Strange Deaths to Follow
by Neil McGill
‘You hear that, Dawkins?’
‘No, not that, that.’
They waited. Five seconds later, Dwoirot heard it again.
‘Ah, that time, it was you, Dawkins.’
‘Sorry, sar. Its me stomach. I ain’t been ’ome yet for my supper an’ me missus gonna be ever so mad. It’ll be a murderin’, sar!’
‘Alright,’ Dwoirot sighed reluctantly and drew his thick coat about himself, ‘a few more streets and we’ll turn in for the night.’ He stomped off into the chill rain, feet slipping on the mud smeared cobbles but thoroughly enjoying himself amidst the thrill of the hunt.
Dawkins watched him fade off into the gloom of a typical Lotopian alley. If he waited a few more seconds, Dwoirot would be out of sight…
Sadly though, Dwoirot paused, turned and eagerly waved him on. Dawkins looked apologetically to his feet: C’mon lads. Just a bit further.
Some immeasurable amount of sodden rain later they reached the crumbling corner of Dog End and East Grudd St. It was here, by a large muddy pool that filled the entire junction, that Dwoirot paused again. ‘Y’know, you ought to stand up for yourself, Dawkins. You are a man of considerable standing within The Guard. And The Guard…’ he leapt over the puddle, ‘always comes first.’
Dawkins nodded demurely. ‘I suppose so, sar.’ He took a step into the puddle. A small scurrying black thing squeaked in alarm and paddled off, to disappear into a crack in the stonework of a nearby wall. Looking after if, he could have sworn that he glimpsed a small round, rat-sized door open and then close.
Lucky bugger, thought Dawkins. Least he’s ’ome an’ dry.
Mud[*] sucked noisily around Dawkin’s Guard-issue boot as he placed more weight on his leading foot and sank into it. He wasn’t going to jump this puddle. Jumping, so Dawkins wisely reasoned, is for small, spritely things. Dawkins had probably never jumped once in his life. He was one of those people who take things carefully; safely. A plodder, one might say, but a dependable plodder. And in such a dangerous profession as The Guard, you don’t get to your see much of your pension unless your very, very, careful.
Watching the gravy-like mud spill over the toe of his boot, Dawkins felt a lovely surge of pride. ‘See that, sar? Dry as the proverbial bone. Now that’s a quality boot for you. None o’ your modern rubbish. Turtle wax an’ bee shell this is—an’ spit, of course. Nothin’ beats it. In fact… it has been suggested, in a Plod Magazine survey, that these particular boots are ideal for—’
‘Well… yes, I am rather cold, sar.’
Dawkins froze, and whispered: ‘Ah, I see. A situation requiring stealth. Right you are then, sar.’ Dawkins began to retract his foot from the mud—noisily.
Dwoirot turned around slowly, his ears visibly wiggling. From somewhere close by they heard an animalistic howl. The sort of howl that had long ago given up trying not to be heard. This was a desperate, kill me, howl. ‘That’s it Dawkins! That must be our Zombie! ’
‘If you think so, sar.’
‘Oh Dawkins, do form an opinion man. And what are you doing balancing half in the mud like that?’
Dwoirot strode off in the direction of the noise. Dawkins trudged noisily behind.
‘Dawkins, that building over there. It’s not…’
‘It is, sar.’
‘The Mayor’s home?’
‘Oh, well it’s not what I thought then, sar.’
‘Is he in I wonder?’
‘If you say so—I dunno sar. But the curtains are drawn, which would lead one of the detective profession to deduce the likelihood of someone being inside… sar.’
‘Well. This is most curious. Our good friend the Mayor seems to be crossing our path many times these days.’
‘Well, there was the arrest of the renowned knight, Sir Renders, I believe, under explicit instructions from the Mayor himself that the lady Eroica’s earrings had been… misappropriated.’
‘Renders’, of course, maintains they were a present.’
‘Does he war earrings then, sar? He didn’t seem that type.’
‘Dawkins, I wouldn’t normally suggest breaking the law, so I’ll wait until you do it for me.’
‘We’re going to break in then are we, sar? ’
‘Dawkins, I’m taking note of that suggestion. And the mere fact that I will accompany you on this endeavour merely implicates you in the further charge of corruption of one of Lotopia’s most law-abiding citizens. However, for the meanwhile, I shall overlook the matter. Now, Dawkins?’
‘Get climbing up that ivy.’
Bob scrabbled down the last few feet of rope and landed deftly beside Yeldarb’s crumpled form. ‘That looked sore,’ he observed.
‘Do you know that this is the second time I’ve seen you drop hundreds of feet—and survive. Remarkable really. I should get one of those Chimaera things. You know, for taking pictures.’
Bob leant over and placed a hand gently behind Yeldarb’s head, easing him up. Something in Yeldarb’s back seemed to resist, but a good shove and a loud ‘CRACK’ seemed to resolve matters.
‘Nngh! ’ went Yeldarb, his body contorted in a mid-spasm of frozen pain.
‘Anyone else would think you were trying to kill yourself!’ He laughed.
Yeldarb laughed too, but differently. ‘Yeah… Kill… Myself.’
‘So, where’s this treasure then?’
‘Look in… my… pocket.’
‘Really? The treasure’s in your—’
‘The map, Bob! The map is in my pocket!’
‘Ah—’ <much rustling, followed by the rotating, turning, and gazing with a puzzled expression, at what appeared to be a piece of tissue with a dead spider flattened upon it> ‘—North, I think.’
‘Good. You lead on, I’ll try and… follow.’
‘Alright.’ Bob took a step into the darkness. ‘Actually, which way is North?’
‘You didn’t bring a compass?’
‘They haven’t been invented yet!’
‘What a crap excuse,’ feigning a whinging voice, ‘ “They haven’t been invented yet, Yeldarb” Bob, if you’re going to be an adventurer, you’re going to have to take more of the initiative.’
A long contemplative moment passed, in the darkness.
‘So, Yeldarb, what do your people usually do. To find North that is?’
‘Look at the moss growing on the Mallorn trees… Analyse the stars… Sniff the wind. Sometimes we even watch the birds.’
‘What does that achieve?’
‘Not much. But it is relaxing.’
‘So, what about at the bottom of a hundred foot pit then?’
‘I’d say that’s decidedly un-relaxing.’
‘So how would you find North.’
‘You could use your natural Elvish skills.’
‘To what aim precisely!’
‘I don’t know, sing a song perhaps. Jingle some of your magic bells. You’re an Elve, you tell me.’
Yeldarb sighed. ‘Well, we could try an investigative depth first recursive search of all the available exits.’
‘You mean, just wander around the maze until we happen to trip over the treasure.’
‘You think of a better idea?’
Bob took an ominous step backwards, his voice now strangely deep and resonant: ‘Actually, I don’t think you’ll need to do that.’
‘Why’d’you say that, Bob?’
‘I didn’t say anything…’
‘No I didn’t!’
‘Bob, shut up. Just shut up.’
‘He already has.’
‘Er, what? Hello?’
‘Bob, old chap. Get a fuging light on. Pronto.’
Bob made a strange strangling sound in reply. Sparkles of magic fell limply from his fingers. Eventually, a pathetic light lit the room…
‘Ah, that’s better,’ said Yeldarb. ‘Well, hello.’
‘Yes. Well, that appears to be my religious friend your holding within your, I must say, very muscular and very impressive grip.’
‘Yes, it does, doesn’t it. What of it?’
‘Absolutely nothing at all. Carry on, by all means. Indeed, squeeze harder. Please.’
Yeldarb edged over to the rope.
‘You know, you look like the sort of no-nonsense hard-assed, sharp-pronged Minotaur that they’d get to guard a place like this.’
‘I’m afraid you’re all under arrest. In fact, I’m very afraid.’
‘Get another light on.’
‘Hello too. Bob, say hello to the gentlemen. All… twelve of them…’
‘Now, as I said, you’re under arrest. Lad’s take ‘em.’
‘Look, let’s not be… <splat>—what the fug! A custard pie?’
‘What’s happening! This is my maze! You’re all trespassing!’
‘Tarragon?’ suggested Erryl.
‘Yes, tarragon, that’s it. Thank-you!’
The enormous figure of the Cyclops thundered off into the immeasurably odorous depths of his cave. After much banging and yet another rendition of some gay tune that currently evaded recognition, he returned, grinning widely and clutching a small spice jar; yet still an enormous one if grasped by normal hands. He waved the jar enthusiastically at him. ‘Tarragon!’
Erryl forced a smile and tried to look around, although the confines of the pot he found himself in allowed only a limited panorama. The strange scented leaves he was wrapped in too, didn’t help, though what he did see convinced him that viewing any more would probably just make matters worse; and they were quite possibly bad enough already.
It wasn’t the skeletons dangling from the roof of the cave, and it wasn’t the dried hanging corpses with the candles protruding from their parched skulls. What really disturbed Erryl was the décor. Here was a Cyclops with a taste for the retro-inverse avonte-garde of life. Flock wall-paper (cave-paper?), brown/orange imitation curtains with green diamonds, tassel lampshades, ankhs as far as the eye could see and veritable waterfalls of chained beads swishing from the ceiling to act as pseudo-partitions between the various living areas. You’d have to skin your tongue to come even close to being this tasteless.
A rustle of beads announced the Cyclops return though the heavy stench of perfume arrived a few seconds before. The bright colours of his flamboyant evening wear presented themselves in a manner that seemed to be seeking approval. The Cyclops giggled in a girlish manner and gave a little pirouette.
‘That’s a nice shirt,’ suggested Erryl hopefully. ‘I particularly like the collar. Nice and wide, just the way collars were once. But pink… Are you sure that’s… your colour.’
In an instant, the Cyclops’ face had changed from a single eye laced with happiness, to a dark, stone-white blasphemy of all things with stereo vision.
‘I happen to like pink…’ (he said ominously, but you probably guessed)
‘You know, it’s people like you, what make me sick. Intolerant. Close-minded. That’s what you are.’
‘Yes!’ The Cyclops pouted. ‘I mean, is there no place where I can find people willing to accept me for what I am?’
‘And what’s that?’ asked Erryl carefully.
‘An absolutely normal by-product of nature.’
‘Ah, you mean you’re eye.’
‘What? What’s wrong with my eye. I’m supposed to have one. I’m a Cyclops! What do you mean…?’
Erryl was about to answer when he realised that the water was no longer what you would call “tropical” and was now bubbling its way into the “worryingly hot” zone.
‘Actually, any chance of me popping out of this pot, so to speak. Just for a few minutes—to cool down. And then I’ll just pop back in again. Hmm?’
The Cyclops waved a hand at him. ‘Naughty,’ he laughed. ‘Next you’ll be saying you don’t want me to eat you! Ha-ha!’
He gave a delicate little laugh and spun off beyond Erryl’s vision. The jingling of beads was heard faintly.
All around him, vegetables floated; and somewhere deep towards the bottom of the pot he could feel a thick soup of material which had the worrying beginnings of what could be called “sauce”.
Erryl looked at the olive green leaves that were wrapped about him and that bound his arms and legs so tightly together. There was only one limb he had free, and so, with a casual thought to train that body-part more in future, set about his bondage with his tongue.
A shadow appeared over him.
Erryl froze, his tongue wrapped around one of the thread-strings that held the (actually quite tasty) leaves together.
Erryl slowly looked up.
Regrettably, it was the Cyclops. Even more regrettably, he was holding a plate. Utterly regrettable was the extra long carving knife held in his other hand.
‘You know, I did think about vegetarianism.’
‘Did you?’ Erryl asked too-quickly.
‘Ye-es. But—you’re not one are you?’
‘Actually… Yes. Well, fruitarian actually. I just couldn’t abide harming any living creature. I don’t even dust my house for fear of harming any little mites. Even the air I breathe, I do so with muttered prayers for any viruses I may harm. Mine is a peaceful life of co-existence with my fellow life forms. I aim to achieve Nirvana one day—I’m saving myself up for an apple, you see. It’s a Karma-free life, I’d recommend it.’
‘Ah, well that’s even better then. You see, I did think about vegetarianism. Thing is, these Vegetarians, well they just taste so much better than the Carnivores. Now you, being a Fruitarian? You must be really tasty.’ He licked his lips. ‘No, I’m sorry, you’ve tempted me too much. Now, if you’d said you were a Carnivore…?’
‘But I am a carnivore! Down with the vegetables! Kill the bastards, squeeze their juices from their little fibrous bodies. Flesh, that’s what I want! Dripping, tortured, unwilling, tantalising flesh! Animal, vegetable, mineral—I eat ‘em all! No level of disgusting depravity, no main course pooling in its own blood and faeces is beyond the foulness of my consumptive powers! Hold me back, I’d even eat myself given half the chance and a good greasing of garlic butter!’
‘Ha, the lies! I knew it! You had the pasty look of a Carnivore all along! You’re all the same. Nope, I’m afraid, I’ve no compassion for you now. You’re very definitely going to be… the main course!’ ’
At that moment, as one might expect, the likelihood of a rescue became rather high. And thankfully, the plot doesn’t disappoint:
The clop of hooves had began some time ago, during the Cyclops speech. Now, with an accompanying roar of wind from what was presumably, the cave entrance, the Unicorn with Bacchus attached burst from the darkness.
‘Yee-har!’ cried Bacchus as he tugged on the flowing silver mane that flashed a brilliant white in the now roaring wind.
‘But the fancy dress isn’t until tomorrow evening! That is a good costume though, Francois—it is Francois is it not…? Ungh! I say, that was uncalled for.’
Erryl admired the tip of the Unicorn’s horn as it emerged from the Cyclops’ back. It shone with the energy of sheer down-right goodness and sent a wash of holy fire sprawling across the unfortunate creature. The horn withdrew and the Cyclops fell backwards, against the rim of the pot. There he stood, paling visibly and staring in disbelief at the hole in his chest. A single tear ran from his eye, rolled down his cheek and dripped onto his blood-streaked clothing.. ‘Not yet… I was… so… colourful—’
With an enormous splash, the Cyclops fell backwards into the pool—displacing Erryl and flinging him high into the air. The Unicorn sprung forward and caught him with her teeth. A toss of her thick neck and Erryl back-flipped to land behind Bacchus.
Erryl stared silently at the pool.
‘You okay?’ asked Bacchus.
‘Yeah. I guess that was pretty lucky.’
‘I’ll say,’ said Bacchus. ‘Looks like it’s stew for tea tonight.’
[*] It is said that ice or desert-bound races have many names for snow or sand respectively. In a similar manner, Lotopians have many special words solely reserved to describe the characteristics of mud.