by J. C. Hay
"Why a zombie?" I asked.
Grayearth turned out to be aptly named, and anything—even a conversation with a guy who dressed up like a zombie—would help to alleviate the monochrome dreariness of our surroundings.
Elias dragged one leg ineffectually behind him, despite the fact that we were the only people visible. His ankle had a pile of pale gray mud caked to it, and he appeared to be the only person not bothered by the thick-bodied black flies that seemed part of the air around the chattel farm. Not that they left him alone—they landed on him and crawled around his eyes and mouth just like they did to Arduga and me. He just didn't seem bothered by them.
"Did you notice me at all?" he asked. "Before I helped you out, that is."
I had to admit I hadn't.
"There you go, then. Nobody really sees zombies, and those who do aren't expecting them to have a mind of their own, or an agenda. People act differently when they think they're alone and no mistake. Say things they might otherwise not."
"So you're a spy."
"I prefer to think of myself as a trader in information." He smiled, and I wondered if the cracked and stained teeth he displayed were real, or another part of his makeup.
Arduga hadn't said much since we'd left the city. Unsurprising—a ghoul in the open had a hard time being comfortable. He liked warrens, which Mechitar provided in plenty. Being out here, he had to feel positively naked.
We crested a low hill and looked down at Grayearth proper. From where we stood, we could see four smaller yards acting as satellites to a central main yard. There were probably a dozen buildings in all, solidly built and scattered among the yards. In several of the yards, feed-chattel walked aimlessly, oblivious to the flies and the misty drizzle alike.
"What are we supposed to be looking for, anyway?" Arduga's impatience had finally driven him to speak. "And for that matter, when can we eat?"
I glared at him, but couldn't really blame him. Ghouls had to eat—it was their nature. It didn't have to be flesh, of course, but they couldn't get sustenance from anything else. He stared mournfully down toward the nearest pen. An elderly male limped along the fence line, oblivious to his surroundings. Whoever owned that one better get to him fast; they'd be racing Death as it was.
I spotted the thug before I could respond to the ghoul. He stood outside one of the buildings in the next satellite lot, leaning against the wall like someone who had no interest in being there. I didn't need a spyglass to know that the metal glinting on his shoulder marked him as one of Fen's crew. I tugged Elias's arm and pointed. Arduga opened his mouth to repeat his earlier question and I silenced him with a glare.
The fake zombie nodded and started toward the fences. I grabbed him. "Are you mad? In the city you're faceless. Out here you're an uncontrolled zombie heading toward a field full of human chattel. I'll go, you wait for my signal."
The look he shot me told me he hadn't considered the downside to his outfit. "Good point," he said. I crept off before he could muster anything more as an excuse. I had no doubt he knew his way around the city, but out here the rules were a little different.
I circled wide to put the outbuilding between me and the thug, anything to give me an advantage. It would have worked, too, had I had slightly better timing. I'd almost reached the fence when a knock from the outbuilding echoed across the yard. A door opened, and one of the chattel stumbled out and fell into the mud. Rather than help her up, the thug stepped past her and started toward a young male in the corner.
The male bolted, eyes rolling in terror. The thug turned to follow him and looked right at me. I snapped my wrist and sent a dagger into his throat. He stumbled back, hands clawing at his neck. Rather than give him a chance to recover, I vaulted the fence and charged him. A second dagger dropped into my hand. I planted it in his side, vaulted up, and pulled out the first.
He dropped into the mud, not far from where the woman lay. She smiled up at me, thinking I was some kind of savior. She had the wrong person, obviously, and I sent her scurrying away with a mock charge. The door had closed, hopefully right after the woman fell out; otherwise any surprise I hoped for was ruined.
Fortunately, the lock wasn't much better than the guard. A quick jab from a rake-pick and a twist from a torsion wrench, and it popped right open.
A gruff voice chuckled, "Hells, Barius! They give you trouble, or what? Hurry up and wrestle it over here so we can inject it."
I didn't say a word and took a moment to look around me. Not far from me was a holding pen, big enough for two or three chattel, with a crush at one end to isolate them for branding or washing. Just beyond the narrow restraints sat a broad table, with an assortment of bottles, flasks, and notebooks scattered across it. Beyond that stood another of Fen's goons, dressed in finery that seemed out of place in comparison to his fellows. He looked more like a scribe or a particularly thin merchant than a professional leg breaker.
He spotted me—and my blood-soaked knife—and screamed, then ran. I swore and dodged around the edge of the pen and past the table. He pelted through the back door as though the Four Horsemen themselves pursued him.
Rather than risk the climb, I dove under the table and did a fast somersault back to my feet. He kept running out into the yard. A gray shape shot over the fence, and I recognized Arduga in full lope.
Apparently the screaming man was the signal.
"Don't eat him! We need him alive!" I didn't care if the ghoul heard me, but I figured it might get the gangster to surrender. It didn't, but he did change direction to get away from Arduga. He ran into a trio of chattel and went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Before he could get up again, I grabbed his shirt. He took a swing at me, but misjudged my height badly. I tugged him around. "Look, if I let you go, the ghoul there will think you're dinner. Do you want that?"
Arduga flashed him a grin filled with jagged teeth, and the guy blanched paler than the gray-white mud that covered his face. He shook his head.
"Good. Let's go back inside, shall we? We can talk there." He didn't fight as I steered him back into the outbuilding. Somehow Elias had beaten us there, and the guy looked from the false zombie to me with even more fear than before. It gave me an idea.
I shoved the gangster into the pen and turned to Elias. "You got here fast."
He smiled. "The legs work well when I want them to."
I nodded, then vaulted into the pen with the dandy. "See that? I can make a damn zombie talk. It's really easier for me to kill you, drag your soul back, and then squeeze the answers out of your corpse. Only reason I haven't is I'm feeling merciful. Now, are you going to reward my mercy?"
He nodded so fast I heard his teeth rattle. "I just want you to know, I never had a beef with Soleren. They always seemed like an upright bunch to me. For vampires that is. I'm just doing what Fen asked me to."
"And that is?"
"He wanted Soleren's chattel injected. Said he wanted a noble in his pocket. It's a poison of some sort, and Fen's got the only treatment around. He figured he could use it to blackmail the vamps."
Treatment, I noticed. Not cure. Made sense—there's no money made in curing a thing. And a poison in the chattel? I snuck a glance at Arduga, who licked his lips and paced back and forth by the door. No wonder Corus Fen wanted the vial back. If it had the cure in it, it'd be worth a pretty penny on the open market. After all, what could be done to one house could be done to any house that relied on chattel to feed their dead nobility.
In more ambitious hands than Fen's, it could bring Mechitar's nobility to its knees. I'm not altruistic, but I liked the system just fine the way it was. I didn't appreciate the thought of some small-time crime lord wanting to topple it.
Elias walked back from the window. "All the chattel in the yard are branded for Soleren. That holds true at least." He flipped through the notebook on the desk, then tucked it into his shirt. "I think this is a record of their experiments. Jaros will want to see it."
The gangster looked alarmed. "Wait, you're not with House Soleren?"
I chuckled. "Never said I was. You've certainly given us plenty to tell them though." I could see how this information trade of Elias's could be pretty lucrative. Maybe cutting purses was the wrong career for me after all. "Or barring them, I'm sure the Blood Lords would love to hear about it."
The mention of the league of necromancers who acted as the ruling council for both Mechitar and all of Geb sent another shiver through the man. "If you want to take down Fen," he said, "I can help you."
I snorted. People say the craziest things when they're terrified. "Why would you do that?"
"Power hates to leave a vacuum. You take out Fen, someone has to take his place. If it's me, I'll owe you. That's got to be worth something."
"Yes, but why would it be you?"
"Fen trusts me enough to run his most important projects. It'd be a showdown between me and the other lieutenants as to who would take over. With your help, I can tilt the scale in my favor."
I must have looked like I was starting to buy it, so he sweetened the pot. "I can get you into the mansion unseen. After he's taken care of, there'll be chaos all around. It's almost natural that some of the expensive items there would get lost in the confusion." He gave me a conspiratorial smile.
Damn. I really must look predictable. "Is there a way to cure the chattel?" He looked at me, confused as to why I cared about the living equivalent of a zombie. "If they can be protected against the toxin, Fen's lost his edge." As would anyone who followed in Fen's footsteps, but I assumed he was quick enough to figure it out.
"If there's anything, it'll be in the mansion. We were just the field research." He chuckled. "Literally."
"What's your name?" I didn't care, other than that I needed something to call him beyond "hey you." If he was thinking straight at all, anything he gave me would be false. Names carry too much power to be free with them.
"Tylar." He looked at me nervously.
"Very well, Mr. Tylar." I made an elaborate gesture and opened the pen's gate. "Lead the way."
Coming Next Week: Housebreaking and rooftop chases in Chapter Three of "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 Gerald Lee