Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner, Chapter 3

Chapter Three

Before leaving, I strapped on my shoulder holster and then made a few selections from the foot locker on the floor of my closet. My 9mm handgun – a souvenir from my days on the force back in Cleveland – along with a few other goodies that I’d picked up since. I slid the 9mm into the holster and hid the rest in various places about my person, mostly in the extra pockets sewn into in the inner lining of my suit jacket, and then I was ready. Or at least as ready as I was going to get.

As we walked down the front steps of my building, Devona eyed the street full of drunken revelers. “It’s going to take some time to get through this mess.”

“You could go on ahead, and I could meet you.”

“Go on? Oh, you mean shapeshift. I don’t possess the capability of assuming a travel form. Not many half-human Bloodborn do. Although I do have other . . . talents.”

Before I could think of a witty reply, a shriek went up from the festivalgoers at the far end of the street, and the crowd began to part like water before a large yellow object careening toward us.

“Oh, no,” I moaned. “It’s Lazlo.”

Sure enough, with a rattling and knocking of the engine and a roar of purplish exhaust, Lazlo’s cab carved a path through the suddenly terrified partiers, only running down one or two in the process. Lazlo pulled up to the curb in front of my building with a pitiful squeal of brakes begging to be replaced and sent on to car-part heaven.

“Heya, Matt! How’s it hanging?”

“I’m dead, Lazlo, remember? Hanging is all it does anymore.”

Lazlo guffawed violently, his laughter a combination of genuine amusement and someone in desperate need of the Heimlich maneuver. Lazlo’s a demon whose face looks something like a cross between a mandrill and a ferret, with a little carp thrown in for good measure. And although I can’t testify to this personally, I’ve heard he smells like a toxic waste dump.

Evidently the rumors were true, for Devona recoiled as if she’d just taken a sledge hammer blow to the side of the head.

Before Lazlo could say anything else, one of the festival-goers came lumbering toward us. I’d seen it around the Sprawl before, but I didn’t know its name and I’d taken to mentally referring to it as Tri-bod. The creature had one extremely large head which looked something like a half-rotted flesh-colored pumpkin with humanoid eyes, noise, and mouth. Supporting that immense dome were three bodies – the outer two male, the one in the middle female. The two male bodies wore tuxedos, while the female was garbed in a sequin-covered evening gown. The female body could’ve graced the cover of any high-profile beauty magazine back on Earth . . . as long as the photographer made sure to shoot her from the neck down.

Tri-bod’s mushy facial features were contorted into an angry scowl, and when it spoke, its voice was a combination of male tenor, female alto, and male bass.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, dumbass! You can’t drive on the streets today! They’re closed!”

Tri-bod came up onto the sidewalk and one of its male components shoved me aside so it could lean down and look at Lazlo while it yelled at him. To help keep its balance, all six of Tri-bod’s hands grabbed hold of the cab at various points.

“You really don’t want to do that,” I warned.

Devona shot me a questioning look, but before I could answer, the hood of Lazlo’s cab sprung open, revealing a maw filled with razor-sharp teeth. A serpentine tongue whipped through the air toward Tri-bod’s middle neck and wrapped tight around the soft feminine flesh.

“I only got one rule,” Lazlo said calmly. “Hands off the cab.”

Though Tri-bod had two other sets of lungs to breathe with, its face nevertheless began to turn purple. I guess a head that big needed all the oxygen it could get.
I leaned close to one of Tri-bod’s misshapen ears. “Ever see a kid pop the head off a dandelion? If I you were you, I’d apologize.”

Tri-bod’s eyes bulged from a combination of terror and air loss. Its flabby lips moved silently several times before it finally managed to gasp out, “Sorry” in its two male voices. The female voice was silent.

Nothing happened right away, and for a moment I thought the cab wasn’t going to accept Tri-bod’s apology. But then the tongue released the woman-neck, receded into the toothsome mouth, and the hood slammed shut.

Lazlo smiled at Tri-bod, the expression truly grotesque on the cabbie’s inhuman face.

“Now, what were you saying about my not being allowed to drive here?”

“N-nevermind,” Tri-bod wheezed. The creature leaned back, took its hands off Lazlo’s cab, and beat three pairs of feet out of there. It quickly merged with the crowd and did its best to disappear into the throng. If there was anyone else around who was displeased with Lazlo’s driving, they decided to keep their feelings to themselves.
Lazlo looked up at me, his hideous smile widening into a truly appalling grin. “Need a ride, pal?”

“You know I do. When else do you show up?”

He guffawed again, sounding this time like he was about to cough up a kidney. “You slay me, Matt.” He put the engine in park, hopped out, opened the rear door, and gestured for us to climb in, bowing as he did so.
“Your chariot awaits.”

Lazlo, despite my attempts to convince him that it would be in best interest of the entire citizenry of Nekropolis, refuses to wear clothing. His body resembles a spider that’s been turned inside out and then stomped on. I’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to his rather unique anatomy over the years, but Devona’s eyes goggled.
“No offense,” she said, “but I’d prefer to walk.”

I’m sure Tri-bod’s reception by Lazlo’s cab was as much behind her reticence to get into the vehicle as was the sight – and smell – of the demon’s unclothed body.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “The cab won’t do anything as long as Lazlo vouches for us. Besides, every moment we waste is another moment for your father to find out what’s happened.” I added this last bit softly, so Lazlo wouldn’t overhear.

She hesitated, but finally agreed. “I may have to hold my nose the whole trip, though.”

“Go right ahead.” I didn’t tell her it wouldn’t help. She’d find out soon enough.
We got into the cab; Lazlo closed the door, hopped behind the driver’s seat, and put the car in gear.

“Surprise me, Lazlo,” I said, “and try not to drive like a maniac for a ch – ” That’s as far as I got before Lazlo slammed on the gas and I was thrown back against the seat.

He hung half out of his open window, shouting, “Out of the way, morons!”

Most of the celebrants scattered, but despite what had happened to Tri-bod a few moments ago, a massive bull-headed man wearing an I’M HORNY t-shirt wasn’t – pardon the expression – cowed so easily. He planted his feet firmly on the ground and braced himself for impact.

“Look at the size of him!” Devona cried. “Swerve!”

But there was no point shouting at Lazlo. He never listened to passengers’ suggestions. “After all,” he once told me, “I’m the professional.”

“Hold on!” I warned Devona, and then there was a loud crash and the cab shuddered and jerked; but it kept moving. Behind us, falling quickly away in the distance, came the wounded bellow of one very unhappy – but lucky to be alive – minotaur.

“Hah!” Lazlo barked in triumph. “That’ll teach that udder-sucker to play chicken with me!” He turned around to look at us, and grinned. “So where we headed, folks?”

“Put your eyes back on the road, and I’ll tell you,” I said nervously. The last time Lazlo turned around to talk to me, we almost ended up taking a flame bath in Phlegethon.

Lazlo laughed, but did as I asked, so I said, “The Cathedral. And we’d like to get there in as close to one piece as possible.”

“Gotcha. You two just sit back and enjoy the ride.” He pointed his cab in the general direction of the Bridge of Nine Sorrows – the crossing point between the Sprawl and Gothtown – and pressed down on the accelerator.

“Enjoy the ride?” Devona said, her nails digging into the greasy fabric of the seat. “Not until it’s over!”

I had to agree.

A few blocks from my townhouse, Lazlo was forced to stop when a fight erupted between a group of lykes and several vampires. Even Lazlo wouldn’t try to drive through that mess. Things got pretty bloody for a bit, until a Sentinel came charging through the crowd, knocking aside those who didn’t get out of its way fast enough, and broke the conflict up, basically by breaking the combatants up. The Sentinels are Father Dis’ police force: eight feet tall, massive, gray-fleshed, featureless golems that are strong as hell and, as far as I know, completely invulnerable. The lykes and vamps tried to fight back, but they never had a chance. When it was over, the Sentinel tossed their bloody, broken bodies into an alley and stomped off. The fighters would heal, eventually, but in the meantime, they wouldn’t be bothering anyone.

As Lazlo pulled away from the scene, I said, “Every time I see a Sentinel in action, I can’t help thinking we could’ve used a few during my days on the force in Cleveland. Sure would’ve made life a lot easier.”

“For the cops, maybe,” Lazlo said. “But the morticians would’ve been a hell of a lot busier.”

“I’ve never seen a Sentinel before,” Devona said quietly.

I looked at her, surprised. “You’re kidding.”

She gave a small shrug. “I don’t get out of Gothtown, much.”

From her tone, I knew she wanted that to be the end of it, so I leaned forward and said to Lazlo, “Hear anything interesting on the street lately?”

We’d reached the Obsidian Way, the only road that passes through all five of the Darklords’ Dominions. There was a Hemlocks next to the on-ramp, and a skeletal being in a sombrero who looked like a picture on a Mexican Day of the Dead postcard came out of the coffee shop, carrying a grande-sized drink of one sort or another. The bone-man made the mistake of stepping into the street just as Lazlo came barrel-assing along, and the demon barely yanked the steering wheel to the right in time to avoid turning El Hombre Muerte into a pile of bleached-white pick-up sticks.

Lalzo flipped off the bone-man as the cab roared onto the Obsidian Way. The road’s glossy black surface is hard as diamond, though it’s not slick, and there’s never a crack or chip in it. Despite how crowded the streets of the Sprawl were, the Way was empty of anything save other vehicles. The road was constructed by Father Dis two hundred years ago, at the end of the Blood Wars, when the Darklords fought each other for control over Nekropolis. One of the Accords that resulted from the war states that travel throughout the city on the Obsidian Way, including across the Five Bridges, is not to be impeded for any reason, not even by the Darklords themselves. Once travelers leave the Way, however, all bets are off and they go at their own not inconsiderable risk.

Of course, just because that was the law didn’t mean that everyone always followed it – Darklords included. So it paid to keep an eye out for trouble when traveling on the Obsidian Way. Traffic was lighter than usual because of Descension Day, but there were still a fair number of vehicles sharing the road with us. Some were ordinary-seeming vehicles imported from Earth – sensible fuel-efficient cars, sports cars built for speed and status, family-sized vans and gas-guzzling SUV’s. But this was Nekropolis, which meant most of the vehicles rolling along the Obsidian Way were of a rather more exotic nature.

I saw an Agony DeLite, a car made out of a dozen masochistic humans – their hands and feet providing the motive force instead of wheels. Such vehicles are powered by their components’ suffering. They moan at idle, yell when moving, and scream when the vehicle is traveling at high speed. The humans that form the car love the pain, and they’re enchanted so that all of their wounds heal instantly. But from what I understand, the drivers have to work damned hard to hurt the vehicles in just the right ways to coax maximum performance out of them, and in addition the upkeep is a real bitch. You can spend a small fortune buying new and ever more deviant S&M equipment.

There were several Carapacers on the road as well, hollowed-out giant insect husks animated to serve as vehicles, scuttling along at high speeds, and something I’d never seen before: a gigantic chrome-covered flatworm which undulated past us so swiftly I barely got a good look at it. Lazlo’s cab growled as the thing flew by, but the demon shushed it softly and patted the dashboard to keep the vehicle calm.
Once the cab had settled into a groove, Lazlo responded to my question. “I hear lots of things, Matt. Rumor has it that the Conglomeration tried to absorb one too many bodies and ended up in the Fever House, where it’s being treated for separation anxiety. I also heard there was a riot at Sinsation last night when they ran out of aqua sanguis and tried to replace it by draining water out of the toilet tanks and adding red food coloring.”

“Fascinating,” I said, “but I was thinking more along the lines of crime-related activity. For example, hear about any big thefts recently?”

Devona frowned, but she didn’t object to my asking.

“Big thefts? How big?”

“Big. We’re talking about an object of power, Lazlo. A lot of power.”

“Can’t say as I have, Matt. But I’ll keep my ear to the ground.”

“Just so long as you keep your wheels on the ground, Lazlo.”

The demon guffawed as turned on the cab’s radio and turned it to Bedlam 66.6, the most popular station in the city.

A song ended and the DJ’s fake-enthusiastic voice came through the cab’s tinny speakers. “That was the latest from Midnight Syndicate’s new album, The Dead Matter. Happy Descension Day, Nekropolis! Eat, drink, and be scary! And now, by request, let’s give a listen to the music of Erich Zann.”

Unearthly sounds that bore only the faintest resemblance to music filtered forth from the speakers, and Lazlo hummed along in voice that sounded like a rabid weasel slitting its own throat. The demon kept the gas pedal jammed to the floor as he continued the insane kamikaze death-race he called driving, and Devona and I held on for dear life, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

* * * * *

Once we crossed the Bridge of Nine Sorrows and entered Gothtown, Lalzo pulled off the Obsidian Way, and we drove through the Dominion’s narrow streets. I really could’ve done without the cobblestones, though, especially at the speed at which Lazlo drove over them. Before long, even my dead kidneys were starting to ache from the abuse.

The Sprawl is to Nekropolis what the French Quarter is to New Orleans – which is exactly the way Lady Varvara likes it – and thus the majority of the Descension celebration was taking place there. But that didn’t mean Gothtown was deserted. Lazlo passed a number of horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping along, as well as midnight-black stretch limos silently cruising the streets, all likely bearing their occupants to various private parties. The older vampires tend to keep to themselves and their Dominion; it’s the younger ones who seek out the more decadent lifestyle offered by the Sprawl.

Gothtown itself lives up to its name: every street looks like a set-piece for an old Universal horror flick, buildings of gray stone sporting arches, spikes, towers, turrets, and gargoyles. Gothtown is the cultural, historical, and artistic center of the city, which only makes sense given how long the Bloodborn live. They prefer anything of a classical nature, meaning anything as old as they are. The best art and historical museums, the grandest concert halls, and the most-respected theatre district in the city are all located here. And while the elder Bloodborn tend to look down their undead noses at other species in general, they admire non-vampires who display high intelligence or exceptional artistic skill, so it’s not uncommon to find a demon painter with a Bloodborn patron living in Gothtown, or a mixed-species orchestra performing in one of the concert halls. Nekropolis’s hospital, the Fever House, where the poor Conglomeration was evidently at that very moment missing out on all the Descension fun, is also located in Gothtown. The Bloodborn aren’t particularly known for their mercy, but they do have an ancient tradition of keeping blood – both theirs and that of their food supply – pure, hence their highly developed knowledge of medicine.

We kept driving for a time and finally the Cathedral hove into view. I asked Lazlo to let us off a couple blocks away.

“Will do, Matt.”

Lazlo slowed and actually came to a stop without slamming on the brakes and fishtailing for a half dozen yards as he usually does. Maybe his driving skills were beginning to improve. Or maybe he figured we’d suffered enough for one ride and decided to take pity on us. Whichever, he stopped and we got out. Being dead, I guess my sense of balance was less affected by the tumultuous ride than Devona’s. As soon as her feet touched the cobblestones, her knees buckled under her. She would’ve fallen if I hadn’t managed to catch her in time.

I helped her stand, and she nodded to indicate she was okay. I wasn’t so certain, but I took my hands away. She stood a trifle unsteadily, but she stood.

She turned to Lazlo. “How much do we owe you?”

The demon’s fur turned crimson, and his cab began to growl beneath the hood. “Owe me?” he said, as if grievously insulted. “Lady, Matthew Richter and his friends never have to pay to ride in my cab – not after what he did for me!” And then with a wave and a wink of one bulbous bloodshot eye, he roared off to endanger lives elsewhere in the city.

“What did he mean by that?” Devona asked.

“I’ve done favors for other people besides you. But I don’t think Lazlo would appreciate me discussing the particulars.”

She scowled. “You didn’t seem too reluctant to discuss my problem when you were asking him questions. ‘Hear about any big thefts recently?’ I told you I don’t want anyone to find out what’s happened – especially Lord Galm.”

“One of the things I hated the most when I was alive was people trying to tell me how to do my job. And that hasn’t changed now that I’m dead. You want me to find the Dawnstone? Then I’m going to have to ask questions. And you’ll just have to trust me to do so as discretely as possible. You don’t have to worry about Lazlo. He won’t say anything; he’s good people, even if he is a demon.”

She looked like she was going to say something, but then thought better about it. “All right. I’m sorry I questioned you. Now let’s go.”

We started walking toward the Cathedral.

“By the way,” Devona asked, “how did Lazlo know to come get us?”

“I have no idea. Sometimes he just shows up when I need him.”

“That’s odd,” she said.

I laughed. “You’re a half-human vampire who’s asked a zombie ex-cop to help you track down a stolen magic crystal – and you think Lazlo’s odd?”

She smiled. “You’ve got a point.”

We walked to the end of the street, turned the corner, and before us lay the Cathedral, the seat of Lord Galm’s power. I’ve never been to Europe, but I’ve seen pictures of the great Gothic cathedrals. But this place made them all look like tarpaper shacks. It rose four, maybe five hundred feet into the sky (Umbriel’s strange shadowlight sometimes makes it hard to judge distances correctly). I’d never been this close before, and if I still breathed, the sheer insane scope of the structure would have taken my breath away. If I hadn’t known this was Galm’s home, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover the name “Jehovah” stenciled on the mailbox.
A number of carriages, and one or two limos. were lined up outside the Cathedral.

Handsome men and beautiful women with chalk-white skin were disembarking and entering through the vast entranceway between twin black oak doors at least fifty feet tall. The Bloodborn’s clothing represented numerous eras in Earth’s history: ancient Rome and Greece, Elizabethan England, medieval France, colonial America, the Aztec and Mayan Empires, feudal Japan, and many more time periods, cultures, and countries that I didn’t recognize. I was impressed despite myself.

“Lord Galm always hosts a reception for the elite of the Bloodborn before the Renewal Ceremony,” Devona said. “A number of dignitaries even return from Earth to attend.”

“There are still vampires on Earth? I thought all the Darkfolk, vampires included, had migrated to Nekropolis.”

“Most did. But some remained behind, hidden, to look after the Lords’ interests on Earth – and to keep trade routes open.”

That explained how so much modern technology had found its way to Nekropolis. Even across dimensions, the law of supply and demand still held sway.

I felt a pang at the thought of the dimensional portal housed within the Cathedral. Each Darklord had one; I had entered Nekropolis through Lady Varvara’s. But any one of them would return me to Earth, if not to my hometown of Cleveland. But they wouldn’t do me any good now that I was dead.

I had heard of the Renewal Ceremony before, of course, but I didn’t know much about it. But I had more immediate concerns right then. “Maybe this isn’t the best time to examine the Collection. Things look awfully busy right now.”

“No, it’s the perfect time. Everyone is so caught up in the reception that no one will notice us.”

“I don’t think too many zombies received engraved invitations to Lord Galm’s party.”
“There’ll be quite a few humans there as well. Ones who are . . . drawn to the Bloodborn.”

“I know what you mean. Shadows.” Vampire groupies who get their rocks off by having their blood drained, or who hope to form a relationship with a vampire and become one of the Bloodborn. Or both. They’re called Shadows because they stick close to whichever vampire claims them – and because over time the cumulative blood loss makes them thin, pale shadows of their former selves.

“If anyone takes note of your pallor, and the way you walk, they’ll just think you’re another Shadow.” She smiled, almost shyly. “My Shadow.”

I frowned. “What’s wrong with the way I walk?”

“Never mind.” She took my elbow, the strength of her grip surprising me even though it shouldn’t have, and led me across the cobblestone street toward the Cathedral. I tried very hard not to feel self-conscious about my slightly stiff-legged zombie gait.

A crimson carpet, appropriately enough, had been laid out for the occasion, and we walked across it, up the steps, and toward the open doorway. Above the entrance perched a clutch of snarling stone gargoyles, and as we came closer, I could have sworn that one of them moved the slightest bit. I tried to tell myself that it was my imagination, but I wasn’t very convincing.

Whether they were just statues or something else, the gargoyles remained motionless after that, and then we were in.

Before us stretched a long stone corridor with torches burning in wall sconces. The flames were green-tinted – the same fire as that which burned in Phlegethon? I didn’t know. But whatever the nature of the flame, it produced no smoke. No heat, either, as near as my dead nerves could tell. Still, I didn’t want to get too close. No sense taking a chance on becoming zombie barbecue.

“We’ll just take the corridor to the ballroom, and then keep on going,” Devona whispered.

I nodded slightly. We were on her turf; all I could do was follow her lead.
As we continued, the mingled sounds of merriment – tinkling glasses, the buzz of conversation punctuated by an occasional burst of laughter, the soft lyrical sound of a string quartet – grew louder. The couple before us, who were garbed in Roman togas as white as their alabaster skin, were greeted enthusiastically at the ballroom entrance by a large burly vampire dressed like a Scottish highlander.

The highlander said something I didn’t catch, and the three of them broke into peals of laughter. But their merriment had a dark edge to it, and I was glad I hadn’t overheard what had sparked it.

We reached the ballroom and kept going, passing the Romans and the highlander who were still chuckling over whatever black joke had amused them. And although I shouldn’t have done it, was risking drawing attention to ourselves – or specifically to my non-vampiric, non-human, not-invited-to-the-party self – I couldn’t resist taking a quick look into the ballroom. What can I say? A curious nature was one of the things which led me to become a cop in the first place.

The ballroom was gigantic, four stories high at least. The floor and walls were completely covered by a smooth, mirrored surface that reflected the greenish light from the wall sconces, a scattering of people whom I took to be human, and nothing else – despite the fact that the room was packed with men and woman garbed in all manner of historical dress. Among those whose reflections were visible, however, were strolling human musicians who wandered through the room, along with equally mortal singers, comedians, jugglers, acrobats, and stage magicians. When the humans’ performances met with the Bloodborn’s approval, they received polite applause, and if the vampires were particularly amused, they might slip a performer a few darkgems as well. But when the performers didn’t quite measure up . . . well, the humans had more to offer than their meager talents, and the Bloodborn weren’t shy about taking their entertainment in liquid form.

I tried to catch a glimpse of myself in the wall mirror, but there was so many people milling about I couldn’t. I did, however, see a hazy ghost image of a petite blonde for just a moment. Devona was half human. It only made sense she would cast half a reflection.

But as impressive as the gathering of Bloodborn royalty was in and of itself, one thing was more impressive still. In the center of the room stood a great marble fountain, and bubbling forth from it a thick shower of reddish-black liquid. I told myself the viscous fluid couldn’t really be what it seemed; that it was either aqua sanguis, the synthetic blood substitute produced in the Sprawl, or a decorative effect of some sort achieved through Lord Galm’s dark arts. I almost believed it, too.

And then Devona and I were past the ballroom and continuing down the corridor.

“I don’t think anyone noticed us,” Devona said, relieved.

“I hope you’re right.”

After a few dozen more feet we came to a winding stone staircase. Devona removed a torch from a sconce on the wall and started up the stairs. I held back a little. Maybe the torch wasn’t lit with real fire, but zombie-flesh is dry, bloodless, and very flammable. I wasn’t about to take any chances.

Devona led the way up: two, four, seven floors. I don’t tire as I did when alive, but just to break the silence, I said, “I wonder if Lord Galm has ever considered installing an elevator.”

“Most Bloodborn don’t need to rely on stairs,” she answered. “They have their travel forms. Besides, Father won’t have anything to do with technology. He thinks it a decadence which promotes laziness of the mind and spirit.”

I wondered what Galm thought of those Bloodborn who’d arrived in limousines that night. I thought of asking Devona, but I decided to stick to business instead. “I didn’t notice Lord Galm in the ballroom.”

“He’s probably still meditating, marshaling his power for the Renewal Ceremony.”

I thought I might take the opportunity to find out more about the ceremony – it struck me as awfully coincidental that one of Lord Galm’s most powerful mystic objects should just happen to vanish so close to the Renewal Ceremony. But then we reached the ninth floor and Devona gestured that we should stop.

Devona stuck her head into the corridor, looked both ways, and then motioned for me to follow. I did, but to the right I saw a window, and I couldn’t resist stepping over to it and taking a quick peek outside.

The window was covered with thick iron bars, but that wasn’t the only protection. I could hear, or rather almost hear, a hum in the air, like the ultrasonic whine of an alarm system.

“Don’t stand too close,” Devona said. “The wardspell on the window is a particularly deadly one.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

The borders of Nekropolis form a perfect pentagram, and the points of the pentagram – connected by the flaming barrier of Phlegethon – are the strongholds of the five Darklords. This window faced outward from Nekropolis and toward the Null Plains: a flat black featureless expanse which stretched to the horizon. A whole hell of a lot of Nothing.

I’d only seen the Null Plains a couple times before, but viewing them always gave me the creeps. There was something about the blackness that the human (or zombie) eye couldn’t quite deal with, a subtle movement, nearly undetectable, like glacially slow tides of solid darkness sliding and swirling against one another.

I thought of crazy Carl and the headline of his idiotic “newspaper” – WATCHERS FROM OUTSIDE PLOT CITY’S DESTRUCTION – and I couldn’t help shuddering. Looking out at the endless darkness, I could almost believe something was out there, watching, waiting . . .

“Not much to see,” Devona said.

“Not much,” I agreed, turning away from the window. There was nothing out there, certainly not any Watchers. Carl was a loon, and that was the end of it.

We continued down the corridor past a series of solid-looking wooden doors, each of which appeared to be exactly like the one before it, until we came to a door which didn’t seem particularly special, but evidently was, for Devona stopped.

“This is it. The entrance to the Collection.” She unzipped her leather jacket
halfway to her waist to reveal an iron key hanging on a chain between her partially exposed breasts.

As she detached the key from the chain, I asked, “Is this the only key to the chamber?”

She nodded. “Not even Lord Galm has one. But then, he doesn’t need a key. The door is spelled to open at his touch.” She moved to insert the key in the lock – not having bothered to zip up her jacket (like I said, I pay attention to details) – but I grabbed her wrist before she could.

“Let me have a look first.” I let go of her wrist and knelt down to examine the lock.
There aren’t too many good things about being a zombie, but one of them is that, while my thought processes sometime take a little longer than they used to, I’m able to focus my attention and concentrate like crazy. The dead aren’t easily distracted.

The lock appeared to be made of the same iron as the key. The door handle rested directly above it. I looked closely for scratches, nicks, or dents – anything which might indicate the lock had been picked or forced. There were none.

I straightened. “Let’s go in.” I stepped aside, and Devona inserted the key. The lock turned with a metallic clack, she pushed open the door, and Lord Galm’s great Collection was laid bare before us.

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