Undead chaos, p.15

Undead Chaos, page 15


Undead Chaos

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  I gripped the bartender’s hand and he hauled me easily out of the bed. Blood rushed to my body and my vision grayed, but cleared a moment later.

  I stretched, wincing as the rest of my body slowly woke up. The stitching in my shoulder was still numb, but the rest of me felt as if it had been through the wringer. My wrist was throbbing and my muscles ached from the beatings I’d received recently and the overexertion of Skill. This was compounded by an excruciating headache. I dug through my backpack and put two painkillers into my pocket to take with food.

  “Let’s go, slowpoke,” Steve grumbled. “Daddy’s famished.”

  “I need a shower,” I said, catching a whiff of myself. “Go ahead without me.”

  “I can’t. Millie refuses to feed me unless I drag your sorry butt down there. That means you’re showering after breakfast.” He took a deep breath and exhaled with a grunt. “Those eggs smell so good.”

  “Eggs, huh?” I asked, pulling off my wet shirt and tugging on a dry one. “Was she out of Grecian virgins or something?”

  Steve opened the door and motioning me out. “I don’t eat virgins anymore, thank you very much.”

  “How come? Did you develop a more sensitive palette?”

  “No, because they’re impossible to find.”

  The noise from the diner echoed up the stairs. We descended slowly—okay I descended slowly—and entered the back of the main room.

  The place was alive with patrons and the smells that billowed from the kitchen were intoxicating. Waitresses zipped past us carrying massive plates of food, and the trailing scents caused my stomach to howl with desire.

  Millie waved at us from behind the faded counter and motioned toward a table with a small sign that read “Reserved.” I walked over and tenderly sat in the chair. Apparently I’d somehow bruised my bottom in the fight—sitting was especially uncomfortable.

  “Glad to see the patient is mobile,” she said. “You were so beat last night that I assumed you’d be asleep for days.”

  “I would have been,” I replied as a bubble gum—popping waitress slid an impressive mound of scrambled eggs in front of me. “Unfortunately, my Minotaur alarm clock woke me up early.”

  “Says the man who was screaming in his sleep, Nancy-boy,” Steve said around a pitchfork of eggs. “Besides,” he added defensively, “I was hungry.”

  Mille frowned at me. “Nightmare?”

  I felt my face turn pink.

  “I guess,” I lied. It was the same one that had plagued me for years. One that repeated itself every so often, especially when I was stressed. I did my best to block it, but sometimes the dream overpowered me with a vengeance.

  “Nothing a little breakfast won’t fix. Eat your food, then take a shower. I’ll check your stitches after you clean up.”

  She left us to the eggs, which disappeared in record time. I threw down the painkillers, then helped myself to another round of chow. Steve was silent as he gobbled three plates worth of food and drained at least a gallon of orange juice. By the time we finished, I felt bloated and very happy.

  “Dibs on the shower,” I said, heaving myself out of the chair. My body felt looser, and I made a mental note to thank Healer Jenkins for the drugs.

  “Go for it,” Steve replied as a waitress topped off his bucket of coffee. “I prefer baths anyway. Way more relaxing.”

  I laughed. “Weirdo.”

  I turned and ran full-bore into one of the female Elves from the day before, spilling coffee all over her. She cursed in her native tongue.

  “Imbecile!” she snapped, scowling at me as she shook the coffee from her sleeves. “Do you humans ever bother to watch where you are going?”

  “Sorry,” I said, grabbing a napkin and offering it to her. She sneered and pulled away from me as if I was contagious.

  “Filthy mongrel,” she snapped. “Keep your fetid paws off of me!”

  By this point the entire diner was watching the show. I smiled sheepishly at the crowd, then turned back to the Elf as her male counterpart appeared. Like the lady, he was dressed in matching leather boots, britches and tunic, but his outfit was slightly more rugged. And while the female’s soft, ethereal hair was pulled back in a severely tight braid, he wore his long and allowed it to fall in a way made popular in anime films. Still, had it not been for the ample breasts on the female, I’d have had a difficult time guessing their genders.

  “What is going on here?” he demanded.

  “This oaf attempted to touch me.”

  The male fixed me with a withering gaze. “You dare lay a hand on my mate?” he snarled.

  “We just bumped into one another,” I said.

  “Then he tried to use that disgusting rag to make unwanted advances,” the woman added.

  “Woah, what?” I replied in surprise. “Miss, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. We just—”

  “Oh, there’s been a misunderstanding,” the male growled. “You, Human, do not understand the level of offenses you have committed against our kind.”

  “Listen, obviously this is all a mistake, so allow me to apologize again and offer to pay for your breakfast. As well as buy a new tunic for the lady.”

  Mr. Elf blanched. “You think you can bribe you way clear of your misconduct?” he thundered. “Your dishonor deserves retribution!”

  There was a blur of motion and suddenly a knife was quivering inches from my face. My bowels weakened a little as I stared cross-eyed at the tip. Then I noticed the catcher’s mitt—sized hand that was clamped on the Elf’s wrist.

  “Now that,” Steve said, “was about the dumbest thing you could have done.”

  He was still seated with his coffee in one hand, the Elf in the other. The Elves turned to see who the intruder was and their perfect eyebrows lifted as Steve stood to his full height.

  “The way I saw it,” the Minotaur continued, “these two simply ran into one another. My friend here was trying to be a gentleman and help the lady out. Your woman, on the other hand, has been nothing but an overreacting, pompous bitch. Since you seem not only incapable of recognizing a very kind gesture, but also completely prejudiced against his species, I recommend you leave at once. Oh,” he added, “and I’m keeping your knife.”

  “Never,” the Elf said defiantly. “It was given to me at birth and has been a part of me ever since.”

  “The same can be said about your hand,” Steve replied, “You can lose one or both. Your choice.”

  The Elf dropped the knife instantly. Steve looked down as it clattered noisily to the floor.

  “Scabbard too,” he said. The Elf used his free hand to unhook the scabbard and drop it next to the knife.

  “Good,” the Minotaur said with a nod. “Now, go learn some manners, you pointy-eared ass.” He released the Elf with a slight shove and the male stumbled back into his woman. He gripped his arm and gave the Minotaur a severe glare, but apparently decided that screwing with a seven-and-a-half-foot tall mythical man-beast was out of the question. Instead, he and his icy girlfriend raised their noses, sneered at me, and exited the diner.

  Steve turned his attention to the crowd of patrons, all of whom had watched the events unfold like Pay-Per-View. The Minotaur huffed once and the entire place quickly went back to their meals.

  “That was fun,” he said to me.

  “It was quite an overreaction, wasn’t it?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “They’re Elves. They always overreact. By the way, this is where you say ‘thank you.’”

  “Uh, yeah. Thanks.”

  “Whatever. Go bathe. You stink.”

  Steve scooped up the Elven trinkets and sat back down as a waitress rolled over with a large plate of sausages. I headed toward the back of the diner, aware of the covert glances the patrons shot me as I passed. Millie crossed
her arms and rolled her eyes dramatically as I walked around the counter.

  “They started it,” I offered.

  She shook her head and tried to conceal a smirk.

  I hauled myself up the stairs and pushed open the door to our room. Jones was still passed out, but he was whimpering a lot less, which I took to be a good thing. I stripped, removed the bandages on my shoulder and wrist, and took a long, hot shower. When I exited I found my clothes cleaned and stitched together nicely once more. There was also a small tin of the healing balm and fresh bandages. I applied the goop and patched myself together before dressing.

  The door opened as I finished. Steve walked in. I noticed the knife hitched to his belt.

  “So, other than pissing off ancient species, what’s your plan for the day?” he asked.

  I pulled one of Nick’s books from the knapsack. “Reading.”

  He unclipped the knife and tossed it onto the table near his bedding. “Sounds boring.”

  “What are you up to?”

  “Job hunting,” he said. “I may offer my services to The Double Down. They’re always in need of some extra security.”

  “Not sure they’re open. It was shut up tight last night.”

  He frowned. “That’s not normal.”

  “When has the Underground ever been normal?”

  “Point taken, Anyway, have fun reading. I’m going to find something productive to do with my time. Oh,” he added as he opened the door, “enjoy your day with Jones.”

  He laughed to himself and closed the door.

  * * *

  The annoying thing about old books is that they are exceptionally fragile. Yellow brittle pages can crumble in your hands if you’re not careful, which was why beings like Pip were in such high demand. They could repair or refurbish a book that was in danger of falling apart. In many cases, however, the tome was not only preserved, but a newer replica created using modern paper, ink and bindings. This ensured that the priceless data was saved and that fresh copies could be sold to interested parties at a reasonable cost.

  Aside from the cookbook, most of the tomes Pip had given me were replicas, and the quality was far better than I expected. Although the pages appeared worn, they were, in fact, crisp and the writing clean. Even the artistry was bright and stunning, which was a testament to the bookworm’s skill. I had no idea how long it took him to transcribe a tome, but the book in my hands was undoubtedly better than the original had been in its day. It would be a pleasure to read the work, and I cracked it open with a hungry grin.

  By the fourth book, the novelty of Pip’s skill had worn off. The pages were packed with spells, but all of them were either completely pointless or long since replaced with something more effective. Like all things in life, the practice of magic evolved and improved, so spells that were trendy or groundbreaking a generation ago were updated with something better or more efficient by the following generation. The old books might have a ton of knowledge for the basics, but many were left to people like Nick because they were simply out-of-date.

  Despite the lack of information, I still wrote the formulas for several ancient spells that seemed interesting. There was one for improving a person’s hearing by dulling the other senses and another for a very intense itching powder. I had no idea where someone could find Urbane Tubers, but I figured the Internet might have some recommendations.

  I skimmed through several more books, but found nothing that said “Here’s How to Find Simeon Fawkes.” The closest I came was an advanced tracking spell, but that required me to actually place the spell on the person. There was zero on how to find someone once they went to ground.

  The History of Hunters was equally frustrating. There was a lot of information on the creation of the magical branch, and a ton of stories about the early Great Hunts, but very little on the actual practices they used. Hunters were notoriously secretive since their specialty was in high demand. The better the Hunter, the more close-lipped they were about their trade. Even Mom rarely talked about anything that went on before I was born.

  By early afternoon I was tired and a little nauseous. Several of the books delved into the dark arts and a lot of the spells within them were just...wrong. There were instructions on everything from how to mute a person’s hearing to causing someone to have a headache so intense, they’d pray for death. But while the dark spells themselves were disgusting, the fact that most of them seemed designed to torment Normals was truly horrifying. No wonder there was so much bad blood between the two worlds.

  Thank goodness our society had evolved.

  Opting to switch to a happier topic, I picked up the Compendium of Magic again and thumbed through some of the pages I’d initially skipped over. I munched on a sandwich that a waitress had delivered earlier and scanned the new sections. There was a great deal of history and basics, but very little regarding anything practical.

  I was about to toss the book to the side when I noticed a dog-eared corner of a page near the back. I flipped to it and saw a small arrow drawn in blue ink with the word, “Useful?” written next to it. The arrow pointed to several paragraphs that were buried deep in a section about the evolution of executions during the Dark Ages. A few passages were underlined in the same blue ink. I read the entire Chapter before rereading the highlighted section.

  “The art of executing the Skilled took another giant leap forward during the late-twelfth century in response to Shadow Dancing. Based on the principle of hiding in plain sight, Shadow Dancers learned to manipulate the existing shadows of objects to hide themselves from view. Little is known of the practice, but legend states that only a small echelon was powerful enough to perform the spell. Those few used the shadows to redirect sight and scent away from themselves. It was even said that the greatest of Hunters had difficulty tracking these practitioners since the manipulated shadows muted the two senses most commonly used by the professional trackers.

  Unfortunately, many leaders of the Skilled community were paranoid that Shadow Dancing would grant the already powerful elite a greater advantage over their peers. In 1302 A.D. the art was officially classified as Dark Magic. Those rumored to practice the banned craft received swift and painful judgment. Several high profile, bloody executions served as proof to the leadership’s quest to stamp it from existence. Within a few short years, all knowledge of the craft was erased, leaving the art of Shadow Dancing to fade from history for good.”

  The author went on to describe some of the techniques for executions, all of which were frighteningly graphic. Pip had highlighted the section for a reason, so I read it over once more and mentally filed the information away.

  It seemed highly unlikely that Simeon was practicing an art that had been essentially dead for almost a millennium, but Pip felt it was worth noting, and therefore it was worth me remembering.

  I made a few notes, set the Compendium down, and picked up one of the books I’d been avoiding. One of the few that was not a replica, it was heavy and bound in something I hoped wasn’t human. There was no title, but from the twisted, sickening drawings on the first page, I was pretty sure there weren’t any stories about puppies and unicorns.

  The language was a warped version of Latin and I struggled to translate a lot of phrases. What I could understand disgusted me. Dark, inhuman practices were described in vivid detail, and the spells associated with some of the practices outlined in cookbook format. The tome of magic was far darker than anything found in the other books, so I’d definitely need to destroy the contraband.

  The Council would drag me across the coals just for reading it, and if they ever found out who gave it to me, there’d be hell to pay for both of us.

  Halfway through the book I came across another footnote from Pip, this time just an arrow pointing to a drawing. The colors had faded over the centuries, but the image was still clear. It showed several beings wi
th their palms facing a man on his knees. In front of the group was another individual with arms spread wide. Lines of wind or smoke flowed from the kneeling man and toward the single person. Whatever they were doing, it seemed excruciating for everyone involved. The words in the caption were unfamiliar, so I scribbled them on a piece of paper.

  There was a stirring from the bed, and for the first time in ages, Jones sat up.

  “Good afternoon,” I said, happy for an excuse to set my book down.

  “Ow,” Jones replied. His eyes were blurry and his face covered in sleep lines.

  “You’ve been out for quite a while.”

  Jones burped and rubbed his eyes. “How long?”

  “A day or so.”

  The Oracle swung his head slowly back and forth, scanning the room. “Where’s Steve?”

  “Job hunting. How’s the noise upstairs?” I asked, tapping the side of my head with my finger.

  Jones closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Quiet. For now.”

  “Comes and goes?”

  Jones nodded. “Sometimes it’s peaceful, but most times it’s too busy for me to think straight.” He smacked his lips. “I need a drink.”

  “Forget it,” I replied. “Your body is still detoxing and so far, it’s been an ugly sight. There’s no way you’re getting any booze while you’re here.”

  Jones gave me a once-over and hiccupped.

  There was a knock at the door and one of the waitresses rolled in with another tray of sandwiches and a huge pot of coffee. Jones stared with wide bloodshot eyes as the cute girl set the tray on the end of the bed and filled up a coffee mug for him. She handed me a Dr. Pepper that I had been longing for, collected my empty plate, gave the Oracle a friendly wave, and rolled out of the room. The door closed automatically behind her.

  “Where are we?” Jones asked, gazing at the door.

  “Millie’s Place.”

  “I think I like it here,” he said with a weak grin. He sniffed the food and his stomach growled. He slowly picked a sandwich and took a few tentative bites. The food stayed down, so he polished the sandwich off like a wolf devouring a bunny and reached for another. Assuming it was rude to let a man eat alone, I grabbed one myself and nibbled at the crust.

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