“Hire me?” said Lyfantod suspiciously, his mind still slow and muddled with drink. He relaxed the grip of his trigger finger ever so slightly, but kept the gun pointed firmly at the fiend hanging upside-down in his hallway. “For what?”
“Something has been taken from me, Mr. Lyfantod. Something which I value dearly. And it is in everyone’s best interests that I get it back. The sooner the better, as recent events should have made abundantly clear.”
“And I suppose that sending your minions out to murder innocent people is how you’re used to getting things done. So you what—wanted to frighten me into working with you? I’m afraid I don’t respond well to threats.”
“I assure you, I meant you no harm. And the others… that was not me at all.”
“Then that was you, last night. And the night before that. With the skeletons.”
“I told you,” said Vodorov, and the ghoul shook its head. Bits of blackened flesh wafted toward the floor. “Something has been taken from me. The situation is complicated. Will you do me the courtesy of allowing me to explain?” The ghoul’s mouth was moving, but the voice that came out was entirely incongruous with its appearance. It was too cultured, too refined to belong to this undead thing. Seeing it was like watching a chimp recite Richard III while expertly butchering a dead pig. Which is to say very unsettling.
“I’m listening. For now.”
The ghoul dangled there from the ceiling, its wispy hair floating back and forth beneath the white lights of its eyes. Lyfantod thought he heard a sigh, but couldn't decide whether it had come from the creature or his master. “The information I am about to share with you is dangerous, Mr. Lyfantod. Foremost for me perhaps. But it is not knowledge that will do anyone good by being spread. I advise discretion regarding who you share it with.”
“Go on then.”
“The object stolen from me was a ring.”
“A magic ring. You may have heard of them.”
Lyfantod lightly thumbed his right index finger. “I’ve read Tolkien.”
“The one I speak of is very real, Detective. This is not the tale of Alberich and Siegfried. It made me what I am.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
“Someone who has seen and done a great many things that would shock you, Mr. Lyfantod. Someone whose council you would be wise to take.” He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again his tone was ominous. “This ring. It bestows the wearer with the power to command the dead.”
“Not quite. I have been at this for a… very long time, Mr. Lyfantod, and I no longer rely wholly on the power of the ring. As you can see.” The ghoul blinked, and for a moment its eyes vanished. “But it is a powerful tool nonetheless, and I would have it back.”
“It seems pretty careless, letting someone get ahold of your magic ring.”
“I was incautious,” replied Vodorov vaguely.
“Here’s the thing. Necromancy is forbidden. Illegal. Even I know that. In fact, I can think of very few things people consider more vile than digging up their loved ones and making slaves out of their corpses. Perhaps you came to me because I’m independent of the Guild. That doesn’t mean that we disagree about everything. How can you be sure that I won’t just turn you in to them?”
“Most obviously, the fact that you have no idea where I am.”
“It’s my job, finding things. If I can find the ring, I can find you.”
“Very true. I have little doubt you could manage it if you tried. Your reputation is the reason I came to you, and the location of my lair has become—to my misfortune, somewhat more common knowledge of late.”
“Doesn’t sound like a good thing for you. But if you’re such a powerful individual, why don’t you find this thief and stop him yourself?”
“No indeed… Where to begin?” mused Vodorov. “I dispatched envoys to meet you before, as you may recall.”
“I recall,” said Lyfantod drily.
“Perhaps you observed that they were not entirely coherent.”
“That’s one way of putting it. Bat-shit crazy would be another. Not that I took the time to get to know them, mind you.”
“The ring interferes,” said Vodorov. “Like… static, on a radio. The closer my minions come to whoever wears the ring, the less control I have. And the longer he uses it, the greater his sphere of influence becomes. For the time being, it means that my henchmen revert to their… baser characters if they stray too close. It won’t be long though before he has the strength to wrest control from me entirely. I am vulnerable, and grow more so by the day. I could fight him, if I could find him. If I were close enough, I believe that my power would prove greater than his, even with the ring. For now. But I have been outmaneuvered. He has led certain… unsavory individuals to believe that I am the one responsible for the death of their man. I have tried to explain myself, but being the only one of something that anyone has ever heard of has its disadvantages. Even if the lack of those with my particular talents is severely overstated.”
Lyfantod was silent for a moment as he considered that. “Louis Vicci,” he said softly. “The Shades think you killed him.”
“Just so. I have worked with Mr. Di Marco in the past. Naturally, when he heard the manner of his man’s death, he assumed…”
“So how is it that you are still above ground? Di Marco isn’t the forgiving type. And he’s not the type to ask questions first, either.”
“It was a near thing I must admit. But my flame is not so easily snuffed out. I am being… held. Provisionally. ‘House arrest,’ he called it. If they can find evidence corroborating my claims that another lives who can command the undead, they will release me.”
“And so you came to me. To find proof that you were telling the truth.”
“The only way I could. You can imagine my growing apprehension when you appeared insistent on shooting my envoys.”
“And why,” said Lyfantod slowly, “shouldn’t I just let them kill you? I’m not exactly a religious man, but there’s definitely something wrong about using the dead as you do. It seems to me the world would be better off if the Shades put a bullet between your eyes. Or whatever it is they do.”
“I can pay you,” said the Necromancer. “Handsomely. Give you anything you wish. Once I am freed, of course.”
“Even if I believed that were true, even if I didn’t know that as soon as you were out, I’d become far cheaper and easier just to kill, I don’t want your money. I have more self-respect than that. I care about where my paychecks come from.”
“I see. You prefer divorcés.”
“In any case, I thought that might be what you said. So I will appeal to your better nature instead. Consider two things, Mr. Lyfantod. Before this week, had you ever seen one of the reanimated? Had you heard of another Master of the Dead?”
“Hardly. And since my ring was taken from me, how many have died?”
“As far as I know? One criminal. And maybe one other. But just because I don’t know whose blood you’ve spilled doesn't mean your hands are clean.”
“There are more than you know, Mr. Lyfantod. And there will be more still. You will see soon enough. I have no interest in killing; the living are of no interest to me. The same cannot be said of our thief. The reason you never heard of me is because I do nothing to warrant being known.”
“And yet you admit to working with Buccio Di Marco.”
“This thief, this pretender is a menace.” There was, for the first time, some heat in Vodorov’s voice. “If you will not stop them for me, do it to protect your city.”
“That’s the Guild’s job. Not mine.”
“Do you trust the Scarecrows to stop this, Mr. Lyfantod? You have seen what kind of men they are. There is a reason you are not among their zealous ranks of blighters and destroyers. You know as well as I that they hold their crusade above all else. To keep the truth from those who eke out their lives in the darkness of ignorance. Above those lives themselves. Would you trust them with the power of the ring?”
Lyfantod had no response for this, and for a long time he was silent. “When was it taken?”
“Six nights ago.”
“And how do you propose I find it?”
“You’re the detective. I leave that to you. But I can give you a small piece of advice. Follow the bodies, Mr. Lyfantod. A Master of the Dead is nothing without bodies.”
“I’ll try that. And the ring. What does it look like?”
“A snarling wolf with flowing fur, circling round to bite his own tail, his spine worked out in gold. It is old. Very old. You will know it when you see it. But should you find it, Mr. Lyfantod, I urge you. Do not put it on. It changes those who wear it. And not, I think you’ll find, for the better.”
Lyfantod lowered the gun, offering relief to his tired shoulder. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll play along for now, and see where this leads, but I make you no promises. At the end of the day I’ll do what I think is right.” He paused. “If I need to talk, how can I reach you?”
The ghoul turned its head to look at the door behind it, its skin rustling like sandpaper. “Your window. Leave a length of red cloth outside and I will come. I can offer you nothing more convenient than that. I will check as often as I am able.”
The ghoul dropped to the floor, turning in the air to land on all fours like a rough black frog. Lyfantod startled, and quickly brought his gun to bear, but the ghoul made no move to menace him.
“Good luck, Mr. Lyfantod,” said Vodorov’s raspy voice through that loathsome mouth. “And hurry. Events will unfold quickly now. I know not what the thief is after, other than that it is nothing good. The longer you take, the more people will die. That is a promise.”
The ghoul sprang onto the wall in a supple leap. Lyfantod dove reflexively in the opposite direction, tumbling out of the way as it skittered past and over him, out the door and into the night.
Lyfantod rose massaging his shoulder, which had taken the brunt of his fall. He waited a few nervous moments, running his hand over the claw marks in the wall before retrieving his keys. Mr. Greyburne would probably add the damage to his rent.
Tiredly he let himself into his apartment, locking the door behind. “I need to find more normal clients,” he told himself. A statement entirely out of keeping with his character. And then the image of Craig Sturgis sprung into is mind. “Or maybe find a new line of work.” In reality though, now that he was no longer literally looking Death in the face, what he felt most strongly was excitement. This was the kind of case he lived for. And if he never had to take a normal client again, it would be too damned soon.
He read a while from one the books on his bedside table, of Smoke and Mirrors—but he read mechanically. He would never admit it, perhaps even to himself, but he hoped to clear his mind of dark things before he slept; like he had when he’d woken sweating from nightmares as a boy and comforted himself with fictional families on a tiny screen.
That night in spite of his excitement he kept his gun tucked beneath his pillow. And neither it, nor the locks on his doors and windows, nor any of the little charms he kept, nor the strange symbols he’d carved discreetly on the moldings and the undersides of furniture were able to keep away the dreams—of milky eyes and old bones dancing in the snow.