Author’s Note: This is the second half of the previous chapter, which has been updated on that page as well. This page is being posted to ping those who follow the story via RSS or WordPress, and will not be linked in the archives.
The author apologizes for the schedule disruption and greatly appreciates everyone’s patience and understanding regarding the ongoing mental health issues that cause these events.
Fortunately none of them were standing in the path of the abrupt scenery change which immediately followed; rather than the subtle alteration the Manor had used to change their path behind them, this was swift, physical, and violent. Segments of the corridor’s walls behind and ahead of them slammed across the hallway, impacting the opposite walls with a deeply ominous boom and sealing the group in a space barely ten feet long.
“Professor,” Lord Rhadid said with impressive calm, “your thoughts?”
“I’m sorry, I would have warned you,” Eric babbled, “but you have to understand, meeting friendly agents of the household is most unusual and they are described more often as spectral than biologically undead, and besides, no adventurer’s account describes encountering a Manor servant this early on! They occasionally appear later in an excursion, when an explorer has passed multiple trials—”
His Lordship raised his voice to interrupt. “Professor. Fault can be discussed when we are not trapped like rats. Have you any thoughts on remedying this situation?”
“Oh. Um, I…yes.” Eric ran a trembling hand over his beard. “Well. That is, no precise parallel occurs to me, but, I think, generally…”
“How ’bout we try apologizing and asking nicely?” Owl suggested.
“Leave it to me!” Admestus proclaimed, swaggering forward to stand before the section of wall which had emerged to block their path. He cleared his throat, straightened his lapels, and ran a hand over his hair, then flung himself to his knees with a wail of dismay. “OH GODS I’M SORREEEE! It was all an accident, we didn’t mean to kill the zombie. SHE DID IT! HER!” He pointed behind him with one hand in Tamara’s general direction, pawing obsequiously at the wall with the other. “This is a terrible misunderstanding! Oh, gods, I don’t wanna die like thiiiiissss…”
He trailed off, bawling at the top of his lungs, alternately drumming on the wall with his fists and kissing it.
“Stop it, Admestus,” Rhadid ordered. “Professor Ahlstrom, I am waiting.”
“Right,” Eric said unsteadily. “Well, as a general rule, the Manor is not unreasonable; accidents occur under pressure. Owl has the right of it, in fact. When one errs, a good faith effort to make amends will do much to restore the house’s good graces.”
“How?” Tamara demanded, pointing with her still-unsheathed sword at the fallen zombie. It was groaning intermittently, its torso flopping this way and that, seemingly too weak to move in a goal-directed fashion with only one arm. Unsettlingly, its other arm and disconnected legs were both shifting feebly as well.
“Well,” said Rhadid, “that seems a start. Admestus, time to earn your salary.”
Admestus broke off licking the wall to look inquisitively at him. “I…I thought I was. You…you want me to seduce the house? I don’t know, I’ve never gotten it on with an edifice. But hey, if it’s for the good of the—”
“Enough!” Rhadid barked, showing the first open irritation he had betrayed this far. “Get over there and fix that creature, and cease your asinine noisemaking!”
“How the hell is this load gonna fix a busted zombie?” Tamara asked skeptically while Admestus scuttled over to the fallen undead without further comment. “I seriously doubt he can put on his pants unassisted.”
“Can’t,” Admestus agreed, having arrived at the zombie’s side in a slide on his knees, already reaching into the pouches attached to his belt of holding for his supplies. “That’s why I make it a point never to have my pants off alone. Well, one reason. Okay, little buddy, you just hang in there. Uncle Rafe’s gonna make it all better.”
Another low moan sounded around them—not from the zombie, but the house. This time, the floorboards actually shivered beneath their feet.
“Quickly, please,” Lord Rhadid suggested.
“Excuse me,” Eric protested, “but it’s a known principle that you cannot raise or significantly modify undead using alchemy alone. Any method of practical necromancy requires the active use of at least two of the four schools of magic, and most call for shadow magic as well!”
“It is for good and specific reason that I chose this imbecile as my alchemical specialist,” Rhadid replied calmly.
“Stop, I’m gonna blush!” Admestus trilled, even as he worked. Pulling the fragments of the zombie back together was the easy part; holding them in the right position proved more challenging, when the creature wouldn’t stop its weak thrashing. “Listen, guy, you’re gonna have to hold still. If I gotta immobilize you it’s just gonna mess you up even more.”
The zombie groaned, turning its mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth in his direction, but actually stopped wriggling. At least, its torso did.
“Reflex action, huh?” Admestus grunted, wrestling the still-twitching arm into place after pulling both ends of its sleeve apart. “’sokay, I can work with this…”
While he hadn’t attempted this specific feat before, he was no stranger to working rapidly, under pressure, and in adverse conditions. Admestus swiftly bound the two pieces of severed arm together with curse-briar twigs and enchantment-grade copper wire, liberally sprayed the resulting makeshift splint with a solution of skeleton dust and dilute panacea potion which he mixed in a small perfume bottle, and finally applied one drop of unicorn tear to reactivate the briars. Immediately they began to spread, twining up and down the zombie’s emaciated arm until its broken part was encased in a cast of rough, dark wood, the enchanting wires completely buried within.
“Okay, how’s that work?” he asked, ignoring both the nervous faces peering over his shoulder and another rattle of the floorboards. “You got a full range of motion? Cos, full disclosure, I’m kinda spitballing here and if that’s not holding together I’ll obviously wanna try something different on the other bit.”
The zombie carefully flexed its arm, seemingly without effort. Then it formed a thumbs up with the reattached hand and moaned wetly at him.
“All right!” Admestus said cheerfully. “We are in business! Tammy, babe, I’m gonna need you to hold his legs down.”
“I’m not touching that fucking thing,” she snapped.
“Omnu’s balls,” Owl grunted, dropping to the floor beside Admestus to help wrestle the still-kicking legs into position. “We don’t have time for this.”
Fortunately the zombie was skeletal enough that only its lower spine needed to be repaired to rejoin the two halves of its body. Minutes later, Admestus and Owl were carefully helping it to stand back up.
The undead opened its jaw wide, emitting a long groan.
“You’re welcome, ol’ chap!” Admestus said brightly. “I’d clap you on the back, but…y’know.”
“All right,” Rhadid said, looking around at their enclosure. “I note that the building itself has ceased making threatening noises, but we are still here.”
“Based on all my reading,” said Eric, “this should be…a start. I’m sorry, my lord, it’s out of precedent for us to have been greeted by a house servant this soon in our trek and I frankly don’t know what it signifies that we first botched it and then tried to repair the damage.”
“What do you mean, we?” Owl asked, turning a pointed stare on Tamara. She flipped him off.
“Well, we’re halfway there!” Admestus said cheerily, having picked up the fallen bottle of brandy and sole surviving glass. He poured himself a shot and then held it aloft. “Your health, zombie house!”
They all stared while he tossed it back.
“What are the odds that was poisoned?” Owl asked.
“I told you,” said Eric, “the Manor doesn’t poison people with drink freely offered.”
“Besides,” Admestus added haughtily, “an alchemist is never poisoned. Unthinkable!”
“Nine tenths of the shit you do is unthinkable,” Tamara informed him.
“Anyway,” Eric continued, “this is likely to make our way a little more perilous, at least until we’ve earned back some favor with the house. Forgiven is not forgotten.”
The low groan which resonated through the floorboards was too perfectly timed to have been coincidence. The zombie, now leaning against the wall, added an echoing moan, making an awkward rolling motion with its head that might have been a disjointed nod.
“He came out of here, didn’t he?” Owl stepped past the injured undead to open the only door in this section of the hall with them—as he had said, the one through which the zombie had abruptly emerged minutes ago. The thief poked his head in. “Hey, this looks like a lounge. ‘Splains why a waiter came outta here. There’s another door.”
“Well…there you go,” Eric said nervously, hitching up his satchel upon his shoulders. “Shall we?”
“Tamara,” Lord Rhadid said pointedly, nodding toward the zombie waiter, “is there something you would like to say to our new acquaintance?”
She looked at him, then at the zombie. It groaned at her. Tamara curled her lip and pushed past Owl into the lounge. “I’ll take point.”
The rest followed, Rhadid and Eric both pointedly bowing to the zombie in passing. Through the door was a wood-paneled room longer than it was wide, with several deeply-padded seats and low tables, a roaring hearth along one of its shorter walls and a long bar backed by a sizable stock of bottles against the side. The party moved through it without pausing to appreciate the scenery; the room’s other door was positioned to emerge into the same hallway from which they had just come, past the obstruction the Manor had placed across it.
When they emerged, however, the hallway was clear. It extended emptily in both directions, with no sign of either the barrier walls or the injured zombie.
As if to summarily squash any relief they might have dared to feel, another tremor rumbled through the floorboards, this one accompanied by a low growl that sounded like the product of something alive. The group froze momentarily, then Lord Rhadid turned to Eric.
“We need to keep moving,” the dwarf said urgently. “It seems we’re not forgiven yet, after all; that must be earned. The faster we go, the more we will encounter, and that will lead to opportunities to impress the Manor positively. But there can be no more incidents like that! If we offend the house again while already on its bad list…”
“You heard the Professor,” Rhadid said firmly, casting a swift glance across the lot of them. “No mistakes from here. You must be fully on alert, but do not act without thinking!”
He finished his instruction staring at Tamara, and then stood there holding her gaze, even as the house groaned beneath them again. Finally she bowed her head, albeit sullenly.
“Understood, Lord Rhadid.”
“Good. Owl, Professor, take the lead again, please, and proceed at such a pace that you do not risk charging into a trap. You,” he pointed at Tamara, “go right behind them. Step forward to defend if and only if Professor Ahlstrom informs you of the necessity. Admestus, with me. Have countermeasures at the ready in case we are flanked, but again, look before acting.”
“Yes, sir, your Lordliness!” Admestus chirped, throwing a deliberately off-kilter salute. “If it’s all the same to you, milord, I shall also think before acting!”
“What the hell is he gonna do?” Tamara grumbled as they started moving up the hall. “Spritz perfume on the next monster?”
“Ooh, now there’s an idea!” Admestus chattered. “Monster perfume! But…what would be the market? There’s something there, I know it, but I’ll have to mull that. Meanwhile, I’ve got this!”
He pulled out a jar which filled the hallway with a clean white glow, causing the whole group to pause and turn back toward him.
“Lightning in a bottle,” he said in answer to the unasked question.
“Okay, but…not literally, though, right?” Eric replied.
Admestus stared at him without expression and replied tonelessly. “Everything I have ever said has been completely literal.”
The house shuddered around them. Several nearby doors rattled in their frames.
“Move,” Rhadid ordered, and they set off up the hall again.
“Now that you mention perfume,” Admestus added, “I do have a spray bottle full of flesh-dissolving acid!”
“I recommend you stop making statements which our host might construe as threats,” Eric advised.
“Pshaw, what, little old me? I’m the genius who put the waiter back together, remember? I’m officially the house’s favorite person here. It knows I’m harmless! Don’cha, ol’ girl?”
He patted a doorframe in passing, then leaped away across the hall with a yelp when the door jerked inward, revealing that both it and its frame were lined with jagged fangs, and then slammed back shut.
“Did you see that?” Tamara yelled. “It tried to bite him! The fucking house tried to bite him!”
“You gotta figure most of the people he meets get to that point sooner or later,” Own remarked.
“Wait,” Rhadid ordered, and they came to a stop, watching him. The group pulled a bit closer together as another distinctly animal growl sounded from within the walls—a very, very large one, the noise coming from both sides of the hallway and seeming to move as if whatever made it was progressing through the rooms nearby. Only Rhadid kept complete composure, standing somewhat apart from the group.
He stepped across the hall and back two yards to another door, and carefully tried the latch.
Fortunately for him, Rhadid had not been boasting about his credentials; his reflexes were not those of a man who lived comfortably on inherited wealth. He no sooner touched the latch than retreated, and thus was out of range when the door burst inward and a gigantic forked tongue lashed out across the hallway to strike the opposite wall. The door was also lined with fangs—bigger ones, this time—and emitted a truly deafening ursine roar before slamming shut again.
The floorboards trembled more violently beneath them, and suddenly, all the torches lining this stretch of hallway flickered out.
“If anyone is wondering,” Admestus announced, “the damp stain spreading on my pants is from my reagent bottles. Cork must’ve come loose.”
Lord Rhadid drew his sword, turning back to study the group thoughtfully, running his eyes over each of them. Then he nodded once as if deciding something and strode forward. “Very good, I have an idea. Everyone, step away from that door.” He pointed with his rapier at another one on the same side of the hall as the door which he had just narrowly escaped. “Tamara, try the latch.”
“Are you joking?” she demanded.
“No,” Rhadid said calmly, as if that were a perfectly serious question, and came to a stop right alongside her. “I will be right here with you, don’t worry. I know what I am doing.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” she snapped. “What’s your bloody great idea?”
The floor actually rippled beneath them, causing Eric and Admestus to stumble. For a moment the hardwood had surged like the surface of a disturbed pool; in the aftermath it was left firm as ever and undamaged. Another hungry growl resounded, this time definitely from the door Rhadid had indicated.
“The first step,” he said evenly, “was to hire a mercenary with the understanding that she would not be paid if she did not follow my orders.”
Tamara held his stare, her jaw muscles working; Rhadid simply gazed dispassionately back.
“This had better work,” she growled at last, turning to the door and drawing one of her wands. “Whatever the fuck this even is, it had better work. Ready?”
“When you are,” Rhadid replied, nodding.
She swallowed once, held her wand up at the ready, and with her other hand, reached out and turned the latch.
Tamara immediately jumped back, barely avoiding the meaty tongue which flopped out at her. The tooth-lined door frame snapped repeatedly, roaring loudly enough to disturb her hair.
Rhadid stepped back at the same time, then once again to place himself behind her. As Tamara dodged to the side, he nimbly shifted and planted a powerful snap kick right in the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and straight into the tongue.
Tamara managed to yell once, and as the fanged door slammed shut behind her there came a flash and snap of her wand discharging. Then silence.
The torches came back on. There was no more growling, no trembling of the floor; just a quiet hallway stretching away in both directions.
Rhadid reached out carefully with his sword, pushing down on the latch of the door that had just eaten Tamara until it clicked and the door, creaking quietly, eased an inch or so inward. He then planted the tip of the sword against the wood and gave it a push. The door swung open to reveal a quiet little study. Nothing but bookshelves lining the walls, and in one corner a desk with an oil lamp atop it, an overstuffed armchair pulled up alongside.
“As I thought,” Lord Rhadid said lightly, sheathing his sword. He stepped over, grasped the latch, and pulled the door gently shut. “The house is perfectly able to distinguish friend from foe. I think we shall have much less trouble from here. Remember to think before acting, everyone, and mind your manners. Well?” With no more ado he strode past them, heading on up the hallways. “On we go.”
The three of them stared after him in silence for a few seconds while the distance between them grew. Then, almost in unison, they hurried to catch up. There was really nothing else they could do.