By the time they approached the school fifteen long, painful minutes later, Flint had run out of energy for making off-color remarks, and instead had settled for a rhythmic huffing that alternated with his steps. Lyfantod, who was in fair shape himself, could only sympathize. The potion had returned much of his vitality. Had healed his wounds, and washed his aches and pains away like a touch of the hand of God himself. But for all that, Old Man Winter was still determined to beat him into shivering submission. The snow blinded, melting on his face and in his eyes. Despite his newfound health, his clothes were still covered in his blood, freezing on his back and flaking with every step. The frigid air was murder on his lungs, and it wasn’t long before he developed a phlegmy wheeze to punctuate every hot breath. Meanwhile, Monroe, who he had previously assumed earned her nickname for her unfortunately equine facial structure, who had already run twice as far as either of them, was trotting along without a single sign of fatigue.
It wasn’t difficult for them to find the building they were looking for when they got there. A characterless four story cube typical of twentieth-century architecture just about anywhere in the world. It was on fire. Under any other circumstances, Lyfantod, who bloody well despised typical twentieth-century architecture, might have been pleased.
Smoke streamed out the windows and doors, and flickering orange light shone out onto the snow blanketing the ground. Lyfantod was surprised by how loud it was. And the fire was loud. It sent a whoofing, rumbling sound, like a cross between a waterfall and a freight train, rolling across the deserted school grounds.
When he saw it, Flint found the energy for more cursing, and once more Lyfantod was impressed by the range and breadth of his foul language. “They’ll have seen this for sure,” he snarled. “The bloody fire department’s probably already been called.” To underscore this statement, they saw a number of students streaming out of another nearby building in all states of dress, many of them holding up cell-phones, cameras focused on the blaze.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” asked Lyfantod as they rounded the front of the building. The fire seemed to have started somewhere inside, but not the violence. There were bodies on the snowy ground, in various stages of decomposition, all showing signs of recent combat. Some of them were Strawmen, some were Mountain Men, some were Thorne, and Shades. Lyfantod cursed Bones to a foul burning Hell when he saw a number of slender, unmoving bodies in the unmistakable dress of the Daughters. None of them were students. Yet.
Flint took off his gloves and tossed them on the ground, giving Lyfantod a look of scorn. “If you want tomorrow’s national headline to be 'ZOMBIES REAL! MAGIC TOO!' then sure!” he spat. And then he did something impressive.
He centered himself, spread his feet and hands like he was preparing to stop a charging boar, closed his eyes, and began to mutter a long incantation in hushed tones.
“Is that Latin?” Lyfantod whispered to Horse, who responded only by taking the sleeve of his coat to pull him farther away from her partner.
“Quiet,” she said.
Flint continued to chant, and Lyfantod's first impression was that it wasn't having any effect. Then there came a flicker of light from the doorway. It started as a thin stream, twisting in a way that Lyfantod had never seen fire do—behaving in ways that fire shouldn’t. Flint stood there, hands held wide as the fire spooled into a ball between, roiling violently as the Strawman drew it out like poison from a wound.
The ball grew, and the fire kept coming. It came now from cracks between the windows as well, apparently taking the shortest path to the chanting Guildsman. It swelled larger and larger, and beads of sweat broke out on Flint’s face. And still it came.
When it was the size of a large pumpkin, Horse once more took Lyfantod’s coat and drew him backward, so that they were standing a good ten meters away from her partner. She looked worried. Even from that distance, Lyfantod could see that the look of concentration on the Strawman’s face was intense, veins standing out on his forehead, and he sensed that the sweat running down his cheeks might not have been entirely because of the heat. It must have taken a great deal of effort to control that fire. Gradually, the flickering light from inside the building began to dim.
“Why doesn’t he just put it out?” asked Lyfantod.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Horse murmured. “He’s got to contain it all first. Or it could take the building down.”
When the last tongue of flame curled out, and the building seeped dark smoke, the ball was the size of a steer. Lyfantod watched as Flint, who seemed to sense that his job was finished, began to bring his hands together. Slowly. As if struggling against some great force. Some of the violence subsided and the ball of flame grew tighter. Smoother. It appeared to be straining at the surface; twisting faster and turning white as it was forced to occupy less and less space.
“This is going to hurt,” whispered Horse, and Lyfantod jumped a little. He had almost forgotten she was there, so enraptured was he by the feat of magic being wrought before him. Every inch seemed to cost Flint a great deal. He was shaking, teeth clenched and neck quivering. Before long there was a basketball sized sun floating between his open palms. It hurt Lyfantod’s eyes and left shadows on his retinas, but he refused to look away.
At last, with a bellow of exertion, Flint brought his hands together and the flame winked out. There was a bead of silence. And then a thunderclap. It was quite possibly the loudest sound Lyfantod had ever heard. He was knocked off his feet by the sheer force of it, and Flint, who’d been at its center, was sent flying straight backwards, his arms spread eagle and head dangling at an angle that said he was already unconscious, if not dead. He landed rag-doll limp twenty feet from where he'd started and didn't move.
Horse was already on her feet, running towards him with a familiar matte-black vial clutched in one hand. She shouted over her shoulder to Lyfantod, still recovering behind her. “Get in there and do something!” she yelled, “I’ll join you when I can!”
Shaken by her words, Lyfantod remembered where he was, and what he was about. And then he heard the screaming. He wondered that he hadn’t heard it before—but the howls of mortal terror had been stifled by the roar of the flames. Smoke still seeped out the windows and front door, still clouded the rooms and hallways. But as Lyfantod approached, knew for certain that there was not a lick of flame—not even an ember—left in the entire building. It was cold. He wondered how the fire had gotten started in the first place. Bones? Or another Strawman with talents similar to those of Laird Flint and a modicum less control?
Lyfantod still carried the sword he’d taken from the fallen zombie. No. His name was Gow, he shook his head with shameful guilt. But he hadn’t killed the man. That lay at Bones’s feet, and if that monster was inside, it would be a pleasure to make him pay for what he’d done. As long as he didn't get himself killed first.
He hefted the sword as he climbed the short steps to the entry hall, wishing he had his baton instead. He was no swordsman and long blades difficult to use in confined spaces if you knew what you were doing. Awareness of that failing about exhausted his knowledge. “Just stab and slash,” he whispered to himself supportively, coughing as he crossed the threshold, wondering where to go.
There was a balance to be found between haste and caution. His instincts told him to run, hurry, kill. But if he charged in and took a blow to the back of the head from a foe he’d missed, he’d be worse than useless. He’d be more fodder for Bones’s undead army.
The building was modern. Would have been cheery in other circumstances, in a sterile sort of way. It was damp—a fact for which he had the sprinkler system to thank. It seemed to have gone out with the fire. Or perhaps it had simply run out of juice. He crept down the hall on his toes, ears pricked, ready to fight, his heart pounding in his chest, adrenaline and whatever had been in that potion flushing fatigue from his body. He felt electric. He was terrified.
The hall was lined with doors, all closed and silent. The screams and sounds of fighting all seemed to be coming from an upper floor, traveling down through the stairwell. With it still a short distance away, he began to get the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched. A powerful itch between his shoulder-blades. He heard nothing.
He stopped in his tracks. Listening. He spun, quickly turning to look back the way he’d come. The student who had been peeking at him through the crack of an open door wasn’t quite fast enough in closing it to escape his notice. Probably hoped to close it silently, but had given himself away instead.
Lyfantod raised his voice, put as much benevolent authority into it as he could muster. He thought of it as his Cop Voice. “All of you! Evacuate this building! Immediately! Put on your coats, and your boots, and get out! If you have anything you can use to defend yourselves, take it with you! And stay together!”
He considered adding ‘And avoid the zombies!’ but decided that was probably being superfluous.
There was no response, but he knew they were listening. He just hoped they’d do what he told them—and then, figuring they wouldn’t show themselves as long as he was standing there with a naked sword, looking like a character from Highlander, he made for the stairwell and headed up. The sounds of battle grew louder.
Lyfantod popped his head out on the second floor. It was smoky but silent. He delivered the same shouted warning to the rows of closed doors lining the scorched black walls and left. It was on the third floor that he found them.
Halfway down the hall, which was littered with bodies, a small number of remaining Strawmen and zombies struggled furiously. Between here and there, far too many bedroom doors lay open like cracked eggs, and Lyfantod shuddered to think what had happened to the students inside them. A cloaked figure beyond the fevered combat, hunched and somehow grotesque, leaned against a door still shut, pounding with his spindling, worm-white fist and cackled with malevolent glee. Bones.
Four zombies held off the remaining Strawmen—of which there were but three—while Bones went after the students. The Guildsmen fought fiercely with their claymores, and but the zombies’ superior numbers and their inability to feel fear or pain gave them an advantage. Even in the short time he stood there, Lyfantod saw the Strawmen both give and take a number of vicious wounds—but where the living were weakened by theirs perceptibly, the zombies fought on unfazed. Lyfantod summoned up his courage, his anger, his fear; his frustration at his failure; and loosing an animal cry of raw emotion that drove the trepidation from his mind, he sprinted forward to join the fray.
As he barreled forward, sword held like a home run bat, he was forced to watch in helpless dismay as a wasted Strawman with long blond hair took a deep gash in his thigh and fell to one knee. The zombie he’d been fighting launched itself at him, and they fell to the ground writhing, the undead fiend using teeth and nails as well as as blade to great and horrifying effect, and the fallen Guildsman screamed.
Lyfantod knew if he swung that sword, he had just as much chance of killing the Strawman as the grossly wriggling zombie whose teeth were digging deep gouges into the Guildsman's shoulder. Instead he put his booted foot on the side of the creature’s neck and kicked as hard as he could. The fiend was thrown sideways and off, and before it could recover, he ran his blade through it’s eye, he and the fiend both screaming bloody murder.
The Guildsman’s breathing was shallow, his eyes fluttered, and blood streamed from a dozen major wounds. But he was breathing, and for now, that would have to be enough—for inches away two of his comrades were fighting a losing battle and it was up to Lyfantod to even the odds.
Even as he turned, two of the devilish creatures threw themselves at the Guildsman closest to him, one intentionally impaling itself of her sword in an effort to reach her exposed flesh. She fell screaming, but Lyfantod found the opportunity he needed. As the second zombie scrabbled at her, looking for purchase, he brought the sword down in a powerful overhead arc that took its head clean off and sent it rolling down the hall like a gruesome soccer ball. The zombie still atop her—apparently more than capable of ignoring the two and a half feet of sword protruding from its back—was attempting to put a wicked looking knife through her eye, and she held it off with her one free hand, gritting her teeth and snarling.
Lyfantod threw down his sword and reached down to grab the creature’s wrist when the point was mere inches from her eye. Close enough to make his own eyes water in uncomfortable sympathy. He put his boot on the zombie’s shoulder and pulled with all his might. The feeling of the arm twisting backwards in its socket as he yanked it into an angle it wasn't designed for made him want to vomit; especially as the creature writhed with incredible strength and continued to struggle even from that awkward position.
That little advantage was all the Strawman needed—Straw-woman?—as she shoved up and off with a shriek and fell upon the zombie just as fiercely with her own long knife, and drove the weapon into one side of its neck and out the other. She twisted and wrenched, and soon the fiend's all-too-human head was hanging by a short strip of flesh at a preposterous angle. Lyfantod fell back panting to look for his own abandoned blade.
At the end of the hall Lyfantod heard the pounding of booted feet. He turned to look in time to see Horse—beautiful Horse!—appear at the top of the stairwell, sword drawn and looking like an avenging angel. Behind him, someone screamed, and Lyfantod turned to see that the once-closed door was now gaping, and Bones had vanished. He looked back at Horse, who was rushing forward to help her comrades. She too had heard the scream and guessed correctly what it meant.
“Go!” she shouted.
Lyfantod didn’t need to be told twice. He leapt over the bodies and the wounded Strawmen and hurled himself toward the door. As he reached the doorway and saw what lay inside, his heart sank and bile rose in his throat. The room was small and dark. Big enough for two beds, two desks, and not much else. On the floor, next to a turned over chair, lay an unmoving girl in pajamas and a pool of her own blood.
Far too much of it.
And standing on the bed, grinning devilishly, stood Bones—his skeletal fingers wrapped almost sensuously around the throat of the surviving roommate: another girl. His long, bony limbs curled around her. She couldn't have been more than twenty. Lyfantod, taking in the scene, gave voice to the pleading cry echoed in the terrified girl’s eyes. “Please, Bones. You don't have to do this.”
Bones only smiled wider. His face was gaunt, his skin blue, his cheeks hollow, and his eye-sockets deep and skeletal, all shadowed in the heavy hood of his cloak. And his eyes... His eyes. Lyfantod felt cold all over and nearly dropped his sword. They were milky white.
And then, before Lyfantod could react, moving like a hideous snake, Bones opened his mouth wider than he should have been able, and bit deep into the girl’s swan-like neck, sending blood spraying into the air. The girl screamed, and Lyfantod shouted, “No!”
But it was too late.
Bones dropped the girl and she fell with a lifeless thud to the floor. Bones hopped nimbly down from the bed, over her silent form, to stand before Lyfantod smiling and apparently unarmed. He threw back his hood, revealing an aged, narrow face topped with a few wisps of thin white hair.
He seemed to be waiting for Lyfantod to make the first move. That was just fine. With a roar that contained all of his fury, Lyfantod surged forward, raising the sword above his head, and brought it down in a powerful overhead stroke that ought to cleave Bones in two.
Faster than should have been possible, Bones slithered forward and his vice-like fingers wrapped around Lyfantod’s wrist, stopping him mid-swing. His other hand clamped down on Lyfantod’s neck, and with surprising strength he hurtled through the door, taking Lyfantod with him, pinning him with a heavy thud against the far wall.
The grip on his neck tightened, cutting off air and blood flow to Lyfantod’s brain. Lyfantod was tall, but he could feel his feet being lifted off the floor as Bones drew that terrible smile closer and closer, savoring the sight of the life leaving Lyfantod’s eyes. His breath was the miasma of the crypt, and Lyfantod knew that his was the face of Death himself.
And then there was a whisper. A breath of wind. Bones’s eyes widened in surprise. His grin faltered. His head tipped sideways. And kept going. Tumbled off his shoulders and onto the floor. And as his grip relaxed and his corpse fell, Lyfantod registered the keen-edged blade, held by Horse, stopped mid-flight less than a centimeter from Lyfantod’s own neck.
She lowered it slowly and he took a ragged breath, spots dancing in his eyes. Behind her the other Guildsmen—the ones who could move—tended to their own wounds. “We got him." Her voice was heavy with exhaustion, but tinged with relief. Only now did she allow her shoulders to sag, her head to hang low. Now that her work was finally done.
But Lyfantod’s mind was racing. “No." He pushed her back, forcing her to look at him. “No. This is wrong.”
He shook his head. He gripped her with wild strength, as much for her attention as for support, as all of the implications fell together. “We were wrong!” He was shouting. "We were wrong!"
Horse was confused and tired and angry. “What are you talking about, Lyfantod? It's over! Bones is dead!”
“No." Lyfantod's voice was thick with despair. With failure and self-recrimination. "He was already dead.” The last piece of the puzzle fell into place, and he knew then why this case hadn’t made any damned sense from the start. His eyes flicked down to the fallen form of Zombie Bones and back again.
He had to make her understand. He had to sound reasonable. So he forced as much bloody reason into his voice as he could manage. “Did you send someone to pick up Cornelia Mus?”
“When you went to make the phone call. Flint asked you to send someone to pick her up. Did you do it?!”
“Yes!" she shouted back at him, volume matching volume. "They said they were directing everyone here, but that there was someone in the area. So what?”
Lyfantod cursed. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” He surprised her by grabbing her sleeve and dragging her past her the other Guildsmen toward the stairs. “We have got to get to the Straw House. We’ve got to get there now!”