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The basement was damp, smelling faintly of mold and mildew. Metal tables lined the tiled walls, covered with metal instruments and glass vials filled with unknown liquids. An electric bulb lit the room, buzzing faintly as it cast its harsh light across a small desk piled with pages of notes and diagrams.
But what truly drew the eye was the glass chamber in the center of the room. A creature stood within it, its dead eyes staring blankly at any nearby movement. Part of its face had rotted away, revealing bone and jaw beneath, surrounded by putrefied flesh. Every so often, it would shuffle around the perimeter of its cell, mouth agape to show its mottled, yellow teeth.
Richard could only stare in amazement, barely able to believe what he was seeing. He turned toward Julius, quickly hiding his surprise, “You managed to capture one of the restless.”
Julius turned and leered at Richard, showing his own yellow teeth, “Not one. I have several more subjects just like this one. This just happens to be the one that has shown the most….promise.”
Richard turned his attention back toward the creature. It had pressed its face against the side of the glass as it smeared what was left of its tongue across the smooth surface. For all that, it didn’t seem hostile. It wasn’t bashing itself against the glass to try to escape and tear him limb from limb.
“Can it see us?”
Julius seemed almost gleeful as he answered, “Oh yes, it can see us. Quite well, in fact.”
Richard rubbed his chin, circling the enclosure as the creature continued to lick the glass, “Why is it acting this way?”
Julius grinned widely, an expression that made Richard want to cringe. He beckoned Richard toward him with one boney hand as he picked up one of the vials on a metal table with the other. Richard slowly approached him, his eyes flickering toward the doorway where Samuel had perched himself. He was safe: for now.
“You know, of course, that the incident occurred many years ago.”
Everyone knew that. At least, anyone who had been educated to any small degree knew that. Richard folded his arms, leaning back against the table next to Julius, “I assume this thread has a point?”
Julius held up the vial. A clear liquid swirled inside, though Richard could see tinier particles in the midst of it, “I always have a point. After the incident, the infection spread. People died and we were plunged into a world where we lived week to week, day to day. “
Richard waited for him to continue, remaining silent. It was only polite, even if the man was slightly insane. He plastered a vaguely interested look on his face, nodding every once in a while as Julius spoke. Julius didn’t seem to notice that his audience wasn’t completely rapt; he seemed to relish the chance to explain his experiments to another individual.
“The worst was yet to come. The dead rose again, destroying our cities, our towns, our homes. Soon, we were but a shadow of our former glory. Now imagine if we could turn back the clock. Imagine if there was a cure to the infection, something that would allow us to live as we once did.”
Richard slowly unfolded his arms, looking at Julius more closely. The man had a glint in his eye, as if the best part was yet to come, “Are you suggesting that you’ve found a cure?”
Julius laughed, a warbling, hoarse noise that sounded more like a cough, “No. I learned long ago that there is no cure. We are all infected these days. We will all rise again when we die.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the basement door. Julius waved one hand and Samuel opened it, peering outside. There were a few hurried whispers and then Samuel turned to look at them with his impassive face, “Excuse me, Mr. King, but apparently the bounty hunter is here with the girl.”
She stood in front of him. Her leather trench coat was torn along one sleeve, her boots were spattered with mud, her brown bodice and white shirt were similarly coated with reddish-brown stains. She looked paler and thinner than he remembered, her face showing the weariness of days of travel. Her hands were bound in front of her, knotted with rope.
Richard smiled, the genuine smile of someone who knew he had won, “Ms. Heart, it’s lovely to see you again. I hope your journey wasn’t too arduous?”
To her credit, she flashed her own smile in return, her face immediately lighting up, “Well there was a bit of concern with the restless, but your man was quite adept at getting us through. I must thank you for putting me in such capable hands.”
They were in the drawing room once more, though it was far more crowded than the last time Richard was there. Samuel stood against the back wall while Julius lounged on a chair. The bounty hunter himself stood behind his captive, keeping a watchful eye on her with a hand on the hilt of his sword. A fire crackled in the grate, warming the room as snow pattered against the windows.
Richard smirked and moved closer to the girl, “You’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble. You should have turned yourself in at the very beginning. It would have saved you a bit of pain.”
The thief tossed her head back, her hair flipping out of her face, “I was thinking the very same thing. But honestly, I have a reputation to uphold. You can’t expect me to give in at the very first chase.” She grinned, a devilish expression that made Richard remember the night they had first met, “After all, I didn’t give in the first time.”
Richard reached forward and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him in the eyes, “Well I’m afraid your luck has run out. Julius here has a few plans for you, and I’m afraid that you may not like them.”
Her eyes slid toward his, her smile fading just as quickly as it had come, “Most likely not. But one thing still gets me…” She paused briefly, as if gathering her thoughts, “I only stole about a hundred credits. It was hardly enough to merit you chasing me across half the known world. And while we had our…dalliances.” She gave him a coy smile before continuing, “I think too highly of you to believe that you’d go through this much trouble over something so minor. Is it revenge?”
Richard let go of her chin, stepping back. He was about to respond when Julius broke in, his hoarse voice ringing through the room, “You possess something very valuable, my dear…something that Richard was supposed to deliver to me. Alas, you stole it and I had to take him for all he was worth. As soon as I’m satisfied that you have it, however, he will find himself back in good graces.”
The thief looked bewildered, and the bounty hunter shifted behind her; no doubt he was curious as well. The girl shook her head and replied, “I didn’t steal anything valuable.”
Julius gave her one of his leers, lacing his fingers in front of him, “Oh, but you did. You broke a very specific vial…accidentally, perhaps, but you did. You breathed in the vapors and now you have the secret to the cure, my dear.”
Richard frowned, remembering the earlier conversation that he had had with Julius. What was the man playing at?
The girl looked even more confused if possible, her brows knitting together, “The cure to what?”
“Why, the cure to the infection, of course.”