The Living Dead Are Not My Type!
It was a cool, still night, without so much as a breeze to disturb the Motavian air. Stars glittered in a cloudless sky, and the desert was painted in silver light. Everything was quiet and peaceful.
At least, for a while.
Rulo James considered himself a traveler. A wandering soul, driven by the call of the winds to seek whatever was over the next hill, around the next bend. A free spirit who answered to no one's whims but his own. There are such people in the world, but he wasn't one of them. In fact, Rulo James was a vagabond, a bum who wandered because he couldn't handle the responsibility of another job, driven by the call of the next cheap bottle of fermented beverage, answering to the whims of the local law who found his thirst and lack of funds to be insufficient reason for obtaining said beverage without the payment of the necessary meseta.
At that precise moment, Rulo decided to take up singing. His voice was dry and scratchy from too many years of drinking, but the ballad of the amorous Motavian and the town elder's daughter suitably distracted him from the fact that he was regrettably sober. It was also nearing midnight, and Rulo was becoming aware that his ragged shirt, while completely adequate for a hot day on the desert planet, wasn't quite warm enough for night. When the broken walls of an abandoned building loomed out of the darkness, he breathed a sigh of relief. Shelter at last!
Still singing—he'd gotten to the verse where the dog steals the Motavian's clothes while the lovers are in the hayloft—Rulo approached the building's open door.
The soft rustling noise did not catch his attention.
The shifting of a certain patch of earth he put down as a hallucination. It wouldn't be the first time, after all, that he'd seen things move under their own power, although generally this happened after drinking.
When the hand thrust itself up through the soil, its flesh the sickly gray-green of decay, the fingernails long and cracked, Rulo decided that, hallucination or not, it was actually fine weather to keep traveling.
"Haunted," Alys Brangwin said flatly. "The problem is that the building is haunted?"
She looked over the assembled town council of Kadary.
"The description of this job at the Hunter's Guild was, 'Monsters have infested an abandoned house near the town. Please get rid of them.' Now you say the job is a haunting? I don't do spooks."
Every face in the room fell, including that of Alys's own fifteen-year-old assistant and trainee, Chaz Ashley.
"Wait, wait, you don't understand!" exclaimed Peter Marley, a prosperous farmer. "We're not talking about ghostly presences or mysterious lights. This is the walking undead! Corpses risen from the grave. Four people have seen them!"
Alys's scowl relaxed a little. An actual, tangible foe was something she could deal with. A tall woman with long brown hair wearing her trademark red dress, Alys was Motavia's most accomplished hunter and the council had been elated that she'd been the one to accept their commission. That elation wouldn't last long if she turned around and left.
"Four people? Under what circumstances?"
They glanced at one another nervously, and with good reason. The four people proved to be two kids who'd visited the house on a dare, a wandering vagabond who was hardly a reliable witness even in his rare moments of sobriety, and a farmer returning home after market day who hadn't reported what she'd seen until word of the other two sightings had reached her homestead.
"Look, Alys," another council member said, this one the owner of a prosperous pharmacy, "we know that three of the witnesses are unreliable and the fourth might be trying to look important for her neighbors instead of having stayed quiet because she was afraid of embarrassment like she said. We understand that. As the leaders of this town, though, we have a responsibility to investigate, for the safety of the community."
"Now, let's be fair, Carlo," chided the last of the three councilors, a heavyset woman Alys knew came from monied aristocracy, with an outlying home not too unlike the abandoned one once had been. "One of the reasons we contacted the Hunter's Guild is that these reports all agree on what the 'haunting' consists of."
"These risen corpses Peter mentioned?" Alys clarified. The woman, Erisa, seemed to be the most coherent of the three, so she addressed the question to her.
"That's right. All three stories are the same: corporeal forms that look like rotting bodies, dressed in rags. Both the boys and Rulo James—the vagabond—actually saw the corpses push their way up through the ground."
"The dead rising from their graves," Chaz said with a shudder. He seemed to be spending entirely too much time reading the wrong kind of books.
"Which begs the question, exactly why are their bodies, undead or just plain dead, buried in the yard around a private house? I know there's a cemetery here, outside the town walls, so why would anyone have private burials? Especially in the ground; I've heard of aristocrats having family mausoleums"—she glanced at Erisa, who nodded back—"but not just being stuck in the dirt."
The council members looked nervously at one another for a while. Eventually, it was Carlo who decided to speak up.
"As to that," he explained, "the house does have something of a reputation in Kadary. I believe we mentioned that the boys went out there because one dared the other?"
"Well, this is because the building has long been rumored to be haunted. Only recently have we had any corroboration of that idea which could be specific and believable."
Alys was starting to wonder if she'd have to draw her slashers to get a complete answer out of these people. No doubt they were embarrassed to be telling local ghost stories to a hired hunter, but really, they should have had a little more faith in her. After all, she wasn't going to earn her three thousand meseta by letting the spooks get away.
And, if she really was going up against the undead, she wanted every scrap of information she could find.
"So how did it get that reputation, and why would bodies be buried there?"
"Black magic!" the farmer explained.
"The building is known locally as Arkingham House," Erisa stepped in. "It is said that a succession of owners, starting several centuries ago, practiced black magic, forbidden sorcery, carried out gruesome experiments—in short, all of the things that you'd expect along those lines. Eventually the house was abandoned, perhaps on purpose, or perhaps because the magicians were run out of town. I can't be sure."
"Or maybe," Chaz said with ghoulish imagination, "one of their evil rituals backfired and they all died!"
Erisa's wry smile was a rough approximation of what Alys's would have been had she not had to deal with the boy on a daily basis.
"Perhaps," she replied. "In any case, it certainly is no surprise to find bodies buried there, given such a reputation. Murder and human sacrifice are not out of line with Arkingham House's stories."
"If they can be believed," commented the skeptical pharmacist. "Black magic, indeed!"
"Don't be so quick to dismiss magic out of hand," Alys told him, thinking of experiences in her past where she'd crossed paths with both wizardly magic and with rituals of a darker nature.
"Their souls must be crying out for revenge, if the tales are true," Peter exclaimed. "That's why their bodies have risen, to take vengeance on the people of Kadary for letting them be killed so many years ago."
"It looks like we've landed ourselves right in the middle of another mystery, Alys," Chaz encouraged.
Alys considered the evidence, the offered fee, and her boredom threshold.
"All right," she decided. "I'll look into it. I just hope we don't spend the whole night creeping through a dusty old ruin."
Midnight was nearing as Alys and Chaz trudged across the countryside towards Arkingham House. The estate was about an hour's walk from Kadary, fairly far out for a private house, which would no doubt suit practitioners of black magic quite well indeed.
"Why are we going at night?" Chaz asked.
"The living dead don't usually rise up during the daytime," Alys noted. "About the only thing that could be more annoying than waiting all night and having nothing show up is waiting all day in the hot sun and having nothing show up."
"What if something does show up?"
"It if attacks us, we kill it."
"How do you kill something that's already dead?"
Alys thought back to her youth, when she'd traveled with her mentor, the hunter Galf, and the wizard Rune. They'd actually talked about this subject one night over the campfire, when ghost stories had turned into a tactical discussion on lurking spirits. Rune had been the one who explained things, the brash young wizard somehow speaking with an almost ageless wisdom.
"There's no such thing as a truly disembodied spirit," Alys tried to pass on what Rune had told her. "If it's going to affect things in our world, it has to manifest in our world. That manifestation can be hurt with weapons and techniques. Even if it doesn't seem like it has a physical body, attacks will disrupt the magic that holds it in our world. From what we were told, though, these things do have physical bodies, which makes it even simpler. Chop 'em up or burn them and pfft! Problem solved."
"Wow! How do you know all this stuff, Alys?"
"When I was younger, I had a friend who specialized in that kind of thing."
She wondered idly where Rune was and what he was doing. Alys hadn't seen him in years, not since Galf's funeral. That had stung—no, it had hurt—because she hadn't realized why he'd gone, that he was giving her a chance to grow up, to live her own life without being dependent on someone else.
There would, she reflected, have been easier ways.
It was just past midnight when the hunters finally arrived at Arkingham House. Its crumbling condition clearly indicated that the building might easily have been abandoned for the centuries the councilors had claimed. Though it was easy enough to see in the open, inside the ruin would be a different matter, particularly if they wanted to examine anything closely.
"You'd better light the lantern, Chaz," Alys advised her apprentice.
He fumbled with the matches—a new invention some professor at Motavia Academy had sworn would replace flint and steel—until he had the dark-lantern throwing out a beam of good, strong light. Alys drew one of her paired slashers from her belt and snapped the throwing weapon's blades into their open, locked position. With zombies reputed to be on the loose, it paid to be careful.
They approached the house slowly, with care. Chaz swung his lantern to the left and the right, illuminating the scene. No corpses came leaping out of the earth.
"Chaz, come over this way."
"Well, our job isn't to creep around the house, it's to kill zombies."
"That's right," he agreed.
"So, the first place we check is where the zombies have been appearing, out here. I wish we'd had some more exact information, but..."
She led the way off the track to the rocky, beaten ground outside the house's west wing. Some of Motavia's desert surface was sandy, with rolling dunes of golden powder, but just as much was like this, dirt baked by lack of moisture and the kiln of the blazing star Algo, laced liberally with rocks. It was an unforgiving climate, but one which Alys liked and respected. Its challenges suited her. Undead monsters, things thrown up by unholy magic, did not.
"W-well, this is the area," Chaz said, a slight tremor in his voice.
"Yes, it is...wait, move the light back a bit."
Chaz swung the light back along its course.
"Stop! There." She pointed with a blade of the slasher. "Do you see where the dirt has been turned?"
"Yeah. What's up with that?"
"It means that just maybe this job isn't going to be a waste of time after all."
Chaz's eyes widened in shock.
"You mean, this is a...grave?"
"Something's certainly been disturbing the ground in this area."
Predictably, Chaz took a nervous step backward, in case something decided to jump out of the ground. Almost as predictably, he stepped back onto yet another patch of turned soil. Alys was almost expecting a hand to thrust up from the ground and grab Chaz's ankle.
She wasn't expecting a loud crackling and popping noise to come from the dirt, or for Chaz to suddenly vanish into the ground, screaming her name.
That was a good sign, she decided. He hadn't been falling for long enough to be seriously hurt by the time he'd yelped. Alys quickly scrambled to the edge of the hole and looked down.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm not being eaten by zombies, so I think I'm all right," he muttered, getting to his feet. He'd somehow held onto the lantern in his fall, which was a good sign. Possibly it was quick thinking and possibly quick reflexes, but it was a flash of promise either way. He did that now and again, Alys reflected. Then again, the kid's real problem wasn't his body or his brainpower. He'd been a street thief, surviving on his own, until Alys had picked him up and so rather than just learning to be a hunter he'd also had to unlearn all his previous bad habits. As anyone who's tried to kick a habit knows, it wasn't easy, and it left Chaz scratching his head, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do all too often.
"Hey, Alys! Take a look at this!"
"What is it?"
"Some kind of tunnel!"
Alys dropped lightly into the hole and looked around. Chaz was right; one side of the pit was an open tunnel leading into darkness, shored up by crude timbers every so often. It made her think.
"Chaz, shine the light upwards."
"All right. Do you have an idea, Alys?"
His mentor nodded.
"I think you stepped into a clue, Chaz. Do you see that broken piece of wood around the edge where you fell through? And here—" She bent over and picked something up. "These scraps of plank fell with you."
"What does it mean?"
"There was a thin board, maybe more than one, supporting the dirt above this spot. That's why you fell through. The tunnel looks to have lower ceilings and better support, so it held our weight when we walked over it, but this chamber didn't."
"Yeah, but...why? What's the point in building all this?" he asked, confused.
"There's no point in making deductions before we have all of the facts. Let's see what else we can find down here."
Alys took the lantern and they started into the tunnel. They found two short, dead-end passages which ended in high ceilings with wooden planks. Or, more accurately, trap doors; a handle could be used to swing them down. Alys tried it experimentally, and found herself looking at the packed soil above. On a suspicion, she checked the floor and found four indentations in the dirt just about where she'd expected to find them.
I wonder if I'd have found this without Chaz's accident? Alys thought, then put it aside. She didn't play around with "would'ves."
"These don't look much like graves," Chaz remarked. "Not unless someone dug into them from beneath to remove the bodies."
"The tunnel seems to lead back towards the house," Alys said.
"The house? You mean...the zombies came from in there?"
"I'd say that's pretty clear, unless they've taken up mining and dug their way in." Chaz let out an admittedly small yelp, but Alys still groaned. Why was it that men had to be such cowards?
Since solving the mysteries of the universe didn't seem likely, Alys pressed on down the passage in hope of at least solving the mystery she was being paid to explain. The tunnel ended under the house in a rough-edged gap in a brick wall.
"Not a secret passage, then," Alys noted. "Someone tore out this wall with tools."
"But from the inside...or the outside?"
Alys ignored the question and clambered through the hole. Chaz followed after her, surveying the room. She'd silently taken in her surroundings, but the boy wasn't as restrained.
Not by a long shot.
"It's...it's true! They really did practice black magic down here, Alys!" Chaz spun to and fro, trying to take in all the details at once. "There's a hexagram inlaid in the floor here. And look over there on that shelf—skulls! Some of them don't even look human! And...a mummified hand! Eew, those look like drinking goblets made of bone! Can you imagine using someone's body to eat off of? Turning a corpse into household furnishings?"
"I've thought about using you as a rug any number of times. Pay attention, Chaz. What's important about all that stuff?"
He looked at her, puzzled.
"There's a clue here?"
The stern look Alys gave him told Chaz that yes, there was a clue, and that this was going to be one of those "teaching moments" where he'd better figure out what she was talking about if he didn't want to wind up with a long set of serious training exercises when they returned home to Aiedo after the job.
After a few moments, it came to him.
"There's dust all over everything," Chaz deduced, "so whatever this stuff is, it hasn't been used for a long time. So, the zombies probably aren't the slaves of some evil wizard using black magic to animate their bodies."
"You were doing well up until that last sentence."
Chaz looked down, embarrassed, and suddenly realized what Alys was talking about.
"Alys, there are tracks in the dust. Someone's been down here!"
"Someone who isn't interested in all this ritual magic crap. It's not all that easy to see, because there are some spots where large gaps have been wiped in the dust, but it looks like the tracks came and went both ways between that hole in the wall and those stairs on the other side of the room."
"We're going to keep on into this creepy place?"
"We aren't getting paid to learn what happened here two or three hundred years ago. We're here to learn what's wrong now. Judging from the state of this room, that doesn't have anything to do with the history of Arkingham House."
Alys strode across the room and climbed the staircase, which was quite short, returning to ground level. It ended in a plain door of wood planking, so Alys lifted the latch and pushed. The door seemed exceptionally heavy to her, and when she exited the ritual room she understood why. The door opened into a library, and its back was fixed with book-laden shelves.
"A hidden door!" Chaz stated the obvious. "We were on the other side of a panel designed to keep snoopers out of that room." He grinned and added, "I guess it doesn't work too well if you're inside the secret room."
"I doubt the builders were too worried about hiding the library," Alys agreed. "Maybe they should have been, though. Look!"
Alys played the light around the room. Chaz whistled in appreciation. He might have been a hunter rather than a thief, but he still had a sharp eye for valuable goods.
"Bolts of fabric, wine jugs, crates..." He picked up a small metal-banded coffer and raised the lid. "Look at these!" Several pieces of gem-encrusted jewelry rested inside. "This stuff must be worth a fortune!" He turned to Alys, perplexed. "But what would zombies want with trade goods? Unless they're supposed to be guards for this stuff?"
Just then—right on cue—a door swung open on the far side of the room. The creaking was accompanied by a low groan as a figure shambled forward. A second groan answered the first, as another figure lurched out of a side hall. Predictably—to Alys; Chaz all but jumped out of his skin—a third form staggered from the secret panel, surrounding the hunters.
In the dim lantern-light, they looked horrid. Pasty, decaying flesh was covered only by tattered rags smeared with dirt. They did not walk, but rather lurched, their clawed hands outstretched. Their eyes rolled crazily and their mouths opened and closed as if chewing something.
"In...tru...ders!" one slobbered horribly. "Leave...these...grounds...for...ev...er... Or...per...ish!" He reached out, hands twisting and grasping as if rending the air.
"Not likely!" Alys snapped. Her hand deftly unlocked her slasher's blades and refolded them before snapping out in a backhanded throw. The handle slammed unerringly into the side of one corpse's skull, and the zombie pitched over backwards.
"Chaz! Take the one that came in the way we did, and don't use your knife. I want him alive."
"Alive? But he's already dead!"
Alys didn't bother answering, so Chaz took his hand away from the hilt of his broad-bladed hunting knife. If she wanted him to do this the hard way, then he was going to do it the hard way. He figured that facing the claws of the undead was better than facing the wrath of Alys Brangwin.
The monster lurched at him, swiping down with its lethal nails, but Chaz ducked out of the way and punched. His fist connected, hard, with the creature's gut, and it surprised him by grunting in apparent pain.
And at last the light dawned.
In the dim light, Chaz grinned with anticipation. Because of his height and age, people often underestimated him in a fight, but that was a mistake. His ill-spent youth had made him tough and wiry, and ever since joining up with Alys she'd put him on a strict training regimen that not only taught him how to fight but built up his strength and reflexes so he could. The zombie, in fact, was no match for the apprentice hunter in a handfighting brawl. Several quick body blows opened up the opportunity for a stunning uppercut and then a roundhouse haymaker that left the living corpse staring at the holes in the library roof.
Alys, standing over her second defeated opponent, sighed heavily.
"Chaz, you're still telegraphing that left. And as far as that roundhouse, your swing is too slow!"
"Hey, I got him, didn't I?"
"That's true, but if he decided to fight like a man instead of a bad imitation of a zombie it might have mattered. I don't want you kicking the bucket anytime soon." She paused a heartbeat, then remembered to add, "The Guild doesn't pay any death benefits if I lose an apprentice."
Chaz grinned, making sure she couldn't see. His swing wasn't the only thing in the room that was too slow.
"Now help me tie these idiots up, then run back to Kadary and fetch whatever passes for law. These three may be fakes, but they smell like the real thing, so hurry. Oh, and bring a towel and a bowl of soapy water, too."
The bright light of the Motavian morning made the house seem a whole lot less gloomy. The presence of several city guards in stiff sand worm-hide leather, along with their mail-clad captain, also subtracted from the "haunted house" motif. The sight of three members of the living dead trussed up and cursing sullenly under their breath, though, pushed the whole routine over the edge into comedy.
"A smuggling ring, right under our very noses!" the captain exclaimed.
"Exactly," Alys told him. "The smugglers needed a base of operations outside the city walls, where goods could arrive in the night or be shipped out without anyone seeing them. Out here, they don't have to worry about any pesky guard patrols."
The captain stroked his goatee.
"Then the entire zombie routine was just an act to scare people away, so they wouldn't find the cached goods."
"That's it. The smugglers would post a lookout in the house, and when they saw someone coming, they would sneak through the secret door, out the tunnel that they'd built, into the rooms with the trapdoors. They'd lower a trapdoor, then push their hands up through the thin layer of dirt above, and climb out of the hole so it looked like they were clawing their way out of their graves. Then, once they'd scared off the intruders, they'd close the trapdoors and pack dirt onto them from above.
"But how did they get out of the graves?" Chaz asked.
"A ladder or footstool," Alys told him. "I could see the indentations from the legs in the dirt at the bottom of one of the holes."
"It seems like an awful lot of work to go through," the captain remarked.
"It was, but they had an awful lot of illegal profit to protect. Kadary is the major mercantile center between Piata, south of here, and the villages in this mountain valley. The town makes a good profit on trade-taxes. This loot could have been stolen goods or be honestly owned but dishonestly untaxed. Or some of each."
"What I don't understand," said one of the guards, who was either brighter than his fellows or pushing for a sergeant's stripes, "is why they didn't try those scare tactics on you?"
"We're professional hunters who were hired to fight zombies. I doubt they wanted to take us on at all, but while crawling out of a pit, on open ground? No one's that dumb—though these guys aren't that bright, either."
One of the zombies lapsed out of character long enough to direct a few short words at Alys.
"We've got the soap and water you asked for," the captain told her. "Should we use some on this one's mouth before hauling them in?"
"Why were they dumb, Alys?" Chaz asked.
"People don't get scared away by ghosts. That kind of thing attracts people like moths to a flame. Snoopy kids, students of the supernatural, town gossips, the works. I can't think of anything short of a poster saying "Party at Arkingham House! Free Food and Beer!" that's more likely to draw attention to this place. That's how you and I came into the picture."
Alys looked around at her audience, trying to get the explanation back on track.
"Anyway, we were here. They couldn't leave the place alone because of all this stuff." She indicated the smuggled trade goods with a wave of her hand. "They didn't want to try the rise from the graves routine because if we really did think they were zombies we'd try to put them back in their graves, for real. My best guess is that they waited inside the house to jump us in the front hall, to get the advantage of surprise and numbers in close quarters. Only, Chaz stumbled upon the secret of the trap doors and we didn't come in the way they expected, so they had to improvise."
"And not well, from the look of things."
She shook her head sadly.
"No, not well at all. Why don't you go ahead and clean off all the zombie makeup now."
"Yeah, let's see who these three really are."
"I thought it was fairly obvious," Alys remarked.
The captain, apparently disagreeing, began to scrub the faces of his captives vigorously, removing dirt, the cosmetics which gave their skin the look of rotting flesh, putty and fake scarring used to simulate decay, and the other tricks of disguise the men had used. Two raised no reaction—undoubtedly henchmen of the smuggling ring—but the third was a different story.
"It's Carlo, the town councilor!" chorused the guards and, unfortunately, Chaz.
"It had to be," Alys explained. "Only one of the council, who'd hired us, would know that hunters instead of ordinary people would show up last night. If the smugglers hadn't known that, they wouldn't have waited inside the house. Peter Marley has a farm and Erisa her family's home, both outside the walls, each peopled with their own servants and lackeys to do any necessary dirty work. They wouldn't have needed to use this place to store the smuggled goods, but Carlo did since his shop and house are inside the town."
"And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you, Alys, and that meddling kid!"
"Look at it this way. When you get out of prison, you can probably get re-elected. It's not like you're the first crook in politics."