by J. C. Hay
The paladin's spittle hit me full in the cheek, and began a slow crawl toward my chin. His aim impressed me—it's not easy to hit a small target in a crowd, especially when bound and being dragged to the executioner's platform. I cut the cords on the purse of the merchant in front of me and secreted it into a sleeve as I passed in the condemned man's wake. Paladins were a rarity on the platform, and this one had brought a good crowd. I felt something crush and slip under my boot and hoped it was simply a rotten vegetable—some of the townsfolk threw offal, and I hated trying to scrub that out of the leather.
The guards hauled him up onto the platform and kicked his feet out from under him. As soon as he hit the ground the executioner stepped forward to pronounce sentence. "Evaniel, Chosen of Iomedae, you have been found guilty of the murder of a nobleman."
At that, the paladin started screaming again, the hysteria that tinged his voice doing little to convince me that his faith in his goddess's protection was entirely certain.
"Has everyone gone mad? He was a vampire!"
I smiled and cut another purse. Of course he was a vampire. Most of the nobility of Mechitar are dead. Doesn't mean they don't have as many rights as me, or the paladin.
Well, probably more than the paladin now. The new purse felt hefty. I quickly distributed its contents around my person, then discarded it and smiled at my unintentional benefactor. After all, if not for the paladin's foolishness, I'd never have a crowd this good.
The executioner hadn't bothered to stop talking. "—in accordance with the wishes of the family, you are to be bled from the neck until dead, so that by your death you may in some way repay them for their loss." One of the guards maneuvered a hefty iron bowl under the paladin's face, while the other fastened his ankles to a hook. They'd hang him to drain after the initial bleed—the best way to get the most out of the body. They'd been at this for centuries, and if there were tricks to maximizing a body's production, the government of Mechitar had learned them all. For a moment, I thought I saw a glint on the massive black pyramid that dominated the city's skyline. If I were prone to imagination, I'd tell myself that Geb himself was watching the proceedings—but that was ridiculous. Us common folk didn't get to see our ruler's ghost.
A stinking weight slammed into me from behind and I felt my limbs begin to go numb before I could regain control. Even before I heard his wheedling voice, I knew who owned the bulk.
"Omaire! You've got to help me!" His whine added an extra syllable to my name—Oh-MAY-yuh. I turned to face him and immediately wished I hadn't.
Arduga had been feeding recently, and most of his meal was slathered all over his chin and the moth-eaten finery that passed as his standard dress. The ghoul liked to tell people he'd been nobility before he'd chewed his way out of the grave, but I didn't believe him. His manners were terrible, and he lied constantly.
He seemed earnest enough now, however. His rubbery skin, stretched around his mouth and eyes, would look comical on anyone else. On Arduga, it wavered between pathetic and disgusting. He wrapped his fingers around my shoulders and clung to me, his fetid breath assaulting my nostrils. "They're gonna kill me!" He shot a glance over his shoulder, which I followed. A pair of well-sized ruffians pushed purposefully through the crowd, looking left and right.
"And you led them straight to me. Brilliant." I cuffed the ghoul in the ear.
Arduga let out a startled shriek, and both of the thugs looked right at me. One of them gave birth to a cruel smile, pulled a dagger from his belt, and started toward us. The other shouted and pointed, probably to additional pursuers that I hadn't noticed.
So much for having a decent day's haul picking pockets.
The paladin's screams hit a fever pitch and then cut off, replaced by the roar of the crowd as they surged forward. Perfect timing. The goons got tangled in the crush of bodies wanting to witness the bloodletting up close. I shoved Arduga off of me and dove down low, charging between and around the forest of legs as I rushed to get away. If he were smart, Arduga would be hot on my heels. I didn't have to look back—the ghoul had the survival instincts of a cat. I'd be lucky if he didn't pass me before I reached the edge of the crowd.
I emerged from the cheering mob not far from the alleyway I'd traveled to get here. No way I'd reenter that, though. The last thing I needed was to lead these idiots back to where I lived. A shout to my left got me started running again as a third yokel, working the edge of the crowd no doubt, spotted Arduga and me. I shoved the ghoul ahead of me, away from the alley. "Don't wait! Run!"
He charged forward, dropping to all fours so he could use his long arms to propel himself even faster. I ran too, feeling the air burn in my lungs. He skidded under a heavy wooden cart, spooking the horse. I had to vault over, rather than risk being crushed by the wheels. A shout from behind us announced that our new friends were still in hot pursuit.
Arduga cut into another alleyway and I fell in after him, hoping he didn't plan to escape into the sewers. As I'd feared, he was searching for any entrance into the reeking waste-river, but fortunately there wasn't one here. I grabbed him before he could bolt again. "What did you do?"
He screeched at the anger in my voice and tried to shove himself away, but I held fast.
"Nothin'! I swear! He was dead when I found him. No harm in a man having a snack, is there?" He sounded like he believed the story, but given that I'd helped him run grift on unsuspecting merchants before, that hardly counted as a suggestion of honesty.
I shoved him back. "You're hardly a man, and they're not after you for nothing. If you didn't kill him, what did you take?"
Before he could answer me, the three thugs rounded the corner of the alley. The smiles they wore promised enjoyment for only half the people here. Only now did I realize they wore identical cloak pins—a gang. And I thought this couldn't get worse.
I narrowed my eyes at the ghoul. "If we live through this, you're dead."
Arduga grinned, bits of rotting meat between his jagged teeth. "Too late."
The gangsters charged us. I ducked under a swing from one with a pustulant rash creeping out of his collar. A dagger dropped into my hand, but he turned before I could get a better target than a glancing shot to his thigh. His friend, the one with the nasty smile, came up behind me. I fought to get my back to the wall—the last thing I wanted was to get caught between them.
Then the zombie attacked.
I hadn't even noticed him, honestly. The mindless dead are commonplace in Mechitar, doing the filthiest tasks that no living person would contemplate. Smiles seemed as startled as everyone else by the sudden change in demeanor, and by the zombie's particular speed and skill. While he tried to make sense of the new condition, I charged in and cut a second smile for him, just below his chin. He dropped, fingers clenched around his throat.
Arduga, coward that he was, was running toward the dead-end back of the alley. Unless ghouls had learned to dig through brick, I doubted that would help him much. Neck-Rash realized that he was alone with two opponents and made a break for it. The zombie tried to trip him, but the gangster offered an impressive vault and fled for safer environs.
The ghoul shrieked again, and I dashed back to help him. The last gangster had him cornered, but had foolishly stopped watching his back. I gently introduced my dagger to some of his choicer organs, before Arduga, ever heroic, leapt forward and took a bite out of the already dying man.
My stomach clenched. I'd seen him feed before, but I hoped I never got used to it. The zombie walked up, took one look, and blanched. It's that horrifying.
Then I realized the zombie had shown a response. It smiled at me and spoke.
"They'll be back, and no mistake. Come quick. I know a safe place."
I didn't move.
It sighed and rubbed at the flaking skin on its cheek. The rot fell away, showing healthy skin beneath. "It's a disguise. Now come quick. We've little time!"
∗ ∗ ∗
His 'safe place' turned out to be a firetrap packed floor to ceiling with books, two alleys over from where we had been. He opened the door and gestured us inside, and I had to hurry to get out of Arduga's path. Once the door had closed behind us, he called out. "Jaros, you wily fox. Where are you?"
A face so ancient that I first thought him to be a lich peered around a stack of books that I had to work to recognize as a desk. "I thought you'd finally gotten the smell right, Elias. Turns out you've started hanging out with ghouls."
Arduga had the grace to look offended, but I shot him a look that kept him from speaking up. I realized he'd brought the thug's hand with him, jammed in his belt as a snack for later. The zombie—Elias—was staring in a piece of silvered glass, reapplying rotting flesh over the area he'd cleaned. "I had to give them safe refuge, Jaros. Fen's boys were after them."
"Corus Fen? That bastard never did know his place. But why's he chasing ghouls and girls?" I glanced down, making certain that I was still dressed as androgynously as possible. The old man had a sharper eye than I'd given him credit for.
I looked over at the ghoul, who wore a look that said at any moment he might loose his recently devoured meal. "Yes, Arduga. Why don't you tell us what they're looking for?"
If the ghoul could have burrowed through the floor, he would have. I casually pulled a dagger and used it to clean my nails.
He took the hint. "I weren't doin' nothing wrong. The body was lying in the alley. No claim on it or nothin'. I just had a little snack, and it sort of fell into my pouch. Then they started chasin' me."
The bookmaster narrowed his eyes. "What fell into your pouch, gravemouth?" Perceptive or not, I already liked the old man.
Arduga pulled out a small, clear flask with a black liquid sloshing inside. Elias took it from the ghoul and offered it up to the bookkeeper. "Fen's a clever bastard, and if he wants this, like as not he's got a good reason."
The false-zombie leaned closer, as did I. "What is it?" we asked in near-unison.
"No clue," the old man said. "This seal though," he pointed to a mark in the wax stopper. "That's Grayearth's symbol. A chattel farm west of the city. It serves several of the nobles too minor to afford their own farms. You'll want to wear sturdy-soled boots." He looked directly at me as he said this last.
The old man tugged open a drawer, removed a purse, and dropped it onto the table. It sounded heavy. "Because I want to know what old Fen's up to. And you're going to find out for me."
I glanced at the purse, calculated its volume and likely contents. Too perceptive by half—the old coot knew just how to hook me.
Coming Next Week: A visit to a chattel farm, where humans provide an important part of a balanced Gebbite diet, in the second chapter of J. C. Hay's "Blood Crimes."
J. C. Hay is the author of numerous short stories and poems for such anthologies as Book of All Flesh (Eden Press), Up Jumped the Devil (PS Publishing), and Dark Faith (Apex Book Company), as well as a chapter in the Prodigal Sons Pathfinder's Journal in Pathfinder Adventure Path #33. For more information, visit his website at jchay.com.
Art by KyuShik Shin