“Caird, is that—What the hell is going on? Jesus Christ, your throat! Oh my god. Oh… Flint.”
Horse’s words, tumbling out as she realized, piece by horrible piece, what in fact was going on, washed over Lyfantod without reaching him. His attention was held by the flickering blue flame that was now dancing around his killer’s head, providing the newly-arrived detectives with some much needed illumination of the grisly tableau. And by the fact that several pints of his blood had leaked out into the snow.
“Who is he—why, that’s Lyfantod! Caird! Stand down!”
“Don’t be a fool,” said Monroe. “Caird is gone.”
Booted feet pounded thunderously through the snow behind Lyfantod and then a dark blur stampeded over his head, plowing violently into the undead Strawman. Lyfantod cried out in agony as the sword protruding from his belly like some dread Excalibur twisted, the zombie losing his grip on the hilt as Horse Monroe took him off his feet. He heard the sounds of violence—thump, snick snick, thump—playing out somewhere south of his feet as Horse methodically dispatched his killer.
My killer, thought Lyfantod. He knew he was dying. It wasn't a terrible thought. There was resignation to it. And relief. Relief of obligation. Of guilt. There were people who he hadn't seen in a very long time, people who had shaped him, whose loss had nearly broken him. If there was an other side... and he didn't end up as one of Bones's mindless goons... he'd be happy for the chance to see them again. He hoped they weren't angry.
The snow crunched quietly near his head, and a pair of boots came into view, attached by legs and torso to a towering sandy-haired Flint, looking grim with that flame twisting at his shoulder. “Hello, Lyfantod,” he said.
“Flint,” Lyfantod managed, through clenched teeth. “It’s Bones—been Bones all along. Had a book. Twenty—”
“Shh,” said Flint, with surprising gentleness, raising a single gloved finger, then kneeling at Lyfantod’s side.
“Got to—” Lyfantod tried to prop himself up on his elbows, which resulted in his nearly blacking out. The sword had gone right through and appeared to have lodged itself in the icy earth. He sank back, breathing shallowly, as Flint rested a hand on his forehead and gently pushed him all the way down. Then he rose.
“I’m sorry for this." While Lyfantod wondered what he was sorry for, he spread his feet, reached out with both hands, grasped the hilt of the sword, and with a grunt of effort, drew it up and out of the fallen P.I. Lyfantod screamed.
Through tightly shut eyelids he heard a soft thump as Flint cast the blade away into the snow. And then Flint was lifting, cradling his head so that he rose into a half-sitting position, and Lyfantod could feel his lifeblood pumping out of him with every beat of his ever cooling heart.
“Drink this,” said Flint, and Lyfantod heard him only distantly. Like the voice of someone trying to wake him from a dream.
“Drink, damn it!” barked Flint with real heat. There was angry pressure on his jaw and then liquid fire was coursing down Lyfantod’s throat and spreading throughout his body. His eyes shot open in time to watch the last drops of a glowing tincture of the purest red disappear into his mouth from a round, black vial in Flint’s hand. His back arched, his body shook, and he moaned—this time in relief, as all of his pain seemed to vanish. It started with the minor wounds, and the old ones. The bruises and the aches. The sore spots that lingered from his encounter with Reggie. And then, finally the line of ice that marked the passage of the sword through his gut.
He stared up at the stony-faced Guildsman holding him up, past the fog of his breath as he lay there panting. “What was that?” he asked feverishly.
Flint tilted his head to the right and said, with no trace of irony whatsoever, “Health pot.”
Lyfantod wanted to question him further but at that very moment Horse tromped over, and feeling both embarrassed and wholly surprised that he was able, Lyfantod rose and brushed himself off.
“Caird’s dead,” Horse said heavily. “Gow too.” She glanced at Lyfantod when she said it. “Had to identify him by his tattoo.”
“They were dead long before now,” said Flint by way of consolation, to which Horse only nodded. She clearly wasn’t entirely satisfied with that line of reasoning and was still coping with having had to cut down her comrade in arms.
Lyfantod saw no point in wasting time. “It’s Bones."
“Of course it is,” said Horse. “We’ve known that for ages.”
“Yes, well. I have proof. Definitive proof. From the school. He’s been at this for a very long time.”
“I assume that was you that left that message,” said Flint, to which Lyfantod nodded. “Larry Flint? Really?”
“I thought it was clever at the time,” said Lyfantod defensively. He told them what he’d found in Bones’s office. What Professor Fleming had told him, all of it. He tried not to rub in the fact that he’d found something they’d missed, but they clearly felt it just the same, as evidenced by the darkening expressions on their faces while he spoke.
When he finished, Flint looked mostly angry. “Someone should have figured it out sooner. They should have told us about that damned book. I’m going to talk to Small about performing yearly audits on the professors at that school. Everyone knows they get up to things they shouldn't, out there where no one can keep an eye on them. I wouldn't be surprised if Bones wasn't meddling with the most dangerous forces. There are worse things than raising the dead.”
Lyfantod was taken aback. “You can do that?”
“I’m not sure,” he admitted.
“Sounds like a plan that he’d like, though,” said Horse, meaning Small. Lyfantod wasn’t sure how he felt about the Guild interfering at Barrows School. It felt wrong, somehow.
“In any case,” said Flint, “it doesn’t change what we have to do.”
“Find Bones and kill him." Horse shifted her coat around her shoulders, looking uncomfortable, as if she couldn't quite get it to sit the way it should.
Flint nodded. “Unfortunately, while illuminating—and somewhat embarrassing—Lyfantod's discovery doesn’t bring us any closer to finding him.”
Lyfantod stepped forward. “I was hoping that the three of us, working together, might be able to figure it out."
Flint and Horse exchanged a glance, and Lyfantod was not entirely sure what it meant. Flint regarded him with an unreadable expression. “We still can’t work with you openly.” There actually seemed to be a hint of apology in his voice. “But it shouldn’t hurt to talk things over. I hope.”
Lyfantod knew Flint’s reluctant agreement was all he was going to get. “Consider this. Bones is controlling these zombies right?” The Strawmen nodded tentatively. “And he sent them here to kill me.”
“Which means you must be on the right track,” Horse finished his thought.
“Exactly. It also means that he knows where I am.”
“Except for one thing,” Flint argued. “He has no way of knowing what you found.”
That did stop Lyfantod for a moment, until he had a thought. “That’s partially true,” he said. “He doesn’t have any way of knowing what I found at Barrows School. Unless he’s got an accomplice, but let’s assume he’s working alone, for the moment. But it is reasonable to expect that he knows that I was there. And he must also know that I went to Eroteme.”
“So you think that there’s a connection between what Bones is doing now and what happened thirty years ago,” said Horse.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a connection. What’s important is that Bones feels that there’s something about it that poses a threat. And my gut tells me that it has to do with Cornelia and Reginald Mus.”
“What I can’t figure,” said Flint, “is why Bones would go to the effort to specifically resurrect the brother.”
“Seems unlikely. Considering.” Horse, gestured at the fallen Guildsmen lying motionless in the snow behind them.
There was something to that. At this point, Bones had amassed a pretty sizable body-count. It didn’t make sense that he would be all right with that and feel obligated to revive Reginald Mus.
“What are we missing?” murmured Lyfantod in frustration.
“That’s simple,” said Flint. “A motive. We know who’s behind this. We even know how he’s doing it. What we don't know is why.”
“Why doesn’t matter,” said Horse angrily. “All that matters is stopping him.”
“Which is looking harder every passing day." Flint waved a hand angrily at the ground, looked at Lyfantod. “His numbers are growing. As you can see. Every man we lose becomes a potential adversary.”
“And it’s not just us,” added Horse. “We’ve run into undead Mountain Men, Nightshades, and Thorne.”
“Do they retain their… abilities after they’ve turned?”
“Thank goodness, no,” she answered, “but some of Angus’s boys are bloody big.”
“And they’re not stupid, either,” Flint added. “It’s odd. The first ones we encountered were barely more than mouths with legs. They couldn’t have held a sword, let alone use it.”
“They’re getting smarter,” said Lyfantod meaningfully. “Pegg and Wright got that one completely wrong.”
The Strawmen blinked at him uncomprehending.
He coughed. “Never mind.”
Flint gave him an sideways glance, but decided not to ask. Instead, he looked to Horse, “We need to clean up this mess before someone finds it.” He nodded toward the bodies on the ground.
“We doing this the usual way?”
Flint shook his head. “They deserve better than that. Their families do too. Head over to the box at Castle Hill and Ramsay and get a crew over here.”
Horse’s expression said she approved.
“While you’re at it,” said Flint as she made to leave, “have them send someone over to pick up this Cornelia Mus. I’d like to have a chat with her.”
Horse nodded and walked away.
“Do you think that’s really necessary?” asked Lyfantod when she’d gone. “She’s already been put through a lot because of this case.”
Flint gave him a hard stare. “That’s because she’s connected to it. I’d be a piss poor detective if I let a potential lead go unfollowed to protect someone’s feelings.”
“But I’ve already spoken to her twice.”
“And maybe you missed something."
“Like hidden books of black magic, for example?”
Flint scowled. “Like that.”
“Guess I can’t argue with that logic. Still. I feel sorry for her.”
“When this is all over, and Bones is locked up, or dead, we’ll have time for hurt feelings. Right now, catching him comes first.”
The conversation sort of died after that, and the two detectives stood in uncomfortable silence, waiting for Horse to return. It happened sooner than they’d expected. No more than fifteen or twenty minutes after she’d departed, Lyfantod spied her silhouette in the distance—a dark shape against the dim ambient light of the city at night. She was running.
Flint was walking in slow circles, staring at the ground, so Lyfantod reached out and touched his arm, then pointed. Flint looked to see what had caught his attention to find his partner—still some two hundred yards distant—eating ground at the swift pace of someone who can run in a hurry. “Shit,” he breathed. “What now?”
“Maybe it’s good news,” offered Lyfantod hopefully, to which Flint responded with a withering stare.
“No such thing,” he muttered.
“Laird!” called Horse when she was within shouting distance. She sounded out of breath. She must have run all the way back from the telephone box.
“What is it?” demanded her partner as she arrived, resting her hands on her knees and bent over panting.
“It’s Bones,” she panted, looking up through the tangle of hair covering her face. “He’s at the school.”
"The school! But I just came from there. Isn't it... protected?"
"Not that school. The University."
“What?” said Flint in bewilderment. “Now? It’s closed! What the devil is he after?”
Horse shook her head violently. “No,” she said, “he’s at the dormitories.”
The blood drained from Flint’s and Lyfantod’s faces simultaneously.
“The students,” Lyfantod breathed, at the same time as Flint hissed, “We’ll be exposed for sure!”
They glared at each other for a brief second. “We’ve got to get over there,” said Flint. “Now.”
“What about them?” said Lyfantod, nodding at the fallen Guildsmen.
“They’ll send someone when this is over,” said Horse, having regained her ability to speak normally. “Until then, we’ll have to risk it. It’s all hands on deck.”
“That settles it,” said Flint. “We’ll just have to hope no one discovers them in the meantime.”
Lyfantod nodded agreement. “Let’s go then." They all set off at a loping run toward the University two miles to the South. Every once in a while Flint cursed colorfully, leaving Lyfantod mildly jealous beside him. The older Strawman was off-the-cuff clever.