There was a brief period which seemed much longer than it actually was, between the moments when Lyfantod regained consciousness and the one where he opened his eyes, in which he found himself inexplicably inclined to self-reflection.
I am beginning to notice a pattern, he mused, regarding my senses. Namely, that I keep being robbed of them. I can't imagine it's very healthy. What I want to know is, is it that I’m inept and ought to consider a less dangerous profession… or that I’m getting into a lot of potentially fatal situations, and it’s only thanks to my high levels of dexterity and constitution that I’ve been able to stave off death thus far?
This was a shockingly coherent train of thought, considering he hadn't the faintest idea where he was or who it was that had knocked him out. Or why. Much of the thinking that followed was muddled to a degree more suited to the circumstances.
It was after his brief pondering that he noticed the voices. They were really quite numerous. Numbersome? They came in all types except that they didn't. Half of the types were missing, roughly. No, that wasn't right. More than half. There weren't any old voices, as far as he could tell, and that had to count for quite a bit. Some were hushed, others animated. Some of them were angry, or afraid; but others were high-spirited. Excited even. But they were all of them female. To a man. To a woman? Err... His curiosity piqued by this particular revelation, he opened his eyes.
As often seemed to be the case when he woke up after a brush with violence, he was lying on a couch. He observed that this time it was a plush, antique cabriole—then briefly wondered how he knew that—upholstered in a rich burgundy fabric with gold filigree, pushed up against a wall. His eyes drifted to the ceiling, which was high and vaulted and nearly lost in shadow. So many ceilings lost in shadow. Shame to lose something so large and essential. Perhaps if they kept the ceilings nearer the floor they wouldn't get lost so often. The room must have been three stories tall; narrow, with small windows near the top that revealed it was still night. Thick wooden beams crossed the space between the ground and ceiling, and some of the women he’d heard—girls really—were perched atop them, feet dangling. How had they gotten all the way up there?
There was a terribly great deal of colorful cloth about: draped over the walls and hanging from the beams, breaking up the space; more over the random assortment of furniture scattered about the large room, upon which twenty or so girls were lounging, in small groups or alone, all dressed in variations of the same outfit. Black leather. Black jeans. Spikes. Straps. Strasps? No. Should be, though. More fun to say. Strasps. One corner was taken up by a stack of crooked old brooms. Lyfantod wondered at this. The place seemed a little dusty, considering.
The wall opposite the couch was almost completely covered by an enormous—
“He’s awake,” someone said nearby, interrupting his reverie.
He wondered who was awake, but only briefly, for soon his attention was absconded with by the hearth at the end of the room. There was a roaring fire going, and right in the middle of it squatted a gigantic black pot filled with roiling green liquid. Pea soup, no doubt. Lovely. Mother used to make pea soup, in winter. Though the building was mostly constructed of dry wood, the fireplace was of old stone. What does one call that sort of rounded stones when they were stacked upon one another? Horizontally disposed they’d've been cobblestones. But vertically? Who ever heard of vertical cobbles?
Perhaps one of the women standing over him would know. Neither of them much looked like the type to know the finer points of masonry. Not with all those piercings.
"I beg your pardon,” Lyfantod began, directing the question to the air between their shoulders, so as to avoid offending anyone by the appearance of preferential treatment, “but would either of you happen to know what to call a round stone?”
They exchanged a look. “Just how hard did she hit you?” asked one of them. He wasn't sure which, as he'd been thinking about something else.
“I couldn’t say.” Lyfantod, rolled into a seated position so that he could interact on a more equal footing. It didn't help much, the two of them being quite tall and the couch quite... not. Deciding that it was impossible to carry on a conversation with two people at once, he picked one and turned towards her. She had long, flowing black hair, and olive skin. A wool shawl of dark earth tones, textured like tree bark, hung heavily her shoulders. It looked scratchy. She looked how he imagined a witch ought to look, minus about seventy years.
She gazed down on him with dark-colored eyes that matched her accoutrements. They tracked his every movement, her eyes. Her eyes. Like wells so deep that light could never reach the bottom. Her eyes. Her— “Could I trouble you for a glass of water, miss…? My head seems to be functioning below maximum capacity.”
Her mouth quirked in an unsettling smile. “My name is Lia. And your name is Lyfantod. Quite a funny name, I think. Have you any idea what happened to you, Mr. Lyfantod?” She gestured something at someone out of his field of vision, but he didn't look. He found himself unwilling to break from her gaze. All he wanted was to stare into her eyes. Her eyes were like wells so deep that light could never reach the bottom.
“Of course I do,” he said raptly. “I went to a party, to which I was not invited. To warn a band of witches that they’re going to be attacked by Aminus Bones. A Barrows School professor who faked his own death and who is now going about turning people into zombies. It’s my job to stop him, and I don't think I could live with myself if I failed. If I let anyone else die, why I imagine I'd have to drink so much whiskey that whichever spring they draw it from would run dry. No one else can do it. Except maybe the Guild, but I would be very unhappy if they did, because I want to show everyone that I'm just as good as they are. Better even. I was hired…” a tremor passed through him and he froze, like a machine-mind presented with a paradox. A bead of sweat sprouted from his forehead and ran down the line of his quivering jaw. “Client privilege,” he managed at last. One of his eyelids twitched open and closed independently of the other.
“I had a lengthy conversation with someone named Em," he began again, after a lengthy pause. "I think she must be one of them. The witches, that is. She had a gun, though she said she didn't need it. She wanted me to follow her into The Weird Sisters. That’s a club, which is supposed to be the Witches’ lair. Likely enough, given the name. She was taking me downstairs to the basement and I thought that might be dangerous, or at the very least inconvenient in terms of my previously mentioned goals. So I tried to escape, but she did something I don’t particularly understand and knocked me out, which is the second time in as many days. It's not a very pleasant feeling, and I don't think that colors ought to have smells. And now I’m here, on this lovely couch.” He paused. “Although now that you mention it, I don’t know precisely where here is. And I’m not entirely sure who all of you girls are. You’re all quite pretty, though I’ve observed an unsettling propensity for eyeshadow. I want to thank you for taking care of me,” he shook his head, started to push himself off the couch, “but I really must be going. I’ve got to warn the Daughters of Hecate, even if they are wi—”
Lia leaned forward and put a hand on his shoulder, shoving him firmly back into his seat, blinking in surprise.
He tried to protest. “I—”
“These are the Daughters of Hecate, Mr. Lyfantod.” A broad gesture indicated the girls spread about the room. He didn’t look. He didn’t want to look away from her eyes. They were like wells so deep that light could never reach the bottom. “Though I’m very curious as to how you learned that name. We have received your warning. Now tell me why you think we are in danger from Professor Bones.”
He told her. He started at the beginning, as best as he could figure it. He told her of being attacked by skeletons. Surprised by a ghoul, though he shut down again when it came to the issue of who'd been controlling it. She gave him leave to omit that part. He told her of being mauled by zombie Reginald Mus. He even offered to show her his wounds, though he was fairly certain it hadn’t been 72 hours. She declined. He told her of Garrick Small; of Di Marco, Barmecide Coombs, Bloody Angus; Laird Flint and Horse Monroe. The facts flowed out of him, and when he didn't have facts, he gave his conjectures. He told them of Cornelia Mus and Marcher's thorny situation, and how he knew that name—The Daughters of Hecate. He told them everything they wanted to know, and he could no more have stopped than he could have lifted himself up off the couch by his own collar. He didn’t want to. When he finished he slumped down in his seat, feeling spent but left with a vague and nameless satisfaction.
He stared at his shoelaces for a while before Lia put a hand gently on his shoulder. He looked up into her eyes. She was holding a glass of water. He accepted it gratefully, downing the whole in a single quaff. The water seemed to wash away some of the wool from the corners of his brain.
“Oh,” he said.
“Yes, thanks,” he replied automatically, but that was not entirely true. As his faculties returned, he realized where he was, and the sequence of events which had occurred began to reassert themselves chronologically. He looked around the room. At the eyes trained on him. Most of them weren’t just watching him. They were glaring at him. A few small groups were talking heatedly now, the largest with Em at its center. She looked angry.
He took another look at the pot on the fire. That was no pot. It was a cauldron. The stack of brooms in the corner. Those weren’t for cleaning. He started to sweat in spite of himself. He could hear the thump of bass from somewhere far away. The shadows in the corners of the room, the dark of the ceiling held unseen dangers. Something brushed against his leg, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. A black cat stared up at him with luminous green eyes. Oh. Just a cat.
“It’s just a cat,” he told no one in particular.
Lia held out her arms and the cat jumped into them, where it curled into a ball and began to purr. She was looking at him, her expression unreadable. She stroked the cat’s head absently. “I believe you, Mr. Lyfantod,” she said at length. “Or at least, I believe that you believe. Your reasoning seems sound, though a great deal of your tale does seem to be speculation.” She checked the moon-faced watch on her wrist while managing not to drop the cat, though it did twitch a whisker.
She turned to address the room. Her voice grew to fill it, and other conversations quieted. “The sun is soon to rise. The show is nearly over. I do not believe that Bones is coming, but nevertheless, we shall be vigilant. We will wait for news and in the meantime, we will prepare for the worst. Should it come, we will be ready."
There was a murmur of approval from around the room, though Em looked like she wanted to argue. “Mo." Lia turned for the first time to the girl who’d been standing at her side. “I want you to close the club for the night, take some of the girls and send whoever’s still up there home. Lock things up tight. You know what to do.” Mo nodded without a word, her silver-white hair bobbing, and trooped off, calling some other girls to her side as she exited.
Lyfantod’s old friend approached, looking surly. “What?”
“Make sure everyone is armed and ready. And send the younger girls home.”
She was still scowling, but she nodded. She turned away from them and set to barking orders with the air of someone who is used to being listened to. “Alright, first thing’s first! All you lot under sixteen, hit the road! And its fucking buddy system time, kids. Do not walk alone! If you ain’t got a home to go to, go to someone else’s.” There was a chorus of groans, but she had already moved on. “You lot!” she nodded, hands on her hips, at a pair of older girls seated on the back of another couch, “Start passing out heat. You, you and you…”
“You carry guns?” said Lyfantod incredulously to Lia, who was still standing near him.
She turned her head and gave him a condescending smile. “Everyone carries guns, detective.” She away and entered into quiet but animated conversation with another group of five or six girls, leaving him forgotten on the couch. He wondered if they would try to stop him if he got up to leave. Not that it mattered much, since he had no intention of going anywhere. Instead, he sat back, waited, and watched the girls prepare.
They were surprisingly efficient. Organized. He wondered what kind of defense they would mount. So far every time someone had gone up against Bones, the fledgling Necromancer had come out on top. But no one had seen him coming until now. The girls were tough. Perhaps with warning…
The younger girls broke off into small groups of two or three and headed out through the only door that Lyfantod could see. Most of them looked angry—grumbling, no doubt, about being sent away just when things were starting to get interesting. Mo and a few others had disappeared the same way. Some of the girls that Em had organized—or rather shouted at—were rummaging through an ancient-looking, leather-bound chest. Lia had moved on to another group of girls, the first having vanished behind one of the walls of suspended fabric.
As far as Lyfantod could tell, not a one of them was over thirty. Could these girls really stand up to what was coming for them? Despite their sordid attire and their surliness, he had a hard time believing these were the ones responsible for for some of the things he’d heard about. They're just children.
He’d ask them to let him stay, ostensibly to help—but now that he’d delivered his warning, a part of him realized guiltily that they made excellent bait. That on some level that had always been part of his reason for coming here. If he was here when Bones attacked, he could stop him. Take back the ring. End all of this. And he would do his best to make sure that no one else died in the process. Except maybe the demented man behind it.
I'll question him, if I can. I want to know what the devil he's after. Why give up a respected position to go on this... this rampage? What would drive a man to kill so wantonly? These had been a questions Lyfantod had been trying to answer since he first decided that Bones must be behind it all.
His choice of targets was some clue. Lyfantod had told Em that Bones must be trying to distract the Guild. That all of this was leading up to some larger move, and to accomplish it, he needed to be able to move freely. Even publicly. That was one of his theories. He hadn't mentioned the other possibility. That Bones might see himself as some sort of vigilante. Using black magic to wage a war on itself. Bones might see himself as a martyr. Sacrificing his former life and reputation in the name of the greater good. As he saw it. Somehow, Lyfantod didn't think that Em would've enjoyed hearing that.
Across the room, something impacted the other side of the door with a heavy thud. Lyfantod started, coming back to the present. A hush fell over the room. Everyone had frozen.
Lia emerged from a group of shaky girls to face the door. "Open it!"
Another girl, small but defiant in a voluminous black hoodie, reached warily across the door and twisted the knob. It swung open with the weight of the thing behind it. A limp body tumbled into the room. There was a round of gasps and Lyfantod finally came to his feet.
“Alcina!” The girl who'd opened the door dropped to her knees.
“Bring her in!” Lia hurried over as another girl helped the first pull the unconscious Alcina away from the portal. The girl’s head was bloodied, and she left a red smear as they lifted her off the floor.
“Put her over there,” said Lia, making for the door. She froze mid-step as heavy footfalls sounded on the stairs. Everyone looked toward the dark portal, including the girls now holding their limp friend by the feet and armpits. Lyfantod stared as well. The footsteps grew louder as they approached, and Lyfantod flashed back to the rhythmic pounding on his door that had announced the arrival of Reginald Mus.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
They stopped. A shadow filled the darkened doorway, tall and broad-shouldered, and not at all female. A ghastly figure stepped into the light.
His head was shaven save for a long, wet forelock that hung down his face. His muscular, naked torso was crisscrossed in scars and covered with Celtic tattoos. His face was painted with savage markings of a chalky blue. Almost the same color as his bloodless skin. Across his stomach ran a long purple gash, from rib to opposing hip. A length of entrails dangled from it. His hand held a wicked looking club, studded with sharp metal spikes. His eyes were empty. The Mountain Man was dead.
Someone screamed. Lyfantod was relieved to find it wasn’t him. Em appeared from behind a wall of cloth. “Don’t just fuckin’ stand there!” She was holding a baseball bat and there was something of the valkyrie about her in that moment. Galvanized, Lyfantod reached for his gun only to realize it had been taken. His baton was still there, though. Apparently they didn’t see it as much of a threat. It would have to do.
Some of them were still coming to terms with the walking dead man in their midst when it moved. It trudged forward club in hand and swung it at the nearest girl. She shrunk back reflexively, and it nearly missed. Nearly. But a jagged tip caught her in the cheek, sending her sprawling to the floor. That was enough. Lyfantod had lost people before, and it had nearly destroyed him. Something in him snapped.
Lyfantod charged in with a wordless bellow, instinct overpowering fear. He swung his truncheon, a hefty slab of old wood with a hunk of cold iron in the middle. He caught the zombie mid-swing as he made to finish what he’d started. The dead man might not feel pain, but his body could still be broken, and Lyfantod's baton made a fleshy mess of the lifeless fingers that clutched the weapon. It clattered to the floor, and the zombie roared its frustration. This one seems different, Lyfantod thought with the small part of his brain that wasn’t fighting for his life. It's simple. Like the zombies in the article—not a damn thing like Reginald Mus.
Lyfantod swung again, catching it in the face, and was rewarded with the sound of crunching bone. It staggered back, but quickly caught itself. It appeared unfazed by the fact that its face now made a crooked left turn starting at the cheekbone. Lyfantod barreled in and swung his truncheon overhand, aiming to crush the skull, but the zombie raised its remaining hand and caught it with astonishing strength, stopping it dead.
Lyfantod attempted to pull back, but the Mountain Man's grip was iron. He raised a booted foot and delivered a front kick to eviscerated gut, and the zombie stumbled, pulling him with it. Lyfantod nearly fell, lost hold of his weapon. And then Em was there, screaming and swinging her baseball bat like a major-leaguer.
The first hit took out the right side of the creature’s head, and as it struck there was a flash of not-light. Whenever the bat hit, the light around it dimmed for an instant. And either Em was stronger than she looked, or that bat—which Lyfantod now saw was graven with weird symbols—was special. By the second hit, the zombie was down. By the fourth or fifth, she was pounding a puddle of red and grey mush. The zombie raised one limp hand, and then fell completely still.
Lyfantod reached down to pry his baton from the Mountain Man's stiff, curled fingers and looked up at Em. She stood there, chest heaving, bat in one hand, breathing through her nose. Her jaw was tight, and she held his gaze for a moment before giving him a small nod. She half-turned to face the couch where they’d lain Alcina. Lia returned her gaze, expression grim. “She’ll live."
Lyfantod ran a hand backward through his hair let out a long breath. "A baseball bat, huh? I would have expected… you know. A magic wand, maybe? A staff?”
Em fixed him with a deadpan stare. “Witches love bats.” Upstairs, someone screamed.
Their eyes flicked in unison to the darkened doorway. “Don’t get in my way,” she told him, and bat in hand she vanished up the stairs. For an instant, Lyfantod was torn between following and asking for his gun. Then there was another scream. Not one of fear, but the animal shriek of a person in agony. Forget the bloody gun. He bounded up the stairs after her.
He was back in the club and all around him carnage. The show lights had stopped, casting the grizzly tableau in frozen beams of red and green. Most of the partygoers had gone before the violence began, but not all of them. Lyfantod didn’t stop to count the bodies, but there must have been a dozen at the very least. He saw the girl Mo lying slumped against one wall, head down, her silvery hair shining even in the dim light. She coughed once, and it was a wet sound that shook her whole frame. Not dead, then. On the floor beside her was the smoking corpse of a mace wielding zombie—every inch of it charred to black. Feet away, Em howled raw-throated fury, holding her own against two mauling brutes with her bat.
The only thing that saved her was their obvious lack of higher brain function. They came at her head on, making groaning sounds and burblings, and no attempt to flank her. But what they lacked in strategy they made up for in strength. She couldn’t hold them both. Once more Lyfantod charged in, silently this time. His truncheon caved in one undead skull just as the fiend turned toward him. It fell to the floor in a heap.
This gave Em the opening she needed, and an improbable swing of Em’s bat took the second zombie's head clean off, sending it rolling across the room like a gruesome bowling ball. The now-headless body toppled backwards stiff as a board, fingers spasming, and then lay still.
Em dropped the bat with a clatter, and knelt at Mo’s side. Mo coughed again, spitting up blood. There was a long gash across her throat, and defensive wounds on her arms. Lyfantod could commiserate. She made no attempt to speak. Em brushed the hair from her face, and pushed her head back to look into her eyes. “If you die, I’ll kill you." Mo coughed again, but nodded weakly. Blood welled from the corners of her mouth and trickled down her chin.
“I hate to interrupt, but we’re not done yet.” Lyfantod gestured to the front of the club, where two more zombies were feasting with vigor on people who he very dearly hoped were already dead. Em rose with a snarl, once more grasping her fallen weapon.
“Oi!” She stepped forward and reached for an empty beer bottle. With all of her strength she flung it at one of the zombies, catching it in the side of the head, against which it shattered with a crash. The fiends rose moaning stupidly, and started toward them. Lyfantod and his unlikely comrade in arms went wordlessly forward to meet them.
They were halfway across the room when the floor began to shake. The walls rumbled, and the bottles that lined the walls clinked against one another. The zombies were almost upon them when Em stopped and threw a hand against Lyfantod’s chest, pushing him back. “Wha—?” he managed. And then thick, gnarled tree roots erupted thunderously from the floorboards beneath the zombies with such force that they were impaled where they stood.
“Lia!” Em shouted as the dead men were shorn into gruesome little pieces and flung violently across the room in every direction. It was the Leviathan, rising from the depths of the sea to dismantle unsuspecting vessels. The root-tentacles writhed sinuously for an instant before they seemed to harden there, like avant garde sculpture protruding from the ruined floor.
Lyfantod blinked and lowered his truncheon. “That... seems to be all of them.” The room was silent now, and strewn with corpses, too many of them young innocents. Then there were voices behind them, as more girls came up the stairs, armed with various weapons. “We need to check to see if anyone’s still alive." Something moved out of the corner of his eye, and Lyfantod spun.
Standing in the doorway was a tall, hooded figure, a long and tattered cloak flapping behind it, silhouetted in the light that promised dawn wasn’t far away. “Bones!” Lyfantod ran heedlessly towards the door. The figure stood there for a moment, and he thought that he could feel its regard. Before he could reach it though, it vanished from sight. It couldn’t have taken Lyfantod more than four or five seconds to reach the spot where he’d been standing, but when he peered out onto the street, faintly lit by streetlights and the rising sun, it was entirely deserted. He’d failed.
Aminus Bones was gone.