Monday, August 31, 2009

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner - Chapter Four

Chapter Four

And most impressive it was.

The stone walls were covered with weapons, from simple wooden spears and bows to highly polished swords and ornate jewel-encrusted daggers. There were broadaxes far too large for anyone possessed of merely human strength to wield, and a series of maces and morningstars, each covered with larger and crueler spikes than the last.

The floor was taken up by stone tables, daises, and columns upon which rested a variety of non-military objects: a tiny golden skull which glowed with a soft, gentle yellow light; an Egyptian scarab carved from jade, but which nevertheless moved, scratching away at the inner surface of the glass globe which imprisoned it; a stereopticon constructed entirely of what appeared to be spider silk, a stack of picture cards next to it, displaying what looked like Tarot images; and on and on. There were no placards, no labels to name the objects, but after nearly thirty years of tending the Collection, I doubted Devona needed any.

The Collection communicated an almost tangible sensation of antiquity, and for the first time I had an inkling of what it truly meant to be immortal.

“I’m surprised everything’s out in the open like this,” I said.

“They’re protected by wardspells placed by Lord Galm himself.”

“I don’t much know about magic, but as I understand, certain spells have to be renewed from time to time.” Like the preservative spells which, up until that point anyway, had kept me from crumbling into a pile of rotten hamburger. “Maybe some of these, specifically the one protecting the Dawnstone, are due for a recharge.”

She shook her head. “My job is to oversee the Collection, which means that I primarily monitor the wardspells. Lord Galm saw to it that I was taught just enough spellcraft to check the wards, but not enough to actually tamper with them. The wardspells Lord Galm employs are powerful and intricate. It takes me over six hours to check them all. And the first thing I did when I realized the Dawnstone was missing was examine the ward which protected it. The spell was intact and not due to be recharged by Lord Galm for some time.”

“Is it possible for someone with enough magical know-how to circumvent the wardspell?”

Devona thought about that for a minute.

“I suppose, but it’s highly unlikely. Another Darklord might be able to do it, but then a Darklord could never enter the Cathedral without Lord Galm knowing.”

It was my turn to think. “How about any of the visitors from Earth? Do any of them possess enough power and skill?”

“There are some who are almost as ancient as my father, and certainly as cunning,” she admitted. “But Father keeps a very close eye on them when they’re in Nekropolis.”

“Might he have brought one of them up here to show off his Collection and – ”

“No,” she interrupted. “Father is a private man, and not given to bragging.”

“I see. It strikes me as odd that someone – ” I couldn’t bring myself to call Lord Galm a man – “who is so secretive and possessive about his Collection should entrust its care to another, no matter how worthy of that trust she might be.”

“Father is very, very old, and his mind . . .” She paused. “After millennia of existence, time doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to you and me. Not only would the constant examination of the wardspells waste hours which he could be spending on more important matters, quite frankly, months, perhaps years, might go by before he remembered to check the wards.”

“So you got your job because your dad has a lousy memory.”

She smiled ruefully. “Something like that.”

I nodded. It was looking more and more like Lord Galm – despite Devona’s assurance that he would never do so – had removed the Dawnstone for reasons of his own, reasons he had elected not to share with the guardian of his Collection. But I decided to continue my examination of the room anyway. After all, that’s what she was paying me for.

“Show me where the Dawnstone was.”

Devona led me through the maze of clutter that was Lord Galm’s Collection until we came to a narrow stone column with nothing on it.

“It was here. Don’t get closer than a foot or so,” she warned. “The wardspell’s still active.”

“And we don’t want to alert Lord Galm that we’re here. Right.” I stood as close as I could and took a look at the spot where the Dawnstone had rested. I didn’t know what I thought I might see, but then I never do; that’s why you look.

At first glance there appeared to be nothing special about the flat surface of the column. Just smooth gray stone, no cracks, no sign of age. The column might have been chiseled yesterday for all I could tell. Part of the wardspell’s protective qualities?

Another thing about being dead: my patience has increased. When I was alive, I would’ve given the column a quick look or two, and then moved on. But now I scanned each inch thoroughly, and then I did it again. It was on my second pass over the column that I saw, in what from my vantage was the far righthand corner, a couple tiny specks of white powder.

I smiled. Score one for the dead man.

I pointed the specks out to Devona. “Know any vampires with dandruff?”

She ignored the joke and instead leaned forward and looked closely at the white grains.

After a bit, she straightened and said, “I have no idea what that is. Do you?”

“Maybe,” I said, declining to elaborate. “There’s no way we can reach it, is there? Not without setting off the wardspell’s alarm.”

She nodded.

“Figures. Well, if there are two specks, maybe there’s more.” I asked Devona to stand back, and then got down on my hands and knees – my zombie joints creaking in protest and did my best impersonation of a bloodhound, crawling slowly across the floor, face only inches above the stone and searched. I had the patience, the ability to hyper-focus my attention, and I didn’t breathe, so I didn’t have to worry about accidentally blowing any specks away before I could find them.

It took some time, but I located five more grains, all of which I collected with a pair of tweezers and slipped into a small white envelope. I never was a Boy Scout, but I know enough to be prepared all the same. And the gods of evidence collection were in a beneficent mood that day, for I also stumbled across a hair.

I gripped it in my tweezers, stood, and showed it to Devona. It wasn’t especially long, but longer than mine (which doesn’t grow anymore; another of the few fringe benefits being a zombie: no trips to the barber). It was difficult to tell the color in the greenish light of the torch, but it appeared to be –

“Red,” Devona pronounced.

“I think you’re right. Lord Galm’s?”

“He has brown hair; and his is much longer than this.”

“Well, it’s not yours. That is, unless you’re not a natural blonde.”

She smiled. “As half Bloodborn, I suppose I qualify as an unnatural blonde. But no, I don’t color my hair.”

I took another envelope out of my jacket and carefully placed the hair within. I didn’t bother to seal it – no saliva – and tucked the envelope and tweezers away in a pocket.

“Know anyone with red hair who might somehow gain access?”

“Well . . . There’s Varma, I suppose. But I don’t see how he could possibly get in here.”

“Who’s Varma?”

“One of Lord Galm’s bloodchildren – a human that’s been fully transformed. He’s one of Father’s favorites, though why, I don’t know. He’s an irresponsible hedonist.”

“That’s a fine way to talk about your own brother.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew they were the wrong thing to say: Devona’s jaw tensed and her eyes flashed. Literally.

“He’s not my brother!” she snapped. It might have been my imagination, but her canines seemed longer, sharper. “In Bloodborn terms, we’re considered the equivalent of cousins. Distant cousins at that.”

I held up my hands in what I hoped was a placating gesture. “Okay. I’m not here to untangle the roots of your family tree. I’m here to help you find out what happened to the Dawnstone.”

She glared at me for a moment longer, and then, with a sigh, relaxed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that half humans like me are looked down upon by the fully Bloodborn. To put it mildly. I’m not sure Father would ever have given me my position if I hadn’t displayed a talent for magic. It’s one of the few advantages of being half human: we tend to possess more aptitude for magic and psychic feats than the fully Bloodborn.”

I understood then why her position and its attendant duties meant so much to her. It was a way for her to feel important, to be something more than just a mere half breed in the eyes of the fully Bloodborn – and most significantly, in the eyes of her father.

I understood how she felt, at least a little. I was a zombie – not human anymore, not even alive. I’d seen the looks of disgust, heard the jokes and taunts, especially when my latest batch of preservative spells started to wear off and I didn’t look my best. I knew what it was like to feel less than everyone around you.
If she couldn’t get the Dawnstone back, she’d consider herself a failure to the Bloodborn, to her father, and especially to herself.

I was determined to do my best to see that didn’t happen, whether I kept my body from crumbling to dust or not.

“I didn’t mean to snap at you like that,” Devona said.

“Forget it. We’ve all got something that pushes our hot button.”

“What about you?”

“With me, it’s flies who mistake me for a nursery. Now let’s go see if we can find
Varma. I’ve got a few questions to ask him."

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.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner, Chapter 2

Chapter Two

Papa Chatha’s shop was on the other side of the Sprawl from Skully’s, and while navigating the maze of cramped streets was never easy, this time of year it was a nightmare, both figuratively and literally. It was the anniversary of the Descension, and the Sprawl, always party central for Nekropolis, had become a mix of Las Vegas and Disneyland (assuming the Haunted Mansion had exploded and taken over the entire park) during both Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve. Beings of every description – and quite a few who defied description – choked the streets, drinking, shouting, singing, groping, slapping, hitting, dancing, screwing . . . You name the verb, they were doing it. It was Halloween as scripted by Franz Kafka, with costumes and set design by Salvador Dali.
Umbriel, the shadowsun, hung motionless in the starless sky, fixed in the same position it holds day in, day out, its strange diffuse light maintaining the city’s perpetual dusk. And directly below Umbriel, rising forth from the ground like a gigantic obsidian talon, visible from anywhere in Nekropolis, rested the Nightspire, home to Father Dis, founder of Nekropolis and its absolute ruler. And in many ways, its God.

Over three hundred years ago, the Darkfolk, rather than deal with an increasingly populous, aggressive, and technologically advanced mankind, decided to leave Earth. Led by Father Dis and the five lesser Lords, they traveled to a distant dark dimension where Nekropolis was born. This leavetaking, which the Darkfolk call the Descension, is Nekropolis’s most sacred holiday. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a gigantic pain in the ass.

The Sprawl was crowded at the best of times, but this was madness. Normally, the streets were filled with traffic, vehicles of every type and description – and many that defied description – racing this way and that, drivers searching impatiently for whatever pleasures they’d come to the Sprawl to find. But because of the Descension celebration, the Sprawl was presently closed to vehicular traffic, and masses of partiers thronged the streets, as if determined to take advantage of the one day during the year when Nekropolitans could stand in the middle of the street and not risk getting run down by cars . . . or devoured by things only pretending to be cars.

The sidewalks weren’t much better, but I shoved my way through the crowds as best I could, past bars, clubs, restaurants, and establishments offering more esoteric – and often stomach-turning – entertainments. I’d have kept one hand on the few darkgems I carried to prevent pickpockets from taking them, but I needed my good arm to carry my detached one.

I was passing by Sawney B’s, a fast-food franchise established by descendents of the infamous Scottish cannibal, when a trio standing outside the restaurant’s cave-entrance façade turned to look at me. A bald man with large spider legs growing out of his head held a container of lady fingers, while his friends – a being who looked like a lobster in a leisure suit and a well-built woman with pythons instead of arms – sipped a marrow shake and nibbled homunculus nuggets, respectively.

The bald man was about to pop a lady finger with cherry-red nail polish into his mouth when he stopped and pointed the finger at me. “Hey, check it out! The guy’s been disarmed!”

The three gourmands laughed. I stopped walking and turned to scowl at them.

“I only need one arm to yank those legs off your head and shove them where Umbriel doesn’t shine.”

The laughter died in their throats and I continued on my way to Papa Chatha’s.

The architecture in the Sprawl is a mad conglomeration of styles – Art Deco, Tudor, Baroque, Victorian, Post-Modern, Frank Lloyd Wright, and buildings which look like structures made from regurgitated insect resin. The whole place is like an M. C. Escher fever dream. But the Sprawl is Lady Varvara’s Dominion, and zoning isn’t exactly high on the Demon Queen’s list of priorities.

After struggling through the drunken, drugged-up throngs for what could only have been an hour or so but which felt more like a handful of eternities, I saw the greenish tint against the sky which told me I was nearing the flaming river Phlegethon and the Bridge of Nine Sorrows. Papa Chatha’s was close by – finally.

And then I felt a hand on my shoulder; or rather, I felt the pressure of a hand on my shoulder, as that was all the sensation my dead nerves were capable of conveying.

“Excuse me.”

The voice was soft, feminine, and nervous. But while I’d been in Nekropolis only a couple years, that was long enough to know that in this place appearances mean jack. So I stepped forward, and whirled about, body tensed, ready to fight, holding my detached arm out before me like a weapon.

The woman – the leather-clad blonde I’d seen at Skully’s – took a step back, startled by my action. But then she regained her composure, or at least a good portion of it, and said, “I watched you handle that lyke in the bar. A most impressive performance, Mr. Richter.”

She was barely five feet tall, slim to the point of being model-thin, with pale porcelain skin. Her short hair was bright blonde, almost white. Her eyes were large and red, as if from crying. Or perhaps too much celebrating. “Yeah, well the next show isn’t till midnight. Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go see a voodoo priest.” I turned to go.

“Wait, please!”

The urgency in her voice, almost panic, made me hesitate. “Look, whatever it is, can’t it wait? I’m no expert, but as I understand these things, if I don’t get my arm reattached soon, I’ll lose it for good.”

“I . . . it’s just . . .” She looked around, as if afraid someone might be listening, though how anyone could overhear us talking in the din of celebration, I didn’t know. Hell, I could barely hear us. She leaned forward and mumbled something.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to speak up.”

She looked around once more and then said, with exaggerated lip movements so I’d be sure not to miss it this time, “I need you.”

I was flattered, and like I said earlier, she was very attractive. Still, I couldn’t take advantage of her offer even if I wanted to. “Sorry, I don’t go in for that kind of thing anymore. I’m dead. And I don’t get off on fulfilling other people’s necrophiliac fantasies. Enjoy the festival.” This time I did go, forging a path through the partiers in the general direction of Papa Chatha’s.

“You don’t understand.” Her words sounded in my ear, and although I couldn’t feel her breath, I was sure it was cold, like a draft from an open grave.

“Vampire, right?” I said without turning around. “That’s why I didn’t hear you come up behind me just now.”

“Please, we prefer the term Bloodborn.”

“And I’d rather be referred to as Previously Living, but at the end of the day I’m still just a damned walking corpse.” I would’ve loved to shake her off my trail, but even if the street hadn’t been so crowded, I probably couldn’t. I’m not as fast as I used to be, and at my fastest, I’m still standing still compared to a vampire . . . excuse me, one of the Bloodborn.

So I just kept on slogging through the crowd toward Papa Chatha’s, and hoped she’d get bored soon and go find another dead man to put the moves on. I’d used my handvox – Nekropolis’s version of a cell phone – to call Papa earlier. He’d been out celebrating at his favorite hangout, the Bar Sinister, but when I told him I needed some serious repair work, he promised he’d be home when I got there. Papa’s the best houngan a dead man could have.

“They say you’re a detective.”

That’s when I realized the vampire wasn’t warm for my undead form. I felt stupid, but I wasn’t about to show it. “They say wrong. When I was alive, I was a cop, yes. But I’m not alive anymore.” I wiggled my detached arm to emphasize my point.

“But you helped that woman, the one the lyke killed.”

“Sometimes I do favors for people – for a fee. Preservative spells don’t come cheap, you know.”

“I am in desperate need of a favor. And I can pay. Please!”

She sounded as if she might burst into tears at any moment. But that wasn’t what made me stop. I knew Papa Chatha would only give me so much for Honani’s soul. And now thanks to that miserable lyke ripping off my arm, I needed more work done than when I’d decided to help Lyra. More work than Honani’s rotten spirit would pay for.

It wasn’t her beauty, and it wasn’t the threat of her tears. It was the money. Really.

I turned around. “All right, Miss . . ?”

“Devona,” she supplied. “Devona Kanti.”

“You can come along, Devona. We can talk after I see Papa. But I’m not promising anything,” I cautioned.

“Of course.” But she smiled in relief just the same.

* * * * *

I rotated my left arm and then flexed it a couple times.

“How’s it feel?” Papa Chatha asked.

“A bit loose,” I admitted.

Papa ran long, slender black fingers through his short gray hair, and then sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

Papa Chatha was a dignified, handsome black man in his sixties, with a tattoo of a blue butterfly spread across his smooth-shaven face. The edges of the butterfly’s wings seemed to ripple, but it was probably just my imagination.

I scanned the shelves in Papa’s workroom, taking in the multitude of materials that a professional voodoo practitioner needs to perform his art: wax-sealed vials filled with ground herbs and dried chemicals, jars containing desiccated bits of animals – rooster claws, lizard tails, raven wings – candles of all sizes and colors, varying lengths of rope tied in complicated patterns of knots, small dolls made of corn shucks and horsehair, books and scrolls piled on tabletops next to rattles and tambourines of various sizes, along with pouches of tobacco, chocolate bars, and bottles of rum. Papa said he used the latter three substances to make offerings to the Loa, the voodoo spirits, and while I had no reason to doubt him, I’ve noticed that he tends to run out of rum before anything else.

Papa sat on the only chair in his workroom, a simple wooden stool, and smoothed his loose white pants which matched his pullover shirt. He then tapped his bare toes on the wooden floor.
I had the impression he was stalling.

“You’re a self-willed zombie, Matt. Do you have any idea how rare that is?” He had a deep, resonant voice that was usually full of good humor. But he was somber today.

“From what you’ve told me, pretty damned rare.”

He nodded. “Most zombies are merely reanimated corpses, bereft of souls, linked to the lifeforce of the sorcerer who raised them from the dead. It’s this link, this sharing of a living being’s lifeforce, which prevents their dead flesh from withering away. But you have no master.” He frowned. “How did you become a zombie, anyway, Matt? You’ve never told me.”

“Just too stubborn to die, I suppose.”

Papa looked at me a long moment before going on. “Since you have no master – ”

“I know,” I interrupted. “I need you and your magic to keep my body in tip-top condition.”
Papa gestured at the collection of odds and ends that cluttered the shelves and benches of his workroom. “My meager arts can only do so much, Matt. And I fear they’ve done all they can for you.”

I don’t feel emotions the same way I did when I was alive, but I felt an echo of fear at Papa Chatha’s words. “What do you mean?”

“That this last application of preservative spells almost didn’t take. And they may not last more than two, three days.”

“You mean – ”

“We’ve staved off the inevitable as long as we could, my friend. I’m sorry.”

I felt like a man who’d just been told by his doctor that he only had a short time to live. And I suppose in a way, I was.

“Nothing personal, Papa, but is there anyone else who might be able to help me? After all, Nekropolis is lousy with all sorts of witches and magicians. Maybe one of them – ”

Papa shook his head. “I’m afraid not. While it’s true there are others more powerful than I, there is only so much power can do.”

I thought for a moment. “Could my spirit be caught, like Honani’s, and implanted into a second body?”

“Perhaps,” Papa allowed. “If you are willing to steal another’s form.”

So much for that. After what he’d done to Lyra, Honani deserved to be evicted from his body. But I couldn’t do that to someone else just to save my own life. If I did, in effect I’d be a killer, no better than Honani.

I stood there, trying to come to terms with what Papa had told me. I wasn’t going to die. I couldn’t; I was already dead. But my body was going to . . . what? Collapse into a puddle of putrefaction? Or just flake away to dust? And when it was gone, what would happen to me? Would I end up wandering Nekropolis, a disembodied spirit like Lyra? Or would my soul depart for some manner of afterlife? Assuming, of course, that there was any beyond Nekropolis. Or would I just cease to be, my spirit rotting away to nothing along with my body?

As much as I hated my mockery of a life, it was the only mockery I had, and I didn’t particularly want to lose it. There had to be a way for me to continue existing, a way that wouldn’t result in my having to steal another’s body. I’d just have to find it within the next couple days.
I shook Papa’s hand. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” I reached into my pocket, intending to hand over the soul jar containing Honani’s spirit to pay for Papa’s services.

“Keep it, Matt.” He smiled sadly. “This one’s on the house, okay?”

I didn’t know what I’d do with Honani’s soul, but Papa refused to take it, so in the end I walked out with the jar still in my pocket. I had two souls now, when what I needed was another body. Life – and death – is full of little ironies, isn’t it?

* * * * *

Devona was waiting for me outside, leaning up against the wooden wall of Papa’s shack, arms crossed, surveying the Descension Day celebrants in the street with a wary, nervous gaze. The crowd was thinner this far from the center of the Sprawl, but there were still a lot of loud, drunken monsters about, and they bore watching.

Devona’s leather outfit clung to her like a second skin, and even though I no longer had any libido to speak of, I couldn’t help appreciating how good she looked in it.

I had my own problem now, and no time for hers. But I thought I could at least hear her out. Maybe her problem would turn out to be something simple. And I could use the darkgems; I would need them if I was going to find someone else – someone more powerful than Papa – to extend my unlife.

“All done. I’m ready to talk.” I didn’t feel a need to mention the bad news I’d received. After all, Devona and I had just met.

“Not here. We need someplace private.”

Like I’d told her, I wasn’t a detective, no matter what she’d heard from them, whoever the hell they were, and I didn’t have an office. But my apartment wasn’t far from Papa Chatha’s.

“How about my place?”

She nodded.

A few more blocks of negotiating our way through the chaotic riot of partiers – which for Devona meant slapping more than a few males of various species and states of life and death who decided to grab her shapely leather-clad posterior – and we were there.

My neighborhood is actually one of the more mundane sections of the Sprawl, a street of urban townhouses, which, except for the fact that the bricks appear to be made of gristle, looks perfectly ordinary.

We went up the front steps, inside, and up more steps to my apartment. I had unlocked the door and was just about to grip the knob when a voice behind us said, “Hey, Matt!”

“Hell,” I muttered, and turned around to greet my neighbor. “Hi, Carl,” I said without enthusiasm. “What’s up?”

Carl was a grizzled old fart in a rumpled seersucker suit which had probably once been white but was now mostly yellow.

He grabbed a sheet of paper from the stack under his arm and thrust it into my hand.
“Just finished printing out the latest edition of the Night Stalker News. I’m breaking a major story this week.”


“Sounds ominous, Carl. I’ll be sure to read it.”

I quickly opened the door and gestured for Devona to go in; she did and I hurried after her.
Carl scowled. “Don’t you humor me now, Matt. It’s true! None of the other media will have anything to do with the story. It’s too hot for The Tome, and even that rag the Daily Atrocity won’t touch it. If we don’t do something about it soon, we’ll all be – ”

I closed the door in Carl’s rapidly reddening face, cutting him off.

“Just you wait!” came his muffled voice from the other side of the door. “You’ll be singing a different tune when the Watchers come!”

He shouted a bit more before finally moving off, grumbling to himself about idiot zombie cops.

“Who was that?” Devona asked.

“Just some nut who lives upstairs. Used to be some sort of tabloid reporter back on Earth, but
he can’t find work on any of the papers in the city. The stories he comes up with are too crazy even for Nekropolis. Don’t worry; he won’t bother us anymore. He’ll no doubt head out into the street to harangue the festival-goers with his latest paranoid expose.” I crumpled Carl’s so-called “paper” into a wad and tossed it into an empty corner while Devona surveyed the room.
“It’s better than a tomb, even if it does have about as much personality,” I said, feeling only a little self-conscious. A threadbare couch, a single wooden chair – with one leg shorter than the others – and a Mind’s Eye set sitting atop a wooden stand comprised the sole contents of the living room. No pictures, no rugs, not even curtains. No toilet facilities, either, but then I don’t need them. One of the perks of being dead.

Nekropolis doesn’t have television. Instead we have Mind’s Eye Theatre. Mind’s Eye is exactly what it sounds like: psychic transmissions are received by your set and then relayed straight into your brain. The process is kind of hit and miss for me, probably because my zombie brain doesn’t get good reception, so I tend not to watch too often. I read instead, hence the reason for the piles of books stacked in the corners of the room. Right now the set was off, the large eye closed, its lashes crusted with yellowish crud, probably because it had been so long since I’d turned it on. I wondered if the set had some kind of infection, and I told myself to remember to call a repairman.

“Do you have a bed?” Devona asked.

“I told you: I don’t do those kinds of favors.”

She gave me a look which said I was being less than amusing. “I’m just curious. Do zombies sleep? I’ve never thought about it before. But then, I’ve never been to a zombie’s apartment, either.”

“I have a bed.” Though it was just a lumpy mattress sitting on the floor, no sheets, no covers. “I don’t sleep, exactly, but sometimes I feel a need to . . . rest. To relax.”

“And so you just lie there and stare at the ceiling?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes I close my eyes. So tell me, what’s it like to sleep in a coffin? Ever feel like a sardine?”

“Bloodborn don’t sleep in coffins,” she said disdainfully.

“Even when they’re half human?”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “How did you know?”

I shrugged, the gesture a bit lopsided thanks to the bite Honani had taken out of my shoulder, which Papa hadn’t been able to repair completely. “Little things. You don’t move as gracefully as other vampires. Your pallor isn’t as white. And whatever your problem is, it’s got you tied up in knots inside. I’ve never seen a full-blooded vampire afraid. It doesn’t seem to be an emotion they’re capable of.”

I went into the bedroom, and she followed. Aside from my mattress, the only other items in the room were my laptop computer, the desk it sat on, and the chair I sat on when I used it. In Nekropolis, the computers are organic, fashioned from bone, cartilage, muscle, sinew, and specialized organs. The machines breathe, gurgle, and moan – especially when doing difficult tasks – and have even been known to burst blood vessels if asked to perform too many functions at the same time. The damned things literally get sick when they catch a virus and become all mopey and lazy, refusing to do any work until they get better. The spoiled things are worse than pampered cats.

My computer made a soft humming sound to catch my attention, and I grudgingly went over and scratched the top of its casing. In response, it let out a moist, phlegmy purr.

“You use your bedroom as your office too?” Devona asked.

“I don’t have an office because I don’t have a business,” I said. “I mostly use the computer to play DVD’s – it works better for me than the Mind’s Eye – and to hop on the Aethernet from time to time.” The Aethernet is Nekropolis’s answer to the Internet back on Earth. Information is swiftly transported through the system by data-ghosts: the spirits of executed criminals sentenced to spend their afterlives ferrying bytes back and forth for the rest of us.

“So you can check out zombie porn?” Devona asked with a wry grin.

“You ever see one of those sites? No? Well, if you get curious, take my advice and don’t eat for a week or two before logging on.”

I removed the soul jar from my pocket, and placed it on the desk next to my computer. I then walked over to the closet and removed my torn jacket, tie, and shirt. I opened the closet door, dropped my ruined garments on the floor next to my footlocker, and scanned my pitifully small collection of clothes for replacements. If Devona felt any disgust upon seeing so much of my bare zombie skin with its slight grayish cast revealed, she showed no sign.

“You said you don’t think vampires experience fear,” Devona said, picking up the thread of our earlier conversation. “But they do. They just don’t like to show it. But you were right about me; I’m only half Bloodborn. My mother was human.”

From my closet’s meager offerings, I chose a brown shirt, yellow paisley tie, and a brown jacket. I could wear whatever I want, I suppose. I’m not a cop anymore, and besides, I’m dead. Who cares how I dress? But old habits – and old cops like me – die hard, I guess. And besides, wearing the sort of clothes I wore in life makes me feel more . . . well, human.

I dressed and stood before the cracked mirror hanging on the wall and adjusted my tie. Thanks to Papa Chatha’s latest round of spells, I didn’t look too much different than I had in life, grayish skin aside. Black hair, brown eyes, features on the ordinary side of handsome (or so I’d been told by my ex-wife; I’m no judge of such things). Face a bit thinner than when I’d been alive. Death is a great diet plan.

I put the soul jar in the pocket of my new jacket. I’m not really sure why; it just didn’t seem like the sort of thing a person should leave lying around, and then I turned to face my guest. “And who’s your father?”

She hesitated a moment before answering. “Lord Galm.”

If my heart had been functional, it would’ve skipped a beat or two right then.

“I think you’d better leave now,” I said.

Confusion spread across her face. “Why?”

“It’s nothing personal; I just make it a policy never to get involved with Darklords if I can avoid it. And that includes getting involved with their relatives.”

Lord Galm is an ancient, powerful vampire, ruler of the Bloodborn, and of Gothtown, the Dominion where the vampires live, or rather, exist. And like any Darklord, he’s dangerous as hell. I’d rather run up to a Mafia don in his favorite restaurant, dump his spaghetti marinara in his lap, and accuse him of diddling his grandchildren than I would mess with a Darklord.

“Please, at least let me – ”

I held up a hand to cut her off. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. But getting involved with a Darklord is what got me killed and resurrected as a zombie. I hate to think what might happen to me the next time. Being dead isn’t all that much fun, but I’ve lived in Nekropolis long enough to know it could be worse. A lot worse.”

She cocked her head to one side and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. “Which Darklord was it?”

“I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind. And I don’t want to talk about your problem either, not if it involves Lord Galm.”

She crossed her arms and gave me a calculating look. It didn’t appear as if she were in a hurry to leave.

“I don’t know a lot about zombies, but I know they need to have preservative spells regularly applied to keep them from rotting.” She smiled. “And as I’ve seen, they occasionally need limbs reattached. Spells like that cost money.”

“I can get darkgems somewhere else,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. And besides, I wasn’t worried about mere preservative spells now. I needed to find a way to keep my body from rotting away to nothing. I imagined I could already feel the slight itch of decay – one of the few sensations I can feel.

“One hundred? Two? Three hundred?” she countered. “Three hundred darkgems would pay for quite a lot of spells.”

“They would at that,” I was forced to admit. That would be roughly the equivalent of several thousand dollars back home in Cleveland. But would even three hundred darkgems be enough to buy the kind of magic I would need to keep my body intact?

And then it hit me. I needed the kind of power few beings in Nekropolis possessed: the power of a Darklord. If I helped Devona, perhaps she would intercede with her father on my behalf – and Lord Galm could use his magic to “cure” me.

I cautioned myself not too get excited, that it was a long shot, that even if Devona asked, Lord Galm might not help me. But right then it looked like the best – and only – shot I had. Besides, if I did have only a few days left in my existence, I’d rather spend them working than sitting around my place staring at the walls.

“All right, Devona, tell me about your problem.”

* * * * *

“I’m seventy-three years old,” she said. “Surprised?”

“Not really,” I said. “Seventy-three is young for a vampire.”

We were sitting in the living room. Devona was on the couch, and I’d taken the chair. The sounds of the Descension celebration out in the street – blaring music, laughter, shouting, and the occasional scream – served as a muted background to our conversation.

“Although,” I added, “you’re the best looking seventy-three-year-old I’ve ever seen.”

She blushed slightly. Another sign that she was half human. A full-blooded vampire can’t blush.

“Lord Galm didn’t exactly love my mother. But he came as close to it as a being like him can, and when I was born, he brought me from Earth to Nekropolis.”

“And your mother?”

“Died delivering me,” she said softly. “Human women usually do when giving birth to a half-Bloodborn child.” She looked down at her lap, where the thin, fine fingers of her delicate hands played nervously with each other. “We have our teeth early, you see, and we’re born hungry . .”

The resultant images in my mind might’ve nauseated me if I still had a working digestive system. “I understand. Go on.”

“I was raised in the Cathedral. I didn’t see my father very often – he was usually busy ruling Gothtown or engaging in power struggles with the other Lords. I was cared for and taught by Father’s staff, and I grew and learned.”

“I thought vampires didn’t age.”

“Those that were originally human and transformed into Bloodborn do not. But those like me, who are half human, do age, only very, very slowly.”

“So you’ll die one day?”

She nodded. “And afterward, I may rise as one completely Bloodborn. Or I may not. No one can say.”

“Could your father transform you, make you a full vampire?”

“He could try. But there’s no guarantee I would survive the process and be reborn. At this point, I’d rather wait and take my chances.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“When I reached my forty-fifth birthday, Father called me in to his study and told me that he wished me to join the staff of the Cathedral and serve him. It was a great honor, and I accepted thankfully.”

“What did he want you to do?”

“I was given charge of his Collection, and I have taken care of it for the last twenty-eight years.”
I noticed a black spot on the far wall – a spot which hadn’t been there when we’d started talking. It was a roach-like insect. Gregor, or rather one of his little informants. I nearly waved hello, but I didn’t want Devona to think I wasn’t listening to her. Besides, the bug didn’t care if I acknowledged its presence or not. All it wanted to do was observe.

“His . . . Collection?” I said, returning to the conversation.

“Father is incredibly ancient, how old, even he isn’t certain. Thousands and thousands of years, at least. And in all that time, he has acquired quite a number of items. Some are merely mementos of lives lived, countries and cities long dead; others are trophies: of triumphs, conquests, battles won, enemies defeated. Still others are tokens of magic, mystical objects of great power – any of which the other Darklords would dearly love to get their hands on in order to increase their own strength.

“As I said, I have watched over, cared for, and guarded the Collection for nearly three decades. And I have never had any problems,” she said proudly. But then she lowered her head. “Until yesterday.”

“Let me guess. You went to check on the Collection and found something missing.”

“How did – of course, you’re a detective.”

I almost protested that I wasn’t, that I was just an ex-cop – and ex-human – who did favors for people, but I decided to let it lie.

“Yes, something was missing. And I want you to help me get it back.”

I thought for a moment. “Why come to me? Why not go to Lord Galm? He’s a Darklord. With the powers at his command, I should think he’d be able to locate the object easily.”

“Perhaps. But I cannot go to my father. Lord Galm is not especially . . . understanding of failure. Or forgiving. My only hope is to recover the object on my own, or at least discover what has happened to it. If I am unable to do either . . .” she trailed off, shuddering.

“But you’re his daughter.”

“Yes, but the Bloodborn have a different set of values when it comes to determining family relationships. Those who are chosen for transformation are considered true children, and are closest to their sires’ hearts. Half-human get like me . . . well, I suppose the closest human equivalent would be children born out of wedlock. Our sires still care for us, just not as deeply.
“Most of Lord Galm’s staff are children of his, whether fully Bloodborn or partially. And there is a great deal of competition among us for our father’s favor.”

“And so you can’t turn to any of them, either.”

She nodded. “That’s why I need your help. You have a reputation for not only getting the job done, but for keeping quiet about it as well.”

“I didn’t know I had a reputation. I don’t suppose you heard anything about my sparkling personality or my dazzling wit?”

She smiled. “Unfortunately not.”

She had a beautiful smile, the effect spoiled only slightly by her revealed canine teeth.

“Tell me about the object.”

“It’s a crystal a little larger than my fist called the Dawnstone. What it does precisely, I’m not certain. While I tend his Collection, Father doesn’t entrust me with complete knowledge of it, and the Dawnstone is one of those items whose secrets he wishes to keep to himself.”
I thought it ironic a vampire would own an artifact called a “Dawnstone.”

“But you know it’s powerful,” I said.

“Of course. Why else would Father be so secretive about it? And the wardspells which protect it are among the most potent in the Cathedral.”

“Yet someone got past those spells.”


“How do you know Lord Galm didn’t just take the Dawnstone himself and forgot to tell you?”
“Father is a stickler for procedure. In twenty-eight years he has never failed to inform me when he removed an item from the Collection.”

“Still, there’s always a first time,” I pointed out.

“I suppose. But I can hardly go up and ask him, can I? If he hasn’t removed the Dawnstone, my asking after it would alert him to its disappearance.”

“And buy you a world of trouble.”


She definitely needed help – and I needed the aid of a Darklord if I was to survive. I stood. “I have more questions, but I can ask them on the way.”

“The way to where?”

“The Cathedral, of course. One of the first steps in any investigation is to examine the scene of the crime.”

I looked over at the spot on the wall where the bug had been, but it was gone now. Gregor’s tiny minion had probably heard enough and moved on to find something more interesting to observe.
Devona stood. She smiled, took my hand, and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, Mr. Richter.”
I could only feel the pressure of her hand, but I could imagine how smooth and soft her skin was.

“Call me Matthew.”

Detective or not, I was on the job once more – and this time, I was working not only to help my “client,” but to save my own life.

Talk about incentive.

Friday, August 28, 2009

**Exclusive - Nekropolis by Tim Wagonner - Chapter 1**

A great big massive thanks to Tim Waggoner and Lee Harris from Angry Robot for allowing MFB a topnotch exclusive: the first five chapters of Tim's excellent new novel for Angry Robot: Nekropolis.

For the next five days, we will run one chapter a day. I've read Nekropolis and needless to say I can utterly condone buying this. It is a very good read and it takes the detective genre and mixes it up in a way you can't even begin to imagine! My review for Nekropolis won't be appearing on MFB for a little while yet, instead I've reviewed it for one of the sites I freelance at and it will be appearing over at on the 1st of September. Make sure to check it out, or better yet - take the time to read through these upcoming chapters and GO AND BUY THE BOOK.


Chapter One

I was sitting in Skully’s, nursing a beer that I couldn’t taste, and which I’d have to throw up later, and trying real hard to look like I was minding my own business, when the lyke walked in.

He (I knew it was male only because I’d been told) stood well over seven feet tall. But he didn’t have to stoop to enter the bar. Since Skully’s is located close to the Wyldwood, a lot of his customers are lykes, who often wear their wildforms, and he’d designed the nine foot-high doorway to accommodate the specialized – and mutable – physiognomy of his clientele.

The lyke, Honani by name, stone-cold killer by rep, was one of the newer shapeshifter breeds, a mixblood: lyke biology tweaked by the hand of genetic engineering. But as far as I was concerned, he was an ugly mess. I could pick out badger, puma, crow and what I thought was a bit of snake around the eyes. He looked almost as ugly as one of Lady Varvara’s demon kin.


Skully’s doesn’t offer much in the way of décor, but that has more to do with the owner’s practicality than any lack of aesthetic sense on his part. The nine-foot high door is solid iron, and there are no windows so customers aren’t tempted to throw anything – or anyone – through them. The walls are unpainted brick and the floor smooth concrete so Skully can hose the place down every night and remove the bloodstains. The tables are solid oak and bolted to the floor to make it more difficult to use them as weapons, and the chairs are easily replaceable cheap wood because they have an extremely short life-expectancy. There’s no mirror behind the long oak bar – not only because it would be just another damned thing to break, Skully once told me, but because it would annoy the vampires.

Honani stomped across the floor, the concrete shuddering beneath his considerable weight. Even for a lyke, he was massive.

The jukebox in the corner had been singing a fairly decent rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” but the three heads bolted to the top of the machine had gone silent when the huge lyke entered, and now they watched him pass by with nervous gazes. The multitude of scars, bruises, welts, and fresh cuts on their flesh testified to how hazardous their job could be, and they knew trouble when they saw it.

Skully stood on the other side of the bar close to me, sizing up the mixblood. “He looks bigger than I expected,” he said softly. “Meaner, too.”

“You’re supposed to be my friend,” I replied, just as softly. “Try to be a little more encouraging.”

“That was encouraging. What I really wanted to say is he looks like he could tear your head off with just his little finger.”

I grimaced. “Thanks.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with him.

Skully’s is always open, and the man himself is always behind the bar – or at least he is whenever I go there. I’m not sure what he is exactly. He looks like a stocky, broad-shouldered human, at least from the bottoms of his feet up to the top of his fleshy neck. But resting on that neck is a skull. Just a skull: no hair, no skin, no organs. Hence his name, obviously. Skully always wears a white shirt with the cuffs rolled up, a black apron, black pants, and black shoes. To the right of the bar is a second iron door which leads upstairs. I assumed Skully had quarters up there, but he’d never said anything about them, even when I’d pried a bit. There are no other servers in Skully’s, and he doesn’t bring drinks to your table. He’ll mix your drinks when he gets around to it, you have to come to the bar to fetch them, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell out.

As Honani continued heading toward the bar, Skully’s other patrons looked up to assess the nightmarish hodge-podge’s threat potential. An insectine demon with tangleglow delivery tubes surgically grafted to its chitinous head sat next to me at the bar. The demon glanced at Honani once, and then quickly found an empty corner of the room to turn its attention to. A pair of black-clad vampires – one male, one female – sitting at a nearby table were playing a game of bloodshards, the game pieces appearing in the air between them, projected from the holographic implants where their eyes had once been. Though neither looked in Honani’s direction, I could tell by the way the crimson shards momentarily faded that their attention was on the lyke instead of their game. The table next to the holo-vampires was occupied by two men and a woman who were working on finishing off a pitcher of beer. Their clothes were simple – flannel shirts, jeans, boots – and at first glance, they seemed human enough, but each of their eyebrows met in the middle, a sure sign that they were shapeshifters. As Honani passed, the trio growled softly and wrinkled their noses in disgust. From their reactions, I knew the three were un-enhanced lykes who had just made their low opinion of their genetically altered cousin clear. I half-expected Honani to stop and snarl a challenge at the trio, but he just kept on walking. The other lykes continued to glare at his back, but from the way the tension in their bodies eased, I could tell they were relieved he’d kept going.

“He cowed those three lykes without doing a thing. Impressive.”

“Not helping, Skully,” I muttered.

Honani continued toward the bar, passing a table where a lean heavily pierced man with a shaven head and a black T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on the front was sitting. A soft shimmer of argent energy passed over the man’s piercings as Honani went by, and I knew the punk was one of the Arcane, a magic user, and that he’d just activated a battery of defensive spells. There was something naggingly familiar about the warlock, but I didn’t know what. I figured I’d probably seen him around the Sprawl somewhere before. Sitting at the table next to the warlock was a fluid shadowy mass that sometimes resembled the silhouette of a person, sometimes a formless blob. I had no idea what the thing was, but as Honani walked by, the shadowy thing flowed down to the floor, became a black puddle, and then quickly oozed toward the exit and slipped beneath the closed iron door.

The last customer in the bar was a reed-thin blonde dressed in tight black leather sipping a glass of aqua sanguis alone at a corner table. The woman’s gaze was focused intently on Honani, her brow furrowed in concentration. She looked alert, but not especially worried. She was extremely attractive, and if I’d still been alive – but I wasn’t, so I turned my attention back to Honani.
The big lyke reached the bar and slapped a paw on the shoulder of the insectine demon sitting next to me and threw him/her/it backwards. The demon squealed in fright as it sailed across the room and smashed into the table where the holo-vampires were sitting. Despite how sturdy the table was, it collapsed, and the bloodshards winked out of existence. The demon – tangleglow leaking from cracked tubes – squealed in terror and scuttled off into a corner where it rolled into a quivering ball and attempted to make itself look as non-threatening as possible. The vampires, who looked so much alike they could’ve been brother and sister, turned toward Honani and hissed in cold anger, displaying their incisors. But as much as the vampires might’ve liked to, they didn’t make a move toward the lyke. He was just too damned big.

“Whisky,” he growled, the words barely recognizable coming out of his inhuman mouth.

Skully trained his empty sockets on Honani for a long moment before finally nodding and setting a bottle on the counter in front of the lyke. Skully unscrewed the cap with his fully fleshed fingers, set it down, and then reached for a glass.

“Forget the glass,” Honani said, then grabbed the bottle and drank the entire contents down in three gulps. He tossed the empty over his shoulder, and it shattered against the concrete floor.

Skully normally doesn’t put up with much crap. He keeps a silver broadaxe behind the counter, but he hardly ever has to use it. Rumor is that he has ties to the Dominari, Nekropolis’s version of the Mafia, and while he’s never admitted it to me, he hasn’t denied it, either. A rumor like that, true or not, can head off a lot of trouble before it starts. If the Descension celebration hadn’t been in full swing, and Honani already likely drunk before he even came in here, he would’ve had more sense than to act like such a jackass. Probably. But Skully didn’t reach for his axe. Instead he looked over at me – at least I think he looked at me; it’s kind of hard to tell when the person you’re talking about doesn’t have any eyes – and I nodded. Show time. If I still had a pulse, it would have been racing.

I stood up.

“My friend,” I said just a bit too loudly, “you are the butt-ugliest sonofabitch in the city.” And considering the citizenry of Nekropolis, that was saying something.

The thick muscles in Honani’s shoulders rippled and tensed beneath his fur. The other people (and I use the term extremely loosely) in the bar drew in surprised gasps of air. Those that breathed, anyway.

Honani turned around. His lips curled back from his sizable teeth in a snarl, and his eyes burned feral yellow.

“I ain’t your friend.”

The lyke was damned intimidating, but I stood my ground. There’s only one cardinal rule when it comes to surviving in Nekropolis: Show No Fear.

“That’s true. If you were my friend, I’d suggest you have a street-surgeon remove your ass and graft it onto your face. It’d be a vast improvement.”

The big lyke just stood there a moment, blinking in confusion while his alcohol-sodden brain struggled to process what I’d said. Either he figured it out or decided to give up and just assume I’d insulted him. Either way, he let out an ear-splitting roar and came at me.

You know the old cliché about how time seems to slow down when you’re in danger? It’s true. Unfortunately, being dead, my reflexes aren’t what they once were, so the shift in time perception didn’t do me any good. But twenty years’ experience as a cop can make up for a whole hell of a lot, and thus I was able to sidestep just as Honani’s claws – which had lengthened to twice their previous size and were still growing – raked the air where my chest had been a moment earlier.

I was a bit slow, however, and the lyke’s razor-sharp talons sliced through my Marvin the Martian tie, decapitating the cartoon spaceman. I watched Marvin’s headless body flutter to the floor.

“Damn it! Do you know how hard it is to come by ties like that around here?”

Honani didn’t sympathize with my sartorial loss. Instead, he lunged forward, mouth wide open, jaw distended farther than should have been anatomically possible, and fastened his twisted yellow teeth on my shoulder. I didn’t feel a thing – except regret that along with my tie, I’d also lost a perfectly good suit jacket and shirt.

But before he could take a hunk out of me, he pulled back, his face scrunched up in disgust, and spit great gobs of foam and saliva to the floor. “You’re a deader!” he accused.

“Guilty as charged. You’d have known that if you’d bothered to smell me.” Mixbloods’ patchwork physiology doesn’t always function properly. It was quite possible his sense of smell was no better than an ordinary human’s.

Though the idiot should’ve been able to tell just by looking. It’d been a while since my last application of preservative spells, and I wasn’t too fresh – skin gray, dry, and beginning to flake. I probably didn’t taste too good either.

As if emphasizing this last point, Honani spit once more then looked at me with disdain. “Go back to the Boneyard, zombie. Your kind isn’t wanted around here.” And then he turned and walked toward the bar.

Honani’s reaction was understandable. Most zombies are little more than undead automatons under the control of whoever raised them, and hardly a threat to a lyke as strong as Honani. But I’m not most zombies.

I removed a glass vial full of gray dust from the inner pocket of my suit jacket and pried off the cork. And then I made a leap for Honani.

My reflexes may be slower, and I’m no stronger than I was when alive, but I can get the job done when I have to. I threw my left arm around Honani’s chest and with my right jammed the vial into the lyke’s massive maw and emptied the contents. There wasn’t much in the vial, but a little was all that I needed.

Honani choked and sputtered and then I felt a distant tearing sensation. I stepped back from the lyke, still clutching the mostly empty vial. Something was . . . and then I realized what had happened: my left arm was gone. The preservative spells were breaking down fast.

Honani whirled around and brandished my detached limb like a club. Behind him, I saw Skully lifting his silver axe, ready to strike, but I shook my head and he lowered his weapon.

“You – damn – corpse!” Honani advanced on me, no doubt intending to pound me into grave mold with my own arm. But he only managed a few steps before he doubled over in pain. He dropped my arm and it hit the floor with a meaty plap! His breathing became harsh, labored, and he started whining like a wounded animal, which, I suppose, he was.

“You shouldn’t have killed her, Honani,” I said. “Lyra was a simple working girl; it wasn’t her fault you couldn’t get it up.” Like I said, mixblood physiology doesn’t always work right.
He fell to his knees, breathing rapidly now. His entire body shook, as if a great struggle were occurring within him.

“That dust I dumped into your mouth was part of Lyra’s ashes. Not much, but enough. You took her life; now you’re going to give it back.”

He rolled onto his side, quivering uncontrollably in the throes of a violent seizure. His eyes had lost all of their anger and wildness and were now rolled up in their sockets.

This was it.

With my remaining hand, I reached into one of my jacket’s outer pockets and removed a small clay jar. I shook off the lid, which was attached by a short length of twine, then knelt down next to Honani’s head and held the open jar in front of his mouth.

His exertions lessened bit by bit and finally his body grew still. And then, as I watched, thin whitish wisps curled forth from between his teeth, lazily at first, but then the jar’s magic began to draw them in, and they flowed out of his mouth faster and faster, until at last they were done. I sat the jar on the floor, put the lid back on tight, and then slipped Honani’s soul into my pocket.
Honani – or rather his body – began to stir. I put my right hand beneath one of the lyke’s sweaty armpits and lifted. I don’t know how much help I was, but a few moments later, the body was on its feet again.

Lyra swayed dizzily and for a moment I thought she might fall, but then she steadied herself and gave me a toothy smile.

“It worked!” The voice was Honani’s, but yet it wasn’t.

I nodded. “Of course. Didn’t Papa Chatha say it would?” I decided not to tell her that sometime Papa’s spells failed, often in quite spectacular – and deadly – fashion. Why spoil the moment?
She ran her hands across her new body. Luckily, Honani’s claws had retracted during the struggle for possession of his form, or else she would have sliced herself to ribbons.

“It feels so strange . . . and I’m male now, aren’t I?” She reached down to check and I politely looked away.

“Yes,” I said. “But it’s better than being dead, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, much!” And then she looked at me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – ”

I held up my remaining hand. “That’s okay. I know what you meant.” Would I have traded in my undead carcass for Honani’s body? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.

She pointed at my empty, ragged left sleeve. “Your arm!”

“Don’t worry about it. Occupational hazard. Papa’ll fix it up for me.” I hoped.

She regarded me for a moment, and I could see the confusion in her eyes.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“I . . . I don’t know what to do now.” She shrugged her massive shoulders.

“You’re alive; do whatever you want.”

She grinned, and even though I knew it was Lyra inside the body, the sight of all those teeth being bared still unnerved me. “You’re right.” She came forward and gave me a hug that, if I hadn’t been dead, most likely would have killed me on the spot.

“Thank you, Matthew.”

I wanted to respond, but I couldn’t pull any air into my dead lungs to do it. She released me, and then with a wave she left the bar for whatever her new life held in store for her. I couldn’t help but envy her.

Everyone watched her go, and then Skully said, “All right, show’s over,” and his customers returned to drinking, talking, laughing, the incident well on its way to being forgotten. Just another day in Nekropolis.

I walked up to the bar and sat on one of the stools.

“Looked pretty hairy there for a minute,” Skully said. “Pun intended.” He grinned at that, but then he always looks like he’s grinning.

“You know, I can never figure out how you talk without lips or a tongue.”

“Just talented, I guess.”

“Right.” I got off the stool. “Thanks for letting me conduct my business here.”

“No sweat. What’re friends for?”

“Gotta go. Papa’s waiting.” I started to leave.

“Matt? Don’t forget your arm.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.” I bent down to retrieve it, more than a little embarrassed, and then continued toward the door. I was half aware of some of the bar-goers watching me as I left, especially the blonde in leather.

However, it wasn’t until later I learned that as soon as I left, she got up and followed.

To be continued...tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hush Hush Competition Winner

And the winner of the signed proof copy of Becca Fitzpatrick's lovely Hush, Hush is:

Nina D from London, N1

As decided by

Congratulations, Nina - I will be forwarding your details to the peeps at Simon & Schuster so they can send you your winnings.

For those who didn't win THIS TIME AROUND, let me just say: keep an eye out for a further Hush, Hush competition in October. Rumours about hard backs with alternate endings abound...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Empire - Graham McNeill

Having driven back the orc invaders, Sigmar unites the tribes of men and founds the Empire. The fledgling empire grows, but its prosperity is not assured. The lands are still wild and untamed, and many enemies lurk in the forests and the mountains. When a Chaos invasion sweeps down from Norsca, the ensuing conflict tests the abilities of Sigmar and his chieftains to the utmost.

This, the second in the Sigmar trilogy sees the newly crowned Emperor coming to terms with the unending demands of the vision he has brought to life. However, there’s no respite from the darkness at the fringe of his new empire , and he’s forced to ride to war against a myriad of evils that hunger to that hungers to tear down and consume the young Empire.

As with Heldenhammer, nothing seems a foregone conclusion, and I was pleased to see that Graham does not shirk from letting evil be true to its nature. Murder and bloodshed are never far away and Graham creates a vivid picture of a world one bloodied thrust away from falling into chaos and despair. The spectre of impending doom that overshadows everything helps keep the momentum of the action heavy story rolling forward, and combined with Sigmar’s personal battle against the dark side of his personality, the pages seem to keep turning of their own volition.

Don't read this if you have to be somewhere urgently- you'll be hard pressed to deny the urge for 'just one more page'.

My only gripe, and it's a minor one, is the exit of Gerreon, which felt slightly rushed- his wonderfully twisted and tormented character deserves more ‘screen time’, although I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of the traitorous bastard in the final instalment. If not, well, words will have to be had…

The blurb on the back cover describes this as “the second epic tale in the Sigmar trilogy” and epic is certainly the right word to describe it, although I’d have tried to squeeze 'heroic' in as well, and quite possibly a 'brilliant'.

You can read an extract here.