The spirit-trail lead them deeper down the alley, twisting and turning in the wake of the specter Anthrax. The trail wasn’t even visible anymore – not to Bim anyway – but the swordghost seemed to know which way to go, and so Dan and all the rest followed. In short order, Bim was completely lost and had no idea where he was. Even in the thickest parts of the Pure Land’s forests, Bim had never been this turned-around and confused before.
Lady Anthrax stopped. She had brought the group behind a building, near a loading dock (which looked to Bim like it hadn’t been used in a while). She was hovering just inches above a manhole cover that, on closer inspection, looked like it had been pried open relatively recently.
Osprey rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t it just figure?.. my only solo outing in months, and it involves going into a sewer.”
Bim kicked Osprey’s shin. “Hey! ‘Solo’ outing?!? We’re partners, remember?”
Dan didn’t give the pair another second to air their grievances. “Dogbone, you’re up.”
Dogbone laced his gauntleted fingers together, then turned them outward and pressed, cracking all of his knuckles at once. “This is why I make the big bucks,” Dogbone said, as he leaned down, slipped his fingers into the holes in the heavy steel disc, and effortlessly hefted it up above his head. He laughed, then carelessly tossed the manhole cover aside, allowing it to clang loudly on the pavement.
Dogbone thoughtfully stroked his jawline for a moment. Then, he turned to Dan. “Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe we’ve quite nailed down the terms of my remuneration yet…”
Dan waved his fingers at the skeleton. Inky black wisps of dark magic filled the air, and snaked their way into the bony orificies of Dogbone’s skull. The wispy trails of dark magic found their way to an iron collar around Dogbone’s neck – similar in manufacture to the manacles around Toebiter’s wrists. As the magic found its mark, the collar glowed, and Dogbone’s green eyes rolled over in their sockets, before spinning back around to right themselves again.
“I mean,” Dogbone said, “What I meant to say was: ‘yes master.’ I suppose.”
Dan patted Dogbone on his armored shoulder, and turned his attention to the open sewer access. Lady Anthrax was the first one in, hovering down at a measured pace. Toebiter was next, carelessly leaping into the hole, followed by Dogbone, who jumped after the ghoul with a flourish of his cloak.
“I dunno about you, Dan,” Osprey said, “But I think I’ll just use the ladder.”
The necromancer nodded. “We proud, civilized few. After you, good sir.”
Osprey started his descent. When he was chest-deep into the manhole, Bim carefully climbed onto his back, clinging tightly to one of Osprey’s padded leather shoulderpads with his talons. As they got further down, Bim looked up, and then quickly regretted it: Dan was starting to make his descent into the manhole, and Bim had had a clear look up the necromancer’s robe.
Bim was starting to sour on Necromancer Dan – and not just because of the unfortunate upskirt incident. There were parts of this arrangement that didn’t seem right. For starters, Dan’s undead minions seemed… a little too sinister for all of this talk of “benign necromancy.” Anthrax seemed to be itching to continue her fight with Osprey, Toebiter was basically little more than a wild dog on a leash… who looked like he wanted to add Bim’s talons to that grisly necklace of toes dangling from his neck. Dogbone seemed nice enough, but it was clear Dan was the one in control…
Dan seemed like a decent guy. But the more Bim thought about it, the more he realized something about this was just off. Bim wondered if Osprey felt the same. The seasoned ZAPS agent had been leery at first, but as the night went on it felt like Osprey was slowly letting his guard down.
Maybe Bim was off-base. He should trust Osprey; Osprey’s the professional here, after all. … but why couldn’t Bim shake this bad feeling?
Osprey stepped down and reached up to help Dan off the ladder. Bim hopped off Osprey’s back. Toebiter’s yellow eyes were on him again, but thankfully Dogbone had placed himself between the ghoul and the griffin hand… perhaps knowingly, Bim wondered.
Anthrax had already floated down the tunnel ahead, keeping after the spirit trail. Down here, in the sewer, Anthrax seemed to glow all the more, lighting up the way ahead with an eerie greenish light.
The group followed after, careful to avoid the foul-smelling sewage that ran down the tunnel’s central channel. Osprey had to explain to Bim what a sewer even was. The concept horrified Bim. It made him look at the marvelous glass-and-steel city of Albrook in an entirely new light: of course it was beautiful up there. They’ve shunted all their poo into great big poo-rivers running beneath the city!! He would have followed up and asked where the poo-rivers of the city’s sewers finally ended up… but he didn’t think he was quite ready to know about the Great Albrook Poo-Repository just yet.
The tunnel they were following came to an abrupt end. The room before them was a large junction of several sewer tunnels, three levels deep. The sewage from the tunnel the group had been following ran over the edge in a brownish waterfall toward the lower level. Metal catwalks ran around the edges of the chamber, and on a block-shaped concrete island in the center was what looked like a maintenance station.
Bim was familiar enough with humans and the work they did to know that what was going on on that island was NOT maintenance.
A makeshift altar, flanked by flickering torches, had been erected at the center of the island. On the catwalks all around, men moved. Some of them wore black robes similar to Dan’s, but others were wearing normal human clothes. These ones seemed to move more slowly than the robed people, though. With a shuffling, almost limping kind of gait –
“Zombies!” Bim hissed, bouncing up and down excitedly. He bumped against Osprey’s leg urgently, and whispered: “It’s zombies, I was right all along! Carlos got eaten by zombies!!”
“Maybe not,” said Dan. He pointed. Atop the altar was a humanoid body, but it didn’t look like a normal body. Even from the distance of the group’s vantage point, they could see lines of red segmenting the body into unequal portions. You would need Bim’s keen griffin hand vision, however, to pick up on finer details of this corpse: the skin tones of the different parts were mismatched. Most seemed to be of common human skintones, in varying shades of brown and tan and pink. But there were one or two parts that had an odd skintone: a blue, or a green. Parts – yes, ew, parts, thought Bim – that were clearly nonhuman.
“Just be glad they already have two feet, my friend,” Dan said, patting Bim atop his body haunch.
Bim recoiled, but only slightly. He wasn’t comfortable with Dan being all friendly with him like that. That, and the fact that Dan’s touch was icy cold – far colder than any human hand he’d ever been patted by before.
Standing by the altar was a woman. She wore black robes and was tall and thin, almost emaciated – though you could only tell by way of the pale-skinned forearms that extended through the robe’s sleeves. Her hood was drawn, concealing most of her face from view. Bim could see a glowing pinpoint of white light – kind of like Toebiter’s yellow eyes – shining from inside the hood… but it looked like only one light. A single eye-glow? Could it be that the cult had managed to cobble together a horrific monster out of dead bodies, but couldn’t even supply one of its apparent leaders with a spare eye?
The woman was chanting, and she waved her hands in rhythmic patterns over the corpse. Two more black robes moved onto the island from a rickety metal stairway; between them, they were carrying a severed human arm. They moved alongside the altar, placed the arm, and worked busily at stitching. The hooded woman with the single glowing eye seemed to intensify her chanting.
Osprey reached for his belt, and drew out a pair of knives, the blades pinched between his fingers. He made ready to leap forward.
Dan put a hand on Osprey’s shoulder. “We have to do this carefully. We will only have the element of surprise once.”
Dogbone leaned in, and whispered: “Six necros, not counting the leader. I’m counting twelve zombies around the room. Maybe more hiding out of sight.”
Dan nodded. He looked at Dogbone meaningfully. “Remember the Narshe mines?”
Dogbone nodded. “Yes. This is still worse, because that water down there is basically poo. So, there’s probably zombies swimming in the poo that are gonna come up.”
Osprey grimaced. “Poo zombies…”
Bim sighed audibly. “If only we had ordered a pizza instead,” he thought to himself. “Or Fabulian food. Or… anything else. Then we could have lived the rest of our lives without ever encountering poo zombies. And Carlos would have gone on to live a rich and full life and eventually invent a system of poo-disposal that didn’t involve giant rivers of poo flowing beneath the greed-laden streets of the humanoids’ massive modern city. And he would have earned his place in the Temple of Fame and everyone lived happily ever after with nary a poo zombie to be seen…”
Dan outlined his plan: “Dogbone, you fly out on the right, Anthrax, you fly out on the left. Try to take out as many necros as you can first of all. Osprey, you head down the center on the catwalks. You need to cut a path to the altar for me as quickly as possible. If we can get down there before that hulk animates, we can take out their leader.”
Bim hesitated. “I can’t help but notice you didn’t give an assignment to Toebiter.”
Toebiter’s ears perked up as he heard Bim use his name. He smiled evilly, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Bim cringed.
“I could leave him here to watch after you,” Dan said, with a knowing grin. Toebiter seemed to like this idea; he clacked his claws together happily. “But no. I think it would be better for me if I kept Toebiter close. He’ll come with me and Osprey as we charge down the middle.”
Osprey put a hand on Dan’s shoulder. “Okay. Are you done, Dan? Because that plan is kind of horrible.”
“Look,” Osprey said, taking a beat as he formulated what he was about to say. Bim recognized this: Dan was about to be Os-splained. “I respect that this is your party, and these are your badguys. I totally respect that. But going in balls-out like this… personally, that’s not my style. Maybe it works for you, but seeing as how pretty much your entire group here has already died once, and the rest of us would like to not do that… I think you should let me do this my way.”
Dan scoffed. He looked genuinely offended. “Excuse me. I didn’t realize we had a damn bigshot tagging along with us.” Dan elbowed Dogbone, looking for some backup. “Dogbone, you getting this? I mean I didn’t realize, you must be famous or something, except I hadn’t heard of you at all before we met.”
“Of course you haven’t heard of me,” Osprey said. “Because I’m good at my job.” He paused. “… former job,” he added at the end, with a pained edge to his voice. “Look, just stay here.”
Before anyone could stop him, Osprey leapt over the edge. Surrounding shadows seemed to rush forward and envelope him, and within an eyeblink Osprey had vanished completely from view.
Everyone assembled on the ledge – Dan, Dogbone, Anthrax, Toebiter and Bim – just stood there a moment, unsure of what was happening or what was going to happen next.
The next moment a flash of light caught Bim’s eye. He looked to the source, but too late: all he could see was the aftermath as one of the zombies on the catwalk tumbled to the ground in two pieces. A diagonal cut had separated the corpse from shoulder to hip; the two segments continued to writhe on the ground, and the viscera once contained within the whole spilled out, cascading over the edges of the catwalk and oozing through the metal grating that made up the catwalk’s floor.
The necromancers were alerted. The woman at the altar (with the single glowing eye shining beneath her hood) turned toward the spectacle. She began screaming at the other necromancers, who all were immediately set on alert.
Dan and Dogbone crouched down, making themselves less obvious. Toebiter – who seemed to naturally come to rest at a crouch when idle – lowered himself even more and shrunk behind Dan (though it wasn’t immediately obvious he fully understood what was happening). Anthrax – the big, glowing green specter – quietly faded from view, becoming a subtle green mist that could hide among the various sewer gases.
Bim more or less stayed as he was, hunched down at the ledge, watching the scene before him. He dared not take his eyes off the action, though. For as long as Bim had been a part of the group – under Fara’s protection, living in Roxanne’s apartment, palling around with Osprey – he’d heard stories of his friends’ heroics, but he felt the stories could only convey so much. He’d wondered what it would have been like to actually be able to watch Osprey, or the Shield or Fara, at work.
The necromancers were calling out to each other. Some of them had drawn flashlights from the folds of their robes; others had conjured up wispy motes of a chilling ghostly luminescence. The flashlight beams and the conjured motes were tearing through the darkness, seeking out whatever it was that had just slashed one of their zombie minions in half.
There was a muffled yelp, carried throughout the chamber by way of its echo, and then the clatter of a flashlight hitting the metal catwalk. The dropped flashlight’s beam swung around in random directions, alerting everyone in the chamber, but by the time the other cultists’ flashlights got there, there was nothing to see.
Dan’s lips curled into a smile, and he clearly wanted to say something, but he thought better of it. Dogbone chuckled, but Dan’s hand on his back and a disapproving look silenced him. With a gesture, Dan moved his group back away from the ledge, into the darkness from whence they’d come, well away from where the cultists would be searching for Osprey as he picked off their number.
Bim did not move. How could he!? It was just getting good. After the disappearance of the first necromancer, a second was taken out – much to the collective horror of the cult. An unconscious body was then found hanging from one of the catwalks, though it wasn’t immediately clear to Bim whether it was victim #1 or #2. And as the cultists went about lowering their suspended comrade, the blade-in-the-dark flashed out again, segmenting another zombie. With a plaintive wail, the zombie’s head hit the catwalk with a wet smacking sound, and its arm tumbled down into the sewage below with a splash. The headless, armless body limply tumbled forward.
The necromancers were screaming at each other now. “Find him!” “Where is he?” “They’re everywhere!!”
Another slice, another segmented zombie. And then another, and another.
One of the necromancers, panicked, reached up to his neck and tore off an amulet of some kind. He threw it down to the floor where it made a metallic smacking against the catwalk. “I didn’t sign up for this!” he said, “I’m out of here!!”
As he turned to run, the woman with the single glowing pin-point eye under her hood looked up. She held up a single hand and made a gesture, and flung what appeared to be a spear made of pure bone in the fleeing necromancer’s direction. The spear took him from behind, square in the center, protruding through the middle of his chest. With a gurggling cry, he pitched forward over the railing and splashed down in the river of poo-water below.
“Fan out you fools!” the woman screeched. “The ritual must not be interrupted!!”
“It’s a little late for that,” came a new voice – Dan’s. Bim stood upright. There, on a catwalk opposite Bim’s vantage point, was Dan, flanked on either side by Lady Anthrax and Dogbone.
The woman lowered her hands and turned to face the other necromancer. In the vast, echoing chamber, Bim heard her scoff.
“The prodigal returns,” the woman said – which Bim could hear and make out so clearly across such distance thanks to the great acoustics of the junction chamber and his vastly superior griffin hand hearing. “This is your doing?”
“Hmm?” Dan grunted, with a grin. “Oh, you mean the evisceration of your corpse-guards and the dwindling of your fellowship to just a handful of frightened acolytes?.. Yes, yes you could say that I have done this.”
“We gave you everything,” the woman hissed. “Knowledge. Family. Purpose.”
“You gave me what you needed me to have in order to control me,” Dan said, his face twisting in anger. “You held me back because you knew it would be the only way for you to keep what you don’t deserve.”
Dan drew the whip off of his belt and gave it a crack. Dogbone’s collar glowed eerily, and he stepped forward, siezing hold of the woman’s wrist and throat. As Dogbone backed her over the altar, pinning her down and knocking the inert corpse-hulk over the side where it smacked onto the catwalk with a wet fleshy sound, both the woman’s robe’s sleeves and her hood slipped back.
With his incredible vision, Bim could clearly see the woman now. Once, she might have been young and beautiful – recently, even – but the dark magic she practiced had aged and defiled her. Her hair was a wispy white-yellow tangle, her face lined and ashen gray. Beholding her face, Bim could see that she actually did have both of her eyes – well, she had two eyes anyway; one was clearly not hers. It was black where it ought to have been white, and dominated at the center by a single, piercingly bright pinpoint of light; a pinpoint that shifted around frantically as she struggled against Dogbone’s superhuman grasp.
Bim could also see her wrist – the wrist Dogbone had pinned to the altar. It appeared to have been two-toned; at her forearm, the skin was ashen-gray like her face, but a few inches above the wrist, the woman’s hand’s flesh was twisted and black; an unnatural, claw-tipped hand, grafted there on the stump of the woman’s arm.
Lady Anthrax floated in close to the altar, raising the blade Etherscratch above her head.
“The Hand and the Eye of Milon,” Dan said, “Will be mine… and then I, Necro Dan, will be the superior necromancer!”
There was a sudden wind in the chamber just then, a rush of air and shadow. In a blinding blue flash, something barely registering as substantial moved through the air around the altar in the junction chamber. A sound, lagging mere seconds behind the flash, of metal biting on metal rang out and echoed beyond.
Osprey was perched on the railing on the opposite side of the altar, his avian talons gripping the bars, Shiva’s Edge drawn in his hands with its blue blade glinting in the faint light. With impeccable balance, Osprey turned, crouching still, and locked eyes with Dan.
“I somehow knew you were gonna turn out to be a jerk,” Osprey said.
Dan smirked. “Come on now. Don’t be all pissy just because of how tonight worked out. Join up with me and you will never again want for meatball sandwiches, I promise you.”
“Normally I would be loath to turn down a delicious meatball sandwich,” Osprey said, “But when I look down at the bill and see the delivery fee accounted for in the coinage of evil… that, sir, is a price I would never ascede to paying. Also sales tax.”
“They always get you on the sales tax,” Bim silently agreed, proud of how his friend was standing on principle.
Dan shrugged. “You make me sad, Osprey. We could have done wonderful things together… but you have chosen the path of the stupidly noble, to stand in my way when there is nothing y–”
There was the sound of metal clanging against metal just then. Dan stopped, and he looked toward its source. Bim noted Osprey’s confident smile – what, exactly, had the old bird done?..
Looking down, he saw that only half of Dogbone’s iron collar was left about his neck. The other half, severed, had fallen to the ground.
Dogbone noticed this, now, too. He shook his head, allowing the other half of the collar to clatter to the floor, and turned to face Dan. Somehow, Dogbone’s googly green eyes were emoting disgruntlement.
“Hiya buddy,” Dan said, right before Dogbone’s gauntleted fist smashed into his face.
Chaos followed. Osprey and Anthrax resumed their sword duel from before, while Dogbone was suddenly set upon by the remaining necromancers – including the weird eye-hand lady, who had gained a second wind and was throwing magic bone spears all willy and nilly.
Bim revelled in the sights below. This was adventure! All this time, this was what he was missing. True, he wasn’t actually down there helping his best friend in the whole wide web fight off the evil cult of necromancers… but he had a front row seat to the action. And, it turned out he had been right twice in a row this evening! He was right when he said Carlos had been killed by zombies, and then again when he predicted that Dan was gonna turn out to be a badguy.
He looked around at the scene unfolding beneath him… and then paused, as a sudden realization took him. He froze in panic.
Where was the toe-monster?
A chill ran up Bim’s leg-part just then. Very faintly, he heard a hissing behind him; a hiss, followed by a scratching sound.
A scratch like far-too-long toenails scuffing against concrete.
Bim turned, and to his everlasting horror, there was Toebiter the ghoul. Lumbering slowly toward him, prowling on all fours like a jungle cat. His fang-filled mouth was twisted into a sadistic grin; his cruel yellow eyes aglow with a joy born from Biminberrick’s sheer terror. His necklace of severed toes dangled from his neck as he loped about, a terrible portent of things to come.
“Meat…” Toebiter said, a line of green saliva dribbling off of his wet chin, as he flared his claw-tipped hands and made ready to pounce.