Undead Chaos, page 12
“Information,” I admitted with a twinge of guilt. Like Millie, Nick was more than just an informant, and I knew what I was going to ask would end our relationship.
“Look around you,” he replied, waving his hands at the millions of books. “There is a wealth of it on these shelves. Take your pick. It’s on the house.”
“Thanks, but I’m after the other kind of information. The kind that requires me to remind you that my father helped clear your name when you were brought before the Council on charges of dealing in dark magic.”
“I assumed as much,” he said heavily. “I take it there is no one left to badger.”
I shook my head. “It’s as if the entire Underground has crawled under a rock.”
“That’s not too far from the truth. Things have been different of late. There’s an ill wind blowing, and any intelligent creature is behind closed doors when the sun goes down.”
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“There are more rumors than facts, but a few of my more reliable sources tell me that people—mostly vagrants—are disappearing at night. Only a handful have been found, but those that were recovered either had their faces frozen in rigor with a scream or they were completely torn to pieces.”
I swallowed and thought about the feeling of being watched. “That’s unnerving.”
“Very. People are saying there’s a new type of predator roaming the streets, but no one has been able to confirm it. Other than the bodies, of course. Whatever the reason, there’s a heaviness that has settled over the Underground that only comes in the wake of something truly evil.”
We fell silent. I tried to imagine what creature could possibly scare the living crap out of the Underground, but came up with nothing.
“Will this even things between us?” he asked quietly.
I pushed the images of death and dismemberment from my mind. “Yes.”
“Good. Your family is too dangerous to be affiliated with, and the sooner I can remove myself from your contact list, the better.”
As much as I hated to hear it, there was truth to his statement. The enemies of the Shifter family would gladly seek vengeance on our friends or informants, and Nick was just being practical. Still, it hurt a little to be treated like contaminated goods, even in the Underground.
“What kind of information do you seek?” he asked.
“Information on power.”
Nick chuckled. “Everyone wants power, Marcus. Between that and money, our species is infected with the cancerous rot of selfish behavior.”
“I don’t want power,” I snapped, my anger at his passing accusation getting the better of me. Nick reeled in surprise, so I took a breath and forced myself calm once again.
“I don’t want it. I just need information on it. Specifically, the kind that can hide a man and his daughter from the eyes of the Delwinn Council. I also need anything on power that can regenerate the dead.”
“You mean reanimate.”
“No, I mean regenerate. As in grow new tissue and impart free will.”
Nick stared at me, his eyes filled with turmoil. He ran a hand through his thinning hair and inhaled deeply.
“There are many ways for a person to hide, so I may be able to help you with that issue. The latter,” he said in a quieter voice, “well, that would be extremely dark and dangerous magic. It is the kind that can corrupt even the purest of hearts.” He glared at me. “It is also the kind that the Council would severely punish a person for having.”
“I know. But if anyone can find it, it’s you.”
Nick darkened. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Warlock Shifter.”
I bristled. “Hey now, what’s with the sudden formality crap?”
“It seems appropriate when dealing with someone operating on Council authority.”
“I’m actually working tangential to their desires at the moment.”
Nick regarded me skeptically. “Pardon me if I don’t believe you.”
“A Soul Oath, then.” I held out my hand. “Nicolas Strange I swear on my Word that I am not working as a direct agent for the Delwinn Council, but rather am seeking to prevent the Council from performing a wrongful act upon an innocent man. I also swear that if you help me find what I seek, all debts are paid between us. Finally, I give my Word that I will never betray your confidence to the Council or anyone else.”
Nick remained quiet, allowing the weight of my oath to sink in. I felt a pain in my chest for being forced to call upon such an unpleasant favor, especially one from an informant that I actually liked. I hated the thought of never being able to call on him again, but I had no other options. It sucked, but it was an all-or-nothing situation.
He gripped my hand. “I accept.” There was a faint flash from our palms as magic sealed the deal. Then he released me quickly and turned away.
* * *
I trailed Nick through a back room that was packed with piles of papers and stacks of unopened boxes. They towered over me, threatening to topple from the slightest touch. The shopkeeper navigated the maze with practiced ease while I lost ground, carefully avoiding the minefield of knowledge. Dust brushed off as we passed, leaving a whirling cloud in our wake.
To our right was an alcove where Erma sat reading to a teddy bear from a book large enough for her to sleep on. Nick paused to ask her if she was ready to go, and she pointed to a pink backpack that was covered in flowers and butterflies and stuffed with books. Nick smiled and told her he’d be back in a couple minutes.
“Have fun!” she said to me. I cocked my head, but she was already reading to her teddy once again.
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” was all Nick offered.
We passed through another room to a back wall that was completely filled with bookshelves. Nick placed his hand on one of the dusty novels, muttered under his breath, and pulled on the book. There was a soft click followed by a slight shudder. The bookshelf squeaked open to reveal a torch-lit stairwell.
I stared at the old man. “Seriously?”
“What?” Nick asked.
“A creaky old bookcase that hides a stairwell to the secret room below the dusty store? Can you get anymore clichéd?”
He frowned. “Who would think to look for it here?”
“Oh I don’t know, maybe anyone that’s ever watched an old horror movie.”
The proprietor sighed. “Most clichés are built on truths, you know. Just because the movies parody real life doesn’t mean they are inaccurate. Besides,” he added, leaning into the stairwell and pulling a flaming torch off the wall, “I did adjust the script a little.”
The stairwell was covered with snakes. Not just any old snakes. Large, nasty ones. The kind that would give Indiana Jones screaming nightmares. Their rattles and hisses echoed off the narrow stone walls.
I swallowed and took a step back.
“So, that way is out,” I said, eyeing a particularly nasty copperhead. Nick seemed to enjoy the terror on my face, then held his palm out toward the mass. The snakes parted, slowly slithering up the walls on either side. Within seconds the stairs were clear. Nick turned back to me.
“Try not to touch them.” Humor tinged his voice.
I glanced at the writhing walls and nodded. “Don’t touch the walls-o’-poisonous-snakes. Got it.”
The old man rolled his eyes and stepped into the stairwell.
The descent took only a minute, but it felt longer thanks to the slithering mass on either side of us. I made a conscious effort not to scream and focused on the center of the stairway. The passage was warm and the air stale. I fought the rising sense of panic from claustrophobia as we descended, and released a breath of relief when we finally reached the bottom.
Nick led me down
Nick slowed. “There were many species that existed long before humans.” He waved the torch in the direction of the outcroppings. “These predate even the rise of the Elves. The race is unknown, but as I’m sure you can feel, the power emanating from them is staggering. Burial sites like this exist all over the Underground and contain other fascinating creatures. Sadly, time, like it does to so many things, has erased everything we know of them.”
“I’m surprised no one has bothered to study them.”
Nick eyes flashed with the intensity of a scientist itching to conduct research. “It would be wondrous, but impossible. Whoever they were, they commanded a level of magic unheard of in modern times. Even in death they are protected by residual defensive spells. The few foolish enough to mess with these remains were vaporized instantly, leaving nothing but a smoking pit in their place.”
His face grew serious once again. “They are also protected by an old code of respect, one that I am sworn to uphold. These beings faded from the world for reasons unknown, and any attempts to discover why have met with disaster. Suffice to say,” he said, gravely, “no good ever comes from disturbing the dead. It’s best to let them remain at peace.”
I thought about Banks. He wasn’t even magical, yet messing with him had caused all sorts of trouble. I could only imagine what would happen if the same thing happened with these creatures.
Thank goodness they were protected
We turned another corner and the breeze increased. At the end of the corridor was a large wooden door. Nick twisted the handle, eased the portal open, and stepped aside to allow me to enter.
“Welcome to the storage room,” he said with an exaggerated wave.
Storage room was an understatement.
It was a large, cavernous structure with a high domed ceiling and thick stone walls. Shelves stuffed with books covered the circular walls and extended almost as high as the distant ceiling. There were easily a thousand times more books in the storage facility than were in the shop above.
In the center of the space was a small wooden table with several stacks of books and a huge bright candle. Seated at the table, atop several old tomes, was a strange, impish creature. He was maybe knee high in height with small pointy ears, a long beak-like nose, and a wide mouth. The skin was a light green and the large eyes coal black. He had long, surprisingly graceful fingers.
One hand held a thick quill that was moving at lightning speed over new parchment paper. Ink flew from the quill like water from a spout, yet not a single errant drop found its way to the table or the book that the creature was struggling to hold upright. The only time the hand paused was to re-dip the quill or take a drink from a chipped china mug.
I’d read about bookworms as a kid, but had never seen one in person. Known as the keepers of history, they dedicated their lives to transcribing all the knowledge of the world in order to ensure that it would never completely disappear. They were clever creatures, prone to kleptomania, and obsessed with books and tomes. Many reasoned that with the advent of the Internet, their purpose in life had all but vanished. As I stared at the one in front of me, however, it was apparent that wasn’t the case.
The bookworm paused from his writing as we entered.
“Hey, boss,” he said in a high, cartoony voice that belonged to South Boston more than Washington DC. He cocked its head at me, then turned to Nick. “You brought a visitor?”
“Pip, meet Marcus Shifter. Marcus, this is my bookworm and all-around librarian, Pip.”
“Shifter?” the bookworm perked up excitedly. “Oh man, I’ve read about you guys. I’ve even transcribed some stories about the early years of the family. You all were nasty people back then. The stuff you guys did to the peasantry was—”
Nick cleared his throat and the bookworm’s face turned a dark green.
“Ah, sorry about that,” Pip said. “I don’t meet a lot of new people, what with being stuck down here in the basement transcribing texts and all. Anyway, um, hi.”
“Hi yourself,” I replied with a grin. “You know,” I added, nodding to the quill, “they make these things called typewriters. One would help you immensely.”
“Typewriter?” Pip asked incredulously. “What is this, nineteen fifty-five? Gimme a computer with Internet access any day.” He pointed to a small, powerful laptop hidden between the books for emphasis. I’d seen ads for it and, if I ever won the lottery, would buy one.
“Why aren’t you using it?”
“I’d love to scan and print all this stuff but someone,” he inclined his head toward Nick, “won’t allow it.”
“We’ve been over this,” the shopkeeper said in a tired voice.
“I know, I know. Tradition. Gotta handwrite everything. Major pain in my bony butt, I tell you.”
“I pay you very well for your skills.”
“Yes, you do,” Pip said with a huge smile. “Anyway, what can I do for you?”
Nick stepped back, indicating that this was now my show. I cleared my throat.
“I’m searching for information on two subjects. The first is how to find a powerfully Skilled person that doesn’t want to be found.”
Pip tapped the feather of the quill against his bony chin. “There’s a lot of different ways to do that, from basic concealment spells to advanced deception tactics.”
“This requires something more sophisticated. Something that could potentially foil a Hunter.”
The bookworm frowned. “Hunters are difficult to shake. They can track nearly all types of creatures and are tenacious in their pursuit. You should know that better than anyone. Your mother is one of the best in history. Boy, when she tracked down that dragon whelp in the Azores and—”
“Pip,” Nick said wearily, “please stay on track.”
I grinned. Mom had an active past and there were plenty of tales I’d never heard before. Still, listening to someone other than family speak about her with awe and respect gave me a little boost of pride for carrying the Shifter family name.
Not to mention, it proved how much of a badass she used to be. And that’s just freakin’ cool.
“Sorry, boss. The point is that it’s not impossible, just very difficult. I can dig through the files and see what’s out there. What else are you after?”
“Power. Enough to enable regeneration in a reanimated corpse.”
Pip didn’t even pause. “Now that’s impossible.”
“Improbable, maybe, but not impossible. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Pip shook his head. “I don’t mean the existence is impossible, but finding information on it is. Nothing has ever been written on the subject. And I should know. My family has translated and transcribed thousands of years of history.”
“You mean there’s nothing at all?”
“Nothing outside of the normal reanimation stuff. I can pull some of those files if you like, but I can guarantee you it’s not what you want.”
“Crap,” I grumbled.
“You still want me to dig around and find what I can anyway?”
“Sure,” I said, halfheartedly. I felt slightly deflated. I was hoping that Nick had the information I was seeking, but it had turned out to be yet another rabbit hole. Not that I should have been surprised. Power was not something people liked to share. Throughout history the practitioners of dark magic had gone to great lengths to prevent their work from being documented.
The easiest way to ensure no one else could recreate a person’s work was to prevent them from reading about it.
But, I reminded myself, Banks
Pip set the book and quill down. “Can do. Gimme a few minutes.”
He zipped away like a rocket and I heard, rather than saw, him scale the bookshelves. Dust flew from the tomes as he rifled through them at blinding speed and the rafters creaked as he raced across the wooden beams between shelves.
Seeing the creature in operation took my mind off my momentary setback. I stared upward, watching the blurry commotion in awe until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Tea?” Nick asked, pointing to a steaming pot with several mugs around it. I nodded and he poured me a cup. The liquid was hot and bitter.
“Just how I like my women,” I said. Nick raised his eyebrows, but remind silent. “So,” I added after a moment of awkward silence, “you have a bookworm on your payroll.”
“Bet that’s handy.”
“More than you know. His services cost me a small fortune, but the amount of detail he can transcribe is amazing. Plus, he’s almost as fast at finding information in these old tomes as your Internet search engines.”
“I find that hard to bel—” I started to say, but was interrupted by Pip, who returned in a blur of greenish light.
“Here you go.” He handed a small stack of books to me. “This should give you a starting point for finding your guy. I’d begin with The Compendium of Magic as well as The History of Hunters. The rest are for when you get bored and want a good read.”
I set my teacup down and lifted the old, dusty hardbacks out of the bookworm’s arms. They were surprisingly heavy. I gazed at the tiny bookworm with new eyes.
“Anything else?” Pip asked hopefully. Nick raised his eyebrows at me and I shook my head.
“I think this will do it for now,” I said. Pip’s face fell slightly, and I suddenly felt bad for the little guy. Spending days in a dark, cold basement transcribing text was a lonely profession.
“Actually, I could use a really good cookbook. One with a lot of pie recipes.”
Pip was gone in a flash. He returned an instant later with a huge tome. The cover was faded and peeling.