Lyfantod was collecting snow. If he was forced to stand much longer out on the sidewalk outside of Eroteme, they would have to dig him out of a snowdrift. At the moment, however he didn't have much say in the matter. He was locked in a silent showdown, exchanging glower for glower, with his old refrigerator-shaped friend, who was once again in a shirt several sizes too small for his bulging chest. He had exchanged his Russian ushanka hat for a knit cap with snowflakes woven into it, now nearly lost beneath their non-decorative brethren. There were icicles on his eyelashes, there was meltwater on his cheeks, and still he loomed, arms crossed, between Lyfantod and the door to the club, about as moveable as a pile of freight trains. Lyfantod was doing his best to keep up.
“Let him in, Marcus,” called a smoky voice from inside. The bouncer gave the P.I. one final glower of disapproval before stepping aside and permitting him, grudgingly, to enter. Lyfantod was beginning to get the feeling that people in charge of doors did seem not to like him. He moved to pass only to find a heavy hand on his shoulder, quite effectively arresting his momentum. “The piece,” reminded Marcus.
“Right. Right.” Lyfantod handed over his gun by the barrel. It disappeared into one massive paw and was stowed away in the back of the man's jeans. Marcus gave Lyfantod one last meaningful squeeze before silently letting him go.
The club was not open yet, which meant that Lyfantod had had to bang on the door for over a minute before the scowling bouncer had cracked it open just wide enough to tell him to get lost. That was before their staring match, of course. It was also the reason that the lights were on, revealing all those little ugly details—the stains, scratches, and scuffs—that all such places secretly possessed. That no one but the staff and those who outstayed their welcome ever witnessed. Even lit up, there was a certain sultry charm about Eroteme. The light, if a little too bright, was warm. The brass fixtures and wooden finish on the bar gleamed freshly polished as the men and women dashed about getting ready to open for the night.
Lyfantod couldn’t help but notice the several large, suited, ox-like men disappearing out a back door as he entered. Like cockroaches when the lights came on. He found Cornelia Mus sitting at one of her booths with a book of accounts set out before her, filled with her orderly scrawl, a mug of black coffee steaming at its side. She set down her pen as he approached, gestured for him to sit. “Mr. Lyfantod." She gazed at him over a pair of red spectacles, set low on her nose.
“Miss Mus.” He dipped his head, sliding into the offered seat.
Not one to let others control the conversation, she took the initiative. “Have you found something?”
Lyfantod had used the time on the cab ride from the station to formulate his approach, and as such he’d already had this conversation several times in his head. He hoped it would give him some advantage. “You left out a number of important details when we last spoke.”
“Did I?” She took the mug in her hands and, leaning easily back in her seat, she regarded him with heavy-lidded eyes.
“I had a very interesting conversation today,” he went on.
“And with whom did you converse, Detective?”
Lyfantod leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and crossing his hands before him. “Professor Eugenius Fleming,” he said slowly.
He watched her face for a reaction. Unlike the unfortunate Mr. Flynn, she hadn’t the complexion for blanching. But neither, he thought, does she have the character. All he got for his attention was the slight elevation of one well-manicured eyebrow and a hardening in the eyes. “I haven’t seen the Professor in a great many years. Is he well?”
“He is more than a little shaken up about what happened to you, Cornelia. I believe he feels guilty. About you, and your brother. Why didn’t you tell me the truth about what happened?”
“I never lied to you, Mr. Lyfantod. What I told you was true enough. I had no way of knowing how much you knew, and it never does go well in this world,” and Lyfantod thought he knew the world to which she was referring, “for those who reveal more than they should.”
“I know what happened to you. To your brother.”
Mus set her coffee down, never taking her eyes from his. She gave a flick of her head to shift the strand of hair that had fallen across her face. Once again, Lyfantod was struck with the impression that the eyes regarding him looked far older, far colder than their years. Than her smooth skin and soft red lips would suggest. “And what, pray tell, was that?”
“You were framed." Lyfantod matched her steady gaze. “By a man whose duty it was to shelter you. Used—to cover up a very dirty secret. Sacrificed for a lie. And failed by those who ought to have known better.” He spoke slowly, driving home every word of a story she already knew far too well. Doing his best to show that he was on her side, after so many others had let her down.
“You asked me to find out what happened to your brother’s body. Paid me for it, even. But you know who took him, don’t you? The same man responsible for his death, all those years ago. The man who betrayed you. The man who used you.”
She said nothing. Only gazed back at him with those eyes that spoke a wealth of pain and loss, burned away long ago to anger.
“Professor Aminus Bones.”
When she spoke at last, it was with a voice like stone. “That’s right, Mr. Lyfantod." Here was a woman who would never show weakness. Not now. Not ever again. “Though it was not his hand that killed my brother, he is just as responsible as the man who did. So now that you know the truth, what are you going to do about it?”
Lyfantod shook his head. “I wish you’d told me. It would have made this so much easier.”
“If you were the kind of man who needed to be told, you’d have been of no use to me. There’s no way you would have found Bones, or Reggie. You’d have been just another man who knew too much. It’s dangerous to know too much, Detective. Professor Bones taught me that.”
“Is that what happened? You knew too much?”
“The story is a simple one,” she said, any air of pretense evaporating. “I came to his office one evening after class. To ask for help with one of his more difficult assignments. He'd forgotten to lock the door, and I found him practicing magic that even I knew he ought not to be. After that it was him or me. He was a Professor. I was a poor, troubled girl, with no parents. Of course they took his word over mine.” The words were bitter. They were tired as well.
“It’s in the past, detective. And 'sorry' does no one any good. You offered to help me, Mr. Lyfantod. It seems you just might be the man to do it. You’ve gotten this far. So I’ll ask again. You know what happened. What kind of man Bones is. What he’s capable of. What he’s done.” She leaned forward so that their noses were inches apart, her dark eyes like ice. She punctuated every word with a full stop. “Now. What. Are. You. Going. To. Do. About. It?”
Lyfantod gazed back at her, matching her intensity. He could feel the blood pumping in his veins. A surge of adrenaline set his heart to quavering in his chest. “I’ll find him," he promised. And then he added, somewhat lamely, “Somehow.”
Mus sat back then, the hint of a smile quirking up one side of her red mouth, a mischievous twinkling in her eye. “And what will you do once you find him?”
“I’ll stop him. Any way I can.”
* * *
The streets outside were as cold as ever when Lyfantod left in search of a phone. Snow crunched beneath his boots and whirled before him in the orange glow of the streetlights. Better than rain or sleet, at least, he told himself. He needed to get ahold of Flint and Monroe. Tell them what he’d discovered. Perhaps the three of them together could guess at Bones’s game—because despite having almost all the pieces to the puzzle, Lyfantod was thoroughly, infuriatingly, stumped.
He squinted at his map through the eddies of white. The nearest suitable box was, by his reckoning, a good twenty-five minute trek. That was all right. He needed time to think. Perhaps by the time he'd got there, some revelation would have presented itself.
Bones, a Professor of Humorism, had been dabbling in the forbidden art of Necromancy for over thirty years. He’d almost been done in by a teenage Cornelia Mus, but she hadn’t been able to prove his guilt. He’d gone free. She was sent to a dungeon cell beneath the Guild. Three years later, in a brave but foolish attempt to rescue his ill-used sibling, Reginald Mus had gotten himself killed—by the very man who’d go on to become leader of the Guild.
And then, what… Bones had lain quiet? For almost three decades. Afraid, perhaps of how close he’d come to discovery. Until he’d somehow learned of Vodorov and managed to steal the magic ring of a real Necromancer, and begun his rampage through the city, beginning with the resurrection of the long-dead Reginald. Why? To torment Cornelia even further? They hadn't spoken in thirty years. None of it made any sense.
And if Zombie Reggie was as lucid as he’d appeared when he tried to kill Lyfantod, why hadn’t he gone to see his beloved sister? Should have asked her about that...
Bones had set about systematically rousting some of the most dangerous, explosive gangs in the city, stirring them into a frenzy that would keep the Guild chasing their tails for weeks. The Strawmen must have been running pretty ragged at this point. Lyfantod was sure that any Guildsman still on strike by now would have a hard time being taken back when all was said and done, justified or not.
It had to be a diversion. That much was obvious. But for what? Nothing he’d learned about Bones provided any hint as to what he might be after. Professor Fleming had said that Necromancy slowly drove its practitioners insane, turning them into heartless, psychopathic killers with no regard for life and a love of pain. Perhaps that was what this was. Was Lyfantod witnessing nothing more than Bones’s bloody descent into madness? If that was the case, he could entirely understand why Necromancy had been outlawed so long ago.
The phone box lay on the corner of a little-traveled street, nestled against the towering brick wall of an old factory in the shadow of of an old apple tree. Lyfantod stepped inside and shut the door behind him. As he spun the rotary dial, a lone car trundled by, briefly blinding him with its headlights. He squinted in the glare until the vehicle threw up a cloud of snow and disappeared, the whir of its engine muffled by the glass.
At the other end of the line, a phone began to ring. There was a click, and a distant grumble. “Aye?” came the ornery voice of a weary O’Hoolihan.
Lyfantod did his best to disguise his voice. “Good evening sir,” he said, “Might I be addressing a member of the Guild?”
“You might,” grumbled O’Hoolihan, “who’s this?”
“My name is Sorrell Flynn,” Lyfantod said, “I’m an associate of Professor Aminus Bones. At Barrows School? You fellows were looking into his disappearance…” he trailed off.
“Aye, that’s so. What is it you’re after, Mister Flynn?”
“I believe I have some information that could lead to the discovery the whereabouts of Professor Bones. Would you be so kind as to connect me to the lead detectives working his case? Detective… Larry Flint, was it?” He tried to keep the smile from his voice.
“S’Laird Flint,” said O’Hoolihan sourly, “N’e’s out. What’s the message?”
“Oh, no no no,” said Lyfantod, feigning distress. “This is sensitive information. I’d really need to pass it along directly. When will Detective Flint be returning?”
“Within the hour, I ‘spect,” the Strawman said grudgingly.
“Excellent, excellent,” said Lyfantod-as-Flynn, “If you would, ask him to meet me at the Mammoth House, as soon as possible. He knows where it is.”
“Do you know what time it is?” O’Hoolihan fussed.
“Don’t worry. It’s open late.” And with that, Lyfantod hung up.
As fun as that had been, it was getting to be a bit of a pain, being persona non grata with the Guild. This would all be much easier if he were able to talk to Flint directly. He hoped that Flint would realize who’d really left the message. He was a detective, so it should be all right. But with the Strawmen, one could never be too sure.
Lyfantod’s walk had taken him to the shadow of the city center—still far enough out that it was quiet, but close enough that stepping out into the night air, he could feel the hum of nightlife in the distance. Having more time than money, he decided once more to travel on foot. This would turn out to be a mistake—for little did the detective know, he was being followed.
His chosen path took him around the outskirts of the busiest areas—even in the heart of winter, the city’s major streets were prone to crowding and Lyfantod, who at this point could not quite remember how long he had been awake, wanted a semblance of peace and quiet. He decided to take a shortcut through Princes Street Gardens.
The park, little more than a patch of green occupying a gully between the streets and the Castle, was nearly empty, and quiet in a way that, at first at least, Lyfantod found agreeable. The low hills sloped off and up, blanketed with snow. Old trees, bereft of leaves, cast skeletal black shadows, and as he drew near its center, for there were no lights in the park itself, the depth of the dark around him began to make Lyfantod uneasy. It really is quite poorly lit.
And so it was that Lyfantod was only a couple meters off when he noticed with a start a pair of shadowy figures—truly, they were little more than silhouettes—standing silent and motionless in the middle of the path. He recovered from his initial surprise, however, when he realized that the pair were wearing coats of a very familiar cut. Strawmen.
Now that he knew to look for them, he could see the shadowy points of their sheaths peaking out down around their ankles. “Scared me for a minute there gents,” Lyfantod called out, an attempt at levity. "Funny, running into you here, of all places. What are you doing, standing round in the dark?" The Guildsmen said nothing.
Lyfantod took a tentative step forward, eyes scrabbling for detail where there was none. “Flint. That you? Monroe? It’s me. Lyfantod. I left a message with O’Hoolihan. I suppose you got it sooner than expected?” He cleared his throat, breath fogging before him. “Heading to meet me, were you? Little bit of serendipity, finding you here.” Still, the pair said nothing, and Lyfantod was starting to get just a wee bit nervous.
He patted down his numerous pockets, searching for his flashlight. It really is too gloomy in this park. Public health risk. Flicking it on, he shone the light of the torch up onto his own face, casting it into garish relief. “See? It’s me,” he said waving, before pointing it to shine on their feet while his eyes recovered from the brightness. Shiny black boots glistened in the snow below dark colored trousers quite similar to his own. Definitely Guildsmen. But was that pool of wet darkness around one of their feet blood?
The beam slid slowly upward. Yes, they had the requisite coats. He’d not been wrong about that. Belt buckles glinted in the yellow light, and still neither of them spoke, and neither of them moved. The light reached their faces and Lyfantod experienced an onset of mixed feelings. They were neither Flint nor Monroe. That was a relief. Because Lyfantod was starting to like Horse—just a little—and Flint wasn’t bad, as Strawmen go.
They were both of them men, though one did have inappropriately long hair. And they were Guildsmen. Or perhaps better to say, they had been.
The pair regarded him unfeelingly with milky white eyes. Long-hair was missing his throat, a fact which Lyfantod was sure he’d have noticed sooner had it not been quite so dark. His partner’s path to expiration was not quite so obvious, but they were both clearly dead.
“Bollocks,” Lyfantod muttered, and he reached for his gun.
The duo of dead Strawmen—not, apparently, reduced entirely to doddering brain-biters by their by their status as non-living members of society, drew their swords with the slow, fluid efficiency of those unburdened by useless hindrances like fear.
Lyfantod, however, was not quite so lacking in the fear department. It was at moments like this that he wished he knew a lot more swearwords, and regretted not being off-the-cuff clever. He knew on some level that once this was over, he’d come up with all sorts of interesting things to say about it, but at the moment, all he could manage was muttering the same choice phrases under his breath, as the zombies came over to invite him to the dead-party.
Several infinitely long seconds after coming to the realization that his life was in imminent danger, Lyfantod managed to raise his detective special and point it at the face of the zombie on the right—the one still in possession of his neck. He fired three times in rapid succession. With every sonorous impact, the undead Strawman jolted backwards, and the ground behind him was splattered with gore as the top of his head disappeared. He attempted to raise his blade in some untimely blocking motion, which did absolutely no good whatsoever, and then crumpled backwards in a heap.
His partner—for that’s what Lyfantod assumed they’d been—didn’t even register his second, final passing. Only continued inexorably forward, sword held at a competent-looking angle across his body, ready to slash or stab or block as circumstances required.
Lyfantod was minutely aware that his shooting had been so accurate the first time because that the pair had been uncomfortably close when he started. By the time he’d managed to dispatch his first undead foe, the second was nearly upon him. He'd just enough time to aim his gun before it reached him. What he didn’t have was time enough to pull the trigger.
Being already dead gave the zombie certain advantages, and in intellectual terms, appeared rather more fit to take advantage of them than Lyfantod would have liked. Wielding his sword one handed, he reached out, lightning quick, and pulled Lyfantod’s gun down and away from his face—so that when Lyfantod instinctively unloaded his remaining three slugs, they rocketed into his already un-beating heart and did no damage whatsoever to the much-more-vital brain.
The shots smacked into him, one after another like mule-kicks, forcing him backwards, arms and legs spread wide for balance. And when Lyfantod’s hammer click-click-clicked on an empty chamber, he righted himself, set his sword back into that first position, and came on once more.
Lyfantod swore with no more inspiration than before, stowed his gun, and drew his baton. With it in one hand, and the flashlight in the other, he squared off against the undead Strawman. He tried shining the light into the zombie’s eyes, but clearly they weren’t working normally anymore, for though they glistened with a sickening milky opaqueness in the yellow beam, the zombie gave no indication of being blinded. And then he swung.
It should be made clear at this point that the blade he brandished was not a knife. Nor was it a knife. It was a four-foot-long claymore of the same practical variety that most of the Strawmen used—including Garrick Small, though his was a little nicer.
It could be wielded with one hand or two, and the zombie took the single-handed approach. His intent appeared to be for it to enter on the right and exit on the left, leaving a great many important bits of Lyfantod disconnected in between. It met baton instead, swung in valiant opposition. It bit deep into the hard wood and stopped when it reached the weighty lead core.
Lyfantod cried out. His arm went numb with the impact all the way up to the shoulder. In a desperate move, he swung the torch underhand across his body and clocked the zombie soundly on the jaw, delivering a blow that would surely have rendered any mortal man unconscious.
The creature’s head swung back with a satisfying crack, and Lyfantod threw all of his adrenaline-fueled strength into a powerful booted front kick straight to the zombie’s stomach. The attack threw Lyfantod and the zombie in opposite directions, with the unintended result that both of them landed on their backs. As he attempted to rise, the bones in Lyfantod’s arm rang with pain, only amplified by the supreme cold. He found he had trouble holding his baton. He managed to lever himself stiffly to his feet as the zombie himself rose, blade in hand, apparently unharmed.
“That isn’t fair,” he muttered, petulant. He knew his only chance was to cave in the zombie’s skull, and that meant he’d need to outmaneuver him. He was beginning to tire and the zombie didn’t seem to experience fatigue. He had to end this quickly.
Again the zombie came on, in the same manner as it had twice before, and Lyfantod couldn’t help but feel that a baton and flashlight were no match for a proper sword. Then he spied the other blade, lying in the snow near the hand of his foe’s fallen comrade. The zombie made his move and Lyfantod did too. As the fiend took a wide, cross-body swing, he dove in the opposite direction. The blade flew over him and he barrel-rolled through the snow, rising into a sprinter’s crouch and diving toward the sword. He cast aside his baton, taking loping strides to where the weapon had fallen. Rather than stopping, he somersaulted dramatically over it, gathering it up into his free hand as he rose, facing the zombie once more.
It was approaching in long, sure strides, blade at the ready. It seemed that even zombies in a hurry didn’t run. Lyfantod faced off against the undead Guildsman, dual-wielding flashlight and sword. The detective and the fiend met in a brief, heated exchange of blows, and Lyfantod quickly came to the unsettling realization. That he was outmatched in strength, speed, and skill, all.
It was in that moment, his own death looming in his mind, that something snapped inside of Lyfantod. Like a disjointed shoulder, finding its place after many long years of pretending that it was meant to hang that way. Like the bird who realizes that his master's neglected to clip his wings for a dozen turnings of the seasons. Like the cripple who admits that it's been all in his head. That he can walk after all, and no miracle needed. That he always could. It was in that moment that P.T. Lyfantod began to sing.
The song that Lyfantod—who has quite a nice voice by the way, when he means to—began to sing was not one that most would be familiar with. Its name was Illyrio’s Invigorating Verse, alliterative as bardic tunes seem so often to be. Sung by the right person, this melody would bestow just the burst of strength and vitality that Lyfantod needed to win the fight. Alas. Lyfantod was not the right person. Not presently, anyway.
Summoning all his remaining strength, Lyfantod waded into battle, his voice ringing clear into the night, right up until the moment that he tripped over his own feet. He fell to the ground, emptying his lungs in an unseemly “oof!” His arms spread dangerously wide, he had just enough time to realize what was happening before the frosty claymore plunged deep into his gut.
His vision wavered, and he let out a little huff of surprise. It hurt more and less than he expected it to. The zombie stared down at him with eyes void of emotion. And as he lay there, stunned by pain and the shock of failure, feeling his lifeblood flow out to melt the snow beneath him, Lyfantod caught a snatch of distant conversation.
“—don’t see why we had to take a shortcut through this park,” growled a familiar voice. “Honestly, Monroe, what’s the point of wading through all of this uncleared snow when there are perfectly good sidewalks, just over there?”
“Oh stop your grousing, Laird,” came the husky reply, “and quiet down a moment, would you? I could’ve sworn I heard someone singing.”