I didn’t notice, until the handle of my office began to turn.
The building had been old when I moved in, all those years ago. Now, it was almost ancient. I had grown used to its song, a soothing lullabye of groans and creaks, shifting with the seasons and between night and day. I paid no attention to the occasional skitter of tiny claws, or the occasional skitter of much larger claws. At that time, I hadn’t noticed that what approached my door were not claws, but footsteps. Even when someone reached out to brush the dust off the sign on my door, I failed to take note. But then the handle turned, and I was suddenly alert.
My right hand tightened around Arkesis, loose in her holster. If I had eyelids, they would have narrowed. My eyebrows might have lowered, my mouth could have drawn back in frown. My left hand…but enough of that. Obviously, none of that happened.
When you’ve been dead for over a millennia, even drawing a deep breath ceases to be a reflex.
The handle turned, but the door didn’t open. Unsurprisingly, years of negligent maintenance had warped the frame. The handle rattled, and a series of thumps sounded out, as something attempted to force the door. I was almost intrigued. Firstly, that something would be trying so hard to enter my office; secondly, that they would have such a hard time. A ghoul would be able to take the door right off its hinges, as I had never bothered to reinforce it. Looters would likely be better prepared. And my old brethren…would know better than to disturb me, probably. So who would…
The door suddenly gave in, and a woman staggered in, nearly dropping her flashlight. A living human, she panted with exertion. I am not particularly conversant with mortal standards of beauty, and haven’t been for centuries, but I suspected humans would find her pretty enough. She was clean, anyway, and well dressed. I didn’t recognize either the cut or the material of her coat or clothes, but I had never been very interested in fashion, and I had been away from society…for a long time. In any event, she didn’t look familiar, or remind me of anyone I knew. So, why was she breaking into my office? I was becoming mildly interested.
My office was pitch black, and the hallway she entered from was not much better. I could see her quite clearly, of course, but just as obviously she hadn’t seen me yet. She pointed her flashlight at the boarded windows across from the door, and began to slowly pan it across my dusty, cluttered office.
I remained silent.
“Is anyone he-”
Her flashlight finally reached me, sitting at my desk, and her breath left her in gasp. She took a half step back, then visibly mastered herself and resolutely took two steps toward me. Brave girl.
“Excuse me…are you…alive? No, I mean, obviously not…um…” She stopped, flustered. I did not respond. Dark lenses covered my eyes, hiding their glow, and making me almost indistinguishable from an ordinary corpse. But she seemed to be expecting that, somehow, and faced me with no visible doubt. I was becoming more and more curious about this young woman. After a moment she continued. “Are you…Zagadactulus Invodotus Gedarsu? The…detective?”
Not bad. She mispronounced it, of course, but it had been over five hundred years since anyone had gotten my name correct on the first try. I almost responded, but the girl continued.
“I…I want to hire you. Um…Miss Metria told me where to find you. I need help. I’m…”
I tuned her out. Metria. Metricarisenikai, huh. Guess that explains that. The girl continued talking, but I was suddenly gripped by memory. Of my former brethren, Metricarisenikai was both the most annoying, and the least objectionable. I might describe him as nearly tolerable, if it weren’t for some of his unfortunate…habits. It seemed time hadn’t changed him, but that was to be expected as well. Time doesn’t change the dead.
Experience, however. Experience can change anything. From my memory came the familiar sound of claws clicking quietly on a hard surface; and then I realized that it wasn’t memory at all.
“Um…excuse me? Are you there…I mean, are you listening?” The woman nervously took a step closer.
I stood up, drawing Arkesis in the same moment. The chair I had sat on for so long fell back and shattered to pieces, but my body moved smoothly and without resistance as I raised my weapon. The girl stared, wide-eyed, down the barrel I pointed straight at her head, and she staggered back a few steps. As her mouth opened, no doubt to scream, I shifted my aim to the right a few degrees, and squeezed the trigger.
The ghoul burst through the door, lunging for the girl with a hissing cry which shifted to a scream of agony as Arkesis’ bullet struck its left temple. It flipped end over end like a Tetrical acrobat, bursting into flame as it hit the far wall. It thrashed, sending cinders all over my office, but starting no additional fires. In most senses, blessed fire is fire; but Arkesis is special.
The young woman barely glanced at the ghoul, however. She only had eyes for me, as I walked around my desk and crossed the room toward the disintegrating monster. She had dropped her flashlight, and was groping for something in her pocket as she put her back against the wall. I ignored her, for the moment, and holstered Arkesis. I eyed the burning corpse carefully, and pierced its torso with my hand, grasping the necrotic core inside.
As I removed the core, the corpse stopped struggling, and quickly burnt out. The core would quickly dissipate as well; but I reached out my will, and shaped the necrotic energy into a glowing sphere. It wouldn’t last long, but the pale light would probably help my prospective client more than that pathetic flashlight.
Speaking of said client, she had braced herself against the wall, and was pointing a small pistol at me. I wondered bemusedly what she had loaded it with. Certain blessings would make it quite effective against dead beings such as the ex-ghoul now illuminating my office; but I had blessings of my own. Still, although her eyes were wide with fright and her breathing ragged, her aim was steady. I was almost proud of the girl.
I have no throat or lips, to form spoken words. Speech, therefore, is an act of will on par with shaping necrotic essence into a small lamp; that is to say, a trifling task.
Her breath caught, and her finger tightened around the trigger as my voice echoed around the silent office. “Y-y-yes?”
-These bullets are expensive. And rare.- The young woman blinked. -At this moment, I only have the eight loaded in my weapon. The seven, now. I have not yet decided whether to allow you to waste the rest as well.-
I left the necro-lamp hanging in the air and walked over to the window. The woman shifted away from me, but the gun in her hands remained steady. I reached out and pulled away one of the boards, which sadly disintegrated in my hand, letting in the first sunlight in…a long time. It occurred to me that I actually had no idea how much time had passed. It could have been centuries as easily as decades.
But it seemed Metricarisenikai was still around, at the very least. He would be a good place to start. I walked back to my desk, purposefully leaving a good deal of space between myself and the girl.
-Tell me. Is Metricarisenikai still running that ridiculous facade of a tea shop?-
The girl swallowed. “You mean…Miss Metria? She runs a bar, though…”
-Surely you aren’t taken in by his charade…never mind, it isn’t important. I will be going to see why he wants my attention. After which, I will decide whether or not to accept your contract.-
“But-! I asked her for help! I’m sure she doesn’t need anything from you…”
-You are mistaken.- I looked down at my poor chair, and shook my head slightly. I pushed its remains out of the way, and began checking my desk for items that might still be useful. -Metricarisenikai is many things, but he is not a fool. He would not risk attracting my attention, without a pressing reason. And,- I glanced up at the poor girl as I spoke, -he has a number of centuries seniority to you, child. I want to know what he considers important, before I consider you.-
The girl flushed with anger, and opened her mouth to say something. But then she closed her mouth with a snap, and took a deep breath. “Fine,” she forced out through clenched teeth.
Both pride and self-control. What an interesting young human. I was starting to wonder just how well Metricarisenikai knew me, if his bait was judged this well. Not that I was overly concerned about that particular dead man, but it was part of my mission to judge my brethren closely.
-Daylight remains, so you should be fine returning home once you exit this building. Or will you need an escort? I do not hear any more ghouls, but that doesn’t mean they are not there.-
The girl straightened up, and finally lowered her weapon. “I’ll be fine. I…I’m not afraid of the undead.”
I twitched a little at the term, but decided that this wasn’t the time to quibble over minor issues. -Very well. I shall meet you at Metricarisenikai’s ‘bar’ in a few days, then.-
The girl hesitated, then asked, “Why a few days?”
-It has been years since I left this place, girl.- I shrugged. -If nothing else, I will get lost.-
“Oh.” The young woman hesitated, then said, “Do you want me…to guide you?”
I stared at the girl, but didn’t see her. A memory inserted itself in front of my eyes, of another young woman, with black eyes and silver hair, smiling down at me. “…then let’s go together, old man…” The vision reached out her hand to me…
My right hand twitched, and I reached up to my black lenses. The past faded from me as I removed them, and the girl in front of me, with short black hair and hazel eyes, stumbled backward in a sudden panic, trying and failing to raise her weapon once more. I did not blame her. I knew what she saw: the deep blue glow emanating from my empty sockets. The living know instinctively to fear the sight of Death, and not even dead men would feel safe meeting my gaze.
I pointed to the door. -Go.-
She went. Absently, I willed the necro-lamp to follow her as she hurried away.
At some point I’ll have to apologize for that, I think. The thought was fleeting, as the memory of the silver-haired girl returned to me again. As it had for years, ever since that day.