Free Short Story 2

Scalpel And Fang

by Devon Drake

“Doctor Madangel, I presume?” Was the greeting I received from the butler as he opened the door. Such a cordial beginning to what I would later describe as an evening of ego-driven idiocy and raw justice.

Laughter echoed through the hallways and into the foyer behind him. The scents of a recently cooked feast drifted through the warm air. A dinner party in progress. Dessert was about to be served.

“You presume correctly.” I tipped my hat with my skeletal hand to gauge the butler’s reaction. “A runner hand-delivered this message to my home.” I pulled the note half way out of my vest pocket. “This is the house of one Doctor Mikail Fileston, correct?”

“It is, sir.”

“Well, I was summoned here for a house call.”

Yes, I make house calls. The fact that I’m a licensed necromancer serving out a redemption sentence by order of the Terra Guard Captain has made me a pariah in every hospital. In response to my sentencing, I had no choice but to open a private practice out of my home.

And since very few people are willing to be seen coming to my home, I make house calls.

Now, if there’s one thing doctor’s never expect to experience, it’s being summoned to the home of another doctor for a house call. Doctor’s are renowned—even infamous—for their over-confidence in their abilities to solve their own medical problems whether they occur within family members or within themselves. For this reason, the invitation alone captivated my curiosity.

But once I’d stood in the doorway of Doctor Fileston’s home and immediately sensed all the signs of a social gathering underway, I began to wonder if this house call was going to be worth my time or a waste of it.

“Very good, sir. If I may please read the note that summoned you here.”

“Why would you need to do that?”

“To verify that it was in fact the good Doctor that summoned you. I find it highly unlikely that he would send such a message given that he is entertaining guests at the moment. I suspect that you have been made the victim of a prank, sir.”

“You suspect that, do you?” I didn’t. But I was curious to see how much time I could buy. It was only a matter of time before Fileston himself came to his front door to investigate an uninvited guest. And I’d rather deal with a fellow doctor than a condescending man-servant any day.

“I do, sir. The note, please.” I detected no questioning tone in his voice. He wasn’t asking, he was demanding. And being exceedingly polite about his demand, I must note. Even though he was looking down his nose at me as he made this demand.

Literally. Due to his height, my face happened to be located directly below his nose.

I handed him the note.

“It certainly appears to be the good Doctor’s signature.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” The butler shot me a sideways glance. I had surprised him with my knowledge. “And how do you know the good Doctor’s signature?”

I cleared my throat, cupped my mouth with my living hand and shouted. “Alpha. Theta. Omega. Come forth, ye presumptuous bastards all.”

The once lively house was briefly struck silent. My volume had effectively gotten everyone’s attention, despite that my words would undoubtedly confuse any of them not associated with my old fraternity.

But I knew at least one person present at this party who would recognize both the fraternal significance of those words and the sound of my voice. And, truth be told, I was growing tired of waiting for Fileston to notice he had an extra guest at his party.

Quick footsteps clicked through the hallways, betraying an upright posture walking in expensive shoes. Doctor Fileston emerged from the same direction that I’d recently heard laughter. He was holding a pipe, wearing his finest smoking jacket and a look of elated surprise on his face.

“Charles? By the dragons, it’s been years. Come in! Living hell, Simmons, why didn’t you inform me that we had a guest?”

“An unexpected guest, sir.” Simmons, the butler, did not take his eyes off me. And he hadn’t closed the front door behind me. Apparently, he felt throwing me out was still an option. “I was, naturally, suspicious.”

“Oh, I don’t care. He’s an old friend whom I haven’t seen in too long. Let him in already.”

Simmons and I had an amusing little exchange of eye contact as I walked past him. It wasn’t until I broke the standoff and I turned my gaze to my old fraternity brother that I heard the front door close. The sharp breezes of the night were at once completely blanketed by the warm scents of baked desserts, expensive tobacco and some potent marijuana.

Fileston always knew how to throw a party. That is to say he had an uncanny instinct for the correct amount of people to invite. And, more importantly, who to invite. I always imagined he knew a mathematical formula for calculating various personalities and designating them to compliment each other. He was that consistent. His parties were always a success.

I ignored most of his pleasantries and concentrated on taking in my surroundings as he lead me from the foyer to the parlor.

This wasn’t the largest house I’d ever been in, but it certainly ranked in the top ten. Polished marble seemed to be the reigning theme of the decor. The more than ample orb lighting hung close to the ceiling, five meters above us.

As I entered the parlor, opposite me were four archways framed by marble pillars. I noticed thick black curtains hanging outside the archways, they were moving in time with the outdoor breezes, blowing against the transparent force shields being silently generated by the interior of the arch. The shields looked half a dozen centimeters thick and I glimpsed a courtyard beyond the curtains.

Next, I noticed the best part of all the scenery. Sure there was artwork, architecture, furniture and floral arrangements to take note of, all of which subtly screamed “I have more money than you.” But looking past all that was easy for me. I’ve seen it all before. The vast majority of it anyway.

No, the most beautiful sights to behold in the parlor were the women. One could say they were almost too perfect. But that would only be a reflection of the fact that they were identical. Five of them, all with the perfect curves, perfect bodies, and perfectly identical features right down to their hair style.

And did I mention they were all naked?

They were the entertainment of the evening: women created through complex biomancy. Such biomantic cloning processes were what Fileston pioneered during his time at university. Tonight, he wasn’t just showing off his wealth, he was showing off his work.

And I had to admit, his work was damn near flawless.

There were also men at the party of course. About ten of them. All dressed up. Some had well-dressed ladies on their arms. And most of those ladies looked like they were afraid to let go of their men for obvious and justifiable reasons.

Fileston nudged my shoulder. “You’ve stopped listening to me, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “You expected I would.”

“It’s happened to almost everyone whose walked into my parlor tonight. My creations…they have that effect on people.”

“Has the law ruled on these clones? The legality of such an issue is…”

“They drag their feet on the issue because they cannot decide whether or not clones are people. Until they decide, these clones are considered works of art.”

I saw through that euphemistic label immediately. “Property.”

He nodded with a single finger tapping his nose. “And as long as they’re defined as property, there’s no law that effects them. Other than laws regarding ownership and theft. Once the proper channels are in place to guarantee secure sales and exchanges—I tell you, Charles—I’m going to be set for life.”

I gestured to the room around me with my cane. “Not scraping by like you usually do?”

“Oh, it’s all well and good to have one’s finances stimulated by an inheritance immediately after graduation,” he conceded to my sarcasm, “but it’s still a finite amount. Not a revenue stream. Besides, my father always taught me that the most important thing to do with your money is invest it wisely. I’m investing it in my own business. I’m creating the means by which I can make my own money.”

“I remember from university, you theorized on ways of making stable clones. So I assume these aren’t the muscle-bound drones that expire after two hundred days.”

“Thickmen, is what those are called. Usually created as disposable labor for dangerous construction projects.” He waved off the notion, shaking his head. “Someone else can have that short-sighted market. I’m making life-long companions. One-hundred percent loyal, healthy and beautiful. They’ll stay by your side and do whatever you want, for as long as you want.”

My eyes were pulled away from my old classmate for just a moment as one of the clones walked pass me and smiled. Given the fact that my reputation is among the worst in the whole city-state and my left hand is freakishly bereft of living flesh, it’s been some time since a woman smiled at me in that way. “Does that include having a personality and not just a gorgeous smile?”

“You like the way they smile, do you?” His tone toyed with me.

I jokingly gritted my teeth and thumped the head of my cane against his chest. “Answer the question, Mik.”

“Still working on psychomantic programming. But we can create a mind that learns in the same way any other human mind learns: through experience. That’s a long learning curve that I’m guessing my customers aren’t willing to put up with. But the latest prototypes you see here are very promising.”

I noticed the clone that smiled at me was now standing behind me, less than half a meter away from my shoulder. And she was still smiling. I found myself willingly entranced by the sight of her. My left hand may be undead, but warm blood still flows through the rest of me.

“Mik.”

“Hm.” He turned, tasting a mouthful of flavored smoke from his pipe. He saw the eye contact taking place.

“Do they talk?”

“Not yet.” He clapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear. I could smell what he’d been smoking on his breath. “So enjoy her all you like, old friend. She won’t complain about your hand. Up those stairs, there’s a spare bedroom on the right.” He chuckled and nudged my shoulder again. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to be a good host and make the rounds. We’ll catch up later.”

I was alone at the edge of the crowd. It happens to me often enough that I’m used to it. But something in this clone’s eyes told me I wasn’t alone. Even though I had no reason to suspect there was anything of substance behind her seductive eyes.

So I attempted something that I had never attempted before: I reached out to take a lady’s hand with my skeletal hand.

She glanced down at my sharpened fingertips. Her own hand moved…hesitated…then completed the motion. She draped her fingers into what would have been my palm and her smile twitched. Then her eyes met mine and I could see that she knew exactly what I suspected.

She was no ordinary clone. Her mind was not blank. Quite the contrary, it was reactive. Despite her nudity inspiring all sorts of lascivious thoughts to my imagination, my curiosity was captivated. This clone demanded further investigation.

I gestured up the stairs with my cane. She turned with me. Walked in step with me. I escorted her to the bedroom, and as we crossed the threshold, I felt her arm tremble.

I closed the door. Released her hand. Stared at her.

“Do you talk?” I asked.

With the tiniest tension in her neck muscles I saw her head move ever so slightly. She was shaking her head. She was answering. Communicating.

Taking a gamble, I lightly touched my skeletal fingertips to her head. With what psychomancy I knew, I reached in and probed the folds and layers of her mental—

No!

I yanked back my hand with a startling realization: That was her thought. She had a thought.

Her lips flickered out of a smile for a moment. She was frightened.

“Did you send the message that brought me here for a house call?”

Her head twitched to the left and to the right.

“No? Then who?”

She sighed. And in my mind I knew that it meant more than an exhale. It was an expression of…something.

I decided to speculate out loud.

“You can’t talk because you lack the neural-muscular training that a child gains from years of imitating its parents in the practice of forming words with the mouth. You’re newly created, like an infant, but not taught like one. And yet, I know there’s something more in your mind. Whatever it is, you must show it to me.” I reached for her head.

With a trembling leg she took one step backward. Even trembling, she looked beautiful.

“Please. Trust me. We must speak.”

She blinked slowly. It meant something. And I could not guess what.

“Trust me. Please, trust me.” I then realized what I sounded like: I sounded like someone trying to calm down a wild animal.

Following that notion, I began to think like a wild animal.

I stepped backward, bent my back in order to place my head below her’s, maintained eye contact, all while humming the deepest musical note my throat would allow.

Her shoulder blades tensed upward and her neck bent downward, this made her look like a cat ready to pounce. She didn’t break eye contact either. And her humming voice was poised on the border between threatening and hungering. Between violent and lusty.

She was definitely communicating by use of cat-like body language.

I nodded, unconsciously. She understood the motion just like she understood head shaking.

We remained locked in a visual stalemate, sizing up and interpreting each other with mixed results on both sides. But I knew exactly how to break this stalemate.

Below our peripheral vision, I transferred my cane to my skeletal hand. Then I slowly lifted the cane to the side of her head, keeping it at the edge of her peripheral limit. I could see her neck tensing. She wanted to turn her head out of the instinct to keep aware of potential threats. A sudden, moving, noisy stimulus was all I needed to distract her.

So, I dropped my cane.

Her head jolted to follow the sound as the cane bounced off a small table next to us.

That was the moment I needed to comb my bony fingers through her hair. Simultaneously, my psychomancy combed its way into her mind with the same gentility.

My perception morphed into the five senses of a creature with a striped coat of fur, four legs, large paws, and a long body. Three meters long! My face, shaggy and sensitive with long whiskers. My senses honed for hunting. My fangs, thick and sharp. My eyes as fierce as my growl.

A tiger! This woman had the memories of a tiger.

Which made sense. She certainly behaved like a Tigress.

I had no idea what she saw in my thoughts or experienced in my memories. I only know that we both found the moment purely exhilarating.

In that moment, Tigress and I had bonded.

I eased out of the layers of her perception and found her eyes wide and trembling.

“And I thought the outside of you was beautiful.”

She smiled and hummed at me. Although, considering she had the mind of a cat, perhaps she was purring.

“You’re fond of me as well, I take it?”

She nodded vigorously. It was the first vigorous motion I’d seen her make.

“I’m flattered.” Not that I had reason to be. She had the mind of a tiger. For all I know, tigers mate indiscriminately. Or they might be the highly selective type that mate for life.

And I suppose mating was on both our my minds.

Enlightenment flashed through my thoughts upon making that connection.

Fileston had said that the psychomantic programming of these clones was still a work in progress. Well, the best way to create any program, especially a program as infinitely complex as sentience, is to start with a template and build on it from there. My old friend had been using the mind of a tiger to program the minds of his new clones. And with an animal mindset as the template, these women were programmed to live as naked as animals. They would think of clothing as strange and unnecessary, provided they were kept in a warm enough environment. If they never felt cold, they would never realize they needed protection against it.

And animal minds have only the simplest desires: food, warmth, shelter, protection from predators and of course the need to mate. With the right adjustments, the right kind of obedience imprinted into the consciousness, animal minds would make for perfect sex slaves.

It was no wonder why Fileston took such pride in these “prototypes” and had such high hopes for them.

That was the word he used. Prototypes. Not life forms. Not people. Not even animals. Just works of art. Products to be manufactured, sold and shipped.

And yet, there was absolutely nothing criminal in what he was doing.

That was the thought that gave me pause.

Fileston was trading in lives. He was no different or better than a slave merchant. But he still had not broken a single law.

While as I, with my skeletal hand, remained trapped in my redemption sentence for doing what I felt was right.

I heard the bones in my left hand grinding and realized I had been clenching a fist.

Tigress touched my arm, hoping to relax me. A calming, musical growl stirred in her throat.

So simple a gesture. And yet it achieved the desired effect. I felt surprisingly comfortable at how accurately I could read her intentions, a likely side-effect of our mental bonding.

Then a knock at the door interrupted everything.

I felt my face go from startled to offended when I saw the door open. Apparently the knock was a meaningless courtesy, as this person was determined to barge in on my private time with Tigress.

At first I thought I was about to meet either the most inebriated or the most impolite guest at the party. But I was doubly surprised to instead see Simmons quickly and quietly step into the room and close the door behind him.

“What the—?”

“I sent the note. I forged the signature. I brought you here.” Said the butler, giving me my third sudden surprise in the span of five seconds.

“Slow down!” I held up my hand to stop the butler, thinking he was about to trample me. “Before anything else you have to answer one question: why are you choosing now to tell me this?” I nodded sideways at the naked woman to my left.

It was then that I noticed she had taken her hands off me.

I turned my head and saw her backing away.

The look on her face damn near defied description. She was lusting, breathing deep, her chest heaving. Her eyes quivered but did not fill with tears. She sounded as though a moan and sob both struggled their way out of her throat, though neither one escaped.

Her reaction told me that her mind couldn’t process the conflicting emotions. And the obvious reason for this sudden conflict was standing in front of me.

I looked back at Simmons and waited for him to fill in the blank.

“Because she’s my wife.” Simmons did his best to maintain the stiff upper lip required of all butlers. It didn’t last long. Seeing what his wife had become cracked his facade. I was concerned his mind would crack next, assuming it hadn’t already.

After all, if he’d called me into this mess I could reasonably assume he wasn’t thinking straight.

Given the circumstance, I made an attempt at levity. “Well, let me break the awkward silence by saying you have exemplary taste in women, sir, even if she is a bit young for you. And let me go on to assure you that I planned on being nothing less than a perfect gentleman with—”

“A perfect gentleman?” His hands suddenly balled into fists. “You were going to be a perfect gentleman while you fucked her like an animal? Because that’s what he’s turned her into, an animal.”

That was the first time in my life I’d ever heard a butler use foul language.

“Calm down, Simmons.” I had to distract his rage away from me. “Can we get back to the glaring discrepancy in age between you and her? Because your wife here looks at least forty years younger than you.”

Simmons flinched like he’d been stabbed. He swallowed hard and answered slowly. “I know. This is my wife. This is how she looked forty years ago…on our wedding night. She was a picture of beauty that I will never forget for the rest of my days. Even as she aged, she always looked beautiful to me. All her life, she was as beautiful to me as she appears now.”

The words he chose could only mean that his wife was no longer alive. I felt I should respond to this by offering a hand of condolence. But people who go out of there way to contact me aren’t looking for a grief counselor.

More often than not, people call on me out of desperation.

“How did she die?”

“Some cowardly thief was running from the city guard. He fired his talrod over the heads of the people in the market to get everyone out of his way. He didn’t intend to hit anyone. But that day, she happened to be visiting her sister and watching the pursuit from a second-story window. The screamer blast hit her in the face. I was told she died instantly. Felt no pain. Her killer was cornered minutes later. Not wanting to be taken alive, the coward forced a shoot out with the guard. And he got exactly what he wanted.”

I scanned my eyes up and down Tigress’s body just to confirm what I already knew from previous observation of her flesh: she had no scars. Her skin was as flawless as a doll. Her body had never been injured. No human lives without pain. But Tigress had never lived a human life, because she was an artificial replica of the woman Simmons had married.

“When did Fileston clone her?”

“I’m not sure. I’m guessing it was around the time she was killed, two months ago. He only started bringing these clones out of the lab two weeks ago. When I saw what he’d made…I was sick with rage. I vomited so much I had to be treated for dehydration.”

I nodded, the time line of events taking form in my mind. I looked for a possibility of something illegal having taken place. “To create a full clone of her, he would need her complete genetic code. He would need a sizable blood or tissue sample taken from her while she was still alive. Unless he used necromancy.”

Simmons shook his head. “He asked for several blood samples from us, saying it was for research into genetic maladies. We volunteered, thinking we were helping a good man cure diseases.”

“Good man.” I scoffed. “At best, he’s a pimp. At worst, a slave trader.”

“I mourn my wife every day. But then there are days when I find myself relieved that she’s not alive to see these…things.”

“They are not things, sir. I won’t allow your grief turn these woman into objects in the same way your employer’s greed already has. They are living beings. They certainly aren’t your wife, not anymore. But that does not make them objects. No matter how much their existence may offend you.”

The look I saw on Simmons’s face was one that I’ve seen too many times. It’s a kind of paralytic stillness in the facial muscles revealing that the person I’m speaking to agrees with what I’m saying, but cannot bring themselves to say it aloud.

Most people don’t like it when I’m right.

Many are downright disturbed when it happens.

“Doctor, I need to stop this. I need your help.”

“If you summoned me here to ask for help, why didn’t you say so at the front door?”

“Because I’m not the only servant in this house. I know, if given the chance, most of the staff would betray me to earn favor with Doctor Fileston. I couldn’t risk any of them knowing that I’d brought you here, and I had to get you alone before revealing why.”

I sighed. “And here I am.”

“Can you help me, Doctor Madangel?”

“How? How could I possibly help you?”

“I know you’re under redemption sentence. And I know your redemption requires you to work with the guard whenever they request your expertise.”

“So?”

“So if, in your expert opinion, you believe Doctor Fileston’s cloning to be wrong, you could summon the proper authorities. And they would listen to you. My accusations will be seen as that of a disgruntled employee or an enraged widower. But your unbiased testimony to the guard will carry far greater weight. They often seek your counsel, don’t they?”

“The fact that I’m under redemption sentence means that I’m still, technically, a criminal. The guard asks for my consultation from time to time, but I’m not exactly on friendly terms with them.”

“Regardless, if you reported a crime, the guard would listen.”

If there were a crime to report.” I matched his growing volume. “He’s done nothing illegal.”

“There must be something illegal about what he’s doing.”

Silently, I shook my head and watched the despair eat away at his rage.

Behind me, I heard Tigress make a sound like a deep, moaning purr. She placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.

Wanting to answer a gentle touch with a gentle touch, I place my living hand on top of her’s.

“Doctor, please.” Simmons spoke through shuddered breathing. “I cannot allow my wife to be used like this. I have to do something.”

My eyes were drawn to Tigress. Her eyes seemed to be actively avoiding Simmons. I could see she recognized him, but it was unusual. Her head moved slowly between facing him and facing me, but her eyes would only touch on him for a second.

I remembered that her mind was not fully human. Her behavior matched her mental state.

“There may be something…”

Through the gentle contact between our hands, I carefully reached into the memories of Tigress. I found memories that were congruous with the morphology of a tiger linked to the senses of sound and smell. But the sense of sight was left mostly blank.

Stranger than that was what I found in the sense of touch: human hands. Five fingers without claws caressing bare flesh without fur. A tiger would have no memories of that kind. Somehow human memories had been seeded alongside animal ones. These could have been memories that Fileston stole from Simmons’s wife before she died.

However, if that were the case, such a crime would be next to impossible to prove unless the owner of those memories were alive to verify what had been stolen. For that reason, I decided not to mention the possibility to Simmons.

Then the obvious struck my mind like a slap in the face: she had been programmed with the mind of tiger. So where did the tiger come from?

A solution began forming in my mind.

Fileston was no animal lover. Tigers are rare and expensive. But if Fileston was using a tiger to program his clones, he would need to keep one in his lab.

And if such an animal got loose tonight of all nights when everything needed to go as smoothly as possible…it might just create the solution that I had in mind.

Tigress smiled at me, because she knew what I was thinking.

“Simmons, I need you to tell me everything you know about this house.”

He could see the spark of inspiration in my eyes. “Of course, Doctor.”

“I need to know everything Fileston keeps in this house and where it’s located.”

I heard him draw an eager breath of hope. “If it will put an end to this atrocity I’ll help you any way I can.”

I looked him in the eye to make sure he was serious.

He was.

“Good. Because once you’re done giving me the information I need, your next two tasks are going to be increasingly more dangerous.”

 

* * *

 

The first part of my plan required the manipulated assistance of a gossiping social-climber. And, as luck would have it, there were two at this party. In fact, they were attending the party together. I recognized the two of them from across the room when I first entered the parlor.

The Rellingtons: a brother and sister who recently inherited the Rellington family fortune. Said fortune was accumulated over the course of a hundred various construction contracts that built three of the eight city-states on the continent. Even though Prima Terra, being the first city-state, was not one of their crowning achievements, they were still responsible for at least five of the largest buildings here.

The Rellington family had a legacy of strongly embracing the sorceric arts. The first generation of them, the ones that immigrated directly from Old Earth through the Draconic Portal, built with their own hands and skills. Which would not have been possible were they not a family of exceptional evocationists, biomancers and talismanologists.

But remember: they had a legacy of embracing the sorceric arts. Sometimes the apple falls so far from the tree you can’t even recognize what tree the fruit came from.

This latest generation of Rellingtons were happy to sit on their asses, live lives of idle leisure, and profit off the dozens of underlings who mastered all the necessary sorceric arts and did all the hard work for them.

This brother and sister in particular viewed sorcery as a hobby, not a vocation and not a way of improving one’s self. They also viewed sorcery as a way cleaning up messes that the less wealthy could not afford to clean up. Their underlings didn’t just do the hard work, but the dirty work as well.

For example, it was often whispered that the Rellingtons were shameless practitioners of incest. This was evidenced by the fact that this brother and sister were walking arm in arm and whispering about having a threesome with one of the clones when I approached them. The family kept master-level biomancers on the payroll to undo genetic defects whenever offspring was desired, but there is only so much that even the best in the business can do.

I suppressed a grimace of disgust as I cordially greeted them, holding my cane with my skeletal hand behind my back.

Wouldn’t want to offend the incestuous siblings with the sight of my necromantic limb, now would I?

“Lord and Lady Rellington, is it? I don’t believe we’ve met. Doctor Madangel, at your service.”

The Doctor Madangel?” Said Lady Rellington, touching her fingertips to the space above her enhanced breasts. “In the flesh? As I live and breathe?”

I tilted my head and nodded to the dried-out double entendre, remaining as cordial and pleasant as ever as I lied. “Ah. Two displays of wit that, I swear, I’ve never heard before, m’lady.”

I bowed slightly and offered to take her hand: an antiquated gesture practiced only by the needlessly pretentious and over-privileged. I know of such gestures not because I have an appreciation for them, but because I was raised in such a world of privilege and pretension.

My greeting was well-received. Though I could not tell for certain if Lady Rellington took my hand out of respect, novelty or condescension.

Whatever her reasons, I didn’t care. I had her attention and I planned on using it.

“And what brings you to this occasion, Doctor?” Asked the Lady.

“She means, how did you get into this party, despite your reputation?” Corrected the Lord.

Clearly the brother was the more direct of these two. “I happen to be an old acquaintance of Doctor Fileston. We attended university together.”

“Oh? How very quaint!” Lady Rellington sounded just loud enough to be unaware of her volume. This gave me a clue as to how intoxicated she’d become. Especially when she bent her head to my ear and whispered to me, loud enough that I can only barely call it a whisper: “Perhaps you know a secret or two about how he made these exquisite clones. They’re the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. Such young, flexible bodies. And such a hungry look in their eyes. Oh, I so wish we could take one home with us tonight.”

“Regrettably, no. Mikail was always tight-lipped about such things. I imagine he’ll take such a money-making recipe with him to the grave.” Behind my fake smile I didn’t just imagine such a thing, I hoped for it. “But I can tell you an embarrassing story about him in exchange for a bit of inside information on your part.”

“Oh my!” Once more her light and dainty fingers went to her cleavage. “Doctor Madangel, are you proposing that you’ll show me yours if I show you mine?”

“We’re all aware of how you love to show yourself, sister.” Lord Rellington snickered to himself while searching the room for someone more noteworthy than me to converse with.

With a quick working of sorcery I created a tunnel between myself and the Lady that would keep all our sound waves just between us: a beginner’s spell known as the clear whisper.

Through the clear whisper, I taunted her. “Only if you show me yours first, m’lady. After all, you’ve already seen right down to my bones.” And I tipped my hat with my skeletal hand.

She pursed her lips while slowly sliding her fingertips across the upper curvature of her breasts.

Living hell, I thought. This woman certainly loves to touch her own breasts.

“You have but to ask, Doctor, and I’ll show.” While her speech was significantly subdued, her voice was not contained by her own clear whisper. Apparently, my spell had to do the work for both our voices. Sad that she lacked the skill for such a simple spell.

“If you would confirm a rumor for me, m’lady, does Mikail have a pet tiger?”

Her face quivered with an invigorated smile. “Oh, you do go for the juiciest bits, don’t you Doctor Madangel?”

“Aren’t they always the tastiest?”

“Oh, they are, Doctor. They are.” Her gaze was distracted by the sight of a server balancing a tray that held eight champagne glasses. She nudged her brother with her arm. “Brother, would you be so kind as to get us some more drinks?”

Lord Rellington released himself from his sister and plucked two glasses from the passing tray, which had only four glasses left by the time he reached it. As he returned with the drinks, he handed one to his his sister and…I could have sworn he was about to hand me the other glass.

But when his sister swiftly transferred her free arm into mine, Lord Rellington’s body language changed just as swiftly. I could see the feeling of rejection realign his posture as he looked in my eyes and took a deliberate sip from what was now his glass.

Lady Rellington flashed a taunting smile at her brother, then a seductive one at me. “Shall we walk, Doctor Madangel?”

“Yes, my Lady. Let us partake of the Autumn night. I hear the gardens that Mikail keeps in his courtyard are among the loveliest.”

I allowed her to lead me to the marble archways at the other end of the parlor.

There, my cane bounced off the thick shielding.

The Lady giggled. “I do hope you’re not as drunk as I am, Doctor. The shields open when you break the field at the very bottom. Slide your foot along the floor and the shield will deactivate.”

“Yes, of course.” I kept my smile pleasant and filed away her useful information for later. We stepped into the courtyard, feeling the chill of the night and smelling the crisp air of Autumn as we crossed the threshold and pushed aside the curtains.

The sounds of the party were cut silent as the shield reactivated behind us.

“Now,” the Lady took a long sip from her glass, “where to begin. As I’m sure you know, the biomantic cloning that Mikail has demonstrated in there is cutting edge. He’s been going on about it all night. Bragging that his clones have the same stability and lifespan of a regular human. Completely superior to our thickmen. Although I suppose there’s no way he can prove that without actually having them live for twenty years or more, unless he were to have some chronomancer age them artificially and I’m sure you know how such a demonstration would attract the worst kind of attention from the city guard.” She took another sip. “But I’ve strayed a little far from the point. Which is simply that the same difficulties for cloning exist for animals as well. Tigers are not native to New Earth and only a couple dozen were brought here through the Draconic Portal. Tigers aren’t superior predators here either, drakes are. Breeders of tigers have had to fight an uphill battle keeping their animals alive and mating. They hope to one day genetically enhance tigers to becoming superior to drakes. And they’ve needed to use a great deal of biomancy to cure new diseases and improve the immune systems of successive generations so as to not run into the same problems with each new breeding.”

“This is why pet tigers are so expensive. I know.” And why it sounded like exactly the kind of purchase Fileston would make to show off his wealth.

“Oh, Doctor, I don’t think you do.” Both her smile and her tone patronized me. “I’m not just explaining to you why buying a tiger is expensive. I’m explaining why keeping a tiger is a far greater ongoing expense. And if you can afford to purchase such an expensive status symbol but not afford to maintain the good health of such a creature…despite your inheritance and your university degree declaring your biomantic expertise to the world…”

Her unfinished sentence effectively led me to her unspoken conclusion. “It would be a very embarrassing show of both personal and financial incompetence.”

She sucked down the last of her champagne and hummed her approval of my words. “You know how important reputation is among our kind, Doctor.” She led me to a stone bench where we sat, still arm in arm. “The only way anyone can hope to enter our social circles is with money. And if one has money, but not intelligence enough to make sensible decisions with their money, then one is seen as undeserving of their money and thus unqualified to remain within our circles.”

“Circles that Mikail would want very much to remain in if he intends to charge the highest price possible for his companion clones.”

“Oh, my! What an astute observation, Doctor.” Her pleasant smile told me that she agreed without saying she agreed.

She was telling me everything I needed to know without explicitly telling me about anything that had actually happened. An experienced gossiper indeed.

“So, if Mikail owned a pet tiger…”

“And I’m not saying he does.” She turned slightly away from me, setting her glass down on the bench. Her smile was purely mischievous, it was the most beautiful she had looked all night.

“And if said pet died while under his care…”

“And I’m not saying it did.” Her eyes rolled upward and she blinked innocently.

“He would go out of his way to make sure no one at this party found out.”

“But, Doctor,” she pursed her lips in mock confusion, “if at least one person within our circles knew he had a tiger, say perhaps because he’d shown the animal off once or twice in the past, how could Doctor Fileston hope to conceal that the animal was no longer alive?”

“Well, he could sneak the corpse out of the house and claim he sold it.”

“But only someone within our circles could afford such a purchase. Therefore, one of us would have to play along as a participant in his deception. It takes two to tell that lie.”

I nodded. I had to admit, I was enjoying this game of gossip. “Well, he could have the animal moved to a remote end of the house and simply claim that the tiger wasn’t feeling well every time a guest asked to see it.”

“That’s a temporary solution at best, Doctor. Such a tactic wouldn’t have lasted him this long. Not if, say, the animal was purchased over a year ago.”

The way she swatted down both of my hypothetical solutions gave me the notion that something more sordid was at hand.

“I suppose, given such limited options, someone with Mikail’s resources could arrange for an illegal solution.” With my own mischievous look, I held up my skeletal hand and implied necormancy by flexing all five fingers.

Lady Rellington, in sudden moment of girlish glee, gripped my arm in hers and giggled like I had tickled her in just the right spot.

“And I’m not saying he did, Doctor.” She blinked at me and rested her fingertips on her cleavage. “But a person in my position hears a lot rumors. And rumors often stem from truth.”

They do indeed.

“Now, Doctor, I’ve shown you mine. Your turn to show me yours.”

In order to enact the next phase of my plan, however, I needed to be free from the grip she had on my arm. Such a maneuver required just the right touch that I knew my skeletal hand could provide.

The sharpened fingertips of my skeletal hand caressed her jawline, down her neck and across the softness of her breasts with a gentle, yet needle-like, effect on her nerve endings. Her voice sounded lusty as she inhaled through her quivering, painted lips.

I had guessed correctly. She not only enjoyed touching her breasts, she enjoyed any physical contact on that area of her body. And my skeletal hand provided a touch she’d never felt before.

“During our days at Olraasa University, Mikail had a sexual relationship with a man.” I slipped my arm out the instant her grip relaxed.

Her head jolted at the disappointing bit of gossip I’d handed her. “What? Is that all? Come now, Doctor, there’s nothing even remotely scandalous about that. Everyone I know did some experimenting during their university days. Am I to receive only this paltry bit of tripe in exchange for all that I’ve given you?”

After taking two steps away from her, I turned and smiled. “The man he had sex with was his primary professor. That’s how he earned his degree. And that’s why I’m twice the biomancer he is.”

I didn’t stay to watch her jaw drop. But, as I left her, I did enjoy listening to the Lady Rellington sing her laughter into the cold Autumn air. “Oh my, Doctor, the juiciest bits are the tastiest.”

 

* * *

 

After loosening the curtain rod above the archway, I opened the shield and returned inside. I immediately cast my gaze over the heads of the party guests in search of Simmons. Given how long my my conversation with Lady Rellington took, Simmons had plenty of time to follow my instructions to completion. If the butler had failed to do so, my whole plan might fall apart before it began.

Simmons was no where in sight, so I conducted a different search.

Prior to my conversation with Lady Rellington, Simmons had told me that Fileston purchased a tiger, but the animal had not been seen or heard in several months. Simmons noticed that the animal had become suspiciously absent from the property, but after his wife was killed he stopped wondering why and had even forgotten that Fileston owned a tiger.

This is why I questioned Lady Rellington about Fileston’s tiger, I had to discern whether or not the animal was still here.

And both the butler and the gossiper gave me all the knowledge I required.

According to Simmons, Fileston kept his laboratory in his basement chamber directly below the parlor. And if, as I suspected, the tiger was being used to program the minds of the clones, it would be kept there.

I stretched my left arm, spread out the fingers on my skeletal hand, closed my eyes and took at least two full minutes reaching and concentrating my sorcery through my undead limb and through the floor into the room beneath me.

My suspicions were confirmed. I had found the tiger.

My original solution was to unleash the tiger and use it to kill Fileston. But what I now sensed in his lab was so much more useful than just a tool for murder.

Just as I had implied to the Lady outside…necromancy was at hand.

When Simmons had first begged me for help, I was ambiguous as to whether or not any crime had taken place. Now, I was sure Fileston was criminal. Though, his crime was not what I’d originally imagined.

Perhaps this was going to be easier than I had thought. Embarrassing Fileston would’ve ruined him to a point, but he could still recover. Killing him would end his cloning, but it would also be messy and difficult to get away with. But exposing his crimes and his incompetence simultaneously would be so much more satisfying.

“How dare you go snooping around in my lab.” Fileston shouted. “You’re fired!”

I looked up and saw Fileston pursuing Simmons into the parlor. Simmons was leading Fileston back to the party in order to make their angered exchange as public as possible.

“Sir, I did what I felt I had to do.” Simmons stood his ground and declared his response with a defiant pride. “Fire me if you wish, but I have no regrets.”

“Then I’ll have to see to it that you receive more than your share of regrets. You will regret crossing me, Simmons. I promise. Now get out of my house before I send for the city guard.”

“Sir, I have already sent for them. They’re on their way.”

I had to act fast and find a place to sit down for the next part of my plan.

The attention of everyone in the parlor had been drawn to the argument between the host and his butler. I saw a woman standing up from a comfortable couch just two steps away.

The second she rose up I slid my body beneath her’s, flopping my limbs into a carelessly relaxed posture that sank me into the soft cushions. She looked at me, gasping at the brutishness of my haphazard seating. So I responded as she expected.

“M’lady…so s-s-sorry. I…jus-s-st needed to take a load off. My head’s gotten too heavy.” I punctuated my slurred words with a belch, puffing out my cheeks to give the impression that I was holding back vomit. This had the desired effect: she quickly distanced and distracted herself.

I removed my hat, rolled my head backward against the cushions, closed my eyes and placed my hat over my face. I needed to concentrate if I was going to do this quickly. Which meant I needed to block out as many distractions as possible.

Again I reached my sorcery through the floor. Working sorcery through a barrier is extremely difficult and it’s fair to say that I only know how to do it because I had a better teacher than most. The fact that I’m not nearly as good as my mentor is the reason I needed to be free of distraction. I planned to use my sorcery in order to create a tenuous but potent connection through the floor and into the mind of the tiger laying in its cage.

In the same way that I had peeked into Tigress’s mind, I now immersed myself into the senses of the tiger beneath me. And with the senses, came the sensations of its limbs, body, mouth and claws.

Yes. I planned to make use of those claws, in a way no tiger could think of. By connecting my mind to this creature via my concentrated sorcery, this tiger had become my puppet.

A tiger’s eyes can see in the dark, mine cannot. A tiger doesn’t know how to slid open a simple latch lock with it’s claw tip, I do. Mentally combined in this way, we made a perfect duo.

The cage door swung open with ease. The laboratory door would have proved to be a much trickier obstacle had I not instructed Simmons to unlock it. Originally, I’d thought this would help me break into Fileston’s lab. Instead I found myself breaking out with only a nudge.

Outside the lab, my luminescent eyes beheld the monochromatic image of a stairwell spiraling upward against the wall of a cramped, square-shaped tower. Letting out a satisfying growl, I began ascending the stairs on my four fur-covered limbs.

“Doctor Madangel,” Lord Rellington sounded like he was standing to my immediate left. Had someone been watching the tiger, they would have seen the animal’s head twitch to the left in response.

This was a distraction that I did not need. And the damage it caused would only accumulate as it continued.

I began moving faster up the stairs.

“Doctor, a word please, if you don’t mind. I’ve a matter that I wish to discuss with you.” And with the word “discuss,” the Lord kicked me in the shin. A jealous tone tightened his voice.

As I felt the kick, the tiger’s left hind leg retracted from the pain. This caused me to stumble. I would have slid backwards down the steps were not for my cat-like reflexes. Once my feet were solidly planted, I looked up the stairs.

I was less than three meters from the door, but my vision was beginning to blur. One mind cannot occupy two bodies for long. And with my senses being pulled in two directions this way, my connection would only last another thirty seconds if I was lucky.

And I’ve learned not to rely on luck.

“Just what are you up to, Doctor?” I then realized something: standing as close as he was, Lord Rellington could undoubtedly feel the pulse of my sorcery, no matter how subdued I kept it.

Assuming he possessed no sorceric training, he would have no specific idea what I was doing. Not only could I use that ignorance to my advantage, but I still had my cane in my right hand.

The tiger was at the top of the stairs now. The tiger could hear Simmons and Fileston arguing on the other side of the door. I could hear Lord Rellington’s voice getting far too close for comfort. I then felt his hand on my throat.

“Whatever sorcery you’re working, I wonder if you can do it without breathing?” His grip closed on my esophagus. “I saw you two in the garden, Doctor. You shouldn’t have touched my sister like that. Or did she fail to warn you just how jealous I can get?”

With this violence visited upon my person, my connection was vanishing fast.

In the evaporating seconds I had left, my mind shouted one command into both bodies.

Attack!

And in that same moment, the door bell rang.

The tiger roared and crashed through the door, knocking it off its hinges.

Simultaneously, my skeletal hand latched onto Lord Rellington’s wrist. Remembering his height and build, the physical contact gave me enough in the way of gauging his location. Without seeing my target, I swung my cane hard and struck his left ear.

Lord Rellington reeled backward at the crippling pain ringing through his skull and I held onto his arm—letting him pull me to my feet, letting my hat fall—all so that I could look him in the eyes when I pressed the head of my cane against the curve of his throat.

My sharpened, skeletal fingertips dug into his flesh as I brought our faces nose to nose.

I hated him enough to kill him.

And I could…with terrifying ease.

But I’ve learned the hard way what prices there are to be paid for indulging such momentary hatred. And I’ve learned the best way to avoid most regret is through patience.

As the parlor around us erupted in panicked screams I stared daggers into his eyes, pushed him away, and let him go without a word.

When I retrieved my hat, I saw all the guests and all the clones crowding against the walls, away from the tiger that stood between them and the foyer.

The tiger looked ready to pounce.

“You bastard!” I heard Fileston over all the screams in the room. I watched him take Simmons’s throat in both hands, spin him about and throw his former butler at the raging animal.

In the last second, Simmons grabbed a handful of Fileston’s hair and pulled his former employer down with him.

The tiger pounced on both of them.

Whoever rang the door bell was now shouting and pounding at the front door.

And I…turned my back on the whole mess I’d created.

Simmons had plenty of reason to hate Fileston. All I needed to do was give Fileston ample reason to hate Simmons.

Fileston needed nothing to go wrong this evening, thus I figured he wouldn’t need much to be pushed over the edge.

That’s why I told Simmons to break into Fileston’s lab, look for anything incriminating and to leave it unlocked. Then I told him to summon the city guard and I would do what I could to make an arrangement with them. And last I told him that, if Fileston should catch him doing either of these things, he should be defiant and unapologetic to the point of utter disrespect.

With those few instructions I had set Simmons and Fileston at each others throats.

And, by an effort of my sorcery, I had thrown a raging tiger between them.

Sometimes the art of manipulation works so perfectly, it’s beautiful.

Leaving the sounds of tearing flesh, roaring, and screaming behind me, I walked to the archway I had entered through, opened the shield and, with a single pull I sent the curtain rod clanging to the center of the archway.

Lady Rellington was staring back at me as the curtain came down.

“Doctor Madangel,” she smiled. “Up to no good, are we?”

I smiled back at her. “Just trying to cool things off.” I knew how such talismanic archways were programmed: as long as something occupied the threshold floor, the shield would not reset.

Behind me I could hear the front door being blasted open and watched Lady Rellington jump at the sound.

“CITY GUARD. NOBODY MOVE!” I glanced over my shoulder to see Lieutenant Ashekerra rushing into the parlor with four more guardsmen flanking either side of her. None of them were prepared for what they saw.

Fileston cried for help from beneath the tangle of claws and fur.

With a flick of her wrist, Ashekerra sent a shrieking blast of sonic energy into the tiger’s neck. The blast knocked the tiger off Fileston and sent it rolling across the parlor.

Lord Rellington yelped as he scurried away from the tumbling beast.

“Secure the room. Nobody leaves.” She ordered the guardsmen beside her. “One of you keep an eye on that creature.”

“Help me.” The words bubbled out of Fileston as he crawled to a nearby chair, sounding like his throat was filled with blood.

“What happened here?” Ashekerra asked.

Fileston tried to answer, but I could see the hesitation in his eyes as he stalled to think up a lie. He was obviously inexperienced at lying to the city guard. So he made a choking sound and closed his eyes, hoping to use his injury as a means of buying himself time to think.

“Sir, I can stop your bleeding if you allow me to administer what biomancy I know.”

Fileston shook his head and waved her off.

The pride of some doctors.

“Are you insane?” Shouted Ashekerra. “What kind of fool refuses an offer to save his life?”

This was too perfect. If my old friend wasn’t going to speak up, I would just have to be a good friend and speak for him.

I walked across the parlor, stabbing my cane hard against the floor. I wanted everyone to hear it.

I was also straightening my hat with my skeletal hand. I wanted everyone to see it.

“Lieutenant Ashekerra, if I may be so bold as to introduce the fool crawling before you, his name is Doctor Mikail Fileston. This is his home. The naked women you see all around this room are his clones—his property. And the tiger that you just blasted into the sofa is his property as well.” I got close enough to see Fileston’s shocked face. I could also see the lifeless body of Simmons lying on the floor. I pointed at the corpse with my cane. “And that dead man there, is his butler.”

“Thank you, Doctor Madangel.” Said Ashekerra. “Now I need Doctor Fileston to explain what exactly happened here. Doctor Fileston, can you please heal yourself enough to talk?”

My eyes met with Fileston’s. I felt his sorceric pulse as he stabilized his wound. And I watched his face tremble as he shook his head at me.

He could see my intentions painted across my face like the smile I refused to hold back.

He knew. He knew I was about to ruin him.

“Tell me Lieutenant, have you noticed yet that the tiger you shot is not bleeding?”

An instantaneous glance was all Lieutenant Ashekerra needed to confirm my words. “Not only that but the animal’s head is still twitching. My shot severed the spine at the neck and paralyzed it. Most animals would have died from such a blast.”

“Yes,” I agreed with Ashekerra. “The tiger doesn’t seem to be reacting to the pain from its injury or the cold air from the outside.”

“Why is that, Doctor Fileston?” Ashekerra asked.

Mikail’s silence was musical. After a lifetime of having money solve all his problems, there was no buying his way out of this. And little chance of him talking his way out of it.

“Why is your animal not bleeding, Doctor?”

I raised my skeletal hand. “Perhaps I can offer an explanation as to why this tiger does not bleed, why it isn’t howling in pain, and why it does not react to the cold wind. It’s because what you have here, Lieutenant, is an undead tiger. And let me add that I would be happy to testify to this in open court as both a licensed necromancer and consultant for the city guard.”

Mikail’s musical silence was replaced by the song of Lady Rellington’s giggling.

“Doctor Fileston,” Ashekerra closed in on him “it is my duty to inform you that because you kept an undead animal in your home and said animal caused the death of a citizen, that makes you guilty of murder by necromancy. At best, you’ll be banished from Prima Terra. At worst, you’ll be given the death penalty. That is, unless, you have something to say in your defense.”

I studied Fileston’s face as his mind raced to calculate the consequences of everything that had just happened.

He had been publicly accused of a serious offense by a city guard lieutenant.

Everyone knew his pet tiger was undead and would—correctly—assume he reanimated the tiger with necromancy to conceal that his pet had died in his care.

He had blood on his hands and incompetence written all over his face.

His reputation was crumbling before his eyes and the eyes of his potential clientele.

This evening was meant to be the beginning of a highly lucrative future for Fileston. It was supposed to declare the creation of his brand new business in the sale of human flesh for fantasy. Instead, he was facing a downfall the likes of which he had not the mental fortitude to withstand.

Some cancer is removed with a scalpel. Some predators are destroyed by way of fangs. But once in a while, if the conditions are just right, a cancer goes into remission on its own. Conversely, if you know how to fight a predator, one will roll over and expose its jugular, conceding defeat.

His sorceric pulse thudded against the air and Fileston reversed all of his biomancy focused on his healing. His wounded throat peeled wide open. An entire liter of blood spilled out of him.

Suicide: the coward’s solution. A rather predictable reaction given what I knew of the man.

But this, I feel, is exactly what he deserved for wanting to trade in human lives—regardless of how artificial or manufactured those lives may have been.

I watched him die and felt justice had been done.

The rest of the evening was spent cleaning up the mess. Witness statements were taken. The bodies, hauled away. The remains of the tiger, destroyed. But the clones were a very different matter.

Officially recognized as property, the logical thing for the guard to do was gather them up as evidence from a crime scene. But evidence that needed to be sheltered and fed was unheard of.

Several attendees of the party offered to purchase one or all of the clones in order to take them off the city guard’s hands. Lieutenant Ashekerra expressed, with unrestrained volume, how offensive she found such an offer. Even the Rellingtons, in their intoxicated state, had enough of their wits about them not to press the matter any further.

But I had a much better idea. And I took Ashekerra aside to explain it to her in private.

“Ashe, these clones are a conundrum. They’ve been programmed with the minds of tigers. You can see that in how they’re reacting to the cold by huddling together. Not one of them thinks to put on clothing or hide under a blanket because they think like fur-covered creatures. Unless someone makes the effort to teach them humanity, they’ll never be more than pets.”

“I take it you have a solution in mind.”

“I do. Allow me, as part of my redemption sentence, to personally take time out of every other day to stop by the Guard Headquarters and help train these clones into becoming people. And, when they’re ready for it, teach them some sorcery as well. They could become valuable assets for the Terra Guard. By rekindling their humanity we can turn these women into something far more extraordinary than their creator ever envisioned.”

Ashekerra shared a secret smile with me. “I like this idea.”

“Furthermore, I think that you alone should be in charge of them, Ashe. I cannot think of anyone in the guard better suited to the task or less likely to take advantage of them.”

“I like that idea even more. And I’m sure I can convince Captain Vallas to go along with it.”

“Of course,” I added “to adequately study the best methods by which to train these strangely-minded clones, I ask that I keep one of them with me, at my home, to be my responsibility and live under my care.”

“An unusual addendum.” She squinted at me. “What’s your reasoning behind this?”

“Merely, that the clone I wish to bring home and I bonded by way of mental contact earlier this evening. I hazard to guess that she won’t trust anyone other than me. Therefore, it is logical that I take her under my private care and tutelage. This will ultimately be for the benefit of all of them.”

“I see.” Ashekerra turned and observed the clones sitting together in the parlor. “Which one is she?”

“She’s actually waiting for me in one of the bedrooms upstairs. I call her Tigress.”

 

If you’d like to read more, check out my novel The Man of Nightstone

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Free Short Story

The Doctor Next Door

by Devon Drake

“Whoever is there, stop knocking. I’m on my way.” I shouted at my door, curling my spine to peel myself from my favorite couch and glancing at the clock beside my fireplace. “And, given the hour of your calling, someone better be dead or someone will be.”

I don’t sleep. So a knock at my front door is not something that jolts me from my dreams in a disconcerting way. I don’t stir into full consciousness feeling cheated out of rest that I don’t need.

But I do dream. It’s a meditative process that immerses me inside my mind. Like dreaming, it’s a way of holding visual discourse with my subconscious. Unlike dreaming I have exceptional control over my meditative visions honed from years of practice.

And when the visions that my subconscious and I have agreed upon for the night are particularly colorful, detailed and…sensuous…I have been known to answer my door in a less than hospitable manner.

I was wearing my special bracer on my left forearm—primarily because I can never remove it. I was also wearing my favorite black silk robe which is decorated with beautiful embroidery depicting serpentine, crimson dragons.

Point being, I was wearing nothing else when I yanked open my front door.

Standing there, covered in the droplets of the recent drizzle, was Lieutenant Wolfson of the city guard. And he was in uniform too: solid leather bracers, tight-fitting shirt made of stretch-fabric, loose fitting pants for fast running, a Klavokk Model 6 holstered on his belt, and the distinct red half-cloak of the city guard draped over his left shoulder and hanging down to his knee.

Wolfson is a skinny man, below average in height and one of the fiercest sorcerers I’ve ever seen. Not that I fear him, but I have openly laughed at those stupid enough to underestimate him. And with good reason. Watching him put muscle-bound criminals in their place is so much fun.

But seeing the lieutenant on my doorstep at this hour could only mean one thing.

“Someone is dead, Doctor Madangel.” He confirmed my assumptions. “Captain Vallas has requested your consultation. I’m to take you directly to the crime scene. But I’m assuming you’ll want to put something on first.”

He pointed downward in a none-to-subtle way.

My head followed his finger, looking straight down, causing my long hair to fall to either side of my face. But my vision wasn’t obscured by my hair, I saw exactly what he was trying to bring to my attention: I had forgotten to close my robe. Wolfson was pointing at my penis.

“Hmm…” I stood there, frozen for a moment. Not because I’m an exhibitionist but because the rain-soaked breezes of that night felt rather bracing to the touch of my skin; simultaneously pleasant and chilling. “You assume correctly. Give me five minutes.”

I slammed the door shut, discarded my robe and went about the task of making myself ready for work.

My work pants are custom-made black denim. They have six pockets on either side.

I threw on a gray, silk shirt and my leather vest over it. The vest has two inside pockets and two outside pockets on either side.

True, most doctors—being addicted to old fashions—carry a medical bag. I prefer having my tools organized into pockets.

I grabbed my top hat, adorned with my surgical goggles, and tucked it onto my head.

Last my leather work boots and my walking cane. The cane serves a dual function: fashion and protection. Every time I pick it up I hope that I won’t need to use it.

I opened my front door. Wolfson was fixated on a pocket watch in his hand.

“Four minutes and fifty-two seconds.” He remarked with a frown, mildly impressed.

“I’m a man who keeps his promises.” I made my tone as pleasant as I could.

“You didn’t promise anything. You simply demanded five minutes and slammed the door.”

“True.” I closed my door and locked it. “Because I’m a man who keeps his promises, I make it a point to avoid trouble by never promising anything. Demanding is much easier.”

“Yes, Doctor. Those of us in the guard are very familiar with your demanding ways.” Wolfson stowed his watch away somewhere beneath his half-cloak as he made his way to the sidewalk and turned right. “This way.”

“Shouldn’t we be running?” I asked, readying my sorceric speed in my mind. “Usually crime scenes that require my attention are filled with people who hate to be kept waiting.”

“This is no different, Doctor. But there’s no need to run.”

We walked for about twenty meters and turned right again.

I had to stop in my tracks, noticing there were several guardsmen all over the property, securing the scene and gathering evidence. The realization hit me like a needle in the heart.

The crime scene was my neighbor’s house.

The mixture of disgust and hatred continued drilling a needle-sized hole through me as I asked the most bitterly obvious question for the sake of expediency, “I’m a suspect, aren’t I?”

“Not yet,” said Wolfson. “But the night is young. Give it time.”

“Has anyone laid odds as to my guilt yet?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m not a gambling man.”

We began walking up to the house. “And why not, lieutenant?”

“Because, in my opinion, winning a bet is just a stroke of luck often with no skill involved. It’s random and therefore meaningless. Justice isn’t random, it’s deliberate. And I take great satisfaction in thinking of myself as an instrument of justice. And I’ve always taken comfort in believing that, sooner or later,” he looked right at me, “everyone gets exactly what they deserve.”

Wolfson could be so delightfully subtle at times like this, which is why I chose not to respond. No need dragging out a debate on what’s already been decided.

I deliberately slowed my pace, remaining a step behind Wolfson and allowing him to lead me into the house. I stayed focused on what was in front of me and did my best to not react to any of the accusing looks decorating the faces of the majority of the guardsmen we passed.

To say I knew my neighbor casually is being kind. I could tell she never wanted to know me any more than casually. I knew she was a wealthy heiress who often entertained guests. Sometimes a few, sometimes several dozen, but at least twice a week she had a party. And I was never invited.

Her house was actually a mansion, like most of the houses in my neighborhood. My house is of an older style, though. It’s significantly smaller, perfect for the dual purposes of remaining comfortable while not drawing attention to myself.

Her name escaped me as I walked through the foyer and up the wide, curling staircase. I do a much better job remembering names once I’ve matched them with a face. As I reached the top of the stairs, however, I saw how this would prove to be a problem.

Upon immediate observation I noticed her hair was a bright, golden blonde and her body looked healthy, though it lacked any hint of athleticism. A puddle of urine had pooled beneath her. There were no blood stains anywhere so this wasn’t like most crime scenes or most murders for that matter. However…

I then noticed her skin was pulled tight over her bones, her neck muscles were tensed and paralyzed, her face was dried and wrinkled and cracks were forming all over her lips—which can give the appearance of dehydration but the color of her urine told me she was very well hydrated and her kidneys were healthy enough at the time of her death. Therefore, this wasn’t dehydration.

All of these observations pointed to signs of artificial aging; a common side-effect of murder by necromancy. And when it’s murder by necromancy, the guard is usually interested in what I have to say.

I am Doctor Charles Vidocq Madangel, licensed necromancer for the city-state of Prima Terra. My job title carries a phenomenal amount of suspicion, hatred and an altogether bad reputation.

So why would anyone want such a job? Well, licensed necromancers are either exceptionally high-paid private physicians, exceptionally learned professors for the local university or exceptionally talented and dangerous criminals serving out a redemption sentence for their crimes.

I’ll let you guess which one of these best describes me.

I approached the dead body. A man was already kneeling beside it and the insignia on his dark red half-cloak bore the unique rank of captain.

He turned to face me: Captain Vallas, Terra Guard.

I lowered myself beside the captain to observe the body. Vallas watched me, not saying anything. He nodded at Wolfson and I heard the lieutenant’s footsteps trail away.

Vallas is smart enough to leave me alone and let me work in silence. It’s one of the few reasons I like him.

The victim…damn it, what was her name? I continued to draw a blank, so I focused on my examination.

Her dying expression was frozen on her face. Mouth and eyes open, but not wide open. Apparently she’d been exiting her bathroom at the time of the attack. She only had a towel around her. One hand clutched the towel. The other was reaching into the space directly in front of her face though her arm wasn’t fully extended.

The curve of her arm had a certain grace to it. I wondered if she had been a dancer.

“When was it called in?” I asked.

“Her dying scream was heard a little less than half an hour ago.” The captain was studying me. “One of her lovers heard the scream. He claims no one else was in the house but the two of them.”

“She’s already in rigor. But she died half an hour ago?” When rigor mortis happens that fast, necromancy may as well be written all over the corpse. This was easy to determine. Too easy.

So why did the captain request my opinion?

I glanced at Vallas. He continued studying me. Possibly suspecting me. So I returned my attention to the victim.

She was lying on her side but her spine was straightened. She didn’t die lying on her side. Her legs were bent in a way that suggested she was sitting on the floor, scurrying herself backwards until her spine met the wall. Then she died…and her stiffened form fell to her right.

Why the hand in front of her face?

What was her name?

Her shrunken, shriveled visage gave me no hints. Yet I knew she had introduced herself to me at least once. Her name…I suddenly remembered it was a name from Old Earth. Rhonda, I think. Or was it Rhinda, the New Earth equivalent.

In my mental struggle, I closed my eyes and took a deep inhale to concentrate. That was when I smelled the distinct stench escaping from her lips: decomposition.

I lifted her just a little to look beneath her.

“No blood pooling on her side. It hasn’t had time to pool. But her internal organs are already in a state of decomposition. Unless…” I gently reached between her parted lips and pried open her jaw just a little. Her teeth were as black as onyx, chipped and crumbling. Not the mouth of a rich girl born with enough money to have the best dental work done in her youth. I wasn’t just smelling her rotted insides but her mouth…it was the most rotted part of her insides. Meaning her mouth had rotted first. I nodded to myself, then to the Vallas. “There’s your cause of death, captain. If I were to draw an immediate conclusion, I suspect a necrotic breath predator. But, of course, I can’t be sure at this time.”

“Why can’t you be sure, Doctor?” His voice was equal parts suspicion and curiosity.

I countered his tone with a gush of sarcastic formality. “My dear captain, that reason is rather obvious, isn’t it? I haven’t had an opportunity to perform a full autopsy. This is simply an on-the-spot examination.”

“But this isn’t your first necromantic crime scene.”

“No, it’s my eighth.” I looked him in the eye. “Should I have brought a cake to commemorate the occasion? Or a dozen signed witness statements giving me an alibi?”

“I don’t like cake.” How could he not like cake? I thought. He must be joking.

But Vallas wasn’t smiling. Which meant he wasn’t joking. Which meant I needed an alibi.

Unfortunately… “I don’t have an alibi. I’ve been home all night. Perusing my journals. Reading novels. And dreaming.”

“Being home alone is the worst possible alibi in this case, Doctor.” Maybe I was imagining it, but he seemed just slightly troubled by my lack of an alibi. “I can’t ignore your proximity to the victim at the time of her death.”

“I happen to live next door.”

“Regardless, I can’t ignore—”

And I just allowed Wolfson to walk me to the crime scene. If I had killed this woman, I’m doing a very stupid job at concealing my guilt.”

“I know you’re not stupid.” And I could tell he was about to use that against me. “In fact, every guardsman knows it. Everyone also knows how experienced you are at psychological manipulation.”

I raised my voice and stood to my full height holding my left hand above my head for all to see. “And everyone here knows the terms of my redemption sentence.”

The bracer on my left forearm is of special design. A truly unique talisman, literally the only one of its kind. The material is a woven design of dark leather and shinning silver. And I can never remove it for several reasons. The most important of which is that it holds back the necromancy that would otherwise consume my body and complete a most horrific transformation that’s been held in stasis for almost half a year. The bracer being on my left arm confines the necromancy entirely to my left hand…which is why my left hand is completely barren of all flesh. Bleached-white bones are all that remain of my hand. And the necromantic spell matrix holding the bones together also make my hand move like it’s still alive.

“Now tell me something I don’t know. Do you care at all what I have to say about this murder or did you have me brought here just to arrest me?” I held out my hands to be cuffed, hanging my cane on my bare wrist bones. “Because if it’s the latter, I prefer you just get it over with.”

“Living hell!” Shouted a voice I’d never heard before. “Him? The doctor with the undead hand? You brought that freak here?”

I looked down the stairs into the foyer and saw a young man with light brown hair and dark brown eyes swollen from crying. He was the only one other than me not wearing a half-cloak, so I made the leap of logic that he was the lover who had reported the murder.

“Ah, my reputation precedes me.” I snatched my cane with my right hand and tipped my hat to the young man with my left. I always tip my hat with my left hand. I want to everyone I meet to know exactly who they’re dealing with. The reactions I illicit can be quite entertaining, depending on the person. Most of the time the sight of my skeletal hand is unsettling. In this case, it was enraging.

“You stay away from Rhonda’s body you necro-fuck.” He was lunging his way up the stairs at me. And I was enjoying watching the guardsmen hold him back with ease.

I wish I could say this kind of reaction to my presence at crime scenes was rare, but it’s not. The Terra Guard have grown accustomed to holding back outraged, grieving family members of whatever victim I’m brought in to examine.

People see my hand and they see death…and they cannot understand how I am still alive or how I use my unique skill to save lives.

But the fact remains, I am alive. And, occasionally, I save lives as well.

With my skeletal hand still holding the brim of my hat between the sharpened tips of my thumb and fore finger, I walked down the steps with a lively bounce in my feet…all while keeping a careful grip on my cane and hoping I wouldn’t have to use it.

“Necro-fuck? I haven’t heard that one in weeks.” I was close enough that he could strike me if the guardsmen released him, but they were smart enough not to. The outraged man, however, wasn’t smart enough to stop struggling. I switched my cane to my dead hand and held out my living one for a handshake. “Doctor Madangel, at your service. But I’m assuming you already knew that. After all, I live next door.”

“Don’t you touch—next door? This corpse-humping psycho lives next door?” He was a young man with dark hair and plenty of it. And I say that because he was wearing only pants, allowing his plentiful chest hair to be fully displayed. “Why haven’t you arrested him? He obviously did it.”

“I believe I just introduced myself, sir. If you’re going to throw around accusations like that you could at least return the courtesy.”

“Stephall. Rhonda’s my…I mean…she was my lover.” He took a moment to wipe some tears that I hadn’t noticed. Then he pointed at me while directing his words behind me. “Now get him out of here. I don’t want him anywhere near Rhonda’s body.”

I glanced over my shoulder up the stairs. Vallas was watching and feeling the palpable need to explain the unusual situation. “Doctor Madangel is here on my request. He’s a consultant for the city guard.”

“Consultant? You need him to tell you she was killed by sorcery? You can’t tell just by looking at her?”

“I don’t jump to conclusions in my investigations.” Vallas easily over-powered Stephall without touching him. “Especially in cases of murder by sorcery.”

“You said her name was Rhonda?” I quickly interjected, distracting Stephall with a question.

Stephall nodded, looking confused and insistent.

“Are you sure it wasn’t, Rhinda?”

And then he was angry again. “Yeah, psycho. I’m sure.”

“Just calm down, Stephall. Doctor Madangel is here to help.” Vallas did his best to guide the young man to a lower volume.

“Interesting.” I studied Stephall, knowing Vallas was studying me simultaneously. Vallas sometimes allows me to ask questions. Officially, I’m not an investigator. But Vallas knows I often ask questions that no one else thinks to ask. He wasn’t stopping me so I continued asking, “You’re the one that discovered her body?”

His throat sucked in a breath and he nodded. His eyes squinted and his lips quivered.

“Did you see anyone or anything at all?”

He shook his head, curling his lips inward to seal off all his words. And somehow, I got the impression that he didn’t want to talk to me.

“Stephall, this will go easier if you speak to me. I need you to describe—”

“What? Nothing? Because that’s what I saw. Nothing. You want me to describe nothing to you in as much detail as possible?” Apparently talking to me was making him angrier.

“No.” I allowed my voice to become a hair louder than his. “Not what you saw. I don’t ask questions more than once unless I think I’m being lied to. I want you to describe what you heard.”

Again, Stephall was confused. But this hadn’t changed his anger in the slightest. “I…what I heard? You…want to know what I heard?” He sucked a deep breath into his wide-open mouth and threw his hands up in what I suppose was meant to be seen as further outrage. “I heard her dying scream and ran up here. I found her like that. She was already dead. I didn’t hear anything else.”

“You didn’t hear her talking to someone?”

“No.”

“You didn’t hear footsteps?”

“No. I told you I didn’t hear anything. I thought you didn’t ask questions more than…” his voice grew quieter as he realized my suspicions. His rage evaporated in a surprising moment of silence.

“Unless I think I’m being lied to.” I took a step closer to him. “My examination tells me that an undead predator killed your lover. My current theory is that such a predator sneaked into this house, sucked the life out of her as she was exiting the bathroom and then somehow exited this house without you noticing. Or…is it possible you heard something? Because if she fought with or saw an undead predator, I find it hard to believe that she would remain silent until her dying moment.”

He seemed caught in mid-stutter for a moment. I suppose it’s only natural, people are more focused when they’re angry. “She…I…we had just made love. Downstairs…th-the sofa by the fireplace it’s our…was our favorite place. I fell asleep. She must have gone to take a shower…didn’t want to wake me. But her dying scream woke me. That’s probably why I didn’t hear anything. Okay?”

I wasn’t sure if I believed him. But regardless of that, I said: “Thank you.”

Certainly a feasible explanation. But in my experience I’ve learned: the more feasible the explanation, the more likely it could be a lie.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wolfson walk into the foyer. He ignored the stand-off between myself and Stephall and reported directly to his captain. “Captain, we’ve found no sign of forced entry and only one point of entry that could have been exploited by the intruder. An open window on the second floor that faces the street.”

“That window’s always opened.” I commented with a casual shaking of my head.

It took me all of three seconds to realize how much activity had suddenly stopped at the crime scene. Other than myself, Vallas, Wolfson and Stephall, I counted at least three other guardsmen in the foyer who were gathering and examining all possible evidence. Now everyone in the foyer was completely engrossed in the silent activity of accusing me with their eyes, because they had all taken note of what I’d said. The silence filled me with the sudden fearful realization that I’d just made a tremendous mistake.

I had just implicated myself in the very murder investigation I was supposed to be aiding in.

Doing my best to explain away the words that I knew no one was going to forget, I quickly said, “I happen to notice it one of the several hundred times that I’ve walked past this house because I happen to live next door. That window’s always open. Except during winter.”

Stepping outside myself for a moment, I realized my explanation was so feasible that it could easily be a lie. I sighed, closing my eyes to shut out the tiresome stares of idiots.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Wolfson.” Vallas deliberately broke the uncomfortable silence. “Could you see that Stephall is given some coffee? We’re done with questions for now.”

I heaved another sigh, keeping my eyes closed as I heard Stephall and Wolfson leave the room. The silence finally ended as I heard the rest of the guard resume their duties. I had no idea how many people had heard me implicate myself.

Finally I opened my eyes and began walking down the stairs until I heard Vallas ask, “And where do you think you’re going?”

“The Terra Guard Station, of course.” I replied, pleasantly. “I figured I’d save you the trip since you’re going to arrest me anyway.”

Vallas slapped a firm hand on my shoulder and stopped me. “I’m not arresting you.”

“By saying that out loud, Captain, you’ve insured that everyone in this room thinks less of your intelligence.” I told him, with a side-long stare.

“That’s a chance I take every time I invite you to a crime scene.” Vallas spoke more quietly now as he walked me back up the stairs, back to Rhonda’s body. “I don’t have enough evidence to arrest you at this time. But eventually I’ll have coincidence, public fear and at least a few false witness statements lined up against you.”

“Well it’s good to know that one of us is an optimist.” I snickered.

“Doctor, you’re one of the best assets the city guard has available. I’ve never once given half a shit about whether or not the public or the rest of the guard approves of your redemption sentence. I know you can do good. And I know you want to.” He paused as if expecting me to respond. I did not. I kept deliberate eye contact with him, filling my gaze with the silent contempt I carry for all the people who brazenly believe that I deserve no redemption…because many of those people serve under Vallas. “If you want to prove your innocence and continue to do good I suggest you find this undead predator as soon as possible. Given your expertise in necromancy, you are the best man for the job.”

I thought about what he said for a moment. “Prove my innocence, eh? Captain, who in their right mind has ever called me innocent?”

“I’ll gladly be the first, if you bring me the real killer.” He may have thought his words would be encouraging. But they served more as a reminder of how very few friends I have in Prima Terra.

I breathed deep and nodded, accepting his unofficial mission as an unofficial investigator.

“You’ll need a security escort, of course. Someone that can perform the actual arrest and—”

“I’ll take Ashekerra.” I interrupted Vallas. And Vallas did not like being interrupted. At the time, I really couldn’t see why. I was only stating the most obvious conclusion to his proposal.

“You’ll take whomever I assign to you.”

“We both know she’s the only one who’ll work with me.”

“That’s what concerns me. I’m starting to think you and Lieutenant Ashekerra are getting a little too familiar with each other.”

“And what exactly is your problem with that, Vallas? Afraid I’ll make a friend?”

“If that friend is one of my lieutenants, yes.”

“I’ll take Ashekerra. Or I’ll just go home and wait to be arrested. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble catching this monster without my help.”

“You’ll take Wolfson.”

I could feel my disapproval covering my face. “Why? Because he hates me?”

“And what’s your problem with that, Doctor? Afraid you’ll make an enemy?”

Another enemy. You know I have more than my share.”

“I’m trying to avoid any appearance of impropriety. This is for your sake as much as mine.”

“Do I have any say in this, captain?” A woman’s voice suddenly barged in on our less-than-friendly conversation.

Vallas and I turned to face the wide open front door that led outside.

There she stood. Ashekerra. One of the most talented and fierce wielders of the craft I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a lot. Half the sorcerer’s I’ve met over all my years could learn a great deal from Ashekerra…if they could put up with her or she with them.

She has a powerfully athletic build that fills out her uniform in all the right places. She has a pair of emerald green eyes that continue to fascinate me. Her head is shaved of all hair, perfectly bald with the exception of a pair of thin eyebrows dyed to match her eye color.

Tough as she is talented. Fierce as she is beautiful. My kind of woman.

“No, lieutenant, you don’t.” said Vallas.

She folded her arms and walked to the bottom step of the staircase. “Are you really that concerned with impropriety, captain?”

“Yes, I am.”

“And why would my involvement with his investigation create impropriety?”

“Because I suspect that—”

“Is it because I believe the same as you do, captain? That Doctor Madangel’s redemption sentence makes him a useful asset to the city guard and is therefore a fitting service of justice for his crimes.”

I couldn’t stop myself from interjecting. “Is that how you truly feel, Vallas? Why, I’m touched.”
With nothing more than a glance, Captain Vallas told me to shut up.

Lieutenant Ashekerra pressed on. “Do you really want someone who disagrees with you on that notion watching his back?”

“I want someone watching over and assisting Doctor Madangel who can remain detached and objective.” I could see that Ashekerra was about to reply, but Vallas stopped her with a raised hand. He then proceeded down the stairs and spent at least ten seconds saying something to her. Whatever he said was concealed from me by a clear whisper spell.

Not a surprising gesture, I’ve never been under the impression that I had earned Vallas’s trust completely. And I’m not sure that such a thing is even possible in my case.

Vallas left the room. He left Ashekerra standing there, staring at me with those emerald eyes, holding all of her facial muscles as still as a mask.

Whatever words Vallas had hidden from me had left Ashekerra feeling it necessary to hide her emotions from me.

Again, not surprising. But in the case of Ashekerra, one of my only friends, it was certainly disconcerting.

“I am your security escort, Doctor Madangel. Please proceed with your investigation. We have a killer to catch.”

* * *

The two of us walked out of the crime scene and into the night.

Once we were a comfortable distance from the house, I asked: “Are you going to tell me what he said?”

“He said that I had to make sure you didn’t die.”

“He always says that. But I can tell he said something else this time.”

“He said he knows there is something between us and I’d better hope he never finds out what that something is.” She took a deep breath. “Now let’s just find this killer.”

I hesitated long enough to gauge her reaction. The posture of her stride looked tighter than her clenched fists. “He still doesn’t know how we first met, does he?”

“No.” Though tensed by the situation, she was relieved at hearing herself give that answer.

“That’s good.”

“Where are we going, Doctor?” The way she called me “Doctor” in that moment conveyed a great deal of mixed emotion. It felt forced, like reluctantly performing a required courtesy. She wanted us to speak as friends but felt we couldn’t. Perhaps she was concerned that we would be overheard.

“We’re going…where ever the wind takes me.” I began sniffing at the air every eight steps we took. After a couple of city blocks had passed, I lengthened that frequency to once every twenty-four steps as well as every time I felt the winds pick up or change direction.

Ashekerra could feel my sorcery pulsing through the air around me and, like Vallas, she knows me well enough to remain silent and allow me to work at my leisure.

Biomancy is the sorcery of life. Necromancy is the sorcery of death. To qualify as a licensed necromancer you have to be a master at both arts.

Most of biomancy has to do with mastering the human body, knowing its limits and unlocking its potential. Mastering biomancy is the reason I have the word “doctor” in front of my name. And it’s why I have the ability to enhance any of my five senses beyond normal human limits.

Necromancy has a lot to do with taking all that you’ve learned in biomancy and applying it in the opposite direction from where you began. It’s an exploration that must be undergone carefully and with a competent guide beside you every step of the way. I had an excellent mentor. He taught me exactly where to look and what to avoid.

And in all those years of learning, I grew to know the scent of decay like an old friend. The smell is so familiar in my area of expertise, I haven’t been disgusted by it in a long time. I can pluck that scent out of the air at almost a full kilometer of distance when my olfactory sense is properly attuned to ideal climate conditions.

Unfortunately, recent rainfall made the conditions less than ideal and my search more difficult and time-consuming than I desired.

Ashekerra could sense this in me and I could sense her growing impatience in the rhythm of her breathing.

Two long hours later…we were more than three kilometers from where we’d started and had circled several areas of Prima Terra several times. Every time I thought I caught the scent that I was sniffing for, I either lost it to the rain or the wind or the mildew on the walls of some old building.

“Is there a reason we’ve passed this building four times now, Doctor?” Ashekerra was more observant than I could hope to be when I was so concentrated on my nose.

I stopped and looked at the building she was gesturing to. It smelled of mildew. And a breath predator would know it as a perfect hiding place. “I certainly hope so. But I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

Her sorcery pulsed. Crackling lines of energy coated her hands like custom-fitted gloves as she sized up the building before us. “Three-story building. If it has a basement we’ll start searching there and work our way up.”

We proceeded inside and soon found our way to the basement.

The building was recently abandoned. A place like this, I would have expected to see homeless dwellers making use of the shelter.

But there was nothing. Nothing but cold darkness, stone walls, stained floors and eery silence.

No life in sight. None heard either. Not even rats.

Not a good sign.

“Basement’s clear.” I heard Ashekerra call to me from the darkness below.

I was waiting for her at the top of the staircase when I felt a pair of small hands try to push me down the stairs from behind.

The footsteps were fast, enhanced by sorceric speed. My senses warned me just in time and my cane propped me against the wall just enough to prevent me from tumbling.

I spun about to see my attacker, but even with my night vision aiding my sight I only caught a glimpse of a shadow of a woman running from the stairwell.

“Ashe!” I shouted to my friend as I pursued my attacker up several dust-covered steps.

My speed and my sorcery matched my attacker’s easily. I never lost sight or sound of her.

My attacker wasn’t breathing hard…in fact, she wasn’t breathing at all.

Not a good sign.

We reached the roof and my suspicions were confirmed: my attacker was a woman…with golden blonde hair…and a grace in her arms and legs that made me think she was once a dancer.

The light of the nightstone shone across her distressed face…I was staring at the same woman whose crime scene I had so recently attended. I was staring at Rhonda’s twin…clothed in dark, dusty garments and rags.

She was a rare breed of undead predator. Everything about her had the appearance of normal, living flesh. She could have easily hid in plain sight. Instead she chose to hide here. Curious.

I readied my cane in a defensive stance and we faced off.

“Please,” she spoke like one about to cry while backing away towards the edge, “just leave me alone. I’m sorry about my sister—”

“Do you confess then? Because I have a city guard lieutenant right behind me and she would love to hear it.”

“No. It was an accident, I swear. You have to believe me.”

“An accident…” I studied her. She wasn’t breathing which meant she’d given up the habit of breathing. For most people converted to an undead existence it takes a year to give up that habit. She intrigued me…and sparked my memory. I smiled at her. “We’ve met before, haven’t we.”

She nodded. “Yes. My name is Rhinda. My sister, Rhonda, was afraid to meet you. She avoided you all the time. Just looking at you made her nervous. She was watching when I met you outside her house. I did that to show her that undead people could be trusted.”

Behind me, I could hear Ashekerra joining us on the roof. Feeling her sorceric pulse against my back was comforting.

“She trusted you, didn’t she?”

“Only because we’re twins. What happened to me could just as easily have happened to her and she knew it. My sister always felt sorry for me. So she’s been letting me feed on her for a year.”

Which explains why she always left a window open. I thought. “Small feedings, I’m assuming. Just enough to prevent necrotic starvation while minimizing the risk of harming her.”

Rhinda nodded. “Nobody else knew about it. Everyone else in my family thinks I’m dead or that I’ve fled into the wilds and become a beast.”

“If you’ve fed on your sister before, what went wrong this time?” As I asked the question, I sensed Ashekerra moving to my left. She was making sure I was out of her line of fire. “Were you a little too hungry for a small feeding to satisfy you?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice filled with sobbing. “It just…she…I really don’t know. I wish I did. But I didn’t mean to kill her. You have to believe me.”

“Young lady, don’t waste my time with any tearful pleas or apologies.” I stared her down. “I know you better than you think. I know the undead are incapable of tears.”

“But not sorrow.” She backed away, her voice trembling. “Not regret.”

No. I thought to myself. Though the heart stops beating, it still feels. “True. But my opinion of your guilt does not matter.” I waved Ashekerra forward. “Her’s does.”

“It’s a non-issue.” Ashekerra explained. “Under the law, undead are not recognized as human. Therefore, no matter who you were in life, you are no longer afforded the same rights as a civilian. You don’t have the right to plead your case in a court of law. And because necromancy is illegal, your very presence in Prima Terra is a crime punishable by eradication or banishment.”

“What?” Rhinda’s eyes opened wide and she stopped backing away. Her body grew tense. “But I was cursed into becoming this. I never knew a thing about necromancy until I was kidnapped and raped by a necromancer. He held me captive and turned me into this so that I’d appear young forever. What I am is not my fault.”

Ashekerra raised her energized hands. “The law doesn’t care. You are a necromantic creature. Your existence, by definition, is illegal. And as a member of the city guard, it is within my power to banish or destroy you.”

“What about him?” She pointed at me.

“I’m an exception to many rules.” I held out my skeletal hand. The light of the nightstone passed between the metacarpals. “Legally speaking, only my hand is undead. The rest of me qualifies as human.”

“Murder is also punishable by banishment or life in prison or, in severe cases, death. And if you played any part in your sister’s death, then murder is also your crime.” Ashekerra still had energy coating her hands. “Do you confess to being responsible for your sister’s murder or not?”

“No.” Rhinda insisted. “I don’t know what happened. But I know I did not deliberately kill her.”

“Then tell us how she died.” I offered.

“I didn’t kill her.” Rhinda shouted.

“You were there.” I matched her volume. “The first thing you said to me was that you were sorry about your sister. The crime scene has been surrounded by guardsmen. How else would you know that your sister had been murdered unless you saw it happen?”

Her graceful body bent inward, crumpling upon her stomach as her arms clutched her abdomen. “I was hungry. I’d been hungry for days. I try to feed on my sister only once a week. I often feed on stray animals in the mean time. But it’s been harder to survive like that. Small animals just don’t provide enough life for me to inhale. I thought I could deal with the hunger…and the pain. But I just couldn’t. I just…ran out of resistance. I had to go to my sister, even if it was two days early than we planned. I entered her house. Rhonda came out of the shower. She saw how much pain I was in…and took pity on me.”

Upon saying this, Rhinda reached out her arm with exactly the same arc to her elbow as was demonstrated by her sister’s corpse. I surmised this was the way they touched during feedings. Identical hands touching identical faces in a reaching, fragile embrace…mirroring their love for one another.

“She said I could…and I started…but I couldn’t stop…I just couldn’t. I tried so hard to stop. I saw the fear in Rhonda’s eyes begging me to stop. She must have seen the fear in mine, trying to stop but not stopping. It was so horrible. Feeling myself inhale all of her. Filling myself with my sister’s life force…that much life should have energized and invigorated me. Instead it made me sick. So sick that I screamed as her lifeless body fell from my hand.” I watched Rhinda’s hand twitch into a desperate grab as she finished speaking.

Silence followed. Silence that should have been filled with tears.

Being undead, Rhinda was neither breathing nor crying the entire time she spoke. The absence of both of these made her decidedly less human as she ended her testimony. And she felt how inhuman her lack of a physiological reaction appeared. She wanted to cry. She couldn’t.

I could easily imagine all that was going though Rhinda’s mind in that moment. I could even empathize.

I glanced at my friend. Ashekerra could feel some of it as well.

But, sadly, now was not the time for such a thing. Ashekerra and I had a job to do.

“What happened after she died? After you screamed?” I worded my question carefully. I had both suspicions and assumptions on what happened next but I would not allow either to be spoken.

“I just stared at her…probably for a few minutes. The more I stared the more I felt sick in a way that a living person cannot understand. My stomach no longer feels anything, it wasn’t that kind of nausea. But her life…I could feel my sister’s life drifting in my lungs. Every millimeter of my flesh and the core of my mind felt her caress. She was thrumming inside my very bones. And that vibration felt like the most disturbing music—like a song stuck in your head—except this was stuck in my entire body and prickling at the edges of all my senses. I couldn’t look at her one second longer. So I ran here, my favorite hiding place.” Which explained why she hid here and not in plain sight…she was hiding out of shame.

“And Stephall?” Once more I worded my question carefully.

“What about him?”

“Did you know Stephall?” Ashekerra asked…which meant she and I had the same suspicion.

“I knew of him. My sister had several regular lovers. At least three that I knew about. She didn’t believe in monogamy.”

“Was he at your sister’s tonight when she died?” I asked.

Rhinda shrugged. “I didn’t see him. When I entered through the window on the second floor I heard the shower running. Less than a minute later it stopped and my sister came out. I never went downstairs. I suppose he may have been down there and I never noticed.” Her shrugging posture and empty visage slowly shifted. A spark of awareness had touched her mind. “Was he there?”

I nodded. “He was. He called the city guard after you left.”

“If he was there he would’ve heard me scream. He…he would’ve saw me standing over my sister’s body.”

I nodded again. “He told us that he heard Rhonda’s dying scream and ran up the stairs. As a predator, I know your senses are attuned to any stimulus betraying sudden movement.”

“And yet you’re telling us that you didn’t even notice Stephall.” Ashekerra shared my conclusion.

I could see Rhinda searching her memory. “No. I didn’t.”

Ashekerra nodded. “This would imply that he was moving quietly and carefully in response to your scream. Since he did not make a sound before or after your scream.”

“But…why?” Rhinda’s eyes searched our faces for an answer.

“A very good question.” I turned to Ashekerra, while reaching into one of my vest pockets. “Perhaps we should ask him.” Upon finding the object I needed, I produced it for both women to see: a simply necklace made of braided leather threads baring a ring-shaped ruby hanging at its center. I then turned to Rhinda. “Care to assist us in catching your sister’s killer?”

* * *

Ashekerra walked into the crime scene with me close at her side. Between both of our sorceric efforts, I was cloaked in a near-perfect veil that muffled all sound I made and removed all sight of me…provided I remained perfectly silent and close enough to be in her shadow. A rather difficult illusion, to be sure. This is why it requires complete cooperation between two well-trained sorcerers.

Having friends that are both talented and brilliant is a priceless treasure.

I silently walked with Ashekerra and closely watched Stephall take notice of her. Obviously he’d been paying attention when we left together.

I kept my eyes on Stephall: he was sitting on the couch by the fireplace, silently dabbing tears from his eyes as he stared mournfully at nothing in particular.

Ashekerra stood at attention and reported to Vallas. “Captain, I’m here to report that this murder has been solved. The case is closed and the victim can rest in peace.”

Vallas straightened up and folded his arms. “I’m assuming, then, that someone has been arrested or executed.”

“Executed, sir.”

“Who?”

“Doctor Madangel.” Ashekerra answered. “He confessed and he tried to kill me. In the ensuing combat that followed, I overcame his power and destroyed him. The Doctor had succumbed to his partial transformation and had become fully undead over a week ago. He thought he could keep this a secret from the guard. But his appetite for the living quickly grew beyond his control. He killed his neighbor, Rhonda, because her proximity to him made her convenient prey. After realizing he was a suspect and would eventually be found out, he turned on me. But he also underestimated me.”

Bravo, my friend. A brilliant performance. Ashekerra may have missed her calling in life.

“So, before Wolfson ever led him to this crime scene, he was manipulating us.” Vallas frowned.

“Yes, sir. Myself included. He had hoped to keep on manipulating the guard so that his secret would never be discovered.”

“I see.” Vallas continued frowning as he nodded, then gave a long sigh. “Well, we gave the Doctor more than a fair chance at redemption…and he certainly was useful to us while he lasted. Very well then lieutenant, start spreading the word to wrap up the investigation. We’re done here.”

“Done?” Stephall carelessly blurted.

“Yes. We’ll be vacating these premises and turning this house over to its rightful owner.” Vallas explained to Stephall. “I’ve already sent a runner to Rhonda’s next of kin. Her parents should be on their way to take ownership of the house and her body.”

“But, wait, you’re sure that he confessed?” Stephall was getting nervous, he wasn’t sure about what he was hearing and needed to hear it again.

“Doctor Madangel confessed. He tried to kill me. I destroyed him. This case is closed.” The way Ashekerra repeated herself was perfect. She was practically daring Stephall to call her a liar.

“You’re free to go home, Stephall.” Vallas added.

“Well…actually, no.” Stephall smiled nervously. “I know this is an odd time to mention this but, Rhonda sighed me on as a co-owner of the house. So now that she’s dead, I own this place.”

Vallas could not be more skeptical. “Is that so? I thought you two weren’t married.”

“We weren’t. But…we talked about getting married.”

“You talked about getting married?” Vallas made the quick leap from skeptical to suspicious. “You expect me to believe she signed you on as a co-owner to a house this valuable because you talked about getting married?”

“Well, I don’t care what you believe.” Stephall stood to his full height and backed away from the captain. “This house is mine and I have the paperwork to prove it.”

And this was the exact moment that Ashekerra was waiting for. “Well then, I guess this is quite a day for you. You got a free house. And even though you reek of motive for Rhonda’s murder, you’re clear of all charges. You’ve got nothing to worry about. We’ll all just walk away now, leaving you undefended at the scene of the crime. And I recommend that you close that window on the second floor. You never know what might come around in the dead of night and sneak its way into this place with no one watching and everyone asleep.”

“Wait. No. This isn’t right. You have to…” Stephall stammered with an open mouth for several seconds before fixing a stare of pure hatred at Ashekerra. “You have to protect me.”

“From what?” Ashekerra dared him again with daggers in her stare. “Madangel is dead.”

“But wait a minute.” Stephall tried to calm down and conceal a steadily growing panic. “You mean, that’s it? You’re just going to stop investigating? What if he was lying?”

“Doctor Madangel had ample means, motive and opportunity. His confession fits with the most plausible theory of this crime. What more is there to investigate?” Vallas watched Stephall growing more and more rattled by the perfectly logical explanation. “Unless perhaps there were some alternate theory to the crime explaining who else might have killed Rhonda and why Doctor Madangel would confess to a murder he did not commit.”

“But this…it doesn’t make…he…I…” After a moment, Stephall lashed out at Ashekerra. “Look I know it sounds crazy but this bitch is lying.”

Ashekerra, in her icy calm, was as intimidating as ever. “Call me a bitch one more time and see what happens, little man.”

Stephall appealed to Vallas. “I know she’s lying because I saw who killed Rhonda.”

And this was the exact moment that Rhinda was waiting for. “Did she look anything like me, Stephall?”

Rhinda came down the stairs with a slow stride and a murderous look in her eyes.

“Shit!” Stephall shouted to everyone in a panic. “Stop her! Shoot her! She’s undead.”

“And how do you know that, sir?” Vallas asked, calm as ever. By now, the captain was on to my little scheme. Gambling on his intelligence is always a safe bet. “She looks human to me.”

“She…she…” Stephall looked so comical as he stuttered in the faces of two highly-skilled guardsmen. I had to stifle a laugh to maintain the illusion that concealed me. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“Tell them what you did.” Rhinda nearly growled her demand with a hungry stare.

“I didn’t do anything. You killed her.” Stephall started look relieved. I took this to mean that he was relieved of the effort it took to lie to the city guard. Now he was simply relying on his version of the truth to proclaim his innocence. “You did it. You couldn’t stop.”

“Couldn’t stop what?” Stephall was completely off his game and Ashekerra knew it. He would answer any question to make himself appear less guilty and my friend pounced on that moment of weakness.

“She couldn’t stop feeding on her. That’s right. I knew all about you two. How Rhonda let you feed on her because she took pity on you. I learned all about your little secret when I…I…” Stephall felt himself blunder again. He also took the time to realize that the entire house and every guardsman on the scene was aware of and baring witness to the confrontation at hand. He was surrounded.

There was no way out for Stephall or Rhinda and they both knew it.

But I knew all Rhinda wanted was to see her sister’s killer punished.

“My sister never told anyone about my arrangement with her. We knew the world thought I was dead and we wanted it kept that way. She would have never told you anything about me.” Rhinda’s voice shouted then quieted. Her varying emotion kept Stephall on edge, right where I wanted him to be. “But she told me about you. You were nothing more than good sex to her. She would’ve never signed this house over to you. Unless you’d used psychomancy to manipulate her mind.”

“Something easily accomplished in the throws of passion.” Ashekerra filled in the blanks. “The mind is more susceptible to psychomantic invasion during orgasm.”

“Rhonda told me every time you made love it felt like dreaming about music too beautiful to be real. And that days later she had dreams about doing other things with you that she could not remember. Neither of us ever learned sorcery. Neither of us knew what the dreams meant. And if she talked about the dreams for too long, she’d get headaches.”

“Mental after-shocks. Both the dreams and headaches; they were symptoms of recent psychic invasion.” Ashekerra further explained, if only to apply further pressure to Stephall’s panicked state of mind. “Incidentally, the crime of mind rape carries a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment.”

Stephall’s eyes went wild for a moment, searching the room and finding no help, no allies, no escape, no lie that would explain it all away. Then his head twitched and a new look relaxed his entire face and body.

Stephall began to laugh. “You’ve got nothing. You’re trying to scare a confession out of me because you’ve got nothing.” Though he kept a safe distance from Rhinda, he smiled right at her face. “The undead aren’t recognized as human so they can’t legally testify in court. So everything you think you know can’t be used against me. And since Rhonda’s dead, she can’t accuse me of mind rape so I can’t even be charged. And since I didn’t kill her…you’ve got nothing.” He stood up straight and lifted his head as if to look down on Rhinda. “Captain Vallas, arrest this woman. I want her executed for killing my beloved Rhonda.”

And this was the exact moment that I was waiting for.

I already had my spell in place. I asked Rhinda to place the ruby necklace around her dead sister’s neck before making her entrance. Rhonda’s corpse was now a puppet at my mental command.

“But I’m not dead, my beloved.” Rhonda came down the stairs, wearing a bathrobe and looking as alive as ever. “I’m alive. All I want is to hold you in my arms and have you make love to me once more.” I embellished just a little and turned Rhonda’s last word into a long, loud exhale…and her breath filled the room with the smell of decomposition.

It was that combination—the sight, sound and smell of his dead lover’s return—that made Stephall finally snap. “No. Living hell you’re dead. She drained every last bit of life from you. I made sure she did.”

I took a long step out of Ashekerra’s shadow and revealed myself to the room. Because I happened to be within arm’s reach of Stephall, I clapped my skeletal hand down on his shoulder, letting him feel my sharpened finger tips lightly press into his flesh.

“Made sure she drained every last bit, did you?” My eyes held his in a deadly gaze. I wondered if Stephall’s mind or heart could take much more in the way of intimidating surprises. I wondered, but I didn’t care. “There’s only one way that you could make sure of such a thing and that’s if you were controlling Rhinda as she fed. And I can verify that Rhinda is undead. Which means only necromancy could control her because undead are not susceptible to psychomancy.”

“Which means you just confessed, in a room full of guardsmen, to the crime of necromancy.” I could hear the subtle smile in Ashekerra’s voice.

“And I don’t believe you’re licensed for that.” Personally, I couldn’t resist saying those words to Stephall’s pale face. I felt like a hunter confirming the kill.

Additionally, I showed off when I opened my skeletal hand at the necklace around Rhonda’s neck. It flew off of her and I snatched it out of the air. Rhonda fell, dead…as she should be.

“No. No. Wait a minute.” Stephall could feel all the stares in the room wanting to burn him to ash. “No, you can’t do this to me. They tricked me.”

“Citizen Stephall, you’re under arrest for necromancy.” Vallas proclaimed as his sorceric pulse filled the room. “And seeing as how your use of necromancy resulted in the intentional death of another citizen, I will be seeking the death penalty at your trial. Lieutenant Wolfson, take this man into custody. You’re authorized to use lethal force at the first sign of resistance.”

“Yes, sir.” Wolfson cuffed Stephall’s hands and marched him outside.

And I couldn’t help noticing how Wolfson wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Then, in the wake of victory, came the wash of tragic reality.

Rhinda’s secret was exposed. Captain Vallas knew she was undead and her hunger for life had resulted in killing one of the citizens under his protection. Being undead was enough to get her banished. Being undead and dangerous was enough to warrant execution.

Everyone in that room knew exactly what had to happen to Rhinda, including Rhinda herself. But I certainly did not care to stay and watch it happen.

Ashekerra knew how I felt. Our eyes met and not a word of conversation was needed.

“You may return home, Doctor Madangel.” Vallas could see I wanted a way out and he gave it to me. “Your assistance this night is greatly appreciated.”

I’m an exception to many rules. I’m allowed to go home. Rhinda never would.

I did not want to be there a second longer. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not avoid Rhinda’s gaze…even as I took my first steps to leave.

She moved herself directly in front of me, forcing me to see the sadness in her tearless eyes and the smile on her resolved face.

She reached and touched my face in same way she once touched her sister.

“Thank you, Doctor Madangel. For helping my sister rest in peace and ensuring her killer was brought to justice. Thank you.”

I returned the gesture. And—not caring what anyone thought of me—placed a gentle kiss on the cold flesh of her delicate cheek.

Letting out a long sigh, I told her, “You have no idea how seldom it is that I hear anyone thank me. I will remember you, Rhinda. I’ll even dream of you. I promise.”

And if nothing else, I’m a man who keeps his promises.

There was nothing more I could say or do.

I walked home…and I left her to die.

And if you like that, check out my ebook The Man of Nightstone at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/285929

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