FAVOR FOR A FRIEND: A Tale of Vox Machina

So sometimes, you just have to write for fun, even when really, you should be at a library downtown doing research for a paper. At long last, here it is, the first of my Critical Role short stories. (If you don't know what Critical Role is...go here. For everyone else, enjoy.)

FAVOR FOR A FRIEND

Winter assaulted the weary traveler as he pulled his sled up the mountain. Ice pelted him in the face. Wind seared his exposed skin. Cold stabbed frigid daggers into his lungs. The sledge, weighed down by its precious cargo, threatened to drag him back with each step. He could not tell how far it was to his destination or if he was still headed in the right direction, but he pushed himself forward regardless, through the thigh deep snow, one foot in front of the other.

            A bloodcurdling howl rang out across the mountainside. He had known for days now that he was not alone. He’d caught sight of it once—a giant-like beast covered in white fur—but it had disappeared into the wastes. Whatever the creature was, it was hunting him through the storm. Eventually, when his strength was gone, it would come for him. Now though, its call sounded from far away, no doubt feasting on the last of the dogs back where it had fallen.

            As the echo of that malicious keen faded, a new sound struck the traveler’s ears: the elven Singorn Sinata Number 12 for viola. Normally, a mournful tune, this version used the eerie strains of augmented fourths, a discordant variation that an elf would find sacrilegious, and which the fur-coated adventurer had heard only once before. Emboldened, he followed the music and soon the blizzard gave way to the silhouette of a two-story hunting lodge. Smoke issued from its chimney and just the idea of warmth made the near-frozen wanderer giddy. He dropped the rope of his sled, stumbled to the door, and knocked.  

            The melody halted with a screech. The traveler pounded again, reassuring his presence to the silence inside. After a minute, tentative footsteps approached.

            “Who’s there? What do you want?” came a creaking voice.

            “Is that any way to greet an old friend?” replied the adventurer. “Honestly, I thought you were of noble blood.”

            The wood portal rattled as seven separate locks and latches were undone before finally swinging open. The lodge’s occupant peered out in ecstatic wonder, the crossbow he held forgotten in his hand. “Percy?”

            The hood of the large fur coat was pushed back and a set of goggles removed to reveal the frost-covered features of Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rollo III. “Hello Guy.”

            With a barking laugh, the bespectacled man dashed forward and embraced his friend. “I can’t believe it,” he declared. “Percy! I heard you were dead.”

            “I will be if you don’t let me inside soon,” answered the near frozen traveler.

            The man took a step back. “Yes, yes. Of course. What was I thinking? Come in. Come in.”

            Percy entered the cabin and was immediately overcome by warmth. Wonderful, blessed warmth. He began removing his furs.

            “Not just yet,” the man called back. The door swung shut and there was a minute of resecuring seven large, elaborate locks before he returned to his guest. “Here, let me have a look at you.”

            “I’m fine, Guilliame. Really,” insisted Percy.

            “I’ll be the judge of that, thank you.” The man, Guilliame, took Percy’s head in his hands, placing his thumbs just under the jaw and began tilting it this way and that. “Pulse, slow, but present. Retinas clear of occlusions. No signs of lividity, necrosis, or decomposition.”

            “Ever the doctor,” Percy sighed.

            “Lucky for you. Open your mouth please.” Percy did as he was told. “Canine length within normal parameters.” He felt around Percy’s face. “Contours consistent with their appearance, no sign of illusion.” He released his friend’s head. “You really are alive. Slightly hypothermic, but alive.”

            “Of course,” replied Percy. “What else would I be?”

            Guilliame chuckled. “You never can tell. Come, come! This way. We need to get you warm.” He led Percy through the candlelit foyer up a winding staircase to the second floor. “I’m afraid I haven’t had much use for the guest rooms and they’ve slowly become large cupboards, but I think you’ll find my chambers comfortable enough.”

            “Guy, I couldn’t,” protested Percy.

            Guy waved him off. “Nonsense. I won’t have you sleeping on specimen jars.” He opened the first door and stepped inside. The room was dark at first, however; Percy’s host moved quickly to the fireplace and lit it without trouble. A warm glow spilled over a room that despite the presence of a bed had more in common with a library, lined as it was with bookcases whose whose sturdy wooden shelves bowed under the weight of so many tomes. Guy threw a few more logs on the fire. “This should be enough for now. There are clothes in the wardrobe. You might find them a bit snug, but they’ll have to do and I insist you change immediately…” he said, cutting off Percy’s objection. “There’s also a robe. When you’re ready, you may join me in the study. Down the stairs, door on the right. I’ll have a hot meal waiting for you.”

            “Thank you, Guy,” Percy called out as the spindly doctor flit out the door. Exhausted he quickly undressed and selected from the collection of white shirts and darks suits. Trying them on however, he found they were so narrow he couldn’t button the cuffs or neck of the shirt nor the waist of the pants. He chose others, but they were even worse. How thin had Guilliame looked? In his delirious relief to be out from the cold, Percy hadn’t actually noticed his host. Leaving himself embarrassingly unfastened, Percy threw on the robe and followed the hasty directions down to the study.

            This was the room the bedchamber wished it was. Books overflowed, spilling out from twenty-foot high bookcases whose uppermost texts were reachable only by ladder. A mound of paper and leather binding toward the back hid the remains of an ancient work desk, may it rest in peace. Columns of stacked volumes rose up across the floor in an attempt at order, though one close to the door had collapsed, forcing Percy to step over a copies of Death Cults of Ancient Draconia and The Nobility of Northern Tal’Dorei: Genealogies and History. The collection was quite eclectic.

            Guy stood hunched next to yet another hearth—larger still than the one upstairs—stirring a steaming pot of porridge. He greeted his guest with a nod and waved to one of two high-backed chairs nearby. “Please have a seat. It’s almost ready.”

            Percy collapsed into the velvet cushions and in the firelight examined the helpful doctor with a more thorough eye. Guy’s features, as befits the obsessive scholar, had never been the healthiest, but what Percy remembered—the dark sunken eyes, the hollow cheeks, the underdeveloped musculature—had become even more pronounced, nearly skeletal. His once black hair was now silver and slipping, despite his younth, slowly toward white. The pale complexion that he and Percy shared from a lifetime spent indoors had become gray with a sickly gleam and the paper thin texture one usually associates with old age. Most disturbing of all though were the thin black veins just beneath the surface of his hands and neck.

            Percy politely coughed. “Are you quite well, Guy?”

            “Hmm?” Guillaime looked up from the pot over the fire, momentarily confused. “Of course,” he smiled, “You haven’t seen me recently. Yes, some experiments have their cost.” He held up his hand examining the dark lesions in the light. “I assure you it’s not as bad as it looks.” He finished ladling porridge into a bowl and handed it to Percy. “I’m afraid your food choices are fairly limited. I tend to eat quickly and as needed.” The host picked up a silver kettle from beside him and poured it into a cup. “This, I think, will more than make up for it.”

            Percy took the cup from his friend and sipped. His eyes widened. “Cocoa?”

            Guy nodded. “My one indulgence. Imported from Haarzod. Expensive, but worth every copper I think.”

            Despite the simplicity of the meal, Percival ate with a fervor of someone who had been subsisting on frozen jerky for some time now. Guy watched quietly, no doubt monitoring his condition, calculating the increase in blood flow through the color in his cheeks or some such trick. Within a minute, Percy was refilling his bowl from the fire. It was then that he noticed the portrait that hung above the mantel.

            “Dear Lord!” he exclaimed. “You kept it.”

            “Of course,” chuckled Guy.

            The picture was small, far smaller than the space above such a large fireplace called for, barely a foot and half in length and not even that tall. It was a copy of a larger work, one that had been commissioned as a Winter’s Crest gift for Percy’s mother. His sister, Vesper, had painstakingly copied the piece after word came from Roche Corbeaux that Guy’s parents were sending him further away.

            The entire de Rollo family was present, father in his long dark blue coat and black bear fur hat, mother in scarlet with brown fur trim. In front of her stood a six-year-old Cassandra wrapped in so much green velvet you almost couldn’t see her face peaking out the top. There was Ludwig, Percy’s youngest brother, puffed up in a red coat and over-sized black fur cap that looked to be eating his head. Next to him were the twins Whitney and Oliver still dressed in costumes from the pageant they’d put on. Whitney, calling herself the Winter’s Crest fairy, had dressed in a light blue jacket with white fur trim and a “wand” painted to match. Oliver, as the Frost Lord Errevon, had donned every piece of white clothing he could find, including their older brother’s white fur boots which came up halfway to his knees. On the far side of the portrait was Julius, the future lord of Whitestone, dressed dutifully in an identical their father and wearing his most serious of expressions. Beside him, were Vesper and Percy, she in a violet ermine gown and cape, he in a fine blue overcoat trimmed with brown fur. And there between them, inserted by Vesper’s skilled hand, was the boy Guy, with his pale skin; dark, sunken eyes; exuberant smile; and black traveling cloak.

            Panicked shouts. Blood-spattered halls. His mother, a sword in her hand, telling him to run as she rushed to check on his sisters. Julius’s head on the banister. Oliver screaming. Cassandra bleeding into the snow, reaching out for him. Tears rolled down Percy’s cheeks.

            “They’re gone, Guy,” he whispered. “They’re all gone.”

            From the chair behind him came a sigh. “I had heard rumors of plague in Whitestone. I didn’t want to believe them.”

            Percy shook his head. “It was no plague. It was a coup.”

            “A coup?” Guilliame gasped.

            Percy collapsed back into the chair and told his tale. How Lord and Lady Briarwood had come to the castle as guests. How in the night Professor Anders—the man who had taught them both, whom they had each modeled their life after—had betrayed the family and let in the Briarwoods’ mercenaries. How he had been interrogated, tortured for information he did not have. He related how Cassandra had set him free and fled with him across the countryside only to fall before his eyes. Even as he said it, he could see her lying in the snow, the arrows in her chest, pleading wordlessly for help. He could not go on.

            Guilliame gave his friend some time before speaking. “What of the others?”

            “I don’t know,” Percy replied. “Julius…I think I saw his…and I heard Whitney’s screams stop.”

            Guilliame stood and walked to the fire, his gaze firmly fixed on the portrait. “I am so, so sorry Percy.”

            Percy nodded, but said nothing.

            “You were all so kind to me,” said Guy through a shaking voice, “welcoming a strange little boy into your home the way you did. Especially one whose own mother and father…” he trailed off. Percy understood. The Count and Countess de St. Germaine’s attitude toward their surviving child and his “unseemly fascinations” was well known. Eventually, Guy continued. “I know I’ve no right to, but I’ve often thought…I wished I could have been a part of your family instead.”

             “I do believe that was Vesper’s plan, yes,” replied Percy.

            Guy gaped. “What?” A black blush rose into his cheeks. “No…that’s not…I…really?” Percy started laughing. Guilliame joined in. In that moment, they were boys again, sitting amid piles of books in the library, teasing one another.

            Eventually, Guy sighed away the rest of his giggles and let the men they had become reassert themselves. “So, what do you need from me? Ask and it’s yours.”

            Percy set aside his bowl and leaned forward. “Information.”

            “Information?” Guy repeated.

            “I’ve learned that one of the conspirators, a Dr. Anna Ripley, has recently left Whitestone,” explained Percy. “I tracked a bodyguard to Westruun. Unfortunately, he proved less than forthcoming.”

            Guy’s brow furrowed with thought. “Where is he now?”

            “On my sled,” Percy answered.

            The bespectacled doctor turned toward the entrance to the study and then back to Percy as he digested this. “I see.” He stood. “Well, we’d better move him inside before the Yeti get to him.”

            The pair made their way to the front door. Guy painstakingly unfastened all seven locks and then, without so much as putting on a jacket, rushed out into the snow. Moments later he reemerged half carrying/half dragging the awkward bulk of a man wrapped in blankets into the foyer.

            “Place him on the dining room table,” he told Percy through staggered breaths. “Room on the right.”

            While Guy secured the door, Percy laid the body out just as he had been instructed. Taking a steak knife from a cabinet, he cut away the bloody wool and fur blankets revealing the frozen corpse—its skin grey-green and just beginning to darken, its stench kept mostly at bay by the cold, but ripening.

            “Not a moment too soon,” the host remarked, rolling up his sleeves as he entered the room. “Let’s see what we have.”

            Guilliame turned the head as much as its frozen state and the last vestiges of rigor mortis would allow. “Good, good.” He pulled open the eyelids and tsk-ed. “Acceptable, but not ideal.” Producing a pair of scissors from nearby, he untied the leather vest and cut the length of the wool undershirt, until the man’s large, but strong torso was bare, revealing the cause of his death.

            “Curious.” The doctor ran his hands along the outside of two large holes in the man’s chest. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen wounds quite like this.” He rolled the body onto its side to examine the back. “Extraordinary.” He let the corpse flop back down onto the table.

            “What do you make of it?” smirked Percy.

            “Some form of arrow or bolt?” Guy answered. “Small, but very fast. Entering through the back and exiting the front with explosive force.”

            “Close. Very close.” Percy reached beneath his robes and removed from his side, a small handheld metal construct. “You are not the only one who has been busy.”

            Guy’s eyes widened. “My goodness! May I?” Percy handed his weapon over and the doctor examined it in awe. “This is truly ingenious, Percival. Revolutionary.”

            “I wouldn’t go that far,” Percy replied. “What about him? Is there anything you can do?”

            “Hmm?” Guy was brought back to his original purpose. “Oh yes, yes. That shouldn’t be a problem.”

            Percy’s face lit up. “Well then, let’s begin.”

            “I don’t think so,” Guy chastised him. “You need a hot bath and a good night’s rest.”

            The gunslinger raised himself up to his full height. “I need answers, Guilliame.”

            “And you shall have them,” Guy said. “But there are hours’ worth of preparations to make yet and you are physically exhausted.”

            Percy was about to argue more, but his mouth betrayed him in a protracted yawn.

            “Sleep,” Guy reiterated. “And a bath. Now if you’ll excuse me.” The doctor retreated elsewhere into the house.

            Percy went back upstairs to Guilliame’s bedchamber. Through the door just to the left of the fireplace, he found a small room lined with copper pipes as well as a privy, washbasin, looking glass, and black clawfoot tub. Thanks to the spectacular plumbing Guilliame had set up, the bath was filled in a matter of minutes and Percy slipped into the small steaming pool, allowing his muscles to relax for the first time in months. A half an hour later, he woke up, his head suspended just above the water’s surface. Deciding it was best not to drown, he got out, dried himself off, and retired to bed, barely cracking the spine of a nearby book—Burial Rituals of the Ashari Peoples—before falling into a deep and long-awaited sleep.

            Percy awoke sometime past noon. His things had migrated upstairs in the night and eager to see how his comrade had fared, he dressed quickly and stepped out onto the balcony that overlooked the foyer.

            “Guy?” His voice echoed across the raised ceiling, but received no response, save for a faint buzzing. He walked down to the study. One of the bookshelves had swung away from the wall revealing a pulley system and staircase. The buzzing sound was louder below and there was a strange blue light. “Guy?”

            The buzzing stopped. “I thought I told you to get some sleep,” came an answer from the cellar.

            “It’s afternoon,” Percy replied.

            “Oh.” Guy appeared at the foot of the stairs, his gloves and smock covered in black ichor. “I’ll be right there. Give me a moment to wash up.” With that he ducked back into the eerily lit basement. Percy considered following, but decided instead to settle into a chair with a translation of Daethgar Blackanvil’s Theoretical Metallurgy. Just as Percy reached the fascinating chapter on mithril composites, the doctor reappeared. “What shall we do about breakfast? I’m sure if we look hard enough, we can find something beyond porridge in the pantry.”

            Without so much as a word about his progress, Guy led them both into the kitchen where after a rummaging through the many bags of meal and flour, they managed to come across some dried fruits and a string of sausages of dubious heritage. Combined with a bit of quick baking from Guy, they dined contentedly on biscuits and sausages drowned in generous helpings of gravy to mask their doubts about the age of the meat.

            “How go your preparations?” Percy was nearly vibrating through the floor.

            “Good. Very good,” Guilliame answered through a mouthful of sausage. “It should be safe to wake the subject.”

            Percy shot out of his chair. “Then what are we waiting for?”

            Guy calmly dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “Percival, it may be best if I proceed alone. What I do can be…disconcerting.”

            Percy rolled his eyes. “I am well aware of your work, Guy. It’s why I came to you in the first place.”

            “Knowing and seeing are very different things,” his host countered. “And you did faint when we dissected that frog.”

            “I was a boy!” Percy protested.

            “So was I,” Guy pointed out.

            “That was a long time ago,” spat Percy. “A lot has happened. Look, I’ve killed a man.”

            With a patronizing smile, Guilliame stood. “So you have. Well, on your head be it. Shall we?”

            The pair made their way back to the secret door in the study and down the stone steps that led into the hidden laboratory. The space was at least as wide as the house, with a long dark passageway to the left whose purpose Percy would never discover. There were more bookshelves here, but they were lightly filled with personal and instructive journals along with specimen jars of small creatures and organs. Atop a pair of long metal tables, chemicals simmered and bubbled beside magnifying devices, pipettes, slides, tongs and other necessary tools. Along the right wall were two large blackboards: one composed entirely of mathematical formulae, the other of either a snail shell or a poorly drawn human ear covered in runic symbols. The entire room was lit by long glass tubes that hung from the ceiling, emitting a cold and ghostly blue light.

            “Those are my fluorescers,” Percy declared as he stared at the source of the chamber’s illumination.

            Guy smirked. “I had dwarf artificers work up prototypes.” He gestured around the room. “As you can see, they work.”

            Percy’s eye followed the wires that stretched from the ends of the lamps, along the ceiling, and to a pair of shelves lined with fluid-filled glass jars. Within each floated a single fleshy sac. “What are you powering them with?”

            “Blue dragon glands,” Guy replied as he attached clamps to two of the jars. He gave each a tap and the organs inside began to pulse and spark. “Far more reliable than the weather, even if they do cost a fortune to obtain. Luckily, a good doctor is always in demand.” He nodded to the corner of the room. “We should be ready to begin momentarily.”

            Percy turned toward the corner of the room and stopped in utter horror. “Dear Lord, Guy! What have you done?”

            There attached to some sort of squeezebox sat the disembodied head of the dead man.

            Guilliame appeared behind this abomination, its head shaved bald and pierced with long metal needles, looking like some kind of terrible sea urchin. In his hand, the doctor held a syringe of strange, green liquid. “I’m afraid your weapon did quite a number on his lungs. I was forced to…improvise, as they say.” He injected his mysterious elixir through the base of the man’s neck. “The patient is prepped.”

            Percy backed away, as disgusted by his “friend’s” non-chalant attitude as he was by the grotesque display of dismemberment. Unfortunately, the rest of Ripley’s henchman lay on the gurney beside him—the head and neck expertly removed, chest open as casually as a textbook. Next to the body sat a series of blood-drenched tools: scalpels, clamps, even a regular old hacksaw with a piece of skin still clinging to it. Percy’s stomach turned and he doubled over, retching on the stone floor.

            As Percy spit the last of the bile from his mouth, the doctor appeared at his side handkerchief in hand. “Percival, you can wait upstairs. I’ll let you know what I find.”

            Every inch of Percy urged him to run from this accursed place, to set fire to the atrocity he had made himself party to and crawl back to the unremarkable life he had found refuge in after Whitestone. However, even as he thought of it, the flashes hit him once more. Blood running under the door, people he’d known his whole life piled like firewood in the dungeon, pain, fear, hatred. The frigid, dark ember of vengeance that had settled in his soul reawakened. It reminded him that this was a thug, paid to hurt and kill, and that there very well could be families like his who had been torn asunder for this man’s profit. It whispered to him that what Guilliame had done was well earned.

            Steadied by cold, piercing rage, Percy wiped his face and looked his friend in the eye. “No. This is what I asked for. What I must do.”

            Guilliame nodded and approached a row of switches on the wall to which the many electrical cords fed into. He flipped a small toggle, which set the squeezebox wheezing up and down. Next the doctor turned a dial, creating the strange hum Percy had heard earlier. Then, with a final look toward his friend, Guy took a large lever in hand and brought it down. The head quivered for a moment and then was still.

            “It’s done,” said Guy, returning the lever to its previous position.

            “That’s all?” Percy asked somewhat disappointed

            The doctor grinned back. “We are trying to jumpstart the brain, not melt it.”

            The squeezebox continued up and down as the scientists looked on. A minute passed, then another. There was the shudder of an eyelid, the spasm of a muscle. Eventually, a low and raspy moan escaped the dead man’s lips.

            “It’s…alive,” whispered Percy in horror and amazement.

            “So to speak,” Guilliame replied, approaching the head. He opened the eyes and snapped around the ears to check its visual and auditory capabilities. “His eyesight was a bit damaged by the cold, but his hearing appears to be functioning normally. He should have no problem understanding us.”

            “Who is that? Who’s there?” The head’s eyes, though clouded, were open and peering around frantically.

            “Good morning,” Guy announced.

            The head tried to turn, but lacking the muscle and joints to do so, failed. “Who are you? Where am I?”

            “My name is Guilliame de St. Germaine. I’m a doctor.”

            “A doctor huh?” Again the head shuddered as it tried to use limbs that were lying disconnected ten feet away. “What’s wrong with my eyes? Why can’t I move?”

            “I’m afraid you’ve suffered a rather serious accident,” Guy calmly explained.

            “It weren’t no accident,” the man continued to struggle. “I need to get out of here.”

            “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the doctor told him.

            “Listen here mate,” spat the head. “You let me go now or maybe I start operating on you, if you understand me.”

            “Not before we’ve had our conversation.” Percy’s voice rang clear and strong over the thrum of machinery.

            “You!” the clouded eyes went darting in the traveler’s direction. Again, neck and facial muscles tried to wobble themselves into movement. “I knew it. Let me go!”

            “You are going to tell me where Dr. Ripley is heading,” Percy demanded.

            “You patch me up just so you can get me talk?” the head barked. “Samwyne the Scythe don’t turn rat to a spineless toff like you.”

            Percy gave the head a mirthless smile. “How are your legs?”

            “What?” gaped Samwyne.

            “Your legs, how do they feel?” Percy asked. “What about your arms?”

            The Scythe stopped talking. His face scrunched in effort and concentration. “What’ve you done? You put a hex on me, didn’t you?”

            Percy turned to his friend. “Show him.”

            Guy hesitated. “The psychological damage could undermine...”

            “Do it,” Percival hissed.

            Guy wheeled the squeaking gurney with Samwyne’s body in front of the apparatus. “Your eyesight isn’t what it was so you may have to squint a bit.”

            Samwyne screwed up his eyes. “What? What am I looking at?” For a moment, the dead thug went quiet. Then… “Heh. This is a trick. You’re trying to trick me.”

            With a sigh the doctor took the head in hand and adjusted its view so it could see the floor. That was when the screaming began.

            “Sorry! Sorry!” Guy apologized. He ran to the controls, and flipped off the squeezebox. Samwyne’s jaw flapped uselessly, unable to make a sound without air being pumped over his vocal chords. “I’m afraid this could go on quite a while. Hot cocoa?”

            Fifteen minutes and two steaming cups of chocolate later the silently howling mouth descended into gibbering and the doctor activated the device once more.

            “This isn’t real. It’s a dream. I’m asleep and this is a dream just like the one where mum turns into a fish and eats me and all I have to do is wake up…”

            “Samwyne? Samwyne?” Getting no reply, Percy smacked the head across the face.

             “Percival please,” Guilliame rushed forward to check the needles and wires. “This equipment is sensitive.”

            Percy kept his attention on Samwyne, whose eyes had gone from madness to shock and now rested somewhere closer to grief. This was all the vengeful noble needed. “Where is Dr. Ripley?” he asked.

            The head sobbed quietly. “S-Stillbend.”

            “Stillbend, where is that?” Percy pressed.

            “In K’twal swamp,” the head confessed. “Southeast along the coast.”

            “Why? What is she doing in a backwater?” continued the gunsmith.

            “D-dunno,” Samwyne whimpered. “Something to do with ruins. I was just supposed to steal a book in Westruun and meet her there.”

            “Which book?” This was Guy. The dead man didn’t answer, but glanced down at his body. In its pocket the doctor found a small slip of paper. “Canticum Ultra Velum.”

            “The Song Beyond the Veil,” Percy translated. “One of yours?”

            Guy shook his head. “Can’t say I recognize it.”

            Percival turned his attention back to the head. “I assume she’ll have a team with her. Guards?” Samwyne vibrated in an attempted nod. “How many?”

            “There were four of us in Westruun. Plus her team,” squeaked the thug. “I…I think she was going to hire more.”

            Percy’s eyes went unfocused, staring off into the middle distance as his mind began planning. “Good,” he uttered. “Very good.”

            “Is it?” Guy retorted. “Sounds particularly troublesome to me.”

            “We’re done here,” Percy said not speaking to anyone in particular. He turned on his heels and stormed out of the lab deep in thought.

            “Er…I’ll be back.” Guilliame threw a cloth over the still animate head and sped after his friend. He caught Percy in the bedroom, already prepping his bags for departure.

            “You can’t just go,” Guy protested. “It’s a week-long trek to the nearest town and that’s by sled.”

            Percy finished buttoning his fur jacket and slung his meager belongings over his shoulder. “I’ll be fine. I don’t have a dead weight to carry anymore.”

            “And what will you do when you get to Stillbend, hmm?” the doctor challenged. “Three guards, possibly more and the doctor. You think you can just take them all by yourself?”

            Percy raised his weapon. “That’s why it has six barrels.”

            “Excuse my dwarvish, but this is a piss poor plan,” Guy shot back as he followed down the stairs.

            “No one asked you,” snapped Percy.

            Guy jumped in front of the door. “Please Percival, be smart about this.”

             “Get out of my way Guy,” Percy snarled.

            “I understand what you’re feeling, but…” the doctor said, trying to calm him.

            “The hells you do,” interrupted Percy.

            “There’s no need to throw your own life away,” pleaded Guilliame.

            Percy pointed his weapon square at his friend’s head. “I said get out of my way.”

            The death doctor looked past the barrel into Percy’s cold gaze. “You wouldn’t.”

            Percival pulled back on the hammer. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my family.”

            Silence fell between the two men. Guy’s head fell “Very well. At least let me hitch my dogs for you.”

            “Fine,” Percy lowered the gun.

            The pale doctor threw on a coat and scarf. “I’ll be no more than an hour. I suggest you check my library. See what you can find out about this Stillbend.” And with that, he headed out onto the frozen mountainside. Percy stared after his friend with a heavy heart before returning to the study. He pored over charts, atlases, and travelogues, finding little but a smudge on a map to denote the town’s existence.

            Thirty minutes later, Guilliame returned. “My dogs will see you safely to the edge of town, though I recommend you unhitch them somewhere out of sight and walk in yourself.” He indicated the animals before Percy’s sled, all of which were abnormally large and snaked with stitching. “The villagers don’t like them very much.”

            Percy nodded and walked toward the beasts before turning back. “Guy…”

            The doctor waved him off with a weak smile. “I understand.” He held out his hand. Percy took it, pulled him in, and the pair embraced.

            “Thank you. For everything,” said Percy.

            “Do try to come back in one piece,” Guy replied.

            “I will,” chuckled Percy, letting go. He walked around the barking, yipping, and oddly chittering pack of dogs to his place on the sled. With a final glance to Guy, he spurred the team into movement, taking off across the snow. Percival found himself smiling, despite the cold. Soon, said the dark voice inside him, soon he would have his revenge.

 

#

 

Guilliame sat staring at the odd spiraling symbols on his blackboard. He had spent the better part of two years on this research, tracking down the briefest of mentions, bartering with demons, filling gaps with his own inferences. The Curwen formulas were the most complete form of resurrection he had yet discovered, superior to the zombie, the flesh golem, or the vampire—a nearly perfect simulacrum of life. But he needed to know where the bodies were and he needed them intact. If they hadn’t received proper burials or been mutilated or cremated or…it would all be for nothing. The only way to know for certain would be to go to Whitestone himself, into the dragon’s den—absolute lunacy.

            Still he would go. He had to, no matter the risk, no matter the cost, even unto the fiery end of creation, he would try. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for the de Rollo family.

            Of course, that did not mean he would go unprepared. The doctor moved across the laboratory to where the head shuddered under its sheet and removed the cloth. The head blinked tears out of its eyes and gibbered piteously.

            “K-kill me,” it moaned.

            “I’m afraid I have a few more questions about your employer first,” Guy replied.

            “P-please, I don’t know anything,” Samwyne cried.

            “Oh now, that’s not true,” said the doctor. “For example, people like Ripley don’t just hire random cutthroats off the street. Someone vouched for you. I want their name. You also know the other bodyguards she hired and who vouched for them. You know everything of value she was carrying and what it would be worth on the black market. No doubt there is gossip about the good doctor and where she comes from I might find interesting. I want it all. And when I am satisfied that you have told me everything, then and only then will I let you die.”

            Guilliame sat down in front of the head with his cup of cocoa. “Shall we begin?”