A Little Problem

          A pounding on my apartment door interrupted my reading. I considered ignoring it and returning to the engaging adventures of a boy wizard, but a quick glance at the clock changed my mind. Nothing good comes knocking on your door at 2 am, and nothing good usually equaled a paycheck for me. As a freelance monster hunter, most of my jobs came in the wee hours of the night. Still, I couldn't help the long-suffering sigh that escaped as I set my book aside in disappointment.

          The woman on the other side of the door was human, plainly so. Average height and build, dull brown eyes and dull brown hair. A trembling traveled her body, and her lips parted slightly in that familiar expression human women used when first looking upon an Aos Si. You'd think after twenty years in this dimension I'd be used to the fawning by now, but it never ceased to annoy. I might be a magical faerie knight, but I wasn't in it for the perks. Some things were just genetic.

          "Are you Max Egan?"

          "That's what it says on the sign." I gestured to the plaque nailed to the exterior brick. Max Egan. Private Hunter. It takes a Shade to kill a Shade.

          I thought it was rather succinct, but prospective clients still asked the same questions.

          Do you handle nuisance Fae? I think I have a boggart in my basement. No problem.

          I may have a werewolf on my property. No problem.

          I just discovered the weird statue I bought is a gargoyle. Do you deal in those? If it flies, shrieks, bites, or breathes fire, I can handle it.

          "I represent O'Flannagan's Extravaganza Circus, and we have a little problem."

          My fingers twitched with the urge to slam the door in her face. I was familiar with this circus, by reputation only, of course. I abhorred places like that. They operated on the exploitation of Shade creatures. Chimeras, unicorns, ogres, gargoyles, any breed of Shade monster kidnapped from my home dimension and paraded in front of ogling humans for five bucks a pop. It embodied the very thing I disliked most about humans: their disrespect for other forms of life.

          My mind flashed to my quickly dwindling bank account. I hadn't had a case in weeks, and cash flow was becoming a problem. If I was going to keep myself in electricity and food, I would have to temper my personal ethics. With concentrated effort, I pried my fingers from the door knob and gestured the woman inside.

          She stepped into the room and took a long glance around my office-slash-apartment. She must not have been very impressed with my modern decor because she turned to me with a frown of suspicion.

          "Are you full Si?"

          I couldn't help the dramatic roll of my eyes. How many times had I heard these questions?

          If you're Fae, why do you have a computer? You have a lot of metal and plastic furniture. I thought Faes liked organic materials. You have a cell phone? Is that a surround system?

          Because, obviously all Fae are tree-dwelling, flower-eating hicks who marvel at the humans' advanced technology. Personally, I enjoyed modern music, books, and catching the odd episode of I Dream of Jeannie. We weren't living in the Dark Ages anymore.

          I raised a clenched fist, feeling the tingling heat in my veins as I called upon my magic. My hand began to glow, sparks darting out in pale blue tendrils as the woman watched. I let the energy surge, fully formed ball lightning crackled around my fist and filled the room with an undulating glow. The overhead light flickered, buzzing harshly, the modern electrical system disrupted by the electromagnetic field. The woman took a swift step back, her look of doubt now one of clear unease.

          "That's enough. I believe you."

          I dissipated the energy immediately, shaking my hand to rid it of the residual feeling of unused magic. Power called and not spent always left a sensation of being unfulfilled, a restlessness that urged you to run, fight, explode, anything for release. I shook my hand again, harder. It didn't help, and I could feel the frustration rising.

          "Do you have a job for me, or did you just come to stare at my pretty face?"

          The woman started, red flushing her cheeks. "Yes. We've had a bit of a problem with our zombie display. It's on the loose."

          I groaned. Why did humans always insist on messing with things they couldn't control? Zombies were a plague, literally. One bite, and before you knew it, one had multiplied into dozens. I hated them. The undead always gave me the willies.

          "Your handler didn't kill it?" Every venue was required to have an ever-present handler in case something broke loose, an expert to protect the masses from their own stupidity.

          She turned her face away from me. "He was killed. It happened during a show, and there was a bit of a panic." She met my eyes again, and I could see her struggle with the guilt. "We left. We all just left. Ran, actually."

          "Do you know where this shambler is now? I charge extra for tracking."

          "Oh, it's still at the circus. Our magician put up wards. Look, it's already quite a PR nightmare. We're prepared to offer you five thousand in cash for eliminating the problem tonight."

          I stared at the wad of green she pulled from her purse. It was enough to keep me in books and tacos for another couple of months. At five times the going rate for a single job, she had to know how extravagant her offer looked.

          "How many of them are there?"

          She shrugged. "Just the one, last I knew."

          Her statement didn't fill me with confidence. She wasn't telling me everything; it was a lot of money to off one zombie. However, I was willing to risk a surprise or two for such a hefty payoff. I reached for the cash. She pulled her hand back and jammed the money deep within the confines of her purse.

          "Payment after. The job starts now. I'll take you in my car."

          "I'll get my gear."

 

          The circus was situated on a barren stretch of land between the commercial district and the tract housing of suburban wonderland. Unlike a traditional circus, O'Flannagan's was a permanent structure consisting of a concrete amphitheater painted in the classic red and white of the old traveling tents and an expansive parking lot. Banners of legendary creatures, digitally enhanced and printed in vibrant colors, hung from the domed roof with headings like "Acrobats with Real Wings", "The Deadly Chimera", "A Fire-Breathing Dragon". All of these would have been amazing to the average human, but add in revealing costumes and well-timed pyrotechnics and I understood how O'Flannagan's could afford to offer me such a tempting fee. It was a place where the wonder never ceased and neither, I imagined, did the clamor for tickets.

          The woman parked the car in front of the entrance door but didn't turn off the engine.

          "I'll wait here. When you come out, you'll get your money."

          I could hear the unspoken ‘if' in her tone. She pulled something from between the seats and thrust it at me. It was a wooden disk engraved with a tree in a circle of stars. I could feel the energy emanating from it.

          "This is the Ward Key. It will allow you inside. Don't let it get broken, or the ward will fail."

          I was well-aware of how a Ward Key functioned, but the tenseness in her voice had my eyebrows rising. Again, I had the feeling information was being withheld.

          "There's just the one, right?"

          Guilt washed over her face again. "Trust me, those who didn't make it out won't be getting back up again. There wasn't enough of them left."

I wanted to ask more questions, but the woman gestured for me to get out, her lips pressed together tightly. I shrugged. It didn't matter anyway. One zombie or twenty, they'd all be dead by dawn.

          I retrieved my broadsword from the backseat, slipping the leather harness over my shoulders so that the hilt protruded within easy grasp of my sword-hand. I had two other blades, stilettos strapped to my calves. That and my magic were the only weapons I'd need.

          As I approached the entry door, I could feel the warding. It wasn't particularly strong; any determined magician could break it. However, it wasn't designed to keep people out, but the undead in. Holding the Ward Key aloft, I could feel the tremor in the energy field. The air shimmered in pale blue ever so slightly, and I reached for the door handle. The ward snapped back in place as I crossed the threshold.

          The interior was dim, bathed in the soft yellow glow of the emergency lights. Flyers and spilled popcorn littered the hall, small articles of clothing and accessories left abandoned in what was obviously a mad panic for the door. The stench of blood assaulted me, and I wrinkled my nose against it. My skin prickled with a sense of crushing oppression. I was instantly on alert. A single undead in a facility accustomed to dealing with the aberrant shouldn't have a feeling of desperation to it. I wondered again just how bad their problem had become.

          I moved down the entrance corridor, past the darkened displays of odd-shaped skeletons and photographic histories of O’Flannagan’s Circus. Glass lay strewn on the floor beneath one case, splashes of blood on the sharp edges. A dark mass slumped against the wall, a tangle of limbs dressed in black with the word "STAFF" blazoned in white across the shirt. Mangled lumps of bloodied flesh and bone shards marked what had once been the head, suspiciously devoid of gooey brain matter. Above the body, a large bloody hole ringed in hair and other things I dared not identify spoke of a force the average zombie did not possess. The further down the hall I ventured, the more bodies that lay jumbled along the path mauled, crushed, and empty of brains.

          The acidic tang of blood intensified as I rounded the corner, filling my sinuses with sweet, cloying death. I turned my head away from it, searching for a gulp of fresh air. I breathed deep and choked on the quick closure of my throat, bile rising in my mouth. Swallowed hard and closing my eyes, I forced my thoughts away from the horror my nose had already discovered. When my stomach settled, I opened my eyes and looked out across the auditorium. I was prepared for what I would see, but that didn't stop the violent lurch of my innards as I gazed upon the mess their little zombie problem had made.

          Bodies, or what was left of them, lay like broken dolls in aisles, across seats, on the soft sand that filled the performance ring. Crushed, bloodied, some with limbs ripped from joints, and all missing great portions of their heads. It was nothing like any zombie attack I had ever seen before.

          In general, zombies were not polite eaters. There is always a level of visceral gore when undead creatures rip hands and teeth into living flesh. But these bodies were not gnawed and clawed. They were smashed, gouged, and crumpled like an angry toddler stomping through a flower bed.

          Within the ring, more forms lay in unnatural heaps atop darkened patches of sand. Most of these were not human. A sprite, her species discernible only from the remnants of gossamer wings ground into the floor, lay trodden and headless, strips of flesh stretching out from the neck where her head had been pulled from her shoulders. A glastig with her antlers snapped, skull ripped open as if used as a giant wishbone. A werewolf, unicorn, and faun, all reduced to tufts of fur and gore. My stomach roiled as a cold peal of sweat erupted over my skin.

          A wet grunting turned my attention from the disturbing images to the far side of the ring. A gryphon lay prone on the floor. One wing had been torn from its socket and the ribcage of the animal sunk in dramatically where the bones had been shattered. A hulking creature squatted over it, bald and grey-skinned, large fangs protruding from fat lips dripping thickly with blood and something much chunkier in consistency. One hand clutched a roughly carved club nearly as long as I was tall, the other scooped squishy brain matter from the gryphon's cracked skull and dribbled it hungrily into his waiting maw. A gaping hole oozed and festered just below the creature's ribcage, one eyelid flapping softly over an empty socket, and a large chunk of flesh was missing from the left shoulder. I could sense the aura of death and decay that clung to the creature, the unmistakable taint of reanimated flesh. I slumped against the wall and cursed.

          A little problem? There was nothing little about a nine foot tall club-wielding ogre with a bad case of the walking dead. I could tell from the lack of rot and the still limber movements of his fingers that the ogre had turned less than twelve hours ago. He was not the slow, atrophied shambler I had anticipated. He still retained the speed, strength and most of the thought processes he did in life. This was going to be more challenging than I had signed up for.

          The only sure way to kill a zombie is to remove the head, and for that, I was going to have to get closer than I wanted. Keeping low to the ground, I began a slow creep around the stadium. The zombie didn't look up from his meal, continuing his slow scooping and slurping. When the creature's back was in my line of view, I turned down an aisle and made my way towards the ring. My plan, the only sensible one when facing a zombie three feet taller and easily four times stronger, was to sneak up behind it and behead him before he realized I was there. In and out with all my limbs still attached. I had nearly reached the front row before my plan fell apart.

          I sidestepped a particularly gruesome looking body, directly into a puddle of half congealed blood. My boot heel slide sideways sharply. I tore my attention from my target, but not in time to save my balance. With a sickening plop, I landed hard on my ass, one hand wrist-deep in the gaping cavity of the corpse beside me.

          "Son of a bitch!"

          I didn't dare look at my hand. Feeling the cold slickness was enough to send me into another fit of nausea. I closed my eyes, concentrating on my breathing and keeping my dinner where it belonged. Quickly, I yanked my hand from the ichor, the sensation sending a fit of the heebie-jeebies all over my body. When I opened my eyes again, it was to see the zombie staring directly at me, my outburst loud enough to interrupt his feeding.

          Shit. Guess an ambush was out.

          I grabbed the back of a chair and pulled myself up. The zombie straightened, his mouth open and drool rolling out as he contemplated his next prey. I had no intention of adding my corpse to the throng. The element of surprise may have eluded me, but I was going to see what sheer balls could get me.

          Pulling my sword from its sheath, I leaped over the short wall separating the chairs from the ring and charged. I hoped speed would trump strength and I could relieve the zombie of his head before he could do the same to me. The zombie watched me approach impassively, unable to feel the intimidation I usually relied upon. Just as I raised my sword arm to strike, the zombie brought up his club, giving it a lazy swing which hit the blade with all the force of a cannonball.

          The sword spun from my hand, landing in a spray of sand halfway across the ring. The force sent vibrations up my arm, my hand falling temporarily numb. If I had been holding the pommel any harder, my bones would have shattered. As it was, I had just enough to time tuck and roll to avoid the equally powerful backswing.

          Weaponless and way too close, I sprinted towards the first thing I saw. I could feel the heavy footfalls of the zombie close behind me as I grabbed the toeholds of the trapeze rig and climbed for the platform.

          The pole shook, and my hands slipped dangerously. I glanced down to see the zombie growling up at me, huge hands wrapped around the pole and throttling it the way I've seen animals shake fruit from trees. I pulled a stiletto from its sheath, aiming for the creature's good eye. The zombie wavered as it peered up at me, just enough for my blade to miss its mark. Snarling at me with purpled lips, the zombie otherwise gave no indication it even registered the twelve-inch blade now protruding from his meaty right shoulder.

          He stepped back, his rotting brain slowly turning over how best to dislodge me from my perch, and I took the opportunity to call on my magic. I closed my fist, summoning my power into a tight little ball that sparked and crackled with blue electricity. I had almost gathered enough to deliver a good zap when a resounding thwack and the violent shaking of the pole shattered my concentration. My foot slipped, and I clung desperately to the platform as the zombie bashed his club against the rigging again.

          I didn't relish the likely outcome if the zombie succeeded in bringing the whole rig down. Flashes of my crumbled, headless body, the Zed lustfully sucking brain juice from my upturned cranium, seared my mind. I needed to find a way off the platform quickly. Down didn't look like a good option, so I looked up. The trapeze bar was still on the hook. I might not be able to do any fancy tricks, but I hoped I could at least swing over to the other side.

          Lifting the bar off the hook and gripping tight, I launched myself from the platform. My dismount was less than professional, but gravity and inertia provided me with the necessary speed to fly the distance. I didn't know the first thing about landing from a trapeze, and when I let go of the bar, a tad too early perhaps, I stumbled onto the platform with an awkward flailing. Latching onto the pole with both arms, I managed to stop myself from careening over the other side. When I had my feet firmly under me again, I paused to see how my determined opponent was faring.

          The zombie had ceased his bashing when he realized I was no longer there. His one eye roamed over the heights above him before settling doggedly on me. It was that undead persistence that made them such a menace. The newly revived might not be very efficient but damned if they weren't focused. As he took a shuffling step in my direction, I knew I only had a couple of minutes to get down and formulate a winning strategy before Mr. Slightly Green turned me into Zombie Pâté.

          With a quick glance across the ring below, I located my sword. It had landed a few yards from the body of the gryphon. Judging by the zombie's speed, an almost casual meander, and the not inconsiderate height of the platform, I was willing to bet I could reach the ground before he reached me. Then, it was just a quick dash to retrieve my blade and on to zombie hacking and a hefty cash payout.

          The trip down took longer than I anticipated, slowed by the slipping of my boots on the thin grips made for more nimble feet. My descent seemed to give the zombie a burst of speed, no doubt anticipating his next meal. His slow meandering quickened to a casual amble. Panic rose as a crushing grip encircled my ankle and tugged.

          I'm not going to make it!

          Pain shot through my leg up to my hip, and I let go of the handholds to spare my leg being wrenched from the socket. Sailing through the air, I landed abruptly on my back. My entire body, and seemingly the world around it, was jarred, bruised, and aching.

          I groaned and forced my eyes open against the pain. The zombie was already hovering above me, weapon raised in the air. I rolled as he let his arm drop, a spray of sand brushing against my face as the club thumped into the spot my head had been not a second before. Jamming my open palm out in a defensive gesture, a spark of fire arched from my fingertips. It was a handy trick, an involuntary defense mechanism all Aos Si possessed, though the element released varied. The spark struck his pant leg, igniting the material in a burst of flame.

          For reasons not yet fully explained by science, the undead were highly flammable and intensely afraid of fire. This zombie was no different. He stared at the growing flame with a bulging eye, mouth hanging open, vocalizing his distress with something between a grunt and a scream. He dropped the club and stumbled away in a blind panic, big clumsy feet kicking up sand and arms flailing as if to wave the fire away.

          I took advantage of his distraction to make a dash for my sword. Sprinting past him, I snatched the pommel from the sand. The relief I felt as I wrapped my fingers around the familiar grip chased away the panic of the past several minutes. I turned to my opponent one last time, confident.

          The zombie still shuffled wildly, oblivious to his surroundings as he focused on getting away from the fire. I imagined the fear the creature must be feeling, the internal agony that drove the instinctual brain to run, the primal suffering of being unable to escape his flaming limbs. It was only humane that I end his misery.

          Slicing at his Achilles' tendons, I brought the zombie down quickly. He fell face-first to the ground still moaning, grinding his face into the sand mindlessly. I braced one foot against his back and brought my blade down against the nape of his neck, intending to end it quickly. Steel hit flesh, the edge lodging in the thick bone and cartilage of his spinal column. The zombie struggled in protest, but the head remained firmly attached. I yanked the blade out and tried again, and again. The sickening sound of bone cracking with each stroke, putrid blood oozing from the wound and assailing my nostrils, weakened my determination. I had to remove the head, the only sure way to know a zombie was dead for good, but all I wanted to do was puke out my guts as if I could purge the sounds and smells from my head. It took three more strokes before the head softly rolled several inches away and I could let my arms drop to my side.

          I took several steps back, breathing hard and trying not to look at the mess I had made. As my adrenaline began to slow, the sights and smells seemed to intensify. Tangy, earthy gore mixed with the rancid stench of decayed blood overpowered me as I stumbled for the exit. My stomach twisted and that familiar cold chill erupted over my body as I bolted passed stained seats and mangled forms, my boots sliding as I rounded the corner. I burst from the entry door, taking in huge gulps of fresh night air to chase the lingering feel of death from my lungs. My pace slowed as I approached the still-waiting car, wanting to enjoy the cleansing crispness of life beyond the confines of the circus walls.

          The woman stared at me with narrowed eyes as I approached, glancing over the bloody sword I still gripped limply, the stains on my clothing. I reached into my pocket to retrieve the Ward Key, tossing it through the open window onto the passenger side seat and leaned down, my elbow resting heavily on the door.

          "Is it done?"

          I looked at my sword, dripping thick, dark fluid, at my hand crusted to the wrist in substances I never wanted analyzed, thinking about all the shit I had just gone through and how badly I needed a scalding hot shower. Suddenly, I couldn't hold it anymore. My gut gave one final lurch and the contents of my stomach splashed across the leather-bound seat. The woman recoiled, horror plastered on her face. When the heaving subsided, I reached my gore-encrusted hand towards her. Her face twisted in disgust.

          "Money," I demanded hoarsely, snapping my fingers.

          She snatched her purse from the floorboard, rummaging for the cash and whimpering when hot stomach acid rolled down the strap to plop on her hand. She offered the wad of green with a trembling hand. I took the time to count it before stuffing it in my pocket. I straightened away from the car.

          "Thanks. I think I'll walk back."

          She turned back around in her seat, popping the gear into drive. I slapped my hand on the door, ducking my head into the car once again.

          "Oh, and one more thing. If I ever hear of the circus making zombies out of anything ever again, you're going to have a problem with me."

          The look on my face must have convinced her I was serious. She blanched, shivering, and nodded. I stepped back to let her leave. Wiping the blade as clean as was possible on my pant leg, I slid my sword back into its sheath and began the long walk home. My stiletto still protruded from the truly dead ogre’s shoulder, and I shrugged it off as a loss. No way I was going back to retrieve it.

          After this little adventure, I was definitely raising my fees. Courage in the face of gross ickiness now double. I had survived my most cringe-worthy opponent yet, an abomination even among the undead. But I guess it was just all par for the course in the life of a freelance Si.

          I'm Max Egan, Monster Hunter. Your problem is no problem.