City of Heroes Interlude: Who's Carlos? (aka The Curious Case of the Undead Avenger; aka Biminberrick's Big Adventure)

It was a night like any other. And as far as Bim was concerned, that was just fine. Having fully acclimated himself to residing in the safety of Roxanne’s apartment, the griffin hand was not one to take even a single moment of his newfound freedom for granted.

Even if, on this particular night, all he was doing was watching Osprey work at unlocking a newly-uncovered secret character in Manacalibur, while infrequently monitoring the progress of the pair’s food delivery on his brand new smartphone.

“So who is this new guy anyway?” Bim asked.

Osprey was focused on his gameplay, and barely registered that Bim had asked a question. His beak was open, his tongue tapping rapidly against the roof of his mouth, as his keen avian eyes flashed with incomprehensible speed to take in each fluctuation and nuance of the digital battle he was engaged in.

“Supposedly,” Osprey said, “They’re saying on the omninet that they’ve datamined a heretofore undiscovered secret character…”

“So you said before,” Bim said. “Who is he?”

“He’s actually not really part of the game,” Osprey continued explaining. “They never fully implemented him, even though he’s got all his moves and animations just sitting there in the game’s assets… locked behind an incomplete game resource file.”

“… which is why you tied up our bandwidth all night downloading the mod file to open the way,” Bim said, reiterating yet another part of this explanation that he’d already heard before.

For a moment, the griffin hand marvelled at his current condition. A year ago, he hadn’t enough concept of the modern Web of Worlds to know what “bandwidth” was. Yet now he found himself fully conversant in the vernacular of the omninet age, lodging a subtle complaint against the man who was presently his best friend in all the Web, owing to the fact that the previous night’s download had kept him from enjoying his customary quality time alone with the omninet’s most risque interspecies porn.

Griffin hands have needs, too, you know.

Bim stepped away from the smartphone (noting the delivery boy, Carlos, was a mere two blocks away, and thus the time for eating was well nigh!) and glanced at the FAQ webpage displayed on Osprey’s laptop. “The Dread Pirate Marlowe?” Bim asked.

Osprey’s eyes remained fixed to the television, a testament to all of his discipline and training.

“Aren’t all the characters supposed to be historical figures?” Bim asked. The feathers near the backside of Bim’s body twitched eagerly; his propensity for practical jokes made him, for the briefest of moments, consider trying to mess up Osprey just as he neared his victory. But he took pause to consider the ramifications of such a thing; he really did like Osprey. Of all the people who came in and out of Roxanne’s apartment on a regular basis – the collective of people that made up the entirety of Biminberrick’s social circle since his departure from the Pure Land – Osprey seemed to be the only one who voluntarily spent very much time with him. There was an unspoken bond between the two; whether it was because of their common avian physiology, or some other ineffable aspect of personal chemistry, that their personalities just “clicked,” he couldn’t say for certain.

It may well be the case that Bim cared so much for Osprey, and valued his friendship so highly, that he was the one single person in the entire Web of Worlds for whom the griffin hand might show even this small modicum of restraint away from playing the prankster.

“This one is an historical figure,” Osprey retorted.

“An historical figure, you say?” Bim replied, putting emphasis on the “an,” by way of making fun of Osprey. He allowed himself this small concession; he wasn’t about to completely reform his impish ways just because Osprey was his friend.

“Yes,” Osprey ignored the jibe at his expense. “Marlowe is supposedly a pirate of legend who has haunted the waters of El Nido for centuries.”

“No way,” Bim said. “Pirates aren’t real.”

“There are some people who say the same about griffin hands,” Osprey pointed out.

Bim wore an offended expression, scrunching up his – he stopped as he remembered that, as close a friend as Osprey was, he was absolutely terrible at picking up on the griffin hands’ totally obvious system of non-verbal cues and emotes. Could Osprey really not tell by the ripple of his feathers that he was taken aback by what was just said? No, no of course not. None of them could. And so, like always, he found he had to vocalize in order to make himself understood.

“I am taken aback by what you just said,” Bim explained.

“This makes it no less true,” Osprey said, dispassionately.

Ultimately, Biminberrick could forgive this. Being told that your whole race was considered by people to be basically as fictional as pirates (pirates! Really!?) was for Bim like a slap in the forward-facing quadrant of his body-haunch. Yet he knew that, like so many of the other people he was encountering in Albrook, Osprey spoke largely from ignorance. He was not of the Pure Land like Bim was, and there was so much Osprey and the others didn’t know and couldn’t appreciate.

More immediately, Bim understood that all of Osprey’s focus and attention was on his game. He was playing the character with which he had won so many, many victories, both on and offline: Isokaru Eblana, the Master with the Iron Crutch. Reading through the page Osprey had open on his laptop helped shed some light on why Isokaru was perfectly suited to unlocking the new pirate character: with the mod patch installed, a player needed to set the game on its hardest setting (Sword of Chaos) and then start a match and execute a perfectly-timed 84-hit juggling combo before the end of the first round, then a 98-hit juggling combo before the end of the second round, then win the match.

Bim’s understanding of Manacalibur was minimal – the griffin hand often practiced at playing the game when Osprey was away on job interviews, and was not planning on revealing this secret until he felt he was good enough to play against and provide a worthy challenge for Osprey – but from seeing the requirements to unlock the Dread Pirate Marlowe, he reasoned that there were only two characters in the game for whom the excessive multi-hit combo requirements were anything close to being reasonable: one was Fergus the Fist, and the other Isokaru Eblana. Of these two, Osprey was far better with Isokaru, and so this presented him with his best chance of acquiring the plainly fictional pirate-themed character.

Lost in his thoughts, Bim suddenly realized he was hungry. He glanced down at the wristwatch strapped around his ankle. Their sandwiches ought to have been here by now! Wasn’t the delivery guy only minutes away last time he checked?

As his food bladder rumbled angrily, Bim moved back to where he’d left his smartphone. Waking it from sleep, he quickly tapped in his passcode with the pad of his middle toe, and…

This couldn’t be! The delivery guy hadn’t moved at all since the last time he’d checked. Beneath his feathers, Bim’s skin bristled with goosebumps, washing over his small body in frantic waves. Bim’s mind raced with possibilities – a thing that he found he had next to no shortage of since entering into the company of Osprey and his friends. Every possible scenario that could come anywhere near to explaining where the pair’s meatball sandwiches from Martelli’s Eatery were, and what had happened to delay Carlos’ arrival with them, played out before his mind’s eye.

Osprey groaned audibly; he had executed the 98-hit combo, but was then defeated (horrifyingly enough for Bim, by Astrid Sky-Eyes herself). Dropping the controller on the hardwood floor with an audible plastic clack, Osprey shut his eyes and heaved a sigh. Bim had seen his friend cope with defeat before, but this seemed especially raw and personal.

Still, despite the foul mood that his failure had set him in, Bim felt that he owed it to his dearest friend not to hold back anything. He hopped to Osprey’s side and nudged his arm consolingly.

“I’m afraid I have more bad news,” Bim said, tentatively.

Osprey turned his head. His eyes were wet and reddened along their edges, the toll of a long and ultimately losing battle. There was a weakness in those eyes now, a weariness that had not been there when the night had begun. Bim somehow knew this was both from physical exhaustion (and mild ocular dehydration) as well as soul-crushing defeat.

Still, Bim went on. He would not keep the truth from his friend.

“Carlos, and our sandwiches, have been attacked and eaten by zombies,” Bim declared, confidently.

As sure as he was that Osprey had difficulty reading Bim’s expressions, there were times when Bim simply could not tell what his friend was thinking by just looking at his face. Faces among most sapients were strange and impractical things: so many orifices, so many protrusions, so much incidental symmetry and so many opportunities for said symmetry to go horribly awry.

“Who’s Carlos?” Osprey asked, reaching up and rubbing his eyes.

In the time that he’d been under the Mana Knight’s protection, Biminberrick had left Roxanne’s apartment exactly twice: once on a trip with Osprey up to the roof in order to “cape stand” with him, and then a second time when he was abducted by the villain now known as Prism Man. As a rule, he did not typically engage in heroics, and was not particularly brave. But undertaking this new mission now, seeking out Carlos and the missing meatball sandwiches… Bim had to admit he found the whole thing rather exciting.

Even if he had predicted that both Carlos and the sandwiches had been eaten by a pack of unliving zombies.

Leaving the apartment building, Osprey and Bim moved down the street together on foot, heading toward the location indicated by the food delivery app on Bim’s phone. Osprey was in the lead, and Bim followed close behind. When Bim had first come to Albrook in search of the legendary Mana Knight, he hadn’t taken much time to behold the marvels of modern civilization. Everything here was so different from his home: back home, the folk he lived with resided in burrows dug out of the root-bases of great trees, or possibly inside the hollowed-out bases of huge mushrooms (if one could find and lock down such a premium dwelling). Here, the humans and humanoids (and various other sapients) dwelled inside massive spires of stone, glass and steel.

He wouldn’t say that everything about humanoid society was completely alien to him: in the Pure Land, his people did possess a social hierarchy of a kind. But while humanoids seemed obssessed with measures of fame and the accumulation of abstract measures of wealth, the griffin hands ranked their numbers by first according status due to age, then judging individuals by way of both their jumping height and dancing ability. Bim considered himself merely average in both things, but even his acceptable dance moves and vertical leaping clearance – which together landed him into something equivalent to his people’s middle class – would have allowed him to lead a comfortable life.

From what he’d seen, during his brief time living in Albrook, a comparably dance-capable human of modest vault-ability wouldn’t have been able to score a hollowed-out mushroom that was even half as nice as Bim’s old pad back home.

As awe-inspiring as the great shining towers of Albrook were, Bim was sure that they were a physical manifestation of this larger problem. He wondered if this was more a result of untamable humanoid ambition… or just pure greed?

The pair rounded a corner, and with a gesture, Osprey halted their movement. He turned his head, and held a single finger up to his beak. Bim had spent a good deal of time learning the somatic cues humanoids used to communicate with each other; he was able to recognize a number of the more commonly-used hand gestures among humanoids, and he was even pretty good at replicating human “sign language” – but only if he was willing to lie down, render himself completely immobile and gesticulate only with his leg and talons for a time.

Bim knew this particular symbol Osprey was using – the single finger held in front of one’s mouth – was a universally-known sign for “be quiet.” And, because Osprey had not spent nearly as much time learning to pick up on a griffin hand’s feather-rippling, talon-tapping system of highly-expressive emotes, Bim instead chose to effect a crude nod by bobbing his body-haunch up and down, in order to indicate that he understood.

Osprey crept carefully forward from the street corner. Because of the late hour, there was hardly anyone out on the street. It was also quite dark, and several of the street lights weren’t working. Of course, this wasn’t really much of a hindrance: as a shadow mage, Osprey could naturally see quite well even in the total absence of light – he called this technique the “Eyes of Darkest Night” – and griffin hands’ ability to see into the infrared spectrum is quite well known (or so Bim told himself).

Near the sidewalk, there was an overturned motor scooter. Judging from the heat it was giving off, Bim could tell it had been running somewhat recently, but was steadily cooling down. If Osprey had a way of knowing this, though, Bim couldn’t tell: he seemed not to care about the scooter. Checking Bim’s phone one last time, he slipped it into his pocket and slid forward, his digitigrade avian legs moving with catlike precision over the urban concrete.

With a noiseless blue flash, Osprey drew Shiva’s Edge out of its sheath and flourished it around him. Even in the dark, its edge shone as it was spun around Osprey’s body, but once he held it firm and extended it out before him, the blade’s surface seemed to drink in the darkness and became all but invisible, along with the rest of him. With a speed surpassing even a keen-eyed griffin hand’s ability to track, Osprey repositioned his blade, then with slow deliberation, prodded at something on the ground, just out of Bim’s seeing.

As Osprey raised his sword, he could see something suspended from the tip of Shiva’s Edge. It was a vest or jacket – or some other bit of humanoid clothing – lined with reflective yellow patches that caught and reflected what little light there was nearby. The clothing bore a weight within one of its pockets. Fishing inside, Osprey produced a small black rectangle, assembled of glass and plastic. As Osprey turned the object in his hands, Bim could see the sparse light of distant street lamps playing along the spiderweb of cracks that laced across one of its faces.

Bim didn’t need light to know that this was a smartphone. Probably Carlos’ phone. And that was Carlos’ scooter on the street. And, likely also Carlos’ reflective vest, dangling there from the end of Osprey’s sword.

But where was Carlos? And, more importantly, where were the sandwiches?

Suddenly Osprey shifted positions again; Carlos’ vest flopped unceremoniously to the ground, as Osprey spun around and aimed the point of Shiva’s Edge at the darkness of the alley. Bim quickly moved to duck behind a nearby fire hydrant; the largest, most solid object he could see that stood a reasonable chance of protecting most of his not-quite-three-foot-high self. He peered down the alley, but couldn’t see anything at first. Whatever Osprey had picked up on, it wasn’t giving off enough heat for Bim’s infravision to see it.

Then, there was a flicker. A faint shimmering of pale green light, just on the edge of seeing. It was barely noticeable at first, but then it happened again. And a third time, but persisted longer. Each time, it came closer.

Then, all at once, it was here. The green shimmer flew out of the alley and toward Osprey, and it was all Osprey could do to bring up his sword in time to deflect it. Whatever it was that struck Osprey’s sword, it rang with the sound of metal dashing against metal. The shimmering form soared over Osprey’s head, and Osprey wheeled around to meet it face-to-face as it landed near the fallen scooter of Carlos.

Out in the open, Bim could see it slightly better; it was a vaguely humanoid shape, though translucent and misty. Plainly evident was the part of this ghostly form that was a phantasmal scimitar, which the ghost held at the ready as its ethereal form came to rest on the pavement.

This time, Osprey dove forward. Shiva’s Edge flashed again as it bit through the air, and the sword-wielding phantasm parried twice as the katana spun, almost faster than even the ghostly swordsman could keep track of. The ghost retaliated, and Osprey rose up to meet him, and they became a blinding flurry of blurred swords: the blue blur of Shiva’s Edge and the pale green blur of the ghost sword, both of them singing through the air, and ringing like bells with a shower of unearthly sparks each time they met.

Bim’s eyes were fixed on the swordfight. It was almost like watching Osprey playing Manacalibur, except this was real life! Most of the time, Bim was completely happy with his own body, and never felt envious of the beings all around him who had four times as many limbs as he did. But in these moments where he got to watch Osprey demonstrate his martial prowess, he was almost driven to the edge of jealousy.

Bim was so focused on watching Osprey, admiring him as he actually managed to connect Shiva’s Edge with the ghostly form – a cut that elicited a distressing hiss from the specter – that he initially failed to notice a new heat signature show up in the alley. Turning to look, Bim saw a human form emerge from the darkness. Osprey didn’t appear to see the newcomer yet, so focused was he on the battle at hand.

“Behind you, Os!” Bim found himself calling out.

The next series of events happened in rapid succession. First, Osprey turned his head, ever so slightly, to see what Bim was yelling about. Seeing Osprey distracted, the specter advanced, quickly sending the ghostly scimitar into an overhead spin that would have carved into Osprey’s clavicle if he hadn’t been quick to bring up his own sword to parry. With his free hand, Osprey lashed out, not at the specter, but at the newcomer: the air hummed at the whistling flight of one of Osprey’s stun darts.

The dart would have hit home, but then a third figure – this time, one who gave off no heat to trigger Bim’s infravision – interceded, holding up a gauntleted fist right in the path of Osprey’s dart. The dart sank into the gauntlet harmlessly, and was then withdrawn as the arm’s owner pulled it back.

The specter seemed to back away from Osprey as two – and then three – more figures emerged from the alley. There was a human, pale of skin, dressed in long black robes and with a pate of long, thin white hair that spilled over his shoulders. At the side of the robed man, a skeleton wearing a dented-and-tarnished suit of brown Imperial Troopers’ armor. Osprey’s dart was still jutting out of the skeleton’s right gauntlet, until he reached his left hand over to pry it free. In the sockets of the skeleton’s skull, a pair of uncannily fresh and un-deteriorated human eyeballs rolled around, taking in the scene before them. Finally, at the robed human’s other side, a small, gaunt, hunched-over humanoid emerged. His hair was a wiry rat’s nest of black and mossy green, his clothes rotted and tattered, his lips curled back to reveal jagged, needle-sharp fangs. A necklace of what looked to be human toes dangled from this creature’s neck, and a long, worm-like tongue played against the edges of its inhuman fangs.

At a gesture from the robed man, the sword-wielding specter moved away. Osprey regarded the newcomers, and changed stance, pointing Shiva’s Edge back in the direction of the creatures from the darkened alley. Bim wished he could do something to help his badly-outnumbered friend… but aside from his limited training in Manacalibur, he had absolutely no offensive capability whatsoever.

“Hi!” the robed man said with a smile. “I’m Dan! Out for a stroll, or are you part of the necromantic menace we’ve come here to stop?”

Dan was apologetic, as he indicated the sword-ghost. “You’ll have to forgive Lady Anthrax… she’s a go-getter, but aside from a little over-eager bloodlust she’s totally cool.”

Osprey tightened his grip on his sword. “Hi, Dan,” he said. “You seen Carlos anywhere around here?”

Dan’s brow furrowed. “Who’s Carlos?”

The armored skeleton reached down and picked up the vest. His green-irised eyeballs scrutinized it as he turned it over in his gauntleted hands. “Ah, Carlos.” the skeleton said, as he revealed a nametag on the vest. He held it up so Dan could see it.

Dan looked at the vest offered by the skeleton, then nodded with recognition. “Carlos. The victim.”

Tentatively, Bim emerged from hiding. He scuttled away from the hydrant, and hid behind Osprey’s legs. In his mind this was a far braver hiding place.

“You could say that we are the real victims here,” Bim ventured, speaking up. Bim could feel Osprey tense as Dan and the others noticed Bim for the first time. Bim, reflexively, tensed up as well. “For as goes Carlos, so go our meatball sandwiches.”

“Meat…” the creature with the toe-necklace hissed. Its eyes were yellow like its jagged teeth, but glowed faintly in the low light as they fell upon Bim. The creature licked its lips with its long, rasping tongue.

“Did you say you’ve come to stop a necromantic menace, or that you are a necromantic menace?” Osprey quipped. He still wasn’t relaxing; Bim could feel that plainly. Despite Dan’s friendly demeanor, and the fact that the sword-ghost had entirely broken off combat at Dan’s command, Osprey didn’t seem entirely willing to trust Dan… or his “friends.”

“I know how it looks,” Dan said, “But believe me when I say we’re the goodguys.”

“There’s been a rash of abductions and murders all over the city,” the skeleton offered. “Nobody’s picked up on it yet, but it’s the work of a group of necromancers called the Cult of Milon. And if they’re allowed to go unchecked… it’ll be everyone’s meatball sandwiches that suffer for it.”

Dan nodded. “My skeletal friend tells it true. Alas, it looks like we were too late to save poor Carlos. But maybe we’re not too late to pick up the trail.” Dan bowed his head to Osprey. “I bid you good night, sir. And I do apologize if my spectral dervish caused you any inconvenience.”

Dan snapped his fingers. Responding to unspoken cues, the skeleton kneeled and held out the vest. The ghoul tore its glowing yellow eyes away from Bim, and buried its face into the vest, inhaling deeply. With a snarl, the creature loped on all fours back down the alley, sniffing the air as it went. Dan and the skeleton quickly followed after it, with the pale-green ghost hovering close behind them.

Osprey sighed. He relaxed his posture, and slid Shiva’s Edge into its sheath.

Bim looked up at him. He had this feeling he knew what Osprey was thinking. After all, Osprey and Fara and Terry had really taken to this idea that they were heroes protecting Albrook now. Neither the Mana Knight nor the Shield were around to take this mission; it had just sort of fallen into Osprey’s lap.

“What do you think?” Osprey asked, looking down at the griffin hand. “Think they’re on the level?”

Bim shrugged. Then, he realized Osprey didn’t know what a griffin hand’s shrug looked like, so he vocalized his thoughts: “They seemed nice enough. Except for that tongue-zombie thing. That guy gave me the willies… Something about the way it was looking at me…”

Osprey nodded. “I agree. And I don’t think it’s very fittingly heroic for me to sit out while there’s a heretofore unheard-of necromantic menace running around my city! I’m going to follow along. See if Dan wants an extra sword. You should head back up to the apartment… Here, let me give you my key…”

“What!?” Bim stammered. “Come on now. I handled myself just fine in that last fight!”

“You were hiding behind a fire hydrant,” Osprey reminded him.

“A tactically sound move,” Bim reasoned. “I was waiting for my opening, but you seemed to have things handled rather nicely, so it never came up.”

Osprey shook his head. “Look, this isn’t a Manaseed game, Bim. This is serious business. I fought a ghost with a sword just now!”

“I KNOW,” Bim exclaimed. “IT WAS AWESOME!”

“Right?” Osprey chuckled. He cleared his throat. “No but seriously you should go home, this is way dangerous.”

“You never take me on any adventures,” Bim said. He put his foot down (which, he realized, probably just looked like he was hopping for a second). “But here we are, in the middle of one that’s just getting started… and you wanna send me home!? How is that fair! Look, in the movies when they split up, it always winds up being bad news – ESPECIALLY for the lovable sidekick with undeniable sexual charisma. So we shouldn’t split up. You need a buddy on this one, Os… and Dan doesn’t count because we just met him and he could betray us, because that also happens in the movies sometimes.”

Bim knew it was a longshot. And he understood the reasons Osprey would give. Bim wasn’t a fighter, and he really couldn’t take care of himself. Going along would mean Osprey would have to look out for him and devote effort and energy and attention to protecting him.

But honestly? It’d be boring going back to the apartment without Osprey. There was nothing to do there all by himself… well, that wasn’t entirely true. There was Hildur, and the other polterchairs. Normally Bim wouldn’t mind hanging out with them, but lately his relationship with Hildur was in kind of a rough patch. He needed some space. Being in the apartment, without Osprey there, meant he would likely be forced to sit down with Hildur to “talk things out.” And Bim just wasn’t ready for that.

By comparison, going off on a dangerous mission to stop a cult of evil necromancers looked to be the better option by far. And Bim knew that, even if the reality was this was an incredibly dangerous outing, his arguments in favor of going made sense, and they would resonate with Osprey since they were rooted in the pair’s shared love of popular culture.

“You hide anytime there’s any kind of danger,” Osprey said, wagging a single finger at Bim.

“Hiding is my middle name,” said Bim. Which was a lie – it was really Jiovillanio.

Osprey nodded his approval. “Hope you can keep up!” he said, as he bounded down the alley, sprinting, leaping and springing after Dan and his pack of monsters.

Bim actually was able to mostly keep pace; he was faster than he looked, for his size and lack of limbs. Osprey was still much faster, though – on account of his having two legs, and also training in all kinds of ninja flips and things. By the time Bim had caught up with the group, Osprey had already joined up with Dan and the others.

Introductions went round then, as they kept on the move. Dan, of course, was the leader. He was a necromancer himself, but claimed that he belonged to a different tradition than the rest. While the Cult of Milon was made up largely of apostate black mages from Mysidia, Dan was more local, born and raised in Thamasa. Dan practiced what he called “benign” necromancy; he didn’t steal corpses to raise from the dead as part of his personal zombie army or anything. No; he took existing undead creatures and “tamed” them; made it so they weren’t being so evil all the time.

By way of a case-in-point, Dan introduced his tracker, the ghoul named Toebiter. “Left to its own devices, Toebiter would have been preying on the innocent, or digging up graveyards in search of a meal,” Dan told them. “Instead, I use my magic to keep Toebiter’s worst urges in check, and feed him exclusively on day-old cuts from the butcher shop. Given more time and training, I might almost be able to take him out in public someday.”

Every time he felt those glowing yellow eyes on him, Bim inwardly questioned exactly how well Dan had managed to “check” Toebiter’s urges. That hungry look Toebiter kept giving him was more than a little disconcerting – especially given the ghoul’s name and apparent predeliction for digits.

“You’ve met Anthrax already,” Dan said, indicating the specter. “I found her haunting an old ruin in the Light Dimension, figured she was lonely, and so I brought her along. She’s never told me her story… but I do know that her sword has a name. Etherscratch. Pretty badass, right? You’re lucky she didn’t cut you with it. She says the blade drinks the souls of its victims.”

Osprey scoffed, and patted the hilt of the sword at his side. “Yeah. Well. Shiva’s Edge was forged from the frozen final breath of a dying god.”

“Oh. That’s cool,” Dan said. He turned to the skeleton. “And this is Dogbone. He’s a skeleton, obviously, but… so much more, really. I’m actually not sure exactly what he is… I found him years and years ago, half-buried in mud near the ruins of old Mobliz. Wild dogs had unearthed him and were chewing him apart, but he was flailing and fighting them off. And that’s how I found and named him, isn’t that right?”

The skeleton nodded. “Not the most pleasant or exciting origin story, I’ll grant you. But hey, we can’t all be the Mana Knight, can we?” Dogbone nudged Osprey with his elbow and – somehow, without apparent eyelids – winked one of those big, googly green eyeballs.

Osprey arched a feathery brow at this. “A skeleton with delusions of Mana Knighthood?”

“You could say Dogbone’s got a bit of a hero-worship thing going on,” Dan said, laughing. “He was very excited to learn we were trailing the Cult to Albrook.”

“I figured, after we bust up the Milonites, if I’ve got some downtime, maybe I could look her up. Track her down. Snag an autograph maybe.” It was hard to tell if Dogbone was smiling, but his curiously expressive eyeballs seemed to suggest it.

Osprey suppressed his own smile. “Maybe. You know I heard she was in town, teaming up with other heroic-types who also have some really cool abilities.”

“I heard the Mana Knight single-handedly saved Egmont from the reklar,” Dogbone said. “Just her and her sword, and a lot of broken rock-monkeys.”

“I heard… that is not what happened,” Osprey said.

“And then she tracked the reklar king Grendel right to the very gates of Hell itself,” Dogbone continued, “She tracked him down because Grendel had killed her much much weaker friend, and she AVENGED him by laying the reklar king low!”

Osprey said nothing. It was all Bim could do to contain his laughter.

Suddenly there was a clamor. Toebiter roared and loped forward with a burst of speed. Dan broke into a run to keep up; Dogbone lifted up off the ground and flew after, his tattered red cloak flapping in the wind behind him. Both Bim and Osprey ran, after taking a moment to behold the strange flying armored skeleton; behind them, Lady Anthrax hovered menacingly. She seemed to be watching Osprey closely, nursing a spectral wound in her side from the sword fight earlier. Bim could have sworn the air felt colder the longer Anthrax stared at Osprey, but he couldn’t be sure.

When they caught up with Toebiter, he had found something and was tearing into it. Bim froze as he watched the ghoul eat; he wondered what poor thing the beast had caught hold of. A stray cat or dog maybe? A homeless person?.. Gods, Bim hoped not.

Dan, it seemed, had similar worries. He produced a whip from his belt and snapped it in the air, then again a second time as he took a step toward Toebiter and yelled: “No, BAD ghoul! BAD GHOUL!”

As the whip cracked, there was the scent of brimstone, the tingle of energy in the air and a telltale glow of magic. A pair of iron manacles around Toebiter’s wrists glowed red, and the ghoul backed away from its prey with a hiss.

Bim, hiding behind Osprey’s legs, ventured a glance. It was a brown paper bag, torn to shreds. Where it was torn open, the paper bag’s edges were stained with red.

Osprey shut his eyes and sighed. “Well. Still no Carlos. But it looks like we found our sandwiches.”

Toebiter snarled as his worm-like tongue greedily licked the sauce off of his claws. “Meat…” he hissed, gnashing his teeth as his eyes fell upon Bim again.

Dogbone landed next to Toebiter, and put his hands on his hips. “Well, go on, handsome. Get back to it, start sniffing.” He kicked the ghoul, and it hissed back at him.

“It’s no use,” Dan said. “Those delicious-smelling meatballs – from Martelli’s Eatery, no doubt – have clouded his senses. He’s not going to be able to pick up the scent again. Not while it’s fresh anyway. Time for plan B.”

Dan carefully coiled the whip, and snapped it back onto his belt. Reaching into a belt pouch, he produced a small string dreamcatcher, held it to the ground near the partially-devoured sandwiches, and muttered an incantation under his breath. The specter Anthrax descended near Dan; she weaved her arms in the air in tandem with the necromancer’s casting. After a moment, a faint, wispy green trail lit up on the ground, and Anthrax dutifully followed after it.

“It’s weak,” Dan said, “But it’ll get us a little closer.”

Tracking the spirit-trail was much slower than chasing after the hunger-crazed ghoul, which Bim appreciated. Up till then, apart from all the times his life had been in danger, the part Bim objected to the most was all the running. This liesurely walking behind a sword-wielding ghost was much more to his liking.

… except that, every now and again, Bim would glance over and find Toebiter’s hungry yellow eyes locked on him. It shook him to his very core.

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.”

Dan blinked.

“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.

The earlier excursion down the darkened alleyway suggested that Toebiter – a feral, flesh-eating ghoul with a simian-like gait and an impressively lithe musculature – was much, much faster than Biminberrick – a griffin hand, whose entire body consisted of a single bird-like leg-and-talon, topped with a feather-covered mound of fleshy body-haunch.

This assessment, however, does not take into account the fact that, despite the alarming brevity of a griffin hand’s body plan, they do still possess a very functional endocrine system, complete with adrenal glands that are frequently triggered by the creature’s sometimes-overactive flight-from-danger instinct.

His heart pumping deep inside the folds of his body-haunch, Bim run-hopped faster than he had ever run-hopped before in his life. Skittering under and between Toebiter’s legs as he pounced for the kill, Bim bolted down a side tunnel – away from the action and Osprey – and fled for dear life.

In the cold, damp dark of the sewer tunnels, Bim’s infravision was not as useful as it could be; few sources of light meant he was now well and truly blinded. What’s worse, his undead pursuer likewise gave off no heat either; so daring to glance behind him offered no hint as to how close the ghoul was to overtaking him.

Toebiter did not want for making noise, however; his hungry, slavering growls filled the tunnels with their outsized echoes, and the scratching of his claws againt the concrete as he chased after the griffin hand kept the rhythm in the symphony of horror that resounded in the chamber behind Bim’s panicked flight.

As Bim rounded a corner, he found a dim light up ahead. In the light, he could see the way forward: the way he was running, the tunnel stopped and continued a level above. A rusty metal ladder would have provided access to the upper level and made this passage not a dead end – if only the ladder weren’t folded up. Beyond the ladder was a metal door, beside which was a single flickering fluorescent wall-sconce.

It was the flickering fluorescent light of hope. And Bim clung to that hope! For, as you will recall from all the earlier discussion of the society of griffin hands, Bim was solidly middle class. Which meant he had a fairly decent jumping height!!

He made a running start of it. This was the moment of truth: if he made this jump, he would be saved. If he didn’t, he would become part of Toebiter’s necklace.

Toebiter’s snarling laughter echoed behind him as he ran – sprinted, in a weird one-legged kind of sprint – in the direction of the ladder. With all the strength and leg-power he could muster, he then left the concrete and soared through the stinky poo-smelling air of the sewer.

Bim’s height was good, his trajectory perfect.

As if he had been attached at the thigh to the body of a graceful bird of prey, Bim’s outstretched talon caught one of the rungs of the ladder, and closed around it with a satisfying metallic clank.

Bim hardly had a moment to celebrate before the ladder shook beneath him, and an echoing inhuman roar tore through the air. Daring to glance below, Bim saw that Toebiter had also made a leap and caught the ladder, and was scrambling up behind him.

Again, Bim’s tiny body thumped with a rush of blood and adrenaline. He hopped up to the next rung, and the next – but Toebiter, dragging himself up with two filthy clawed hands, was moving faster. Bim hopped and then immediately hopped again, taking two rungs at once and just barely avoiding the snap of Toebiter’s fanged maw – one second late and he would have easily lost one of his digits in a predictably namesake maneuver for the ghoul!

Nearing the top of the ledge, Bim ducked through the ladder and scuttled away. Toebiter was right behind him. He needed to be able to pick up speed, but in that panicked, adrenally-frozen moment in time, he didn’t see how he could manage to hop forward, open that big metal door next to the fluorescent wall sconce, and then close it behind him before the ghoul had every opportunity to tear him apart and feast on his helpless meat-parts –

Something caught his eye as he scrambled for a way out of his predicament. At the ledge, where it met the ladder, there was a small dowel connected to the concrete by a length of chain. It was passed through a loop…

As Bim examined the dowel, and the loop, and the ledge, and the ladder, he saw a way out.

Toebiter’s arm swept at him just then, and he barely ducked in time as the ghoul’s disgusting corpse-rending claws cut the air above him. Summoning his courage, Bim quickly darted forward, tucking and rolling into a slide that planted his body-haunch on the concrete.

In rapid succession, Bim – standing upside down so that he more truly resembled a griffin hand than a griffin foot – did the following.

First, he reached through the ladder with his hand, and planted a firm slap on the ghoul’s cold, clammy face. The ghoul was momentarily stunned by this, unsure of how to react, which gave Bim time to do the second thing he did: reach down and pull the dowel free of the loop.

Under Toebiter’s weight, the ladder buckled when the dowel was removed. Which was Bim’s signal to do the third thing he did: kick with all his might against the ladder.

With a loud, high-pitched rusty whine, the folding ladder came open without the dowel that held it in place. Toebiter’s yellow eyes went wide as he realized what had just happened. Futilely, he took another swipe at Bim, but by this time the griffin hand was scurrying away and was just out of reach.

With the ghoul clinging to it, the ladder folded out and swung wide, then slammed him into the concrete wall of the ledge below with a crunch.

Toebiter screamed in rage, hunger and pain as he scrambled to regain his feet. But this was no time for Biminberrick to sit and gloat; in a way he had just made it easier for the ghoul to follow him, because the ladder was now fully extended and could just be climbed up to reach the ledge above without any dramatic leaping. Quickly collecting himself, Bim moved toward the door.

He heard the clatter of the metal ladder behind him; Toebiter had recovered and was climbing again. There was no time to lose. He hopped up, worked the handle to open the heavy metal door, then quickly slipped beyond, doing his best to try and slam the door shut behind him.

Bim continued to run, following the channel of poo-water, until he came to another junction tunnel. But this one was different from the one that the necromancers had used as a lair to practice their rituals; he could see, all around, other tunnels that had joined into this one, huge central shaft, disgorging their rivulets of poo-water in tiny brown waterfalls that disappeared into the bottomless blackness below.

What was the point of this!? A huge shaft into nothingness!?! A neverending drop for poo water?? – well, okay, actually this sort of did make sense. If you don’t want to ever have to deal with your poo, and aren’t concerned about giving it to the magical earth-fairies who take the poo and use it to fertilize the wonderful magic forest of the Pure Land all around you, I guess a bottomless shaft that goes down into an abyss of nothingness makes sense by way of a receptacle for humanoid waste product.

Bim had to hand it to whoever it was that invented sewers: the idea was now sound.

But then he realized, with horror, as Toebiter loped into view at the far end of the passage, that he had well and truly come to a dead end.

On the one side, a ghoul who meant to eat him and make trophies of his wonderful music-making (and female-pleasuring) digits.

On the other side, a bottomless abyss filled with a thousand years of poo.

There were no good choices here. Was this really how it was all going to end?? Maybe at the last minute Osprey would arrive to save him –

No, Bim!

He shook himself to sense.

This was not a movie. This was real. That ghoul – walking with the limp Bim gave him, making him even more angry – was going to kill and then eat the little griffin hand. Nobody knew where Bim was; there was not going to be a convenient last-minute save, no clever plan to survive (perhaps involving those chains dangling from an unseen ceiling)… it was time for Bim to make peace with the gods and

Wait. What? Chains?

There seemed to be no real order or purpose to them. They were just kind of hanging there, dripping wet with moisture from the damp air. Several chains, of varying lengths, some only just high enough as the tunnel Bim had emerged from, others which appeared to stretch all the way down into the infinite blackness below.

Bim could probably make that jump. Couldn’t he? He was an adequate jumper, good enough to merit a primo hollowed-out mushroom to live in back home. He’d have to do it without a running start, though; Toebiter was close now. His injury from the ladder had slowed him somewhat, but he was still there, and coming, and close.

Could he clear that jump? Or would he wind up tumbling into the bottomless pit of neverending poo?

Did it matter at this point? If he didn’t escape his situation within the next few moments, he wouldn’t have to worry about leaping into poo, because he would be made into poo by the ghoul’s digestive system.

Wait, did ghouls poo? I guess they’d have to, everything that eats also has to excrete. That’s just science, even Bim knew that. I mean, who woul–


“YOU’RE NOT GONNA MAKE ME INTO POO!!” Bim screamed, as he leapt from the tunnel’s edge, soaring desperately toward the dangling chains of hope.

Again, like the talons of a majestic eagle, Bim snatched one of the chains from the bundle. Only when his grip was secure did he dare to look back –

He immediately regretted that he did. Flying toward him, arms splayed out and toothy mouth wide open, Toebiter had leapt after him. His yellow eyes blazed with rage, his roar the anguished sound of a soul damned with a never-sated hunger.

His anger-twisted face and his painful cry told Bim that Toebiter wasn’t just planning to eat him; he first would do everything in his power to inflict all of the pain and torment of his ghoulish undead condition upon Bim’s helpless broken body before he expired from it. And then he would eat him.

The chains shook as Toebiter caught them, and the whole mass of them swung forward with the momentum of the ghoul’s leap.

Bim had a thought just then: because his entire existence right now was predicated on his ability to prolong the chase and keep Toebiter from catching him.

As the mass of chains swung forward, and then began to swing back, Bim’s idea took form: it was time to play juke the ghoul.

Snarling madly, Toebiter clambered up the chains, clawing and climbing as best he was able. Some of the chains didn’t seem securely fastened to the ceiling above; they slipped and slid with the ghoul’s weight as he clutched them. Toebiter’s face suddenly softened; he may have just now realized this wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had. Which I guess would have meant something if he wasn’t a feral undead monster almost entirely driven by hunger and id.

The chains were still making a swing back, and at the height of this swing, Bim jumped again, sailing through the air and landing flawlessly back on the ledge he’d started from. But just before he landed, he half turned and caught sight of Toebiter.

Ravenous, angry, desperate, seemingly as if he had no other choice but to do so, he followed after Bim, leaping out from the chains and flailing his arms and legs in the direction of the ledge.

But midway through his jump, he stopped. And Bim – sharp-eyed as ever, could immediately see the reason why.

In his mad clamber up the chains after Bim, one of the rusted links had snagged on the ghoul’s necklace of trophy toes. The chain pulled him back, breaking his momentum and sending him tumbling down, caught by the neck.

As the ghoul fell, Bim looked straight into his face. Toebiter’s countenance seemed to change, to suddenly become more human; to be expressing fear rather than cruelty or anger. He looked at Bim and seemed almost to be pleading for help; his yellow eyes remained fastened on Bim as he fell beyond view. And then the chain went taut, and he heard the pathetic yelp – like a dog’s yelp – from down below.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Above, somewhere in the darkened recesses of the ceiling, where ever it was that those chains had been affixed and depended, there was a sound. The sound of something snapping, or twisting, or breaking.

And then, all at once, the entire mass of chains – long ones, short ones, rusty ones, new ones, old ones, and most importantly the one that had pulled Toebiter out of his jump and to his poo-ridden doom – began to fall. Slowly, one by one at first, but then all at once in a big tangled mess of humidity-slickened steel.

Bim knew he should run. He half suspected that Toebiter was clinging to the ledge below, and that any minute he would be clawing his way back up and the chase would be back on again. But for long moments, he just couldn’t move. The adrenaline left him and he was shaking now; he bent down, panting heavy breaths as his mind and heartbeat raced to catch up with him.

Osprey was right, it turns out; it was dangerous to go along. And maybe it would have been better, he would have been safer, if he had gone home instead of following Osprey on an adventure into the zombie-filled sewers.

Bim stood up straight. Cautiously, he inched forward, and dared to look down over the ledge.

Silence, but for the sound of rushing water. Darkness.


Grimly, Bim nodded. Today he had graduated from sidekick to true adventurer. He had gone head to head with a monster that was easily six or seven times his size, and he had emerged the victor.

Today, he was a man.

As long as nobody was downloading anything big tonight, Bim decided then that he would mark the occasion the only way that could possibly be deemed appropriate.

Hardcore interspecies porn.

Bim re-traced his steps, going back over the route that Toebiter had chased him down through the sewer tunnels. In his harried flight from the ghoul, he hadn’t realized exactly how far he had travelled; the return trip, and the time it took him to make it, put that into perspective for him.

When he finally found his way back, all was quiet. The dismembered zombies were still around, but none of the necromancers were (apart from the ones that Osprey had knocked out and hung from the ceiling like drying stockings), and neither Osprey nor Dogbone were to be seen anywhere.

As Bim scanned the maintenance island below, he also noticed something else was missing: the flesh-hulk that the weird eye-lady was making.

Or, it was missing, until pretty much exactly that moment when the wall behind Biminberrick burst inward.

Reflexively, Bim hopped aside as the wall crumbled in a spray of dust and debris. The culprits were immediately apparent: the flesh hulk – now animated – roaring and snarling as it tangled with Dogbone, in a flailing mass of punching and clawing and kicking and biting.

Dogbone seemed out-classed at first glance: he was human-sized and merely a skeleton (literally), while the flesh hulk looked to have been built out of the muscular bodies of at least a dozen super-jacked Eblanese anime characters. Boasting four arms and standing nearly nine feet tall, the hulk was all muscle and yelling, it seemed. And yet, Dogbone seemed to be able to hold his own; he grappled with the hulk, and as often as he was lifted off his feet and thrown against something, he would stand right back up and then return the favor in kind.

As the two undead monstrosities locked arms again, there was a blue-black flash and a rush of wind. And then another, and another.

The hulk screamed, and moments after the last of the flashes, the stitching that held its four arms in place immediately came undone, and the arms dropped to the floor, each with a wet smack.

“Ha! You’ve been disarmed!” Dogbone quipped, as he drew back and put all of his strength into a head-on punch directly into the center of the hulk’s face. The face – and head – collapsed under the force of the blow like a rotted melon, and then, as if the entirety of the necromantic magic had just been undone, the entire beast literally came apart at the seams, spilling out into a cascade of flesh and bone and viscera – like a necromantic piñata.

Osprey – because of course all that flashing had been him – sheathed Shiva’s Edge and stepped forward.

“I totally had that, you know,” Dogbone said, as he pulled a packet of tissues out of his pocket and began to wipe the brains and hulk-bits off of his fist.

“I dunno,” Osprey said, “Not sure that pun would’ve been set up in quite the same way if I hadn’t come along when I did.”

Dogbone cackled. “True enough!.. How about the necromancers?”

Osprey sighed. “Escaped, I’m afraid. I mean I could have kept chasing, but… I didn’t want to go after them too deep, just in case it was a ploy to separate us.”

Dogbone grunted. “Good call, I guess.” He examined his gauntlet, and kept wiping it down with a fresh tissue. “Their leader, Dan called her Myara. The Hand and the Eye of Milon are powerful artifacts that she controls – and as long as she controls them, she controls the cult.”

“And Dan wanted to take her place,” Osprey said.

Dogbone nodded. “Yeah. He’s a pretty bad guy, but he had his moments. I think he genuinely wanted to stop them killing people to build that thing we just squished, but…” Dogbone shrugged. “But now that I think about it… now that my head’s clear… that was probably just because it’d mean thwarting Myara. I’m pretty sure that if he were in her place he’d build his own four-armed beefmonsters, given half a chance.”

Osprey, for the first time, noticed Bim. “Bim!!” he said. “You’re safe! I couldn’t find you anywhere!.. Buddy, I told you to head back home, didn’t I?”

Bim shrugged – and then remembered Osprey didn’t know what a griffin hand shrugging looked like, so he said aloud: “Shrug.” And then: “Look, if I had gone home, you wouldn’t have had anybody to deal with Dan’s ghoul. While you were off chasing men in dresses, and Dogbone was punch-fighting the meat-monster… I was holding up my end of the fight. Pretty admirably, if I do say so myself.”

Dogbone arched one of his bony brows. “Toebiter, eh? So you and him had a tangle in the midst of all of this?”

“You better believe it,” Bim said. “And lo, look you upon him-what-lives-to-tell-the-tale!”

Osprey sighed. “Well. You’ll have to tell this tale later… and then I’ll think real hard about whether we get to do one of these outings again.”

“Hey,” Dogbone said, “Osprey… I gotta ask. What… made you do what you did?”

“What do you mean?”

Dogbone shrugged. “I mean, as far as you knew, I was an undead monster in thrall to the evil necromancer. But… instead of slicing my skull in two, or… you know, whatever else you could’ve done in that moment… you cut the collar off. You set me free.”

Osprey considered. “I guess I was gambling that I’d seen enough of the real you through the limited free-will that Dan let you have while under his control. And I took a bet that if I set you free, you’d turn around and punch him right in his gourd.”

“Ha!” Dogbone laughed. Then he winked. “Smart bet, my man… But just so you know, for about half a second I thought about kicking him in the berries instead.”

Osprey laughed. “So… what’ll you do now? You’re not gonna take a psychological system shock as a result of being rejected by living mortals and inevitably give in to your dark nature and become the monster everyone believes you are?”

Dogbone considered. “Nah. That’s overplayed. I’ve also ruled out darkly brooding on the edges of society, swooping in to save beautiful women but keeping them always at arm’s length because of my dark, tortured past and inherently monstrous nature, believing that because I am at heart an evil monster I never truly deserve to be happy.”

“Yeah, that’d be lame,” Osprey said. “Well what’s left?”

Dogbone shrugged. “I dunno. I tell you what, I am definitely never gonna be the thrall of an evil necromancer again. That life is just not anything like what it’s cracked up to be.”

“A sound plan,” Bim said.

Dogbone nodded. “I liked it when it felt like I was helping people though. Like when it seemed like we were trying to stop the murders… or, even when you were tagging along, and we were helping you find your missing meatball sandwiches. Even that… felt good.”

Osprey smiled. “Yeah. Helping people’s a good feeling.”

“It is,” Dogbone agreed. “I think I’m gonna try doing a little bit of that.”

“Maybe we’ll run into each other in the field, then,” Osprey said. “I’m known to occasionally patrol the city, looking to help the helpless.”

“That’d be awesome,” Dogbone said. “Well, look, you guys are probably starving because your dinner delivery is WAY late… and I’ve got some existential introspection to do, so…”

“Yeah,” Osprey said, “We’ll head home now and… work on plan B for dinner.”

“Before you go,” Dogbone snapped his fingers at Bim, and kneeled down to speak with him. “That Toebiter guy was one nasty jerk, and good on you for standing up to him… though, I know it couldn’t’ve been easy. But that’s what makes a real hero, I think. Even if it’s not easy, you do what’s right.”

“Yeah,” Bim said, proudly. “And in my case, ‘what’s right’ is refusing to let some jerk with a toe-necklace eat you!”

“That’s the spirit!” Dogbone said, playfully punching the side of Bim’s body haunch. “Here,” he continued, pulling something balled-up out of his pocket. “It isn’t technically a cape, but… It’s probably about the right side for you.”

Dogbone unfurled Carlos’ reflective vest, and draped it over Bim. Bim wore it proudly, posing with it and everything.

“… you realize that’s not so much a cape as it is evidence of a homicide,” Osprey remarked.

Dogbone shrugged. “Look, we beat the badguys and avenged both Carlos and your sandwiches. I think Carlos would’ve wanted Bim to have his shiny nighttime safety blouse.”

“Yeah,” Bim said, “Agree on everything except the word blouse!”

By the time Bim and Osprey got back home, Roxanne had returned. She was pacing about her living room, and nearly started when the two heroes returned from their adventure.

“Where were you guys?” Roxanne asked. “You know normally I wouldn’t even care, but the poulterchairs have been beside themselves with worry. Hildur would’ve bolted out into the night to find you guys if I hadn’t been home to stop her.”

Behind her, Hildur peeked out from the next room.

“Explain yourselves,” Roxanne said, “So I can calm my furniture the hell down and get some sleep tonight.”

Osprey and Bim looked at each other. Bim cleared his throat.

“Well, you see Roxanne,” Bim began, “It all started when we realized that Carlos was running late.”

Roxanne held up a hand to stop Bim.

“Who’s Carlos?” she asked.