Chapter the first

I never would a’ met Death or the Gamblers or the GypCirc or known nothin’ bout the darkworld ‘cept Z got cursed. We never did figure out who did it—his ex, the one he’d just broke up with, had a weird streak, and her mom was definitely into some dark spark stuff, and he’d made a couple a’ enemies just by bein’ him, but we never really knew for sure and neither Death nor the Gamblers told me although I’m sure they knew. Z said more’n once that it weren’t important so I let it go pretty quick but I never stopped wantin’ to know. There was no one I could a’ asked anyway, not once it became unimportant. Suora never told her secrets although I’m sure she found out. The elves didn’t know I don’t think, and if they had known I doubt they would a’ told me, and Sebas and his vamps were so cagey about everything, and probably didn’t know anyway though I bet they could a’ found out eventually.The government was never an option, even just to report the curse, even after it was over, and I didn’t know any sparks I would a’ felt safe trustin’, and there was no one else who might a’ known or could a’ found out so I was stuck. As Z said, it was probably a good thing.

Course, when I say I knew nothin’ bout the darkworld I don’t mean strictly. We both knew a little—me and Z did. We grew up knowin’ a little like everyone else. Dad put the wards up with the chain on the door and carried a protect to work, and cause a’ where we lived we had bars on the windows and a permanent sunset curfew which we were always breakin’. But we didn’t really know. No real human really does, not even the ones who brag about going to vampire bars or darin’ each other up into the hills durin’ full moons which I don’t believe any a’ them ever did despite what they said. We followed the news, heard about the occasional z-demic or blood kill, but that ain’t knowin’. I realized pretty soon that even the burners and stakers don’t really know.

Z and I went to high school together, back when we still lived in the lightworld, mostly, and then college for two years before he got cursed. We had our first smoke together, and went to a blood bar together, but the vampires just sat around lookin’ pissed off and hungry, and it was pretty boring. They’re exclusive bastards but I guess they have to be, ‘specially since dark sparks been legalized for stakers.

Z and I went to the big college in our city, mostly cause it was cheap for city residents and we were both dirt poor. I wanted to start workin’ right away—I was never much for school—but my parents were pissed when I suggested it and Z wanted me to go with him, so I did.

Right after the first semester started our third year, Z died. There was a riot and he took a brick to the stomach and refused to go to the hospital, and a week later he was spittin’ up blood. Course I took him then, but it was already too late. The doc ragged on me pretty hard for that too, but Z told him to lay off, and that it was ok, it was his own fault. I felt bad as hell about it—bad as hell doesn’t even begin to describe how bad I felt—but he told me all night what he’d told the doc—it was ok, it weren’t my fault. In the morning he died. The funeral was the day after, ‘cause we were in the middle of a heat wave and gang scraps had used up all the cold storage, and on a whim I shoved his cell phone into his pocket and whispered to him to call me if he got the chance. When we were kids and we first figured out what death meant we used to promise we’d write if we could.

Two days after we buried him, he did call me.

“Hey, Tam,” he said. His voice was different, like the breath didn’t fit into it properly, but it was definitely his. Besides, he was the only one who ever called me Tam.

“What the hell?” I gasped. I heard a weird, rattling noise from the other end, then he said:

“I know. Messed up, isn’t it?”

“Ain’t yeh dead? Where are yeh?”

“Right where you left me,” and I could hear him laughin’ a little, a weird noise that sent shivers down my spine. “Something didn’t take, Tam. My body definitely shut down, but my soul won’t go.” There was a brief pause while I tried not to scream. “Tam?” Z said hesitantly. “Can you come dig me out? I need a cigarette.”

Z always was a heavy smoker.

 

I went and dug him out. We’d been so close for so long that I never even stopped to think if I should—only hesitation I had was how in the hell was I going to do it?

I stole a backhoe. Seemed easiest.

Course there weren’t no way I could drag his coffin out a’ that hole, but it didn’t actually matter cause I accidentally smashed the cover in while I was diggin’. Soon’s I heard wood splinterin’ I backed off and shut the digbit off, and then it really hit me—Z was undead. How the hell could that a’ happened? He weren’t a vampire, cause vampires smashed their way out a’ their own graves and besides I’d a’ noticed if he’d been bit. Werewolves ain’t undead, least, not in any ordinary way, and zombies—well. Yeh don’t have time to bury ‘em before they try to eat you. Only other option would a’ been a curse, but I didn’t think a’ that at the time. Curses ain’t very common, ‘specially ones that mess with Death. I hadn’t known why before, but after Z and me met him and talked to Sebas we figured it out pretty quick.

I climbed out a’ the digbit and walked to the edge a’ the hole. I didn’t know what two days under meant if yeh weren’t a vampire or a zombie, so maybe he couldn’t get out by himself. I hesitated once, right on the edge a’ that yawnin’ grave—I didn’t know but what it was going to be pretty nasty—then I crouched on the edge and looked down.

Z was sittin’ on the broke-up lid of his coffin, lookin’ up—watchin’ for me. He didn’t look too bad, considerin’ he’d been dead for two days. He smiled a little, kind a’ sad, when he saw me.

“Can yeh climb up?” I asked, “or do I need to come down and lift?”

He laughed a little, but it sounded wrong—not wrong like, comin’ from somethin’ dead, although it sounded that too, but wrong like someone laughin’ who’s tryin’ not to cry. Hearin’ an undead try not to cry is about the worst thing to be heard.

“Same Tam,” he smiled, “even when I’m dead. I half expected you not to come.”

“When’ve I ever said I’d do somethin’ and not done it?” I retorted, a little irritated.

“I know,” he said, in that mocking way he had, “you’re Tam first and a human being second, if at all. You needn’t come down here to get me—I think if you’ll just reach a hand down I can climb out.”

I reached, and he climbed, and in another minute we were both standin’ on the edge a’ the hole, starin’ down.

“Well,” he said softly, after a minute or two a’ silence had gone by, “so much for that,” and turned away. I glanced at him sideways. Now he was closer I could see the first signs a’ decay—the makeup was gone, though, which was one good thing. I thought it was hideous, but everyone at the funeral had been sayin’ what a good job the undertaker did so I figured it weren’t wise to make a row. I thought it just made him look deader.

“What happened?” I asked suddenly. I hadn’t meant to, cause I thought it might be—I dunno—sensitive, but hell, how could I not?

“Didn’t I tell you over the phone I didn’t know?” Z replied.

“I didn’t mean that way,” I replied, and then I stopped, and wished I hadn’t said nothin’ at all.

“What did you mean?” Z asked softly.

“I didn’t mean nothin’,” I muttered. “Forget I asked.”

“You mean, when did I wake up and realize it hadn’t worked?” Z asked, as though I hadn’t just told him to forget it. I used to hate it when he did that. But he always used to say, “You’ve got to ask questions, Tam. You’ve got to wonder about things. And you know you can ask me anything.” Then he’d sort a’ smile, and add, “You know I can tell when you’re deliberately not asking me something, and I always get it out of you in the end so you might as well.”

So I just said, “Yeah,” and waited.

“I never woke up,” Z said after a minute. He paused, and his fingers sort a’ twitched and he smiled a half-smile. He always looked that way when he wanted a cigarette. I pulled out my pack and handed him one.

“I was never asleep,” he said, and lit it. Smoke, spiderweb gray in the dim light, drifted round his face. “There was a second—one second—like blinking, you know, when everything went black, and then the doctor was—doing things, and the nurses gathered around, and then someone said, ‘We lost him,’ and they took out all the needles and pulled a sheet over my face, and I realized that I’d just died.”

“But yeh hadn’t,” I said. His eyes got sort a’ curious, and he said, “Yes, I had.”

“Yeh hadn’t,” I repeated, startin’ to get hot. “Yeh could a’ sat up, yeh could a’ said somethin’—hell, why didn’t you? I was standin’ right there. Hell, Ar—”

“Don’t!” he said. “Don’t, Tam. Don’t call me by my real name.”

I stared.

“All right, if yeh don’t want me to,” I answered him finally. “What’ll I call you then? I’ve gotta call you somethin’.”

Z stared at the little orange light glowin’ between his fingers.

“Call me Zombie,” he said. “I’m not one, I know, but it—it used to be a sort of catch-all term for the undead, so it—fits.”

“No. Hell no. I don’t care what it used to mean, I refuse.”

“Z?” he suggested. “Will that do?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Z. Yeah, that’ll do I guess. Hell,” I said again, less wildly, and dropped my head into my hands. It was so bloody weird. And yet havin’ him back, even undead, was less weird than havin’ him be gone. Guess I was a little in shock.

“Yeah,” Z said softly.

“Why not?” I asked, too sudden. He looked at me with the question on his face instead a’ in his mouth. “Why can’t I call you by name?”

He sighed, and dragged on his cig. “Listen, Tam,” he said, soft as the wind. There was a sadness in his eyes, too, that almost broke my heart without me knowin’ why. “It’s not like I’m suddenly alive again, and you can’t treat me like I am. You’ve got to remember all the time that I’m still dead.”

“That’s a sick thing to have to remember,” I muttered. “Yeh were only gone two days and it hurt so much I thought it’d kill me.”

“I know,” Z answered gently, “and I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

I got out a cig for me and lit it.

“All right,” I said sourly. “Fine. Whatever. Have it your way, Ari—Z. Yeh ain’t alive. So what are we s’posed to do now?”

Z flicked his asher away and stood up, brushin’ dust off himself with his unnatural pale hands.

“I guess I have to find someone to fix it,” he said with a quiet little half-smile, like a cat. He caught my expression and added, “Trust me, Tam, this is something that must be fixed. You can’t just have me back.”

I chose to ignore that.

“Hella bad job it’ll be,” I growled, standin’ up too. “Where’re we going to start?”

“I don’t think you should come with me.”

“Try to stop me.”

“It’ll probably get pretty rough.”

I shot him a withering glare. I was always the tough one and he knew it.

“Fine,” he sighed, and lit another asher. “It’ll be hard with you still in school, though.”

“I ain’t going to stay in school now,” I said.

“Of course you’re going to stay in school,” Z replied. “I’ll make it my dying wish if I have to—at any rate, you won’t be a drop-out because of me.”

“I only went cause a’ you,” I reminded him, “and I can’t help you when I’ve gotta go to classes and read all the time, and I ain’t not going to help you so don’t even try to suggest it—again.”

“Fine,” Z said again, and sat a minute in silence. “You can take this semester off instead of the summer semester, I guess, but you’ve got to promise me that when this is all over you’ll go back and finish.”

Seemed like a lot to ask, ‘specially since I’d just dug him out a’ the ground, but he had that look in his eye that said I weren’t gettin’ around it, so I promised. It didn’t occur to me then what exactly this bein’ over meant.

“And now we’re back where we were,” I added. “Where’re we going to start?”

“An excellent question,” Z replied. “I have no idea.”

“Me neither,” I said, “but it don’t matter much right now cause it’s almost dawn—too late to go lookin’ for anyone that could help. We’ll have to hide you for the day and I’ll go do school stuff, and maybe by tonight one a’ us will have an idea.”

Z looked up and east, and saw the sun startin’ to rise. He didn’t say anything, just watched it for a minute, and I wondered what it was like lyin’ underground for two days, seein’ nothin’ but black. It was too easy to imagine. I wanted to hit someone.

“All right,” he said finally. “Any ideas where I should hide?”

“Lots a’ abandoned buildings a couple blocks east,” I replied. “You remember them, right by the Caves. Their nightuard got elfed and they ain’t really replaced him yet—guy who does it now just drives around every couple hours. C’mon, we can make it in before day shift if we hurry a little.”

We got in ’n time, and I left Z holed up in a third floor office with my cigarettes while I took care a’ school stuff. I went and talked to the placer first, and told him I needed some time off, just a semester, and he said, “Yes, of course. We were so sorry to hear about your friend,” and promised to arrange it all for me. I went back to my dorm room—used to be me and Z’s dorm room, but his mother had already moved all his stuff out—and packed up my own stuff and moved it into storage. Fortunately I was never much for stuff, so it didn’t take too long. Then I called my parents, which was the worst part, told them I was takin’ some time off and not to expect to see or hear from me for a little while, and they were nowhere near as understanding as the placer was, but they couldn’t do much about it ‘cept lecture me which they’d been doing for years and I mostly just didn’t listen. By that time it was almost dark, dark enough, anyway, so I went back to the office building, dodgin’ the nightguard, and found Z pretty much right where I’d left him, smokin’ and lookin’ out the window with a thoughtful look on his face. It was all almost surprisingly easy.

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Chapter two

So, there I was, free’s a bird, nothin’ to tie me down, no home even, ready to set off in any direction. Only problem was I had no idea which direction to go and no more did Z, though we’d both been thinkin’ about it all day. It’d been pretty clear from the start that we’d need someone with some pretty powerful dark spark in him, or an elf guide, if you believe in such things—me, I never heard nothin’ but trouble about elves—or somethin’ like that, and we didn’t know any sparks we could trust and were a little shy a’ just walkin’ into elf territory, cause generally they don’t take that so good, so finally we decided to just head down to the Caves—the vampire district, I mean—and look around, see if anyone knew anything helpful. If we were going to find anyone helpful who weren’t too particular about the law then that was the place they’d be after dark. It weren’t much a’ an idea, even, but we figured we’d give it a try.

Neither a’ us even suggested going to the government, or contactin’ any a’ the major sparks in the city. They would a’ torched Z on sight.

The first big problem we hit on in the Caves was tourists—ordinary kids who think they’re tough and go hit up vampire bars to prove it. Z didn’t really look dead, not yet anyway, but too many a’ these upstart kids with an instinct for sparks will blast first and ask questions second if they notice somethin’ like Z. And with that kind a’ instinct yeh tend to notice a hell of a lot. So we didn’t have any luck the first night. We spent most a’ our time dodgin’ round corners and creepin’ into doorways, and on top a’ that it started to drizzle, but we saw a couple places that maybe wouldn’t have tourists if we came back at the right time. We both of us went back and holed up in the office building for the day. I slept hard on the floor, and Z, who apparently didn’t need to sleep at all any more, sat up all day and watched the city out the window and smoked. If we were going to keep this up I was going to have to lay in a serious supply a’ cigarettes.

The second night we went back out and hit up a bar without any tourists. We’d been to a vampire bar before and knew pretty much what to expect, but it weren’t at all pleasant, really, so Z and I had to sort a’ brace ourselves and walk in. Some vampires, ‘specially the down and out ones, have this really uncomfortable way of lookin’ at you. Their eyes always snap back to you, no matter where yeh are or what yeh’re doing, and it’s creepy as hell. But even that would a’ been better than the welcome we got.

We walked in, and went up to the bar, Z kind a’ hangin’ in the background, and I ordered myself a drink. The bartender was human, probably with a special staker’s licence just in case, and he barely glanced at Z when he served me. The vampires had all noticed us, though. There was about nine or ten a’ them, and they were all lookin’ at us strange, not the creepy look I was expectin’, but worse. They looked a little horrified, and to have a vampire look at you like yeh horrify them is beyond creepy, way worse than them lookin’ like they maybe want to drink you, which is pretty much to be expected. I couldn’t guess what it was at first, but I figured it out pretty quick after I started talkin’ to one a’ them. And let me tell you—tryin’ to start a conversation with a vampire is almost as hard as tryin’ to start a conversation with a pretty girl. I’ve tried both and I know.

A vampire came in a couple minutes after me and Z, and since the bar was already pretty crowded he had to walk up right next to us to order his drink. He came a couple steps into the bar, then paused, sorta noticed us, and got the same horrified expression on his face that the others had. For a minute he hesitated, and I almost thought he was going to turn around and walk out, but he didn’t. He must a’ been really thirsty.

He walked right up next to us and ordered his drink, and I thought, now’s as good a time as any, so I said, “Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to ask—my friend here—” and then I stopped, cause I couldn’t think what to say.

The vampire glanced from me to Z and said, “Your friend.”

“He’s—somethin’ went wrong,” I said.

“I can see that,” he replied with a little hiss.

“I was hopin’ I could find someone who might be able to point us in the right direction for fixin’ it.”

The vampire swirled his blood round in his cup and smiled a long, slow, cruel smile.

“Were you,” he said. “I admire your bravery, boy, but tell me—why should any of us help you?”

I couldn’t think of a good answer just right then, and a second later the barman seemed to suddenly notice Z, ‘cause he yelled out, “Here! I ain’t ‘avin’ no rotten corpses in my bar! Puts the customers off, like. You take that thing—” pointin’ to Z—“an’ get out, y’hear?”

I ain’t the kind to go lookin’ for trouble but I got a bit of a temper and I weren’t going to stand around and hear someone talk about Z like that. In a minute I had the barman by his dirty collar and had dragged him halfway over the bar, for all he was nearly twice my size.

“He ain’t a thing,” I growled. “He’s had a piece a’ rotten bad luck and that’s all. And if yeh ever call him a thing again I will break your back over your own counter.”

“Tam, that’s enough!” Z said sharply. I let the barman go and stepped back, and noticed a lot a’ the vampires had sort a’ perked up and were starin’ at Z with a new expression, a sort a’ intenser expression, like they hadn’t expected him to be able to talk. I would a’ liked to hang around and maybe try again, or at least ask them what was so surprising about Z talkin’, but the barman was gettin’ his breath back and he looked ready to scrap, so we left. We weren’t too worried about him callin’ the cops. Barmen in the Caves see a lot a’ strange things and cops put the customers off more than corpses. We tried another bar but got stopped at the door cause it was no humans allowed, and walked into a third one, but we had to turn around and walk out again cause the barman was bein’ interviewed by a dark spark staker while his customers sat around lookin’ angry and slightly rebellious. By that time it was gettin’ on for dawn so we gave up.

Next night we were out again, and the night after that, and the one after that, each time with much the same result. It rained off and on the whole time and we were startin’ to get discouraged but as Z said we’d only been out four nights, and it weren’t too easy to get anything out of a vampire. We’d had longer losin’ streaks with girls, and Z at least was elfishly good-looking. So on the fifth night we headed out into the caves once more and found a new bar, but we weren’t in it for more’n five minutes before we got kicked out. Word about us seemed to be travelin’—the barmen were pickin’ up on our presence a damn sight faster and it was startin’ to look pretty bad. I didn’t know how much it would take before someone did call the cops on us, which would a’ been bad in a whole new way. A torched kind a’ way. Z paused on the curb to light up a cig, and I paused next to him, remarkin’ how for five nights out in the Caves we didn’t have nothin’ to show for it.

“It was never going to be easy,” Z replied comfortingly.

“This ain’t hard, this is impossible,” I snapped. “There’s a difference. This is the only place we know to find undead, and they won’t speak to us or have anything to do with us. If someone doesn’t talk to us soon, we’re done.”

“Possess your soul in patience,” Z murmured, and the next minute we heard someone yell, “Hey!” We were the only ones in the street, so we turned around. A half-elf had stepped out of the bar we’d just left and was eyein’ us with a sort of amused expression.

“Ordinarily,” he said, his voice light and a little slurred, “I wouldn’t be any more interested in helping you than the rest of this bar’s refined clientele, but your friend”—meanin’ Z—“is unusual, and I owe someone something unusual.”

“Unusual how?,” I asked. The half-elf’s expression widened into a full smile.

“You don’t know what he is,” he said. It weren’t a question. Then he laughed, none too pleasant a sound, and said, “I hope you’re as brave as you seem, boy. You’re not even a spark, are you?”

I was about ready to smash his nose out through the back a’ his skull, but I controlled myself, barely.

“Go down to the river,” he said.

“And what?” Z asked quietly. He looked at Z, and his expression lost its amusement and turned somehow cold.

“And nothing,” he replied. “They’ll find you. All you have to do is not run away if you see them first. Which isn’t likely.”

Then he disappeared back into the bar.

Now, half-elves already ain’t trustworthy, cause a’ the elf part, and blood-drinking half-elves are unusual and psycho little bastards who’re so crazy that even other halvers won’t have anything to do with them, but after gettin’ kicked out a’ three bars we didn’t have too many more ideas. I would a’ liked not to trust him, but Z said he didn’t think the blooder was tryin’ to hurt us.

“Maybe he don’t have to try,” I said.

“He didn’t promise it would be safe,” Z replied, “but if he wanted to hurt us what better way than just to tell us nothing when we so badly want to hear something? You don’t have to come,” he added.

“Like hell I’m not comin’,” I growled. I still weren’t in a good mood. “Yeh can’t fight, Z. Yeh never could, but now yeh really can’t. And there’re stories about the river.”

“I never heard any,” he remarked.

“Yeh never heard about the hangman’s ghost, or the girl in the water, or the corpse circus, or—”

“Oh, those,” he interrupted. “Yes, I’ve heard those but they’re old. I meant I haven’t heard anything recently to keep people away from the river.”

“People do, though.”

“Well, you can’t swim or sail on it because of the mermaids and it’s not very pretty until you get well out of the city—except for the elf territory, of course, but no one wanders into there. That’s reason enough to stay away, isn’t it? But we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Which brought me right back to my startin’ point—we had nowhere else to go.

“I’ll go,” I said. “Probably most a’ it’s just superstition. I ain’t used to bein’ out in the dark so much.”

“The corpse circus isn’t superstition, but as I said, it’s old,” Z replied. “Do you want to wait until dawn?”

“I’m no coward,” I replied. “We’ll just go cautious.”

A couple hours a’ brisk walkin’ south and east brought us down to the river bank. Z was right—it weren’t pretty, at least, not where we came out. The river use to be used for shipping before mermaids were protected, but about a hundred years ago when it became illegal for shipping companies to hunt them ships started going down and the river was abandoned, and the wharfs and warehouses were left to rot. Most a’ the outside walls were still standin’, but you could tell just by lookin’ at them that a real good push would bring them down. Anything that was more’n half wood never stood a chance against the mist, but we found a couple buildings that’d been built out a’ metal and brick instead, and they looked like they might stand for a while yet. We found a second floor office in one a’ them, not too big, not too scummy and fairly sturdy, with a table and a small window, and we decided to hole up there while “we await developments,” as Z said. It were still a few hours to dawn so I curled up on the floor and slept till about eight in the morning, when the sun comin’ through the window and lightin’ on my face woke me up. I sat up and stretched and glanced at Z.

“Nothin’ happened during the night?”

“Still as the grave,” he replied, with a mocking little smile. I looked a little closer at his skin—I was seein’ it in light for the first time in six days and what I saw was worryin’.

“Yeh ain’t lookin’ so good,” I said.

“Wet nights and warm days aren’t good for a decomposing corpse,” he replied. “Does it bother you?”

“Won’t be too convenient if a leg or somethin’ falls off,” I said. “They keep zombies for research, yeah? How do they keep them from going slime?”

“I never enquired,” Z remarked. “There’s probably a book on it, though. Do you still have your library card?”

“Yeh wouldn’t let me get rid a’ it,” I replied.

Chapter three

The library didn’t open for another two hours but Z said he was fine to stay in the warehouse and I was startin’ to get pretty hungry. I hadn’t had anything real to eat since the day after I dug up Z, what with never stayin’ more than five minutes in a bar and even if we had vampire bars ain’t fash on human food. I left Z in the office and went north back into my part a’ the city—it ain’t real fash, seein’ as how we were so poor, but I knew a couple places with decent food and the library was closer. I got somethin’ to eat and laid in stores for about a week, cigarettes included, then headed over to the library and asked for a book or two on zombie preservation. The lady looked at me a bit sideways, but she didn’t kick me out, thank god, and I left with three books—zombie preserve and chem., history a’ zombie experimentation, and sensational discoveries. The chem and history books had regular covers, but the sensational one had a picture on it that almost made me lose the only good meal I’d had in a week and I ain’t squeamish normally.

It was gettin’ on for three in the afternoon when I got back, and found Z sittin’ on a pile a’ filters and nursin’ his fingers.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Lighter caught my thumb on fire,” he replied. “I guess the decomposition process makes me more flammable. Smoking isn’t a problem, though, so it can’t be too bad. What’d you get?”

I dropped my food into the least scummed up corner and laid the books out on the table.

“I sorta glanced into this one,” I said, pointin’ at the chem book, “but it was all formulas and math and didn’t make much sense to me.”

Z picked it up gingerly and started flippin’ through it, and I picked up the history one, cause the pic on the third one was still freakin’ me out, opened it, turned two pages and slammed it shut again. Z looked up with an amused look on his face.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“This is why I don’t read,” I said decidedly. Z took the book from me and skimmed the first three or four pages.

“That’s pretty disgusting,” he remarked.

“Damn right it is,” I muttered.

“That’s what they get for using such a high concentration of liquid preservatives on decomposing human flesh,” he continued, ignorin’ me. “Looks like Dr. Charinth managed pretty well with whiskey and salt.”

“I hate buyin’ whiskey and not drinkin’ it,” I said. “Ain’t there anything else?”

Z kept turnin’ pages, still real careful cause he was startin’ to ooze.

“Doesn’t look like it,” he said. “They developed a lot of better preservatives, but you have to be a licensed and registered researcher with ZEEA to get a hold of any of them.”

“ZEEA,” I repeated. I didn’t pay much attention to the government normally, and I never could remember what all the divisions were called.

“Zombie Experimentation and Extermination Agency,” Z said. “Burners and creepers.”

Burners exterminate. Creepers experiment.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, could we maybe steal an id or somethin’?”

Z sighed.

“Tam,” he said patiently, “whiskey and salt will work just fine, and they’re affordable, and you can obtain them without doing anything illegal. Whereas stealing an id card would be hella difficult, consignments of the preservative are tracked and logged with particular experiments which are then tracked and logged by the government, and if you’re caught stealing government property—and property of government personnel counts—you can get yourself thrown in jail for a very, very long time. Not to mention the fact that you’re already harbouring and assisting an unregistered undead, which is highly illegal. And you are not going to do it just to piss off the government.”

Z knows me too well.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “I was just checkin’. Think there’s a bar round here somewhere?”

“Probably,” Z replied, “but it wouldn’t be open this early.”

“I could head back into town.”

“I think I’ll be fine for a few hours,” Z snapped. I pulled out two ashers and lit them, and held one out to Z.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Z took the cig and dragged on it slowly.

“I am only too conscious of what a burden I am now,” he said. His voice was as carefully neutral as he could make it, but I heard the bitterness.

“Yeh ain’t that much of a burden,” I said.

He stared at the light in his hand.

“It’ll get worse,” he said quietly. I shrugged.

“I don’t care.”

He looked up and smiled suddenly, wearily, but like he was really happy.

“You don’t, do you? Oh Tam—I am going to miss you. I guess you had better go back into town—you need salt as well as whiskey and these books have to go back.”

I didn’t know quite what to say—I almost reached out to touch him, but he weren’t feelin’ too good about his situation and I didn’t think it would help to have bits a’ him stickin’ to me.

“I’m going to miss you too,” I said, and if my voice weren’t quite steady he didn’t say anythin’.

I took the books back and got the whiskey and salt, and by the time I got back the second time the sun was going down. I did what I could for Z in the fading light and it took a good hour, cause I had to be careful not to go too heavy on either the whiskey or the salt. By the time I was done it was full dark and a waxing moon was shinin’ down on the river. It was light enough for us to go out without too much difficulty, if we wanted, but I wasn’t sure we wanted and Z weren’t makin’ any decisions. The blood-halver had said they’d find us, though, and they hadn’t, so I was thinkin’ that maybe we needed to put ourselves in a place where we could be more easily found. I would a’ preferred to sleep—buses don’t get out to the wharves and it’s a long walk—but this was the second night with nothin’ to show for it and I’d just spent an hour findin’ out exactly how fast Z was runnin’ out a’ time—time with a working body, I mean—and it made me restless. And nervous as hell.

So we went out.

Chapter four

For the most part we were pretty quiet—Z was broodin’. I knew better than to talk to him when he was broodin’. Z don’t seem like it, but he has a temperamental disposition, buried underneath a mild sorta sweetness like I’ve never seen in anyone from my neighbourhood. Mostly he managed to keep it buried, but when we were younger everyone on our block got a feel a’ it once or twice, ‘cept me. He never really lost his temper with me. Mostly I think it’s because I knew better than to try to talk to him when he was broodin’.

We went down to the river and wandered west along it a little while. We came to a jetty that didn’t look too rotted out, and Z walked onto it while I stood in the shadow of a warehouse and tried to think a’ somethin’ more we could do. I weren’t thinkin’ any too particularly, but I was thinkin’ hard enough not to notice too much a’ what was going on around me. I was brought back to myself by the sound a’ splashin’—mermaids climbin’ out a’ the river. They were after Z.

“Oy!” I yelled. Z was sittin’ on the end a’ the wharf, his legs dangin’ over the river, takin’ no notice a’ the mermaids which were swarmin’ ‘round the pilings. He didn’t turn when I called—it was almost like he couldn’t hear me. The fish paused for a second, then continued to climb up to Z.

“Oy!” I yelled again, runnin’ down the plank, “get away from him!”

One a’ them, perched on the edge right behind Z, turned to look at me as I was runnin’ toward them. She was easily the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen; she had large, dark, liquid eyes and scarlet lips that seemed to glow in the shadows, dark hair fallin’ like a waterfall over pale skin that glistened in the moonlight. She smiled at me, and reached a hand out for Z.

I reached the end a’ the wharf and shoved her roughly back into the river.

Z turned when he heard me right behind him, just in time to see the drowner disappear off the side.

“Was that a mermaid?” he asked.

“Yeh,” I said shortly, “and there’s more. C’mon.”

Z stood up, none too fast, and pulled out an asher. He twirled it ‘round his fingers and glanced down at the water sorta smilin’, not movin’.

“C’mon,” I said again, a little hot. He shook his head, and beckoned to me. I shrugged irritably and took a step to look over the edge.

The mermaids had stopped swarmin’ and were just driftin’ ‘round the wharf gazin’ up. When they saw me they all gathered, hands reachin’ up and invitin’, and I stepped back pretty damn quick. I heard a chorus a’ disappointed shrieks.

“Ok,” I said, “they ain’t swarmin’ but they’re still there and I don’t want to take my chances against them. C’mon, let’s go.”

“Light me first,” Z said, puttin’ the cig in his mouth. If I coulda dragged him I would a’, but it weren’t possible by then. I got out my flamebit and lit up for him, and then we left the wharf, me tryin’ to hurry and Z takin’ his sweet time. Neither a’ us said anything, but we both knew we were done for the night. We got back to out warehouse, and I settled down to try to sleep for a couple hours, since there weren’t nothin’ better for me to do, and Z sat by the east window, waitin’ for the sun.

“Why didn’t yeh hurry?” I asked suddenly. In the darkness I thought I saw Z turn his head. “Do yeh know what even two minutes in the water would do to you?” I sure as hell did.

“I’m sorry if I annoyed you,” Z said quietly. “It wasn’t on purpose. Good night, Tam.”

It weren’t really an answer, but apologies are pretty rare and I ain’t going to turn one down just cause it ain’t exactly what I was lookin’ for.

“S’ok,” I replied. “Goodnight, Z.”

Chapter five

Nothin’ happened during the day. I woke up after about five hours of damn uncomfortable sleep, just about mid-morning, and got another look at Z in the light. The whiskey and salt were helpin’, but not as much as I’d a’ liked. I went over him again, with him standin’ full in the light comin’ through the window, and it took me nearly three hours, but he looked a little better for it afterwards. Then I had somethin’ to eat, and to have two good meals less than a day apart seemed like the best that could be got out a’ life right at that moment. After lunch I lit ashers for us and we settled into the sunlight.

“When we go out tonight,” I said, “we better avoid the river as much as we can.”

“We’re going out again?” Z asked.

“As opposed to what?” I sighed. “Look, it was a half-elf that told us to come down here, yeah? And he sure as hell weren’t sendin’ us to the drowners for help, so I was thinkin’—maybe we should head to elf territory.”

“Tam, I realize things are getting a little desperate, but there is no way in hell I am consenting to you walking into the elf reservation, just like that.”

“Fine,” I said. “I ain’t suggestin’ it. I’m thinkin’ maybe we should just sorta wander in that direction and see…”

“See what?”

I shrugged.

“We gotta do somethin’.”

“You’re beginning to sound like a broken record,” Z smiled, drawin’ on his cig. “Yes, I know, you’re right. We’ll go.”

“And, speakin’ a’ going out, let’s make a deal, maybe,” I said. Z nodded agreeably. “How about, from now on, whenever I suggest somethin’, yeh don’t object unless yeh got a better idea.”

“Or a really excellent reason not to execute your idea?”

“Sure.” Z knew a lot more than I did. Most a’ it was useless from my point a’ view—I mean from a practical point a’ view—but every once in a while he’d learned somethin’ in books that I hadn’t already learned from experience. He’d saved me some hard experiences that way.

“Done,” Z smiled. “Did you get enough sleep?”

“Not nearly,” I grinned, rueful, “but I ain’t lying back down on that floor. My back’s damn near twisted right round. Yeh all right to stay here for a couple hours?” He nodded. “All right, I’m going to go out and see if I can see a way through to the edge a’ the warehouses that don’t take us near the water.”

“All right,” Z said, throwin’ his cigarette end away. “Light me another cigarette first.”

“Would a’ thought dyin’ would at least make yeh cut down,” I remarked, muffled cause a’ the asher.

“Ha,” Z said. “Remember when Kar tried to get me to quit?”

“She was a snake anyway,” I remarked. “I was never happier’n when that was over.”

Z laughed and promised not to stir or try to light his own cigs while I was out, and I left.

Chapter six

I wandered round the wharves and warehouses for a good two or three hours and didn’t get anywhere worth gettin’. I kept comin’ back to the river, not on purpose but rivers tend to be draws. Normally draws only work if yeh’re a spark, which I weren’t, but sometimes, if it’s old enough and strong enough, it’ll pull everything to it, and our river was old and strong as they come. It had its source somewhere south and east and so steeped in magic that there weren’t even legends about it, just whispers. No one ever went explorin’ in that direction. Our city was generally thought to be too far east for comfort but the river was too strong a draw for us to leave. One legend I had heard, or rather, Z had dug it up somewhere and told me. He found an old, unbound manuscript that said the Staircase was there, a set a’ monstrous stairs built by giants cause they thought they could make war on the god, which explains why giants ain’t around anymore.

It also said that the last dragon lived there, but I weren’t sure I believed in dragons.

None a’ which has anything to do with the story I’m tellin’ now.

So, I kept gettin’ drawn back to the river, and every time I came in sight a’ it I saw mermaids flippin’ about on the surface, shakin’ out their hair and stretching their hands out seductively, but I knew enough to stay away from them. I also found that I was bein’ drawn east, not by design, really, although I knew that that’s where the elves are. Then, without warning I rounded the corner of a warehouse and saw the road crumble into nothin’ before me and a green field with a line a’ trees on the farther side, first outpost a’ the forest that rose darkly behind it. The field weren’t all that green, really, although it mostly was, what with the rain we’d been havin’, and it weren’t real smooth either, with grass up to the knee and brambles crawlin’ out a’ hollows, but it was completely unexpected and down by the river it was beautiful, even to me who ain’t really got an eye for that kinda thing. The river bank was all smooth pebbles except where the weeping willows grew right on the edge, dipping their roots into the water. There were bulrushes and water lilies in the pools sheltered by rocks, and I could see it run off into the forest through a dim green tunnel a’ trees. On the south bank the field stretched out and rose gradually into a series a’ low hills that made the horizon, with just the faint blue shades a’ the mountains behind them.

I stopped like I’d run into a wall and stared for a good five or ten minutes before my brain started workin’ again. Then I lit myself a cigarette and sat on a broken down wall, and thought what to do. Thing is, in a city built by a drawing river any place yeh don’t hear about yeh don’t hear about for a reason, sometimes a good one and sometimes a really, really bad one.

The forest on the far side a’ the field was the elves’ reserve, I was pretty sure. The field itself I’d never heard anything about, which as I said was disturbing, but there was a chance it was a good thing. Anyway, it looked quiet enough now in the daylight—the question bein’, a’ course, what it would look like after dusk when it got dark enough for somethin’ to sneak up on you if that somethin’ had the inclination to do so. And I had no idea whether the elves claimed that field as their territory too and whether we’d be considered trespassers if we walked out onto it. But, on the other hand, we could get right up to the edge a’ it and see without bein’ too easily seen ourselves, and the moon was waxin’ so it’d be light enough that we weren’t takin’ too much of a risk just comin’ to the corner a’ the last warehouse. It weren’t ideal but ideal ain’t what I was askin’ for. It was somethin’ that could be helpful and anything that looked like it might be somethin’ was a welcome change to me just then.

Chapter seven

I got up and started back, keepin’ a sharp eye out for landmarks and keepin’ all the twists and turns a’ the streets in my mind. Fortunately I’d always had a good sense a’ direction which is more than could be said for Z. I got back just as the sun was touchin’ the top a’ the highest warehouse and found my friend sittin’ at the window, twitchin’ a pack a cigarettes between his hands and gazin’ pensively at the sun. Twitchin’ the ashers like that was a habit he had when he was cravin’ but couldn’t smoke—he’d sorta cup one hand and then roll it and push his palm up, and the pack would jump up and do a little spin and land neatly in his other hand. It had an unsettling, mesmerizing effect that used to bother the hell out a’ me when we were younger.

He looked up when I opened the door.

“Well?” he said. “Did you find anything?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Least, I think I did. I dunno. But we can go check it out tonight and it won’t be too dangerous. If it don’t look like somethin’ worth riskin’ we can leave and no one will know we were there. I hope.”

“Tam,” Z said patiently, “you’re speaking in riddles. What did you find?”

“Big field with a wood beyond it,” I replied. “Pretty too, down by the river. I guess that’s the elves’ wood beyond it, but I dunno what to think about the field. We can stay in the shadow a’ the warehouses and get a good look at it before we try to cross it.”

“A field?” Z repeated, frownin’. “Everyone knows the elves have a wood, but a field…”

I shrugged. “I ain’t never heard a’ it either,” I said. Z handed me the cigarettes absentmindedly, still thinkin’. I lit one for him, then I ate dinner and gave sleepin’ on the floor another go for a couple a’ hours until it got to be dusk and Z woke me.

We made our way through the warehouses without too much trouble, although in the dark I got turned around once or twice, and we got to the edge a’ the field when the moon was high and we had a clear view a’ everything going on. And unlike durin’ the day, there was play going on.

Right down by the river a gypsy camp was set up, but it weren’t human gypsies. Their wagons were lighter, carved like vines and clouds, almost too pretty for a heavy word like wagon and they were drawn by stags with wicked looking horns. In the moonlight I could see that those horns had been sharpened. I couldn’t see much a’ the people, just a gleam a’ hair or a sparkle from an eye when someone moved in the firelight, but I could tell they weren’t human. For one thing, some a’ them were leapin’ around to the tune of an extraordinary well played flute in a way that would a’ made any real human turn his ankle on a tusset a’ grass and crack his head in less’n a minute. For another thing, some a’ them were light blue.

Also, the fire was sometimes burnin’ bright blue, sometimes bright green, and once or twice it flared up ruby red with gold all at the edges.

“What the hell is this?” I breathed.

“It’s not the corpse circus,” Z replied, and I could hear the laugh in his voice.

“Damn right,” someone said in the shadows behind us.

I jumped up and turned round as fast as I could, not cause I had any ideas about fightin’ back, though a’ course I was ready to throw a punch or two if it looked like it might help things—mostly I just wanted to make sure it weren’t an elf or a vamp sneakin’ up. Z, however, still with a little laugh in him somewhere, stood up so slowly I weren’t sure he was going to make it all the way. When he finally turned around and faced them, though, and the moonlight caught his ravaged face, they fell back and I saw hands go to hilts.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” Z asked quietly. I lit an asher for him, and in the brief light a’ the flame I caught a glimpse a’ what was surroundin’ us. Halvers. Four a’ them. That weren’t any better than a vampire, but at least it weren’t elves. One a’ them stepped forward and said:

“You aren’t a zombie.”

Z shook his head.

The four a’ them glanced at each other, eyes flickin’ back and forth together. I’d heard in certain situations halvers could communicate mind to mind, but I hadn’t thought it was true.

“Come down to the fire with us. Come see Suora.”

It ain’t any use arguin’ with halvers. We went.

Every once in a while yeh meet someone with an elfish name, but most a’ them are hereditary, some ancestor who was unluckier—or luckier, dependin’ on your point a’ view—than most and got involved with an elf. But I’d heard stories about kids who seemed to stop agin’ after a while, kids with gold eyes and single parents who always seemed to be in trouble. It ain’t strictly legal—the elves don’t care enough to stop it from happenin’, but half-elves tend to be sparky little bastards with a penchant for mischief and a refusal to be a well-adjusted part a’ human society, and the elves won’t take them either. Most a’ the time the human parent ain’t prosecuted even if elfish descent can be proved, and good luck findin’ the elfish parent, but even so I’d heard that elfish bastards were gotten rid of as fast as possible. If yeh really want to find a half-elf, you’ll have better luck with the urchins on the street than anywhere else. At least, that’s what I’d always heard.