NEKROPOLIS, BY TIM WAGGONER
A Matt Richter Novel
I was sitting in Skully’s, nursing a beer that I couldn’t taste, and which I’d have to throw up later, and trying real hard to look like I was minding my own business, when the lyke walked in.
He (I knew it was male only because I’d been told) stood well over seven feet tall. But he didn’t have to stoop to enter the bar. Since Skully’s is located close to the Wyldwood, a lot of his customers are lykes, who often wear their wildforms, and he’d designed the nine foot-high doorway to accommodate the specialized – and mutable – physiognomy of his clientele.
The lyke, Honani by name, stone-cold killer by rep, was one of the newer shapeshifter breeds, a mixblood: lyke biology tweaked by the hand of genetic engineering. But as far as I was concerned, he was an ugly mess. I could pick out badger, puma, crow and what I thought was a bit of snake around the eyes. He looked almost as ugly as one of Lady Varvara’s demon kin. Almost.
Skully’s doesn’t offer much in the way of décor, but that has more to do with the owner’s practicality than any lack of aesthetic sense on his part. The nine-foot high door is solid iron, and there are no windows so customers aren’t tempted to throw anything – or anyone – through them. The walls are unpainted brick and the floor smooth concrete so Skully can hose the place down every night and remove the bloodstains. The tables are solid oak and bolted to the floor to make it more difficult to use them as weapons, and the chairs are easily replaceable cheap wood because they have an extremely short life-expectancy. There’s no mirror behind the long oak bar – not only because it would be just another damned thing to break, Skully once told me, but because it would annoy the vampires.
Honani stomped across the floor, the concrete shuddering beneath his considerable weight. Even for a lyke, he was massive.
The jukebox in the corner had been singing a fairly decent rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” but the three heads bolted to the top of the machine had gone silent when the huge lyke entered, and now they watched him pass by with nervous gazes. The multitude of scars, bruises, welts, and fresh cuts on their flesh testified to how hazardous their job could be, and they knew trouble when they saw it.
Skully stood on the other side of the bar close to me, sizing up the mixblood. “He looks bigger than I expected,” he said softly. “Meaner, too.”
“You’re supposed to be my friend,” I replied, just as softly. “Try to be a little more encouraging.”
“That was encouraging. What I really wanted to say is he looks like he could tear your head off with just his little finger.”
I grimaced. “Thanks.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with him.
Skully’s is always open, and the man himself is always behind the bar – or at least he is whenever I go there. I’m not sure what he is exactly. He looks like a stocky, broad-shouldered human, at least from the bottoms of his feet up to the top of his fleshy neck. But resting on that neck is a skull. Just a skull: no hair, no skin, no organs. Hence his name, obviously. Skully always wears a white shirt with the cuffs rolled up, a black apron, black pants, and black shoes. To the right of the bar is a second iron door which leads upstairs. I assumed Skully had quarters up there, but he’d never said anything about them, even when I’d pried a bit. There are no other servers in Skully’s, and he doesn’t bring drinks to your table. He’ll mix your drinks when he gets around to it, you have to come to the bar to fetch them, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell out.
As Honani continued heading toward the bar, Skully’s other patrons looked up to assess the nightmarish hodge-podge’s threat potential. An insectine demon with tangleglow delivery tubes surgically grafted to its chitinous head sat next to me at the bar. The demon glanced at Honani once, and then quickly found an empty corner of the room to turn its attention to. A pair of black-clad vampires – one male, one female – sitting at a nearby table were playing a game of bloodshards, the game pieces appearing in the air between them, projected from the holographic implants where their eyes had once been. Though neither looked in Honani’s direction, I could tell by the way the crimson shards momentarily faded that their attention was on the lyke instead of their game. The table next to the holo-vampires was occupied by two men and a woman who were working on finishing off a pitcher of beer. Their clothes were simple – flannel shirts, jeans, boots – and at first glance, they seemed human enough, but each of their eyebrows met in the middle, a sure sign that they were shapeshifters. As Honani passed, the trio growled softly and wrinkled their noses in disgust. From their reactions, I knew the three were un-enhanced lykes who had just made their low opinion of their genetically altered cousin clear. I half-expected Honani to stop and snarl a challenge at the trio, but he just kept on walking. The other lykes continued to glare at his back, but from the way the tension in their bodies eased, I could tell they were relieved he’d kept going.
“He cowed those three lykes without doing a thing. Impressive.”
“Not helping, Skully,” I muttered.
Honani continued toward the bar, passing a table where a lean heavily pierced man with a shaven head and a black T-shirt with an anarchy symbol on the front was sitting. A soft shimmer of argent energy passed over the man’s piercings as Honani went by, and I knew the punk was one of the Arcane, a magic user, and that he’d just activated a battery of defensive spells. There was something naggingly familiar about the warlock, but I didn’t know what. I figured I’d probably seen him around the Sprawl somewhere before. Sitting at the table next to the warlock was a fluid shadowy mass that sometimes resembled the silhouette of a person, sometimes a formless blob. I had no idea what the thing was, but as Honani walked by, the shadowy thing flowed down to the floor, became a black puddle, and then quickly oozed toward the exit and slipped beneath the closed iron door.
The last customer in the bar was a reed-thin blonde dressed in tight black leather sipping a glass of aqua sanguis alone at a corner table. The woman’s gaze was focused intently on Honani, her brow furrowed in concentration. She looked alert, but not especially worried. She was extremely attractive, and if I’d still been alive – but I wasn’t, so I turned my attention back to Honani.
The big lyke reached the bar and slapped a paw on the shoulder of the insectine demon sitting next to me and threw him/her/it backwards. The demon squealed in fright as it sailed across the room and smashed into the table where the holo-vampires were sitting. Despite how sturdy the table was, it collapsed, and the bloodshards winked out of existence. The demon, tangleglow leaking from cracked tubes, squealed in terror and scuttled off into a corner where it rolled into a quivering ball and attempted to make itself look as non-threatening as possible. The vampires, who looked so much alike they could’ve been brother and sister, turned toward Honani and hissed in cold anger, displaying their incisors. But as much as the vampires might have liked to, they didn’t make a move toward the lyke. He was just too damned big.
“Whisky,” he growled, the words barely recognizable coming out of his inhuman mouth.
Skully trained his empty sockets on Honani for a long moment before finally nodding and setting a bottle on the counter in front of the lyke. Skully unscrewed the cap with his fully fleshed fingers, set it down, and then reached for a glass.
“Forget the glass,” Honani said, then grabbed the bottle and drank the entire contents down in three gulps. He tossed the empty over his shoulder and it shattered against the concrete floor.
Skully normally doesn’t put up with much crap. He keeps a silver broadaxe behind the counter, but he hardly ever has to use it. Rumor is that he has ties to the Dominari, Nekropolis’s version of the Mafia, and while he’s never admitted it to me, he hasn’t denied it, either. A rumor like that, true or not, can head off a lot of trouble before it starts. If the Descension celebration hadn’t been in full swing, and Honani already likely drunk before he even came in here, he would’ve had more sense than to act like such a jackass. Probably. But Skully didn’t reach for his axe. Instead he looked over at me – at least I think he looked at me; it’s kind of hard to tell when the person you’re talking about doesn’t have any eyes. I nodded. Show time. If I still had a pulse, it would have been racing.
I stood up.
“My friend,” I said just a bit too loudly, “you are the butt-ugliest sonofabitch in the city.” And considering the citizenry of Nekropolis, that was saying something.
The thick muscles in Honani’s shoulders rippled and tensed beneath his fur. The other people (and I use the term extremely loosely) in the bar drew in surprised gasps of air. Those that breathed, anyway.
Honani turned around. His lips curled back from his sizable teeth in a snarl, and his eyes burned feral yellow.
“I ain’t your friend.”
The lyke was damned intimidating, but I stood my ground. There’s only one cardinal rule when it comes to surviving in Nekropolis: Show No Fear.
“That’s true. If you were my friend, I’d suggest you have a street-surgeon remove your ass and graft it onto your face. It’d be a vast improvement.”
The big lyke just stood there a moment, blinking in confusion while his alcohol-sodden brain struggled to process what I’d said. Either he figured it out or decided to give up and just assume I’d insulted him. Either way, he let out an ear-splitting roar and came at me.
You know the old cliché about how time seems to slow down when you’re in danger? It’s true. Unfortunately, being dead, my reflexes aren’t what they once were, so the shift in time perception didn’t do me any good. But twenty years’ experience as a cop can make up for a whole hell of a lot, and thus I was able to sidestep just as Honani’s claws – which had lengthened to twice their previous size and were still growing – raked the air where my chest had been a moment earlier.
I was a bit slow, however, and the lyke’s razor-sharp talons sliced through my Marvin the Martian tie, decapitating the cartoon spaceman. I watched Marvin’s headless body flutter to the floor.
“Damn it! Do you know how hard it is to come by ties like that around here?”
Honani didn’t sympathize with my sartorial loss. Instead, he lunged forward, mouth wide open, jaw distended farther than should have been anatomically possible, and fastened his twisted yellow teeth on my shoulder. I didn’t feel a thing – except regret that along with my tie, I’d also lost a perfectly good suit jacket and shirt.
But before he could take a hunk out of me, he pulled back, his face scrunched up in disgust, and spat great gobs of foam and saliva to the floor. “You’re a deader!” he accused.
“Guilty as charged. You’d have known that if you’d bothered to smell me.” Mixbloods’ patchwork physiology doesn’t always function properly. It was quite possible his sense of smell was no better than an ordinary human’s.
Though the idiot should’ve been able to tell just by looking. It’d been a while since my last application of preservative spells, and I wasn’t too fresh – skin gray, dry, and beginning to flake. I probably didn’t taste too good either.
As if emphasizing this last point, Honani spat once more then looked at me with disdain. “Go back to the Boneyard, zombie. Your kind isn’t wanted around here.” And then he turned and walked toward the bar.
Honani’s reaction was understandable. Most zombies are little more than undead automatons under the control of whoever raised them, and hardly a threat to a lyke as strong as Honani. But I’m not most zombies.
I removed a glass vial full of gray dust from the inner pocket of my suit jacket and pried off the cork. And then I made a leap for Honani.
My reflexes may be slower, and I’m no stronger than I was when alive, but I can get the job done when I have to. I threw my left arm around Honani’s chest and with my right jammed the vial into the lyke’s massive mouth and emptied the contents. There wasn’t much in the vial, but a little was all that I needed.
Honani choked and sputtered and then I felt a distant tearing sensation. I stepped back from the lyke, still clutching the mostly empty vial. Something was… and then I realized what had happened: my left arm was gone. The preservative spells were breaking down fast.
Honani whirled around and brandished my detached limb like a club. Behind him, I saw Skully lifting his silver axe, ready to strike, but I shook my head and he lowered his weapon.
“You… damn… corpse!” Honani advanced on me, no doubt intending to pound me into grave mold with my own arm. But he only managed a few steps before he doubled over in pain. He dropped my arm and it hit the floor with a meaty plap! His breathing became harsh, labored, and he started whining like a wounded animal, which, I suppose, he was.
“You shouldn’t have killed her, Honani,” I said. “Lyra was a simple working girl; it wasn’t her fault you couldn’t get it up.” Like I said, mixblood physiology doesn’t always work right.
He fell to his knees, breathing rapidly now. His entire body shook, as if a great struggle were occurring within him.
“That dust I dumped into your mouth was part of Lyra’s ashes. Not much, but enough. You took her life; now you’re going to give it back.”
He rolled onto his side, quivering uncontrollably in the throes of a violent seizure. His eyes had lost all of their anger and wildness and were now rolled up in their sockets.
This was it.
With my remaining hand, I reached into one of my jacket’s outer pockets and removed a small clay jar. I shook off the lid, which was attached by a short length of twine, then knelt down next to Honani’s head and held the open jar in front of his mouth.
His exertions lessened bit by bit and finally his body grew still. And then, as I watched, thin whitish wisps curled forth from between his teeth, lazily at first, but then the jar’s magic began to draw them in, and they flowed out of his mouth faster and faster, until at last they were done. I sat the jar on the floor, put the lid back on tight, and then slipped Honani’s soul into my pocket.
Honani – or rather his body – began to stir. I put my right hand beneath one of the lyke’s sweaty armpits and lifted. I don’t know how much help I was, but a few moments later, the body was on its feet again.
Lyra swayed dizzily and for a moment I thought she might fall, but then she steadied herself and gave me a toothy smile.
“It worked!” The voice was Honani’s, but yet it wasn’t.
I nodded. “Of course. Didn’t Papa Chatha say it would?” I decided not to tell her that sometime Papa’s spells failed, often in quite spectacular – and deadly – fashion. Why spoil the moment?
She ran her hands across her new body. Luckily, Honani’s claws had retracted during the struggle for possession of his form, or else she would have sliced herself to ribbons.
“It feels so strange… and I’m male now, aren’t I?” She reached down to check and I politely looked away.
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s better than being dead, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes, much!” And then she looked at me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”
I held up my remaining hand. “That’s okay. I know what you meant.” Would I have traded in my undead carcass for Honani’s body? Maybe. Probably. I don’t know.
She pointed at my empty, ragged left sleeve. “Your arm!”
“Don’t worry about it. Occupational hazard. Papa’ll fix it up for me.” I hoped.
She regarded me for a moment, and I could see the confusion in her eyes.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“I… I don’t know what to do now.” She shrugged her massive shoulders.
“You’re alive – do whatever you want.”
She grinned, and even though I knew it was Lyra inside the body, the sight of all those teeth being bared still unnerved me. “You’re right.” She came forward and gave me a hug that, if I hadn’t been dead, most likely would have killed me on the spot.
“Thank you, Matthew.”
I wanted to respond, but I couldn’t pull any air into my dead lungs to do it. She released me, and then with a wave she left the bar for whatever her new life held in store for her. I couldn’t help but envy her.
Everyone watched her go, and then Skully said, “All right, show’s over,” and his customers returned to drinking, talking, laughing, the incident well on its way to being forgotten. Just another day in Nekropolis.
I walked up to the bar and sat on one of the stools.
“Looked pretty hairy there for a minute,” Skully said. “Pun intended.” He grinned at that, but then he always looks like he’s grinning.
“You know, I can never figure out how you talk without lips or a tongue.”
“Just talented, I guess.”
“Right.” I got off the stool. “Thanks for letting me conduct my business here.”
“No sweat. What’re friends for?”
“Gotta go. Papa’s waiting.” I started to leave.
“Matt? Don’t forget your arm.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” I bent down to retrieve it, more than a little embarrassed, and then continued toward the door. I was half aware of some of the bar-goers watching me as I left, especially the blonde in leather.
However, it wasn’t until later I learned that as soon as I left, she got up and followed.
Excerpted from Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner. Copyright © 2010 by Tim Waggoner. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.