TWO


The Testimonial of P.T. Lyfantod, Part 2

THE ORACLE

 

          Lyfantod woke in his chair, stiff, bleary eyed and crick-necked, and stumbled into and out of a scalding shower somewhat refreshed.  The water-heater and the lights were almost the only exceptions he made to a certain firm rule he followed about electricity--contrary to the dictations of better judgment, which said that it was completely unnecessary.  Lyfantod was, for a variety of reasons, under the impression that his presence might cause appliances to short-circuit or spontaneously burst into flames, and so, despite the obvious irony, he fixed his breakfast on an old gas range which he lit with matches that he kept for that purpose.

          He settled down at his desk once more for a plate of greasy black sausage and runny yellow eggs.  He cleared a space among the books and papers the way he always did, by shoving things away from the tiny nucleus of cleanliness at the center that allowed him to get work done.  The plate lay to the right, by his fork-hand, a mug of kettle-brewed black coffee steaming to his left.  And set between them lay the Oracle, delivered that morning by one of the few poor souls who kept worse hours than himself.  Lyfantod read it from cover to cover every day without fail.  Despite the fact that he knew almost all of what was printed there was patent nonsense.  

          It was one of the more peculiar staples of his existence.  An interesting, and, daresay, likely the primary feature of the Oracle was that fact and fiction both were published indiscriminately--the fiction so enticing and the facts so strange that it was nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other.  This was almost certainly the point.  

          The paper was run by a chubby middle-aged man with a tightly-curled crop of red hair and unfortunate skin, whose name couldn’t possibly have actually been Marcher—but that was what everyone called him.  His staff writers included people like Diana Boswell, a Wiccan who openly identified as a hedge witch and ran a crystal healing shop, and Henry Addle, a few years out of uni with a degree in comparative literature and convinced that he was haunted. 

          Lyfantod had spent a great many hours of his time and no small amount of money--some might say unwisely, given the state of his finances--chasing down leads from the dubious broadsheet in an attempt to put an edge to that blurred line between truth and tall tale.  He had yet to find a reliable method of discerning one from the other, for every writer appeared to produce a stream of work that was equal parts both, though some were more reliable than others.  

          His obsession with the Oracle had led him on adventures both rewarding and dispiriting, and he gave it no small credit for his current success in the search for the Unknown.  It had led him, in his early days in the city, to Maggie's pub, for which he was eternally grateful, and from one of their adverts he’d managed to procure a fabulous old lamp, whose flame would unfailingly blow out in the presence of a ghost or a stiff wind.  On the other hand, it was a source of no small embarrassment, and a font of endless ribbing from his worst-best mate, Calder O'Dwyer, that Lyfantod had once spent a miserable week living out of a drafty hut on the highlands, investigating reports of a mysterious giant black devil-sheep called Woolly Jack.  The raillery was fueled in large part by the fact that Lyfantod had dragged Calder out with him to keep him company.  The punishment, Calder was wont to say, fit the crime. 

          Lyfantod took a cautious sip of coffee and winced.  Hot and bitter and in need of milk.  Today’s front page article didn’t look promising.  It featured a grainy black and white photo of the gloomy Scottish countryside and what appeared to be a pile of sticks, grass, and mud, below a flashy headline that read:

 

Muddied Waters 

The True Identity of the Marsh Monster

 

          It had been written by Marcher.  In it, he claimed that the true identity of the horrible creature haunting the Wetlands in the North, attacking unfortunate travelers and foolish surveyors (the article assumed the actual existence of the monster a foregone conclusion) was the cursed Faerie Queen, Eleise.  He went on to suggest that if some brave soul could get their hands on a beaver spleen and get close enough to perform the complex ritual (detailed below!) they could dispel the curse and would then find themselves object of the gratitude of an immortal, flaxen-haired bombshell.  Lyfantod shook his head in disgust.  

          He scanned the second page, and the third.  It was on the bottom of page four that he came upon one of the few subjects that could be relied upon for verity—at least insofar as they actually existed: The Guild.  Lyfantod smiled to himself, took a bite of egg, and began to read. 

 

STRAWMEN STRIKE AGAIN

          A number of members of the Guild, the stony-faced defenders of the city, are striking this week over grievances regarding medical care for the third time in recent months.  The previous strikes were ended with No Resolution as Guild leadership—namely Captain Garrick Small—flatly rejected any change of policy citing historical precedent.  There will be, for obvious reasons, no picket lines to cross, but according to our sources here at The Oracle, more than a few Guildsmen have turned in their coats as a sign of protest.  Their demands are not entirely clear, but we’re hopeful that the facts will continue to reveal themselves in the coming days.  We have no exact numbers regarding just how much the force is short at the moment, but we've been led to believe that they may be operating at as low as three quarters of normal strength, a worrying fact in these dangerous times, especially considering the Guild has been in steady decline since the peak of their strength in the 16th Century.  They are considered by many to be a pale shadow of their former glory.  

          So far, the striking Strawmen themselves have declined to comment, but the flame-tongued Small has been more than vocal in his derision of quote: “these wee wilting daisies.”  It seems plain that Small has little interest or patience for the demands of his men, and has reportedly been heard to say that he'll burn the coat of the next Guildsman to enter his office with intention of joining the strike.  Possibly with them in it.  

          This is my command," says Small, "and I'll decide when my men are or are not fit for active duty.  If they expected anything but a hard life they picked the wrong profession, and aren't fit to wear the uniform.  I've got neither the resources nor the inclination to allow for mollycoddling.  The Guild is the thin white line that stands between us and the darkness, and the sooner that these milksops realize..."

 

          Small's rant continued for some time, and was followed by an editorial exploration of the labor issues that had been plaguing the Guild for months now.  It couldn't have come at a worse time, for things in the city were worse than ever.  Case in point, the ongoing turf-war between the purse-snatching Late Bloomers and the feral, shapeshifting kids who called themselves the Brownies that had resulted in untold destruction, completely baffled local police, and led to an unacceptable jump in the local price of pollock.  The Strawmen were having a real time of it, and Lyfantod could only imagine how bad things were if people were actually hanging up their coats.  

          Lyfantod continued his perusal, looking for objects of interest.  In the Opinion Column on page nine, to which locals could write in about just about anything (and did), and which usually attracted crackpots, a Mrs. Burnie of Duddingston had submitted an two-thousand word diatribe blaming the recent bad weather on a plot to bring down the local dock-worker's union, though to what end she could not say.  

          There were advertisements as well.  For Cure-Alls, Fortune Tellers, Gurus, and Doctor Schweinehund’s Appraisal Service.  Adder's Fork Apothecary was offering a ten-percent discount on their zombie repellent, a dubious mixture they called Reluctant Revenant, and someone purported to be selling a pair of Thousand League Boots for £2,500.  There was a request for the return of a missing pet toad, should anyone find him, and job listings, including one for a taste-tester at Madame Dragoste’s.  A dangerous proposition at best.  The local Society of Wiccans was looking for new members—as were the congregation of the Church of the Water of Life and the Chivalric Order of Saint Georgethe self-proclaimed fraternity of witch hunters who, as far as Lyfantod knew, no one took very seriously.  They were often to be found shouting incendiary slogans outside The Weird Sisters, home of the Daughters of Hecate, who may have been practicing witchcraft and may have just been playing lots of punk music and making questionable fashion choices.  They never seemed to work up the nerve to picket the Coven, a sisterhood of middle-aged and elderly women who wished everyone to know that they were no more than a sewing circle (with three very formidable members on City Council).  On the twelfth page, after a suspicious article explaining where werewolves’ hair went when they turned back into humans, something caught Lyfantod’s eye.     

 

Disappearances Continue! 

Undead to Blame?

 

          An investigation was opened this morning after the violent disappearance of Barrows School Professor of Humorism Aminus Bones from his office at the school sometime last night.  The Guild is currently investigating the incident, and foul play is suspected. 

          All the details are being kept under wraps for now for the integrity of the investigation, but we can reveal that copious amounts of blood were reportedly found at the scene.  Considering Bones’ field of study, this may or may not mean anything sinister.  Parents of students are understandably worried, and some have even pulled their children out of school until the culprit has been caught or Bones has been found.  

          We at The Oracle cannot help but wonder if the disappearance of Professor Bones has anything to do with the several other mysterious incidents which have occurred in the last few days.  Or the so-far unsubstantiated reports that they were perpetrated by zombies.  The Guild still denies that Silus Proote, a local man whose body was found mangled in the streets Tuesday morning by an unfortunate dog-walker, was killed by one of the undead—even if all the signs point in that direction.  Or that they were seen dispatching a zombie found mere blocks away from the body—which would suggest an uncharacteristic failing to tie up loose ends on their part.  We all know that the Guild has a history of concealing the truth when they consider it in the public best interest, and they are not prone to leaving witnesses.    

          We have it on good authority that Louis Vicci, a mid-level lieutenant of the notorious Nightshade Gang was also killed by a zombie in his apartment Tuesday night—right in front of his own terrified girlfriend, who could not be reached for comment due to the fact that she is currently suffering a mental breakdown.  

          Several readers claim to have spotted undead wandering the city, though so far none of the sightings have been confirmed.  Most of them have been chocked up to too much whiskey and wild imaginations by the Powers-that-Be, but we can’t help but feel that a disturbing pattern is starting to emerge.  Our best guess?  That we have a Necromancer on our hands for the first time in over one hundred years, a thought we shudder even to consider.  

          For those readers unfamiliar with the term, Necromancers, sometimes extravagantly styled Masters of the Dead, are magic users with the ability to communicate with or control the dead.  Such behavior is considered criminal just about everywhere and most of those with the know-how were stamped out during the Inquisition.  There is a broad spectrum regarding levels of ability and social acceptability, from the more or less sanctioned fortune-tellers and mediums, scrupulous and otherwise, to those theoretically capable of commanding undead armies.  These are widely believed some of the most dangerous wizards in the world, with a standing order over five hundred years old by the Guild to kill on sight.  

          Like their masters, the undead come in a wide variety—according to the literature of course, since no living person is believed to have seen one until last week—but the most common stripe we'll just call zombies: mindless creatures with no trace remaining of their former humanity.  Left to their own devices, they are driven by an irresistible urge to kill (and possibly eat) things that are not zombies.  With a living person behind the wheel however, they’re far more dangerous.  

          For now, we would like to repeat that none of these reports have been officially confirmed.  If a Necromancer is to blame for the recent disappearances, this city just became a very dangerous place.  Not that it wasn't one already, just take a look at page thirteen!  We ask, now more than ever, that you act with care dear readers, and perhaps avoid walking the streets after dark.  Better safe than sorry, after all.  

 

          Lyfantod put the paper down thoughtfully and stared out the window.  He'd have to look into this Bones character, and the mysterious death of Silas Proote.  Zombies.  It seemed more than a little likely that they and the skeletons that he kept running into were related.  There had been reports of zombies, come to think of it, but he’d written them off as fluff.  Zombies were just too in to be taken seriously.  Perhaps it was time he rethink that approach.  After all, what were the odds that there were two people running around out there performing forbidden magic for the first time in a hundred years?  He really had to get more reliable sources of information.  

          He decided he would pay a visit to the Straw House and see if he could wring anything out of the Guild.  If anyone had any news, it would be the Strawmen.  The prospect excited him and made him nervous all at once.  It was rare enough that he had a legitimate excuse to show up at the Guild Hall, which drew him like a moth to a flame, so enticing a mystery it was—but he was, for lack of a better term, banned from the premises.  He’d just have to convince them that he was valuable to the case.  After all, they were mostly incompetent as detectives—their skills tending toward the smashing-and-burning side of things. 

          An attitude which, he reflected, might have something to do with the fact that he was unwelcome.

          Lyfantod downed the last of his coffee and rose with a feeling of purpose.  He folded the paper under his arm and and let it fall on his little wooden coffee table on the way to the kitchen, where he left his dishes in the sink to be washed at some point in the distant future.  He would make a few token inquiries, stop by Sturgis’s apartment, make sure his body hadn’t turned up in a morgue with bites taken out, and then he’d find out who the hell was trying to kill him.  This day, he thought, promises to be an interesting one.  Musing on the femurs in his desk drawer, he shrugged on his coat, tucked away his truncheon and his gun, and bracing himself against the cold, ventured out to face the frigid day.

 

Part 3