred had teamed up as a group for more than just training, they'd taken down Next-Gen and Mr. Archer both. He was pretty sure their temporary gym teacher wasn't going to stick around till the next year, either, which meant who knew what for their senior year? And Matt's a badass magic guy. If she's sending us out, something must be going downGetting out does sound good. Long as we're not going to that creepy place with the plant lady where Sanderson goes. That place gives me the willies. He'd learned not to say that kind of thing out loud, so instead he kept his thoughts to himself as they listened to Raina and Ms. Summers banter. 

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"That's probably a given," Matt mused, glancing at the others and trying to figure out what he was getting himself into. The company was good, at least, depending on what they had to do - Riley was good at Riley-stuff, and he wasn't really sure what all Raina could do, but he and the dogs could guess at least a little...and he was privately curious to see more magic that didn't involve...y'know. Dead people. And he was always down to hang out with Fred for basically anything.

 

The yellow-eyed, charcoal-furred canine sitting at his feet nudged him, breaking him from his reverie. He hasn't had a dog with him when approaching the office, of course, but that never seemed to stop them any more than the shut office door did. Matt nudged the creature back, poking it with his knee, and it grinned a perfectly normal dog smile (full of perfectly normal dog teeth) at some sort of non-verbal communication no one but hound and master was privy to. "S'fine by me, I guess. You're all cool, I'm not gonna re-roll the dice on that. Kinda busy sometimes, myself, but I'll figure out something."

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Between Raina's aplomb, Riley's stoicism and Matthew's nonchalance, the straight-backed composure with which Winifred carried herself was certainly in keeping with the group's overall theme. While her resting expression had been accused in some colourful language of constantly conveying irritation those who'd spent more time with her recognized that the thin line of her mouth as the Headmistress addressed them had less to do with polite respect and more with holding her tongue. After so much time she'd hoped they were there to finally get some answers about Archer and whomever had implanted him with the control device but instead they were receiving further obfuscations.

 

"One might hope for a more thorough explanation before being asked to agree to something, yes," she agreed coolly with Raina's sentiment. Assuming the others agreed she was hardly going to refuse but she didn't appreciate the spectre of their poor social standing being brought up as the proverbial Sword of Damocles.

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GM

 

The Headmistress was entirely unmoved by the various attitudes on display. Instead, a slight smile crossed her face; not one of mockery, but of a teacher actually pleased with their students.

 

"I did not wish to waste time with explanations if there were compelling reasons on the part of any of you not to take part in the assignment tonight, Miss Wei. I don't claim to know everything about your social plans, and so I started with broad strokes."

 

She reached over to one side of her desk and picked up four slim folders, which she then spread out on the side of the desk close to the students. All four looked to be identical, at least on the surface.

 

"This work study is taking place this evening. It has two primary goals; testing your group's ability to conduct investigations, and testing your abilities to do so subtly. To answer your questions Miss Sanderson, this exercise is specifically aimed at you four working as a group, as well as focusing less on general "hero skills" and more specifically on crime scene investigation. It may take a few hours; depending on how late it is when you four finish, we can prepare some notes for your morning classes. Only the morning ones, mind."

 

Her expression is less "I expect trouble from you lot" and more "I know how teenagers are". 

 

"And yes, you will be going off-campus. These folders contain basic information on several crime scenes that the Raven has been investigating. She placed a discrete request to us for assistance from students; she feels that having added perspectives would be helpful, and that giving students a chance to go through an investigation with loose oversight would be extremely beneficial. Each of you brings something helpful to this situation. Miss Sanderson, you have both magical knowledge and ability, as well as, by way of Mister Merlin, no small amount of ability to access electronic systems. Miss Wei, your experience in chemistry and alchemy provides a skill-set that's always in demand for investigative work. Mister Rivera, your companions-" she nodded her head toward the dog by his side, apparently unperturbed by its presence "-combined with your own knowledge and skills may help bridge some gaps, not to mention your ability to track things and people with their aide. And Mister Smith, your own tracking skills, combined with your insights into terrain and tactics, may be the final piece of the puzzle that this impromptu team needs.

 

I should clarify that you are not expected to miraculously solve every crime scene, simply provide additional insight. Whatever you determine and discover will be given to Raven, who can in turn finish prosecuting the investigation. Your heroic nom de guerres will be the ones recorded in any official communications that are not between her and I. There will be some homework after the field work is completed, but it will be just a couple of pages, and not due for a couple of days. I have faith in all of you that you'll be able to provide insight and information, likely faster than the Raven could on her own. She does not anticipate combat to occur, but she won't guarantee it won't happen."

 

She paused, regarding each of the students.

 

"I won't force you to take this assignment, and I certainly won't force you to the next available work-study program. If you need a few minutes to discuss the issue among yourselves, or to simply think it over, that's fine. And not all of you have to take the assignment. This is, ultimately, an opportunity. It's your decision."

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Woodsman's response was short and to-the-point - just like Riley himself. "We'll do it." Riley's inability to turn down a challenge had gotten him burned, bruised, and bloodied more than once in his nearly two years at Claremont - but it hadn't gone away. He picked up a couple of folders and started flipping through them, handing some to the others when they showed interest. "'Sa good team." He'd knew everybody there was good in a fight and good with their brains - and having seen them do their stuff, that was really all he needed to know. 

 

Guess she doesn't want us fighting teachers or Next-Gen this time, he thought. Prolly for the best. 

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Matt grimaced a little at 'filling in the gaps' - he was generally well aware that he lacked the knowledge and training and truly specialized talents of his friends, and by and large he was okay with that, but the reminder stung sometimes.

 

The thought got him a wave of amused derision from his dog, which he rewarded by scowling down over the edge of his folder. Yeah, he thought, except that, okay, but they don't know about that and it's always a weird conversation that I'd rather not have. So shut it, or no treats.

 

The dog ducked its head, chastised for some unheard offense, and Matt turned his attention back to the folder. "Not gonna lie," he said, skimming, "it's not what I was expecting - I figured more community outreach, less Clue. Works for me, though, if everyone else is in - might be interesting to go poking around for information." Stopping at the 'poking around' stage sounded a lot less fun, but he figured that was a conversation to have when the group was away from overly-concerned teacher ears. "So that's two of us, I guess. What'd'you two think?"

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Raina glanced over at Fred for a second before looking back to the Headmistress. "Just so long as we don't get flunked if it turns out we can't actually do better detective work than The Raven," she reminded Summers. "This isn't exactly any of our wheelhouse, so we should at least get points for effort. And we're going to need full access to the school's database, even if we start running into things that might be restricted." It would not be too hard, she figured, to make whatever investigation they embarked upon last long enough to justify a morning off. And Merlin would like the database thing. 

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Although she hadn't meant to make it obvious Winifred had been waiting for Raina to chime in before speaking, raising her eyebrows minutely in a small gesture of acquiescence when she looked over. Crime scene investigation seemed like an interesting application of her talents and a rather useful skill to practice but the Academy had burned through a considerable amount of goodwill when it came to extracurricular group activities. She doubted the pyromancer would have appreciated everyone else agreeing before she'd had a chance to make any objections known.

 

She'd also been a bit distracted trying to remember if Matthew's hound had been there a moment prior. They could be infuriating in that way.

 

"I'm sure we can at minimum provide an alternate point of view," she replied evenly, folding her hands in her lap.

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The Headmistress simply nods at Riley's firm agreement, apparently expecting a simple, straightforward declaration from the rough-around-the-edges young man. At Matt's remark about community service, she smiled softly.

 

"In a way this is a community service, Mister Rivera. Aiding in the resolution of criminal cases is a net benefit to the community. Even if none of you end up pursuing law enforcement, traditional or non-traditional-"meaning superhero work"-this will still be valuable experience."

 

She regarded Raina with a slightly raised brow, but more of curiosity.

 

"You will be graded on your efforts and the thought you put into them, not the absolute results. I will be expecting 2-4 pages or so from each of you on what skills you brought to bear during your investigations, and why, but so long as you don't deliberately try to fail, which I don't expect any of you to do, or deliberately seek to destroy evidence or the like, which I also don't expect, you should be fine. This is not a 'free' grade, but I don't anticipate any of you failing, or getting particularly low marks. 

 

As for database access, the folders contain logins that will last for three days, to allow you to do follow-up notes once you've finished the on-site portion of the investigation. This will not give you complete access to the database; it will give you free access to materials that might relate to the investigation. CSI-related information, profiles on known super-villains, super-gangs, and regular gangs, and other such information. You will not have access to student files, medical records, anything confidential here that is not relevant to this assignment. I'm sure Mister Merlin will find it an excellent research tool to assist all of you." 

There was no sarcasm in her voice, just honest assessment of what Merlin could do.

"I'll inform the staff that you all will potentially be missing morning classes. If the investigation keeps you such that you miss everything, there are provisions for that, and the Raven will sign off on such. I would ask that you all not abuse this privilege over-much. Though, it is the end of semester, and I do recall my own teenage years. Just, please remember you represent the school in this endeavor. The authorities have been alerted you all will be aiding the Raven, and while you may need to answer questions, you have temporary ID badges in your folders that will prove you are legitimate investigators. You will also shortly be given communicators that will allow you to talk to each other on a private comm channel, contact the Raven, contact the Freedom League's emergency line, contact the on-call staff member here at the Academy, and/or contact emergency services. I'm sure if necessary Mister Merlin could have them contact other channels and numbers, but ideally you could simply use your phones for that purpose; we'd rather he not modify the headsets outside of an emergency situation. You will also be provided a set of email addresses to send pictures and other electronic evidence to as you feel the need; what you send and when is up to your discretion."

 

Callie Summers pauses, considering the four students in front of her carefully. Her next words are a bit less business-like.

 

"This sort of assignment is atypical but not unknown. I am placing a fair bit of trust in you all, but I expect that trust to be rewarded, with interest. I firmly believe you all are capable of excellent work."

 

She looks over them once again.

 

"Are there any final questions before you go prepare for this evening?"

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Matt had made a face at "2-4 pages" to express an emotion that only deepened at "what skills you brought to bear", but it apparently wasn't worth bringing up.

 

"Nothing here," he confirmed, reaching down to scratch a second dog (?!?) behind the ears. It cheerfully thumped sideways into his leg, tail thumping against the floor while its pre-existing twin pretended not to notice the attention. "Might be kinda nice to be the one with a badge for once. Headset sounds useful, too...betting we don't keep to keep either of those after, though. Guess you thought of everything."

 

The dog rolled its head to look at him, and he took the moment to rethink his thought. "Well. Everything thinkable. Nothin's ever that neat, but I guess we answer those questions when we get to 'em. No sense in worrying about it now."

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Riley shifted, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and felt a little unsettled when it didn't come. "Okay." He certainly didn't mind a lot of work - and actually rather enjoyed writing things down, even if he was supposed to type them out instead of filling the three-ring binders full of blank white paper that now occupied a significant portion of his dorm room bookshelf. "Guess we'll look at these," he said to the others, not sure what there was to say after this. Bet Fred'nRaina'll have somethin', though. He'd actually done some detecting on his own terms, the last time he and Matt had gone out together had been a big part of it. Could be better at it. Not good at looking for clues. Well that wasn't entirely true - there were a lot of scenes he could read in an instant. Just not the kinds of scenes produced by normal people doing normal things to each other. Ugh. Teleporting dogs!

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Raina was holding her typical "barely listening" pose, even as she soaked in what the headmistress was saying and tried to analyze it for traps and pitfalls. It didn't sound that different from what she and Riley had done for an extracurricular earlier in the year, except for the addition of the two page paper. Ugh. Maybe she'd borrow Merlin's GoPro and try to submit a vlog summary instead. It'd be worth a try, anyway, Callie Summers sometimes rewarded out of the box thinking. "So can we wear our own costumes on this one," she asked, "or do we have to go with school uniforms?" 

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Winifred was already engrossed in reading the provided packet of information by the time the others had weighed in and only looked back up with an owlish blink as she dimly realized the Headmistress was looking to her. "Ah. Things seem thoroughly prepared, yes." She glanced to the others to gauge their expressions, pointedly refusing to acknowledge the unannounced appearance of another of Matthew's hounds; they seemed only to do that sort of thing for the attention. She considered asking whether they'd be kept informed about the case and its resolution afterward considering how tightlipped the administration had proved to be on other matters but held her tongue. It would be much easier to discover that information for themselves without giving Summers advance warning, she reasoned.

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Headmistress Summers gives Matt a slight smile and a nod at his questions about the badges and comms, electing to let the intelligent young people connect those particular dots. She took in their overall mood, electing to let some things lie for the time being. Raina's question did deserve an answer, though.

"You are encouraged to wear your own personal costumes, but if you deem it necessary you are free to wear the school uniforms instead. This exercise is ultimately more about you than the school."

She glanced down at a couple of papers for a few moments, before looking back at the students.

"The various sites and their addresses are in your folders. You can examine them in whichever order you prefer, just please let the Raven know which one. She may or may not stop by during your examination, but she requests you check in occasionally, as she's taking responsibility for watching over you this evening. Now, unless you have any further questions...?"

And with that, the meeting wraps up! 

 

To Be Continued!

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After the students had left, and Callie Summers had confirmed she was alone and unseen in the office, she closed her eyes and sat back in her chair, letting out a long, tired sigh. For just a few moments, she looked her age, not some timeless figure of stoic wisdom and authority. She wasn't a teacher or a headmistress or a hero, she was just a person who was tired. Finally, she opened her eyes, pulled out some paper and a pen, wrote some sort of note or letter, and sealed it in an envelope. Then, she secured the office and left, letter in hand....

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[First Crime Scene]

 

The four teens would arrive to find the house with a couple of police cars and a CSI van out front, and some obviously-busted windows surrounded with police tape. A couple of officers kept watch, though they weren't overly twitchy.

 

Whether the kids just walked in or tried to sneak in, it would quickly be apparent that the home office was the scene of the crime. A well-furnished space that was pretty clearly used regularly, the central focus was the desk and computer; the desk itself was damaged, primarily around the drawers, which had been ripped out, the files and papers within scattered. Glass littered the floor around the window. Two CSI techs were in the room, one of them moving around slowly and photographing evidence, the other poking at the desktop computer at the desk, the machine running but the display on the screen being....odd. 

 

This was likely one of the "fresher" crime scenes of the ones offered to the kids. 

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"Guess we'd better go in the front," commented Woodsman, looking at the others once he was back from his quick recon with news about the cops outside and the CSI techs inside. He'd slipped around both easily enough, but outside of Sanderson the others didn't have his knack - and there really wasn't any reason for them to sneak around under the circumstances.

 

"We're legit supers, right?" He smiled thinly, the upper part of his face still hidden by his poncho's cowl. He hung back as the more socially-inclined of his classmates took the initiative in actually talking to the cops, trusting them to look like heroes in more ways than one. Once inside the house, he slipped away a little, casting his gaze around the interior of the building with an eye well-used to spotting the aftereffects of mayhem. 

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Grim's expression on seeing the officers at the door was hard to read, especially with the top half of his face covered, but he didn't offer them much more than a nod and a flash of his badge before following Woodsman into the building. He only had the two dogs with him, still, but they too were 'in costume' - which is to say they'd stopped bothering to look like normal dogs, now all smoke-fur that blew in a breeze no one else could feel, eyes like round, burning coal watching their surroundings with amused curiosity. One parked itself there, by the front door, grinning up at the nearest officer with teeth too white to be normal, while the other silently padded in after its master.

 

"'Sup," Grim said, nodding to the techs; he waved the badge again, a little awkwardly, his attention mostly on the room's disorder. The dog may have looked like something out of a ghost's nightmare, but its sniffing and pacing was none the less terribly dog-like...for all that its pacing didn't seem to actually disturb anything it happened to step on. "We're here to help, if we can," he said, frowning at the window. "Find anything good so far?"

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GM

 

The group was waved through after a few moments checking their badges, and no protests were made as Woodsman drifted a bit from the group, as most of the focus is either outside, or on the office room. That said, he wouldn't find much out of place. The only real signs outside of the office seemed to indicate panicked movement away from that room; perhaps the owners of the home quickly fleeing once the damage was discovered?

 

The CSI techs inside the office paused as the teenagers moved in, but once again those badges seemed almost like magic passes. They glanced at each other, then shrugged.

"We won't turn down help from heroes. We've taken our initial round of photos; lots of secondary pieces of damage around the room. Nothing structural to the house; the window's the worst damage there. Everything's fixable. Offhand, whoever did this wanted the paper files there, and the stuff on the laptop. We found signs of someone shoving one of those super-tough USB drives into a port on the computer, then yanking it out; the port's busted. Computer itself works, though it's not acting normal. We're not digital forensics, so we've tried to leave it alone for the most part."

The other tech, a bit older and with a voice that suggested maybe one too many smoke breaks, spoke up.

"Probably obvious, kids, but try to be careful. That glass is sharp, and we're still working on tagging and cataloging everything."

He seemed not to care about the dogs that were apparently not quite there.

 

Meanwhile, at the door to the house, the big burly officer standing watch there looked down at the dog. Who was smiling up at him. 

Kept looking. Dog kept smiling.

He sighed, then shrugged.

"Hn. 'Sup?"

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Where Grim may have been going for nonchalance Reagent strode into the house behind him with a straight-backed posture and clipped step that seemed to be daring anyone to question her presence. Walking into places one probably wasn't meant to go and wasn't entirely welcome had not changed significantly in the past centuries: confidence spoke volumes. Looking the part didn't hurt, either. While not particularly concerned with her 'secret identity' she'd deferred to her teammates and donned a plum coloured handkerchief that covered the lower portion of her face; in combination with her bandolier she fancied she cut quite the roguish figure. Riding boots tapping across the floors and long white coat swishing about her ankles she made for the broken glass as it was pointed out, stooping to examine the shards more closely.

 

"This was broken with a hard wedge first, perhaps a throw blade," she hummed at the pattern, glancing up at Woodsman and adding, "or an arrow. Then they smashed through the weakened pane bodily." The alchemist tiptoed around the edge of the glass, frowning slightly. "No blood but then they would have been prepared, one assumes. Ah!" Reaching into her bag she produced a pair of tweezers and a small stoppered vial. With careful concentration she retrieved two of the shards and dropped them into the container. "They were good enough to leave us a few black fibres, however! That's a start. Mister Grim, what do you make of those slash marks?"

 

There was an animated energy behind her voice that Riley would have recognized best from working together in the Academy's lab, though it occasionally bubbled up while practicing music with Matthew or discussing a new idea for her side project with Raina. Winifred was rather enjoying herself.

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Merlin chirped with what sounded suspiciously like glee upon catching sight of the computer, racing down Raina's arm and hopping to the desk for a better look. "Don't worry," Raina told the scandalized tech with a smile that was surprisingly reassuring. "He's a highly enhanced sentient primate. Think of him as an expert diagnostic system in a weird casing." She was pretty sure the computer teacher at Claremont had been being sarcastic when he'd described Merlin that way, but it actually seemed to make the technician feel a little better. While Merlin worked, Raina began picking throgh the desk, looking at the paper files with the air of someone who totally knew what she was doing. 

 

The monkey worked quickly, though he didn't seem entirely satisfied with what he was finding. "He thinks you're right about the heavy-duty USB drive damaging the port," Raina reported helpfully. "No chunks of drive in it, though, so the thing they took probably survived intact. The whole thing is encrypted, but some of it's newly broken. The files aren't complete but they reference other files with... what the hell is a hexadecimal?" Merlin chirped irritably at her, and she rolled her eyes but continued, "with hexadecimal numbers. Hey flatface, are these them?" She raised one of the paper folders in Merlin's direction. Merlin indicated that these were indeed what he was looking for, and why hadn't she mentioned them earlier? 

 

It took a few more minutes for monkey and mage to digest the information from the files themselves. "Okay, there's one tech firm that owns both the warehouse and the office building, and these files are related to some components that company's making. Good news is, it doesn't look like something that's designed to blow up or spew poison or shoot bullets. Bad news is, Merlin can't make a guess at what they're actually for without getting physical access to the servers the files are on, which is probably located at the office building. If we know more about what these guys wanted, we might learn more about who they are." 

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"Well, Holmes," Grim drawled, for all that he did appear to be inspecting the slash marks fairly carefully, "the marks by the door are pretty small, but the desk is pretty messed up. Figure they had a purpose with the desk, or a different weapon, but they weren't out to damage the door frame. Had some other reason to do it, I guess? Glass is interesting, too," he added, gesturing down around his feet. "Weren't afraid to walk all over it, but it's all uneven. Some of it's basically dust now, some of it's just all cracked up after landing."

 

Grim was standing on glass, too, which he either didn't notice or didn't care about - though it probably helped that he'd somehow managed to not so much as nudge or snap a shard in half while doing it. "Guessing a couple different-sized guys went through here, or one guy went through this one spot a lot or carrying something heavy."

 

He gave Raina her due ear, though he briefly pondered if watching her talk to Merlin was what he and his dogs looked like sometimes. "Gives us a good place to go next, I guess. Dogs caught a scent here, but nothing they can identify or follow. We'll remember it - maybe they can pick it up again, if this is all connected up somehow."

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"People keep referencing that collection of works to me," Winifred sighed as she rose to walk over to the wreckage Grim was surveying, the bridge of her nose wrinkling over the top edge of her hankerchief. "I missed those by a few decades, you know. Hm. I think you're right about our intruders being of varying size. One large but perhaps more than one of smaller size, from the patterns. Unless they circled about and traipsed through the glass again."

 

Once Raina suggested their next destination the alchemist hurried to make another pass around the room, looking for anything she might have missed previously. Stopping by the window frame she tilted her head slightly to one side while trying to picture the movements that would have generated such cut. "There's something very odd about the gouges here. They make me think more of trailing cloth than a hard edge. Oh! Do you think we're dealing with ninjas?" She gave the word a distinctly American inflection and after a beat explained, "I've been watching a program about superhumans on the 'Discovery Channel'. One of the hosts mentions ninjas regularly. I understand they're meant to wear black and wield an exotic variety of bladed weaponry."

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For his part, Woodsman was walking the halls and office, a look of concentration on his face. "Think yer right about what's here. Don't think it was'n arrow - nobody'd waste a good bolt smashing glass." Well there were some archers who'd do so, he supposed, but in his experience most people who crafted their own arms and ammunition didn't go spending them foolishly. Not being a big watcher of television, he missed Fred's reference, instead nodding soberly at her words. "OK, we know where to go, and we know to go there armed and on our guard." Riley had to admit he did those things most places, but there was no harm in making sure they all had their cards on the table. "Just in case we happen to catch the burglar team in the act." 

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