…he not dead…?
…faintest idea… the face…
…local P.I….bit of a pain in the…
…Nope, one of ours…
“Look, I think he’s coming to.” A woman’s voice.
Pat pat pat. Someone was slapping him lightly in the face, and Lyfantod curled away from the unwanted attention.
“Lyfantod. Oi, Lyfantod, wake up.”
Someone was talking to him. A man this time. The hard ground beneath him was freezing, but his lungs were on fire. His whole face hurt and his eyebrows felt singed. He tried to take a deep breath and began to cough uncontrollably. He rolled awkwardly up into a hunch and sat there and just coughed. Now they were slapping him on the back.
“Alright,” the voice said, “get it all out.”
Lyfantod opened his eyes. He looked blearily around, his throat burning and tears streaming from the corners of his eyes and freezing halfway down his cheeks. The air was frigid and snow was on the ground all around him. He was sitting on his backside in the dirt, the his coat and the bottoms of his pants soaked through. He felt miserable--hot and cold at the same time like he'd caught the flu.
Behind him lay an empty grave. By his knee lay a flashlight, shining brilliantly, uselessly down into the dirty snow. And standing to either side of him, illuminated by a floating, flickering little ball of blue-white fire, were a man and a woman. The man was on the short side; rugged, with short, dirty-blond hair and a few days worth of stubble on his chin. Lyfantod placed him in his mid-forties. The woman was… enormous. She must have been over six-three, with shoulder-length, mousy brown hair, and a long, narrow face that reminded Lyfantod of nothing so much as a—
“Horse,” said the man. “Help him up.”
“Yeah,” said the woman. Her low, rumbling voice and thick Scottish brogue suited her perfectly. She reached out a long fingered hand and offered it to Lyfantod. He accepted it, and with a great deal of effort and another bout of coughing, was lifted unsteadily to his feet. “Horse?” he wheezed, half doubled over as his lungs made a fair go of climbing up his esophagus.
“Yep,” said the woman gruffly.
“You two are… Strawmen,” said Lyfantod when he could speak. The two of them were wearing dark-colored jackets that hung down to their knees, with the strange rippling shoulder patches that were the signature of the Guild.
“And you ought to be dead,” said the man, “though I’d have felt badly about it. A little. What are you doing out here, Lyfantod?”
“Same"—cough—"thing as you, I imagine,” he said, forcing himself fully upright. “How do you know my name?”
“You have a reputation. As for how I recognized you, well. We have a policy of keeping track of people who run in our circles,” said the Strawman, gazing at Lyfantod appraisingly. “Even marginally,” he added, sotto voce. He held out a calloused hand. “Laird Flint,” he said, "and this here is my partner, Horse Monroe.”
“Pleasure,” said Lyfantod, not having caught the rude bit in the middle. He shook his hand and nodded politely to the lady giant. “What in the blazes happened?”
“Fine choice of words,” said Monroe, answering before her partner, “Flint here got you right in the puss with a ball of fire big enough to roast a Christmas ham. Still trying to figure out why you ain’t a smoking ball of man-bacon.”
“Huh,” said Lyfantod, “I guess that makes sense.” He held out his right hand with his fingers spread, looking down appraisingly as the other two followed his gaze in the dim light. A rough silver band encircled his index finger. It was worked into a pattern of jagged silver scales that looked sharp enough to cut. One of the scales stood out, both because it was larger, and instead of silver it was a deep orange. It glinted in the firelight. “Salamander scale,” said Lyfantod. “Or so I’m told. It’s supposed to do things to fire.” He swallowed heavily. When he spoke again, he did his best not to show his own surprise. “Guess it works.”
Flint reached out and took his hand, pulling it forcefully towards his face so he could get a closer look. “Neat,” he said, quite unexpectedly, squinting sharply.
“Yeah,” said Lyfantod, retrieving his hand. “Mr. Greyburne does get ahold of some interesting things, even if I can’t afford most of them. I think he's got more of these, if you're interested.” He sighed heavily. “At least I know it works now. It didn’t do anything with the candle, and when I put it in the fireplace, it came out hotter than blazes.” He turned over his hand, revealing a perfect, circle-shaped scar in the center of his palm. “So it’s not… that kind of ring, you know.” He rubbed his eyebrows gingerly. “Wish it worked a little faster though.”
“What kind of ring?” said Horse, looking confused.
“Ah, nothing. Never mind.”
“You never said what you were doing out here,” observed Flint.
“Case,” said Lyfantod. “I’m working.”
“What case?” said Flint.
“Undead. In the city. I’m trying to find out who’s behind it.”
“What makes you think there are Undead in the city?”
“Well, there was that guy who got eaten the other day.”
“You know about that?” said Horse.
Flint shot her a dark look. “And that brought you all the way out here?” he said. "To this grave in particular?"
“I supposed,” said Lyfantod, “that if I could figure out where the zombies were coming from I might find a clue to the location of the person behind them. So I called around looking for missing bodies. This was the last of the three I came up with.”
“Three?” said Flint incredulously. “What happened with the other two?”
“One vanished from a hospital morgue. The other from a different cemetery. No leads on either.”
“You check the security footage at the hospital?” said Horse.
“First thing I did. Might have been two big blokes that took the first body, but no way to say for sure. And I couldn’t make out their faces." Lyfantod narrowed his eyes. "What brings the two of you to this lovely hole in the ground in the middle of the night?” he asked. “Besides assaulting hapless P.I.s, of course,” he added drily.
The two Guildsmen exchanged a silent glance, and for a long moment no one spoke. Finally, Flint seemed to make up his mind about something, and he said, “You know about the zombies. Did you hear about the disappearance of the Barrows School Professor?”
“Aminus Bones. Yeah. I thought he might be involved.”
“We found this in his office.” He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a thin, folded scrap of paper. He unfolded it and handed it to Lyfantod. It was a page torn from a schedule, the date still legible in the corner, though it was partially missing. January thirteenth. Two days ago. There was a handwritten note messily scribbled in black ink.
Mus, Corstorphine Hill,
“The date is the night of his disappearance,” said Flint. “It was in his agenda.”
“January 13th…” said Lyfantod. "Where have I—?" He turned around to peer at the headstone in the flickering light. “Reginald Mus died on January 13th.”
Flint frowned and rubbed his sandpaper chin thoughtfully. “Doubt that’s a coincidence.”
There were drops of dark liquid spattered across the surface of the note, long since dried. “This blood?” said Lyfantod, examining it.
“Yeah,” said Flint. “But we’re not sure whose. Bones specialty was Humorism. Which means he worked with a whole lot of—”
“I know what it means,” said Lyfantod.
“Well,” Flint cleared his throat, “his office was filled with vials and jars of all kinds of disgusting fluids. Many of them were broken. The place was a… mess.”
“I had to throw out my best boots,” said Horse, scowling.
“Right,” said Lyfantod, handing back the note. Flint folded it up and returned it to his pocket. “So do you think Bones is behind the recent deaths?”
“He’s definitely starting to look connected. Meeting someone at an empty grave in the middle of the night… ”
“We don’t know that it was empty when he got here,” said Lyfantod. “And we don’t know he was meeting anyone either. Maybe this is just a note he wrote to himself. He might have dug it up. Or maybe helped someone else dig it up. Which could mean he either is our Necromancer, or is in cahoots with him.”
“Either that,” said Horse, “or he’s dead.”
“So,” Flint said, “the question is, what was Professor Bones doing here at midnight, and what happened to this body?”
“Well, I think we can guess pretty easily where the body is,” said Lyfantod. “It’s up and walking around somewhere, with an uncontrollable hunger for human brains.”
Flint grunted. He didn’t look happy at that idea.
“The real question is, is Bones the one controlling it, or someone else? And of course, why was did he choose this body?”
"Maybe this lad was a bodybuilder," Horse suggested, waving at the headstone. Flint rolled his eyes.
“All of these are questions we can’t answer without finding Professor Bones,” said Flint. “Which leaves us more or less where we were before we got here.”
“Not quite. I noticed something unusual before you… you know.” Lyfantod rubbed his singed eyebrows.
“This is a war cemetery. All of these graves date back to the mid-twentieth century. Except this one.” He tilted his head at the empty grave next to them. “Mus here died in ’93.”
“That is strange,” Flint agreed.
“Laird,” said Monroe, her tone ominous. “It’s possible that this is one of the—”
“I realize that,” he interrupted her before she could finish her thought, holding up a hand. “But we cant just jump to conclusions.”
“Conclusions about what?” said Lyfantod.
“I can’t say,” said Flint.
“Of course,” said Lyfantod. “Guild business.”
“Something like that.”
“You know. I was trying to get ahold of you fellows. Couldn't even get your names out of O’Hoolihan when I asked him who was working the Bones case.”
“You ought to know better than that. You of all people. To be honest, I’m surprised you even tried. Pretty ballsy showing up at the Hall, considering...”
Horse gave Lyfantod a quizzical look. "Considering?"
Flint shook his head. “You really don’t pay attention do you?”
Horse sniffed at him.
“The past aside, it seems like we’re after the same thing, right?” said Lyfantod hopefully. “Theres no way the Undead and Bones aren't connected. Not after seeing this. And come on. That name?”
“So why not pool our resources?”
“You want to work together?” said Horse skeptically.
“Do you really need to ask that?" said Flint. "What do you think Small will do if he finds out you’re involved?”
“You don’t have to tell anyone. We’ll just… share information. Everybody wins. And maybe we can stop this before anyone else dies.”
“What’s your angle on this?” said Flint skeptically. “Don’t you Private Investigators usually work for hire? This sounds… suspiciously up your alley. I can't imagine someone hired you to hunt zombies.”
“No, that’s your job. But I do have a client. It just happens that his interests and the current zombie problem coincide.”
“Who’s the client?”
“That’s privileged information. All I can say is, I need to find the person controlling these things. A person who is looking more and more likely to have some connection to Reginald Mus and Aminus Bones.”
“There’s something we need to look into,” said Flint. “It might give us a clue as to what’s going on.” He looked pointedly at Horse. “Or it might be nothing.”
“I know you’ve already done it...” Lyfantod said, doing his best to keep his voice even. A little tremor crept in just the same. “...But I’d like to have a look at Professor Bones’s office. See if there’s anything revealing that you might have missed.”
“We didn’t miss anything,” said Horse flatly.
“That’s probably true. But maybe I know things you don’t. Sometimes context is everything.”
“I seriously doubt that’s true… but I can’t see any harm in it,” said Flint.
“Except that he’s suggesting we can’t do our jobs,” Horse grumbled.
“The thing is, they won’t let me in…” Lyfantod said, doing his best at nonchalance. “Unless I get proof I’m working with the Guild. Written proof.”
“You've already tried?”
“I told you. I thought the cases were connected.”
“I suppose I could write something up. We can't afford to go with you though. Not to check the same place twice. We’d look incompetent.” He glanced at Horse.
Lyfantod kept his comments to himself. “That’s alright. I could come and pick it up tomorrow morning at the Hall,” he said. Perhaps a little eagerly.
“No, no, no. I told you, we can’t be seen to be working with you on this. We’ll meet somewhere else.”
“All right." He considered for a moment. "You know the Mammoth House?”
“That wee little cafe overlooking the castle?” asked Horse, the corners of her mouth curling. She sounded amused.
“It has atmosphere,” grumbled Lyfantod defensively.
“The morning may not work,” said Flint. “Can you keep yourself busy until the afternoon?”
“Sure,” said Lyfantod. “I’ll use the time to look into our missing friend here.”
“Alright. Tomorrow then. At the Mammoth House--say… 5 o’clock.”
“I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll have found something useful as well.”
“Perhaps we both will, though to be honest I almost hope not.”
Lyfantod wasn't sure how to respond to that. He wondered to himself just what the Guildsmen were hiding this time. Though from what he had seen they tried to hide just about everything.
“It’s late,” said Flint, glancing down at his watch. “Good night Lyfantod. Try to keep your head down, for my sake, will you?” Horse looked at her partner curiously as he turned to walk away. “Come on Horse,” he called over his shoulder, past the little ball of fire that bobbed in the air behind him.
Horse gave Lyfantod a curt nod. “Tomorrow then,” she said, and followed her partner into the dark.
Lyfantod gazed longingly at the flickering sphere as it disappeared between the trees. “Tomorrow,” he said, but he was already alone.