Chapter 23 — Sunday Afternoon, June 8 – Approaching Their Fears
As Animus headed across the market place, someone called out his name from the direction of the stables. Changing course slightly, he headed that way. It turned out Cleo had left some silver arrows for him with Duncan. Animus gave him a copper for being a sharp look-out.
Glancing back at Dorothy and Eeek, he saw that the two of them were staying under the tree but that her three friends were moving towards the church. Well, he wasn’t going to Grace’s meeting himself, so it wasn’t any business of his, really.
He stopped by his room in the inn to get his climbing gear, then headed to the beach. At the far end of the sand, a fairly shear rock cliff shot up at the base of Monolith Mountain. It would be daunting for any but an experience climber but Animus considered it not much of a challenge for himself, and began to climb.
Cleo turned to him. “What are you talking about?”
“Let’s forget for the moment that Grace called this meeting to discuss a diplomatic mission to the undead at the Withers estate…”
Cleo shook her bow. “If that bloody ghoul comes after us again, I’m going to be ready.”
“That brings me to my second point. Silver is the weapon of choice, being a metabolic poison, for things with an elevated metabolism, like werewolves. Undead basically don’t have a metabolism. They run on shear willpower and magic alone.”
“Well, if Flummox there chops off a leg, they won’t be doing much running. And if I stick an arrow in an eye socket, they won’t be seeing right through my arrow, now will they?”
Rufus nodded. “Right, as far as it goes. And the traditional method of killing a vampire to put a wooden stake through its heart. NOT because there is any blood flowing there any more, but because, in the arcane, the heart is the symbolic vessel of emotion and willpower. You didn’t actually hit that monster in the heart, did you?”
Cleo shook her head. “Nah, I was in a hurry. So, we can rip ‘em apart, but can’t make ‘em bleed. And silver you say…?”
“Save it for the werewolves.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
Grace pouted. “I’m trying to arrange a parley and you two are plotting how to murder our hosts.”
Grace’s shoulder’s dropped as she huffed in exasperation. “Then let’s get this meeting going. Remember, I filled you in my vision, but let’s not tell anybody else about it. I mean you guys believe me, but … uh, you do, don’t you?”
Sapphire put an arm around Grace’s shoulders. “Of course we do, dear. We all caught an echo of it. Thanks for fleshing out the details.”
Sapphire looked at the others. “Bones, I’m sure you’ll be welcome, in case things go sour. But what are you doing here, Billy?”
Billy Sky looked defiant. “If these are the people who dug up my mother, I want to find out what they have to say for themselves. It ain’t right. I want to get her back.”
The scarecrow spoke first. “Well, we talked it over, and given that, at the very least, we are stuck here for a good long time, and that Dorothy and Eeek are in no danger from the wicked witch as long as they stay here in town, and you, our hosts, are besieged with problems, well, we thought we should help out.”
Sapphire blinked repeatedly. “We’re going to confront the undead, you know?”
The tin man banged on his chest, which gave a hollow ring. “Won’t bother me, I’m metal. Maybe I can help.”
“Not me.” Everyone looked at the lion. “I’m not scared, ya know. It’s just that, well, I’m the king of the beasts, you know. I think I can help out more on the farms. Wolves don’t scare me none.”
Sapphire shook her head. “Oh well then, you’d probably better link up with Woody, so he can make introductions. You don’t want to scare the poor farmers, now do you? You are quite – ferocious looking, you know.”
The lion pulled on his own tail. “Well shucks, I do have that effect on people, don’t I? I’ll go look for Woody then.”
Sapphire rounded on the scarecrow. “And what about you? Are you coming to meet the Withers too?”
The scarecrow put his hand to his chin. “Well, I’m not much good in a fight, it being so easy to knock the stuffing out of me. But I am interested in your advice. I’m awfully good with needle and thread, and handy with all manner of tools. Is there any way I can help out?”
Sapphire nodded. “Why don’t you look up Captain Flang? He’s short-handed at his shop, and now has the job of refitting the Narwhale. I bet he’d be glad of the help.”
“Then I will do just that. Thank you so much for your advice. Come on, Lion!” The two of them headed back out of the church.
The group now moved to the front of the church, where the clergy were waiting for them.
Grace gave a little curtsy. “Thank you, Father.”
The priest scanned the group. “This is wonderful. I didn’t expect so many of you to take up this holy mission.”
Grace nodded. “Making peace with the Withers is important to everyone.”
The priest frowned. “Many of your friends are armed, though.”
Cleo stepped forward. “We must be able to defend ourselves. But, if they wish to behave, all the better.”
Padre Paul looked a little nervous. “Very well. But you do not yet have an agent of the church assigned to go with you. Friar Tuck, I think it falls to you to go back there.”
Tuck shook his head and pushed at the air with his hands. “Oh, no! I’m not going back there. I still feel the touch of those cold hands, when I’m trying to sleep at night. My hair still has the foul stench of that fountain. Not me! I’m staying right here.”
Flummox put his hand over his mouth. “I think it’s the smell of Dahlia’s salve, rather than the muck from the fountain.”
The priest looked sad. “But I cannot go, I have a church to run. Mother Theresa must care for Maude. And, I cannot ask Sister Schubert to go.”
The young nun jumped up. “What? Can I go? I want to go. Let Tuck stay here, let me go instead. Please? Can I, can I?” She bounced up and down on her toes as she clasped her hands together and looked longingly at the priest.
Padre Paul shoulders drooped and shook his head. “All right then. But you will have a serious responsibility on this mission. There is to be no killing — of anyone. The Church will help anyone, and I mean anyone, who asks for our protection. You must be firm in this.”
The sister’s smile beamed out as she jumped for joy. “Yes! I get to go this time! Great! Let’s go!” She headed for the door of the church, and the bemused party of adventurers followed her.
A fair number of winged monkeys flew around the cave. Occasionally, the witch came out and conversed with them. Occasionally one would go into the cave. By taking careful note of the markings, Animus decided there must be six of the winged beasts. “Too many to take on at once,” he muttered. “I’d say guerilla warfare is in order. Ha, ha, no pun intended, thank you very much. But unfortunately, my little bow is definitely not going to be able to take out a witch, or probably not even a winged monkey. Unless…” He peered at the rocks below.
Taking careful aim, he shot one of the monkeys, pinning a wing to its shoulder, just as it launched itself from the ledge. It plummeted to the rocks below, and never moved again. The monkeys screamed in rage and began to circle the area, searching. Animus stayed low behind the rocks until one winged monkey came close to his position. Another arrow flew, this one taking a monkey through an eye socket, and it fell like lead.
At this, the other monkeys screamed even louder and shot towards Animus’s position. “Oh crap.” He drew his little skinning knife and readied himself for the charge. Fortunately, they came at him piece-meal. He was able to score a wound on the first one’s reaching arm before the next arrived. This one grabbed his knife arm. He used his left hand to punch it in the head, but it hung on until a third arrived. The first one, still bleeding, approached again. They tried to surround him, grabbing at his quiver of arrows . The one clinging to him sank his teeth into Animus’s arm. Animus knocked him loose with a head butt, his leather helmet giving him some protection, but unfortunately he lost his knife. Hands with the strength of iron gripped him from behind, and Animus had a rueful thought about being sorry that he was always right, in particular that he couldn’t take on the lot of them all at once.
Suddenly, something heavy crashed into them. A large tree branch rose and fell, crushing one side of the bleeding monkey. The three remaining monkeys took flight, as a giant white beast ripped the wings off the injured one with his teeth, and threw the body over the side of the mountain. In some ways it resembled a gorilla with white fur; in other ways it resembled a hairy man of great stature, or perhaps a troll.
Animus crept slowly towards where his knife lay upon the ground. The beast gave a grunt and leapt to Animus, coming face-to-face with him, and sniffed. Animus froze, and the beast sniffed more. “Eeek?” Its breath was horrible.
Animus closed his eyes. “You must be Eeek’s mother.”
The beast backed away and sat on its haunches. “Eeek?”
Animus rose, noting that a hairy woman might have been a better description. He stood on the rock outcropping and pointed downward toward the town. “Eeek! Eeek is there. He’s okay.”
The beast bounced around, shaking her head, and spraying spittle everywhere. “Eeek!”
Animus held out his hand. “Come with me to town, we’ll go get Eeek.”
The beast shook her head, spraying more spittle. She grabbed Animus’s hand. “Eeek!” She pulled him around and pointed back at the cave. “Eeek?” Suddenly silent and immobile, her big dark eyes filled with tears.
Animus pulled free his hand and patted her muscular arm. “Don’t you worry. I will bring Eeek back to you. Eeek! Okay?”
The white fury mass of muscle wiped a tear from her eye and stared mournfully down at the town.
“Hmm, I think I have a better way to deal with those winged monkeys. Clearly not just dumb animals. Those nets I made should come in very handy.” Carefully, he started back down the mountain.
Woody and the lion said goodbye to the group assembled in front of the gate to the Withers estate. “I’d like to introduce Lion to the young miss Autumn. Joan and her brother are all that’s left of the Autumn family. Those poor kids are still trying to work the farm.” They headed on down the road, while the rest gathered around the gate.
Flummox put it away with a smirk. “Just thought I’d offer.”
Grace leapt forward and put a hand on her shoulder. “Cleo, how about you take up the rear — guard our backs. Your bow will do the most good there, to keep us safe.” Cleo nodded, and held the gate wide, for the rest of the party.
Scooter slipped through the gate silently, clutching his mail sack, and peering into the trees. On the left, full daylight showed an unkempt orchard; on the right were numerous huge old trees of various kinds, many dead.
Billy shook his head. “I need to find out what they did with Maw.”
Sapphire came forward. “Where?”
Rufus pointed. “Just the one. Landed in that tree there.”
Sapphire called back. “Cleo, hold your fire! We think that’s a tame bat up ahead.”
Cleo called back. “Okay. I’m not that bloodthirsty. I’ll only shoot anything that attacks us first. Or is about to. You know the old saying, ‘Do unto others before they do unto you.’ ” Rufus gave a snort.
They proceeded down the tree-lined driveway towards the fountain, and the mansion beyond. Openings between the trees lining the drive showed glimpses of the estate. On the left was a large building whose walls were riddled with bat-sized holes from top to bottom, and beyond that what might have been a kennel in its better days. On the right were several low stone structures, surrounded by gravestones, and beyond it a statue garden. As they approached, Rufus called out to the bat in a series of squeaks and squeals. “We come to speak with your masters. We mean you no harm.” The bat launched itself into the air and disappeared into the upper left window of the big old house. There was movement of a dark figure in the upper right window, then a heavy curtain fell in place.
Flummox pointed up at the big round window high in the center of the front of the house. “See there, a gem motif. That was the original source of wealth in this valley, mining. This house is built on the same pattern as the ones uptown, only a bit bigger.”
Billy nodded. “I heard they were all copied after this one.”
They arrived without incident at the front door. Flummox tried the knob, and the door swung slowly open with a groan.
A familiar voice called out from within. “So, you have returned to trouble our rest once more. You shall pay for your transgressions. Arise, my children, and defend your lord! Come to me now!” A skeletal figure in red, holding a scythe could be seen in the gloomy entrance hall.
The sound of doors creaking open came from the low stone buildings to their right, and a handful of gruesome figures emerged. Cleo’s arrow passed through the arm of one zombie, and lodged in the leg of another.
“Hold your fire!” A new voice boomed from inside the mansion. A figure cloaked in gray, also holding a scythe, came forth, grabbed the one in red by the neck as he passed, and dragged him to the door. “Please forgive my nephew, he gets over excited sometimes.” He shook the one in red. “Bloody, go to your room, and don’t come out again until you are summoned.” He released the one in red, who disappeared into the house. The one in gray turned towards the mausoleum. “You lot! Stop that moaning and come in here and make our guests welcome!” He turned to the group. While they could see nothing of his face but burning eyes beneath his hood, his tone softened. “Please, be at ease. My name is Grim. Come inside, out of the hot sun. Your questions will be answered.”
The one in gray stepped inside, holding the door wide with a skeletal hand. Slowly, carefully the group filed inside, hands on weapons at their belts. The light coming in through the filthy window gave a pale illumination to the entry hall.
At the bottom of the steps, a skeleton was holding back a much smaller skeleton, which held an axe and shield. It struggled feebly against the leash around its neck. The gray hooded figure stood in the middle of the room. “As I said, my name is Grim. When we heard of the general tolerance for undead in this valley, I brought my family here, thinking it would be a refuge. Allow me to introduce them to you. My wife, Marrow, is on the stairs there holding back our pet, Gnaw. Don’t worry; he won’t bite. Above is Ribs, escorting my nephew, Bloody, to his rooms.”
Grace glanced back at the door, where a handful of zombies were filing in. “But your family is all bones, not like these zombies at all.”
Grim nodded. “Yes, my family is very, very old. We have not, ah… recruited a new member in a very long time. We try to live harmoniously with humans. Unfortunately, it seems my nephew has ambitions to start a family of his own, and has been quite a problem of late. My deepest apologies, madam. I’ve been able to hold him in check for months now, ever since the unfortunate incident with that nun from the church, Maude, I think her name is. How is she doing, by the way?”
Sapphire looked pained. Grace put a hand on her shoulder and addressed Grim. “She is not well, and is losing a fight for her life. It is one of the reasons we have come.”
Grim shook his head. “That is unfortunate. You’ll wish to speak with the Withers to see if anything can be done. It is not my own area of expertise. But come, you will wish to speak with your old friends from the village. It is, as I said, unfortunate what Bloody has done to them, but you’ll see, they are still themselves, deep down. Nothing to be afraid of. Please, be at ease, and speak with them.” He gestured encouragingly with the bony hand that was not holding the scythe.
Sister Schubert approached each of the zombies in turn.
“I want to go home,” said the little one.
Her bigger sister held her back. “You can’t. We’re sick, and we would make Mommy and Daddy sick too. We have to stay here.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. I miss them though.”
“But we’ve got a new family here. We’ll grow up to be big and strong vampires, just like the Withers. We’ll live forever and do whatever we want. You’ll see.”
“I don’t want to be a vampire, I want to go home!” Rose buried her face in her sister’s torso, and sobbed.
Gloss shrugged. “You see how it is. She’s safest here.”
The nun shook her head sadly, and moved on.
Mrs. Autumn clutched at the nun’s shoulder with moldering hands. “Oh don’t worry about me, dearie, I’m just worried about my family. How are Joan, and Sienna, and little Spud doing?”
The nun glanced back at the others for support. “Joan and Sienna are doing fine. Fetch is there to protect them, and they’re keeping the farm running. You would be proud of them.”
Mrs. Autumn looked anxious. “And Spud? What of my darling Spud?”
The nun looked down. “I’m afraid he was taken by the wolves.”
Mrs. Autumn whirled on her husband, seizing his overall straps. “You see? If you hadn’t been gallivanting about, drinking and chasing women, we’d still be back at the farm, and you could have protected poor Spud from the wolves. But no, you have to go getting drunk and staggering home at night, falling into a ditch or something to sleep it off and me having to go out at night looking for you. See what it got us? This! Always shirking your responsibilities, you lazy bum. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Mr. Autumn knocked her hands away. “ ‘Until death do us part,’ you shrew, and we’re dead now, so you can take it all and stuff it. I’ve had enough of your harping and nagging and carrying on. ‘Do this, do that,’ well I’m done with you, hag.” He turned and marched away.
The zombie nodded and tipped an imaginary hat. “Caboose, sister, at your service. I’m sorry to have been the cause of so much trouble.”
“Oh, nonsense. You were just trying to help. And so was Maude. How are you?”
Caboose shuffled his feet. “Nothing wrong with me except what I’ve had all my life – itchy feet. I just want to get out there and hit the road again – so much of the world left to see. But I can’t like this. Nowhere would be safe for the likes of me anymore.” Caboose stared at his feet, looking dejected.
The nun threw back her shoulders. “Well, we’ll just have to see about that. Grim! We’re ready to talk with the Withers now.”
Billy Sky struck the floor with the butt of his pitchfork. “Wait a minute! What about my mother? Where is she?”
Everyone turned to Grim, who looked down at the floor. “Well, the thing you have to understand about that is, I’ve been working hard to stop Bloody from attacking any more humans. It was working for a good while, but the lure of freshly dead bodies in the graveyard was too much for him. I caught him plotting to dig them up and convert them — take them into his new, growing family — and I had to stop him.”
Billy shook his pitchfork. “What? So you dug them up yourself and, and… killed them all over again? Did you rip up their bodies and throw them in the lake or something? You monster! Where is my mother’s body?”
Grim held up his hands and shook his head. “You don’t understand. She’s fine. They are both fine. I couldn’t let Bloody dig the two of them up, and I had sworn off doing that sort of thing myself long, long ago. So, I had to persuade someone else to do it instead. I asked the Withers to convert them, to keep them away from Bloody. To keep them safe, don’t you see?”
Billy gritted his teeth. “Where is she?”
Grim turned and yelled up the staircase. “Ribs! Roust out those other two. They should come down and meet our guests.”
The skeletal warrior moved to the room at the top of the stairs, and opened the door. He looked inside, then turned back, shaking his head. Billy started forward, but Scooter held him back. Ribs went to the next door along, tried the knob, then knocked loudly at the door.
There was a brief scurrying sound, then two figures appeared, still wearing the shreds of their burial shrouds. They had been wrapped up tightly like mummies, but now various parts were exposed in revealing, and oddly erotic, ways. Hastily the two tucked in the corners of their shrouds here and there, smoothing out the wrinkles in an embarrassed way, then headed down the stairs together, hand in hand.
Billy broke free and ran to the bottom of the steps, blindly pushing Marrow and Gnaw aside. “Maw? Is that you?”
The slightly smaller figure, with white glowing eyes, seemed to notice Billy for the first time. “Billy! My boy! How did you get here?”
“I come for you, maw. What happened?”
“I’m not sure, my brave boy. I remember being sick for a long while, and then falling into a deep sleep. When I woke up, there I was beside old Master Rouge.” She gripped the other mummified figure tightly by the arm. “I have finally found the love of my life.”
Grim cleared his throat. “Um, normally a newly converted undead forms a sort of bond with the undead master that converted them. It’s a sort of imprinting behavior, like with baby ducks?” He looked around at the group, meeting mostly puzzled looks except from Rufus and Sapphire, who were nodding their heads. “Anyway, neither the Withers nor I was willing to do that to these poor souls, and we couldn’t let Bloody do it, so we arranged for them to imprint… on each other. A little awkward, perhaps, but better than the alternative.”
Billy looked angry. “But Maw, what about Paw? He’s your husband.”
Madam Sky looked at him. They could not see her face, but her eyes seemed to narrow. “He’ll be fine, dear. When I realized I was dying, I told him he should marry again. I’m sure he’ll be happiest that way. I’ve been such a burden to him, being sick for so long, and not being able to help with the kids, or with the farm anymore. I don’t really know what’s happened to me. I’m not sure I’m sick any more, but I’m definitely not well either. Best not to trouble your Paw any more, I’ve been a burden long enough. He has better things to do than worry about me. Let him live free.”
“We thought you were dead Maw. We had a funeral and everything.”
Grim put a hand on Billy’s shoulder. “She was dead. I saved her.”
Billy shook him off and went to a corner alone, his shoulders shaking.
The nun went over to the staircase. “Grandpa Rouge? Is that you?”
The larger, red-eyed mummy cackled. “You bet your booty it’s me, Sister Schubert. Who else would it be? And before you ask, I’m having the time of my life here. I just wish I weren’t so old, I still feel it in my bones.” He patted the other mummy on the arm.
She gazed back at him. “You do all right dear.”
The group stood still, looking at each other. Sapphire tossed her head. “Well, I guess we should go meet the Withers now.”
Grim went to the door nearest the bottom of the stairs, and beckoned for the adventurers to follow. “Come, step into the lair… of the vampires.” Marrow and Gnaw at his side, he chuckled as he opened the door.
“What about those guys?” Roddy waved a hand at the adventurers lounging about the beach, watching them. “Why aren’t they working?”
Caesar snorted. “Civilians. They won’t work unless they’re paid journeyman wages. It is up to us. Stay focused.”
Slick muttered. “I ought to be getting paid for this. I’m losing work because of this.”
Hound threw a handful of sand at him. “You are getting paid. You took a stipend from the Earl, same as the rest of us.”
“But this is above and beyond.”
Caesar strode past them to the water’s edge. “You there in the water!”
Caesar shook his head. “Sir Richard is watching out from the tower. Besides, they have learned to stay clear of this rabble camping on the beach. Are you finished setting those anchor points yet?”
“Yes sir, that’s the last one.”
“All right then, run the chain through the eyelets. Any boat coming ashore will hit the chain. The buccaneers will have to bail out in deep water to come ashore. We’ll meet them here at the stockade, and send them packing to the underworld.”
Roddy stood and stretched. “And who is going to fight them? You keep putting down the cops working for Chief Grief, as if they’re no good. Where is your army?”
Caesar frowned. “If you must know, Achilles is hiding in the marsh, ready to sound the alarm if they come ashore. Sir Richard is watching from the tower. Pharaoh will meet anyone approaching the bridge gate, and defeat them. I will guard the approach here on the beach.”
“And where is Cortez?”
Caesar snorted in digust. “Off praying to his god in the chapel, I imagine. But whether it is his god on the cross, or the god that jingles in his pocket, I can’t say. He’s as bad as this rabble on the beach.”
“So just one of you is enough to stop a rush on the gate or the stockade? You’re pretty confident.”
Caesar stared him down with a flinty glare. “Yes, we are. Help Plunkett with the chain.”
Grim, Marrow, and Gnaw showed the ten of them into the sitting room. The large fireplace was cold. Two figures rose from oversized chairs in front of it. In a way, they looked like classic vampires, though frail, with waxy smooth complexions, and pointy teeth, though the old man had a very ruddy complexion, where the old woman’s face was as pale as the moon.
The ruddy one raised his arm. “Please, find yourselves seats. I think we have enough. I am Master Withers, and this is my wife.”
The pale lady took it. “Thank you, Scooter. There is some to go out on the front table.”
“I already got it, Ma’am.” He touched his forehead and backed away.
When everyone was seated, including the Withers, some on the backs of sofas, save for the tin man standing, Master Withers swept them with a gaze. “Well, I think I recognize Billy Sky there. You used to sneak into the grounds and torment my bats, when you were a little boy. I had to chase you away more than once, but you kept coming back. Very brave; you impressed me. Nobody else here but us, back then, of course. Those were quiet times, and you reminded me what it was to be young and alive. But I recognize none of the rest of you. Please, introduce yourselves and tell us why you have come to visit me and my wife.” He templed his fingers in front of his mouth and fell silent.
The tin man stepped forward. “If it please Your Honor, I’m new to Founder’s Valley. Stranded here, really, and feeling very useless. I heard about the troubles between the humans and the infected ones living here on your estate, and my heart went out to you, being a bit different myself. I thought, being metal and not susceptible to diseases, I might be able to be of some assistance. Just trying to be useful, and all.”
“Very thoughtful. Thank you.”
“We were originally part of the caravan that was trapped here as a result of the horrendous storms you no doubt noticed in the middle of last week. While most of the caravan wants nothing more than to get the roads repaired and pass on through, we six, and another friend of ours not here, Animus, have changed our plans. Seeing the many perils facing the diverse peoples of this valley, we have accepted the challenge of doing our best to help everyone here, to regain safety and stability in their lives. To that end, we have come to learn from you what we can of the diseases plaguing the valley, turning people into undead and werewolves. In particular, we know of a number of folks in the town that are fighting for their lives. What can you tell us to help us with this mission of mercy.”
Master Withers slowly clapped his hands. “Well said, Grace. A very heartfelt plea, and well thought out. We want nothing but peace and tranquility, ourselves. We will help you however we can. But you obviously know a great deal already. I see there you have a copy of our book.” He pointed at Flummox.
Flummox strode forward and raised the book. “You wrote this? Sorry, but we can’t read it.”
“Bring it here.” Flummox approached and handed him the book. He examined it very briefly. “Ah yes, a simple spell to keep unauthorized eyes from prying. No matter, as the author, I can tell you what all is in it.” He slid the book beneath his own chair.
Master Withers templed his fingers again. “Let me go back into ancient history. One of my distant ancestors studied the afflictions of many of the restless undead that troubled the world. He found a commonality between them. The victims of these diseases had all lost the ability to process normal food to produce their daily allotment of manna, or energy. Their metabolism had all but shut down, you understand. However, they were still able to take sustenance by feeding on the manna, or magical – that is, spiritual – energy of others. Draining of life, drinking of blood, and so forth. Of course, there are many other sources of manna available to ones skilled in the arcane arts. For instance, my wife and I are accomplished sorcerers, and never had to resort to anything as horrific as drinking people’s blood or any of that stuff. We are much too civilized for that.” He nodded to his wife, and she gave a little bow back. “In fact, much of what we need we grow here on the estate. You know, mistletoe, fungi, herbs and the like. We used to have an adequate supply until recently. Our numbers seem to keep jumping up and up now.” He glanced at Grim, and glanced away.
Withers drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “But I digress. My ancestors also learned that the will of a newly formed undead is generally enslaved to the host creature that infected it. However, this attachment could be harnessed and redirected to good purpose. This book describes the techniques for embalming the freshly dead that my ancestors used, and how to bind them to service to the family from which they came. It also goes into the details of how to provide sustenance for them, given that they can’t create energy of their own, and a host of hygiene issues that I’m sure would bore you. But really, all that is just embellishment on taking the blood of an infected host, and using it to infect a freshly dead cadaver.”
Grace cocked her head. “But you and your wife decided to take that step while still alive?”
Master Withers nodded. “Yes, I see you know the story. There had been numerous cautions passed down through the ages about infecting living beings. One of course is the resentment that the victim would feel, and the complications of binding the will of such a one in service. But also, the younger and more robust a person, the more unpredictable the results. The more they had to lose, the more they resented being infected. Some just didn’t understand or accept what was happening to them and went violently berserk. There were many tragedies. Ultimately, it was decided well before my time that it should never be attempted. But we, we were getting very old, only kept alive by our arcane arts. We felt we could take the risk, and binding our loyalties to each other was a trivial, I’d even say redundant, step. We were, as you see, successful.”
Sister Schubert gasped. “But you’ve bound your souls to decaying bodies. You will never experience the joy of Heaven. You have damned yourselves!”
Mistress Withers raised her hand. “Not true, my child. The soul is not permanently bound. Many who take the treatment never do rise again as zombies; their souls move on. And when a body later decays beyond its usefulness, a soul may abandon it and move on. We are simply very skilled at extending the useful life of these poor bodies that came from the clay. We are not really immortal. When the time comes, we will move on to the next life, together.”
The nun looked hopeful. “So, Sister Maude…?”
Mistress Wither tried to smile kindly. She almost succeeded. “From what I hear, she is in for a very rough time. She fades away in body, but her soul will not let go. This can be a very horrible thing without friends and family to hold your hand and help you through the changes. She will only experience pain and fear. We could help her, if the church allowed.”
The nun dropped her head. “I, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask.”
Mistress Withers shook her head. “We have already offered, and been rejected. It is not for us to decide.” Sister Schubert turned away with a sob and buried her face in her hands.
Grace looked away from her, and focused on the Master. “So, what is the connection between what you do and the werewolves?”
Master Withers gazed back. “Not really obvious. They seem to have the opposite sort of condition, elevated, rather than reduced, metabolism. All I can say is that my ancestors warned against infecting any young and healthy people with the undead disease, at risk of them becoming uncontrollable – violent even. Perhaps it is an allergic reaction to the disease. Immune systems are so very complex. I just don’t know.”
Grace put a hand to her chin. “But if, say, Bloody were to try and take someone too young… Or perhaps a Zombie got out of control…”
Withers shrugged. “I don’t know, Grim and Bloody are new to this place….”
Grim stood up. “Impossible. Bloody knows the dangers.”
Sapphire waved a hand. “Yoo-hoo. Hello. He went and took the Rouge girls, quite young, didn’t he?”
Grim nodded. “And I chastised him for it. It was a big risk that thankfully broke in their favor; they were turned. I have since extracted the details of his every victim from him – none became violent. You met every one of them out in the hall.”
Grace turned back to Withers. “So what makes you feel there might be a connection, even if you can’t prove it?”
“The other families, all of whom have…” He smiled. “Or should I say, had, a copy of my work, applied it to preserving their pets. They were never supposed to raise them to be servants, except in very controlled circumstances. They seem to be doing that now, wholesale. How good their control is, I’m not sure. Animals don’t have the reasoning or communication skills of humans. And perhaps one of those undead dogs carried the werewolf vector from its past life, and passed it on, with a bite or a scratch.”
Sapphire glanced significantly at Grace. “That is definitely something we need to look into.”
Flummox gave a laugh. “They were no more inhibited from biting one of us, than any living dog is restrained by their master.”
Withers gritted his teeth. “They first began using undead dogs, as guards, just about 3 months ago – right after Bloody started taking people, which Grim has now stopped. The worst of the wolf attacks began about a month after that. I don’t know anything for sure…”
Grace nodded. “Seems suspicious.”
Withers held up a hand. “I must caution you. This is all speculation. Whether it is an immune response, a mutation of the undead disease, a second disease that came from the dogs, or all just a coincidence, with the werewolves being attracted to this valley just like so many other groups… we just don’t know. I know what works for the undead. I have never ventured to study werewolves.”
Grace looked back over her friends’ faces. “Looks like we’re going to have to collect a few werewolves and do some studying. Let’s get back to town and make some plans.” She turned to Withers. “Thank you for hospitality. May we come back again if we have more questions?”
Withers nodded. “Of course, you are welcome here any time. Grim has promised to keep Bloody under control.”
The tin man stepped forward. “And me? Can I help you here somehow? Harvest mistletoe by moonlight, or whatever?”
Withers smiled. “We can manage that quite well; it is the burning rays of the sun that cause us troubles. No natural healing. Perhaps you can be our daytime caretaker, and help make sure nothing untoward happens to visitors?”
The tin man bowed. “I would be honored.”
The nun spoke up. “Padre Paul offered anyone sanctuary at the church, if they wanted to come.” She looked terrified. “I had to ask.”
Withers shrugged. “It is not for us to say who comes or goes here. Only that they leave the good people of the valley in peace.”
“Thank you, sir.” They began filing out into the entry hall.
There, the nun raised her voice in a quaver. “Does anyone here want to go back with us to the church?”