Sloot found Willie’s head lurking in the formal dining room. The rest of him was there as well, but the distinction was noteworthy.
“Oh, hi Sloot.” Willie’s head rested on a silver platter. There was probably a metaphor there, or at least a pun.
“You seem to be a bit …”
“Debonaire? More than a bit, I imagine. I got good marks in that at school, you know.”
“I’m sure,” said Sloot, “but I was going to remark upon your, er, decorum.”
“Your … decentralization.”
“I can make up words too, Sloot.”
“I beg your pardon, m’lord, but … well, your head’s off.”
“You noticed that too, did you? Horribly inconvenient. I’ve tried telling my body to get with the program, but it doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with me.”
“I just wish I knew what it was doing over there. What I was doing over there.”
Willie’s body would have been entirely unrecognizable if it hadn’t been alone in the room with his head. It was wearing a tattered shroud in lieu of anything remotely fashionable, and if it was striking any pose that might have been intentional, it must have been called something like the Certain Violent Intent, or the Your Grave Needs A Good Spitting Upon.
“I’m not going to hurt us, am I?” Willie sounded truly worried for the first time since he’d realized he couldn’t smell his perfume collection anymore, or find it.
“You’ve removed your own head,” said Sloot. “I’d imagine that if you were going to do worse than that, you’d’ve done so already.”
“That sounds reasonable. All the same, what am I doing over there?”
“If I had to guess,” said Sloot, who abhorred guessing for the implied risk involved, “I’d say you’re working some sort of black magic.”
“Hmmm,” said Willie, in an approximation of thoughtfulness. “That would explain the tortured moaning that’s coming from that melting wall over there.”
Sloot tittered nervously and nodded. “Wouldn’t it just?”
They watched for a while as Willie’s body committed whatever atrocities it was up to. Sloot, at least, was racking his brain for a way to stop it, but coming up empty. He didn’t realize how badly the attempt was going until he found himself glancing over to Willie, in case he’d perhaps thought of something.
“Do you think you might go sit in the circle for a bit, m’lord?”
“Probably a good idea, but all of my sitting bits are otherwise engaged at the moment.”
“It’s a strange sort of dance, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think it’s dancing, m’lord.” If he were being completely honest, Sloot was no authority on the matter, having never danced a step in his life. That was just the sort of thing that led to wearing tight pants, and poor circulation would kill you. Hardly a factor now, but if that was dancing, he wanted no part of it.
“Looks like necromancy,” said Nicoleta.
“When did you get here?”
“I never left,” Nicoleta snapped. “While you were out gallivanting across the Narrative, Mr. Peril, I was here trying to help Willie! Never mind that I didn’t succeed. Anyway, the best I can tell is that his body’s up to some sort of death magic. Necromancy.”
“I’d prefer if that were dancing,” said Sloot, feeling more than a bit abashed. His divided loyalties meant he was attending to each of them poorly, and he hated doing a bad job.
“Necromancers go in for that sort of stuff,” said Nicoleta, pointing at Willie’s body with disdain. “Big gestures, hands clawing at the heavens. Show-offs, the lot of them. I’m sure he’d rather be on a cliff overlooking the sea during a thunderstorm.”
“I find it hard to believe that Willie’s body is a necromancer when his head’s not looking.”
“Of all the things that have happened since you died, that’s where your suspension of disbelief hits a wall?”
She had him there.
“You’re a wizard,” said Willie, “go over there and tell him—me—to stop doing that. If I come over here and put my head back on, we can try some of that ‘forgive and forget’ business that I’m told poors are fond of.”
“I am a wizard,” said Nicoleta, with a note of praise to Willie for having noticed. “But my spells still aren’t working. Besides, it looks like all of your talking and reasoning bits are on your platter. If you can’t get your body on board, I’ve got nothing.”
“Never fear!” shouted a voice from behind Sloot, close enough that a whisper would have gotten the job done. “Reason and logic shall prevail!”
Sloot yelped and wheeled on Arthur with a haunted look.
“Was that entirely necessary?” Sloot’s voice had gone shrill and warbling in alarm.
“Oh, good,” groaned Nicoleta. “Arthur’s here.”
“Oh, good,” beamed Willie, “Arthur’s here!”
“As always, there’s a logical explanation for what’s going on here. There’s no need to go ascribing everything that happens to magic, no matter how strange it may seem.”
“It’s summoning something,” said Nicoleta. “That was clearly the ‘come hither’ gesture it just did with Willie’s left hand.”
“It didn’t look very welcoming to me,” said Willie’s head.
“That’s because you’re not an unnameable terror from the void beyond the stars. Or an imp. But you use the right hand for them.”
“Why is he summoning an unnameable terror from the void beyond the stars?” asked Sloot, throwing in some nervous fidgeting in case his voice didn’t adequately convey his terror.
“Ahem,” said Willie.
“Sorry, m’lord. Why is m’lord’s body summoning an unnameable terror from the void beyond the stars?”
“Clearly, we’re all suffering from Chestinger’s Communal Hallucination,” said Arthur. “What sorts of mushrooms have we all been eating?”
“No kinds,” said Nicoleta. “We’re dead.”
“Well, you can only catch communal hallucinations from eating the wrong sorts of mushrooms, so we must have done.”
“Or it’s not a hallucination.”
“There’s no time for you to question my expertise!”
“We really need to stop this before Willie fin—er, m’lord’s body finishes summoning whatever it’s … summoning.”
When surrounded by the trappings of incalculable evil—such as writhing masses of shadow tentacles wriggling across the floors of one’s home—it’s often difficult to decide how one should feel when said incalculable evil starts to leave. If decided in a committee, there would undoubtedly be a split between the optimistic “hooray and good riddance to it” types, and the “but where is it going now” types who consider themselves pragmatists, not pessimists. A true pessimist wouldn’t turn up for a committee meeting, because what’s the point?
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Sloot, who’d never been accused of optimism in his life.
“Don’t relax just yet,” said Nicoleta, taking a far more Sloot-typical position. “I’m not sure what the disembodied—wait, no, headless body of Willie—could want with writhing tentacles of dark energy. But whatever it is, it can’t be good.”
“Good,” said Arthur with a derisive snort. “No such thing! Evil either. If you’d done your reading, you’d know that Professor Calbage of Wilcestermount-Upon-Shatserbury-Adjacent-The-Sea has a seventeen-point treatise that firmly eschews the notion—”
“I’ve been to Wilcestermount-Upon-Shatserbury-Adjacent-The-Sea,” said Willie’s head. “But don’t tell anybody. I had a phase in my twenties, experimented with community theatre.”
“Er…” Sloot pointed to the melting wall behind Willie’s body, which had nearly melted entirely. All of the tentacles of evil—or whatever analog Professor Calbage’s treatise would acknowledge—were slithering off into the darkness beyond it. A pair of glowing eyes fumed within the darkness.
“Eyes that glow in the dark don’t growl, do they?” Sloot had surmised, accurately, that there was more to whatever lurked beyond the melting wall. Probably teeth. And if Willie could be decapitated, then perhaps teeth from within melting walls could threaten a ghost.
As the last of the tentacles slithered into the blackness beyond the wall, Sloot considered running away. He dismissed the thought without much ado, on account of the way his luck tended to go. There hadn’t been a coin minted that, when tossed, would fall the way Sloot called it. He’d be better off wagering on standing there and being devoured by whatever malevolence was assembling itself in the shadows. It seemed like a sure bet, but Sloot had a way of bucking the odds.
Perhaps it helped. Perhaps not. What emerged from the black maw in the wall was no ferocious beast.
“It’s a puppy,” said Nicoleta, her voice tinged with appropriate confusion and disbelief.
“Well, that makes perfect sense,” said Arthur.
“It does?” asked Sloot.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” Arthur retorted, his nose turning upward severely enough that he’d have drowned, had it been raining. “Communal hallucinations often cloud the minds of those experiencing them. You don’t even remember eating the mushrooms.”
Willie’s body made its way over to the dining table. He didn’t so much set his head back atop his shoulders as reabsorb it and waver for a moment.
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Willie. He patted down the front of himself, most likely assuring that he was dressed appropriately for the occasion, but he also could have been looking for his keys, which he did not have. The trousers of his tuxedo were far too tight to have accommodated them.
“Er,” began Sloot, as was his fashion, “do you know anything about the puppy, m’lord?”
“Oh, I nearly forgot! Where is my head these days?” He looked around at all of them with a gleeful sneer of self-amusement. “Well, no, actually. Didn’t one of you get him for me? Is it my birthday?”
“Hard to say,” said Nicoleta. “But … weren’t you paying attention?”
“I have people for that. Sloot! Pay the woman.”
“Your body just summoned the puppy. All of the tentacles? The melting wall? Surely, you must remember some of it.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m the boss,” said Willie from beneath smarmy eyebrows, “let’s leave the ‘musts’ to me, shall we?”