Authors: Daryl Banner
“Nature is washing your kind away, Winter.” Her eyes meet mine, cold and hard as a certain death. “The Dead are disappearing from the planet.” She makes a deliberate move to the window, taps against the glass. “You seeing the same storm I’m seeing?”
I peer out at the courtyard again, though I can hardly see it through the impossibly thick rain. I’m just staring into the nothingness, staring at nothing, seeing nothing. The sirens, I can’t even hear them anymore; only the relentless pounding of water against glass, against metal roof, against concrete.
“The Dead are crumbling to dust before our eyes,” she says. “Even this eye of mine. This Warlock eye, it’s useless.” It seems to flash blue, as if in response to her words, as if it has a mind of its own. “Didn’t Helena mention how the Dead are spontaneously crumbling to dust? Didn’t Ann? … or were they too afraid to hurt your sensitive feelings?”
“Dust …?” The rain outside grows louder, louder.
“Yeah.” Her Human eye turns dark and beady. Her blue one burns like hot ice. “Imagine it. You’re talking to your best Undead friend, carrying on like there’s a million more tomorrows, then suddenly …
Dust.” Megan shakes her head. “I’m guessing Doctor Collin failed to mention that his own brother, the owner of the gym, went that very same way. One evening he was training a group of children … then fell apart before their eyes. After they screamed and ran away, Collin found his brother in the form of a pile of ash and crumbled bone.”
“Stop,” I beg her, grabbing my head with a hand at each temple and holding back a scream of mania. “Please, Megan, I’ve heard enough.”
I’m shaking, thrown into a panic, overwhelmed, and the rain keeps thrashing against the window, thrashing, thrashing, thrashing. I clench shut my eyes and collapse to the floor. A true drama queen, from my First Life to this one. Someone toss flowers on me and applaud, please.
“Facts, Winter. This is the world we live in. The Dead have ruled long enough. It’s our turn now. This is
Necropolis now and there will be no nightmares here.”
the nightmare,” I breathe, hyperventilating on absolutely nothing, filling and emptying my lungs of air I don’t need over and over. All these habits of my First Life rush back to support me in this time of need. I’m two steps from throwing one of my infamous tantrums that used to get Claire whatever she wanted.
The rain keeps pummeling the glass, taunting me, like Mother Nature herself were a bully, laughing, slamming fists made of water and life and time against the windows. Gunner, who had a troubled past himself, who’d helped me fend off a giant spider, who helped defend Trenton in its time of need, then fought valiantly at Garden, only to be knocked off the roof of a building—hence his injury. And somehow during his years of recovery, he couldn’t manage, he couldn’t cope, and now he’s …
“Dead,” I whisper, my eyes clenched shut and my hands gripping my ears so tight, I’m certain I might pull them right off—then I’d be spared having to hear anymore of Megan’s horrible news. “Dead, dead, dead. They’re all dead and we’ll all be dead soon. The real dead, the certain dead, the forever dead. Dead, dead, dead.” My voice trails off,
dead, dead, dead
, until not even a thought can find me, drowned in the raging storm outside.
Then suddenly the rain relents, or perhaps it’s that Megan has come to my side. She’s standing there, and the presence of her body distorts the sound.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. With my ears shielded, it feels like I’m the only person in the world who heard my apology. I don’t even know what I’m apologizing for.
Through the hands that desperately cover my ears, I hear her response perfectly: “This is the only life I know. My emotions died with my parents. My emotions died with John, with Grim, with you. This is all that’s left.”
The storm exhausts the remainder of its wrath, and soon the peace, if it can be called that, is returned in an instant. The silence of the room after the storm is louder.
When I finally remove my hands, the first thing I hear is the beating of Megan’s heart. The rhythm of life, the drumming, the thrashing of blood in her veins. It makes me think of the tavern where John and I first met. It lends me memories both wonderful and terribly painful.
“There’s nothing left …” I whisper.
I imagine my mother with a face I may not recognize. I feel the horror and the pain and the resentment Megan must have felt, watching the Deathless Queen being put back together before her eyes. My mother.
“There’s nothing left …” I whisper once more, twice more, and I realize that I will never, ever hear John’s heartbeat again.
Megan, the Mayor, extends a hand to me. “Come,” she says. “I’ll take you to the Housing Manager.”
C H A P T E R – T H R E E
N E W T R E N T O N
The Necropolis, which I will forever call it, is a well-oiled machine of commerce, industry, and peaceful cooperation. Whatever the hell that means.
Living and Undead are nearly identical, told apart only if one observes their daily routine, their nature given away when one is spotted eating. The “Pretender” nature that I’d gotten so used to back in Old Trenton is, both regrettably and thankfully, a thing of the past. I still remember a quaint, upscale dinner that Grimsky tried to get me to eat—a meal that was likely made of wax, for all I would know or taste.
The Necropolis is generously filled with many covered walkways, should an Undead find themselves exposed during a sudden siren-sounding. After all, as I witnessed twice already myself, the sirens do not, in fact, give fair warning before the rainclouds tear in half.
Gardening areas, “Bio-pods” and rows of produce seem to be spread throughout the entire city, instead of being kept in one location or area. On the way to my new home, I pass six different spreads of vegetation. The Housing Manager even walks me past a large rice field with a thin metal bridge stretched across it.
Finally, there is a network of streets in the center of the Necropolis which holds a large array of four-story apartment buildings where most of the Undead live. The Housing Manager tells me it’s called the Neighborhood, clearly someone’s bad joke. The buildings have covered walkway accesses connecting one another on multiple floors, and each holds an average of twenty to thirty apartments per floor. Building 2A, apartment 412—that is, the twelfth apartment on the fourth floor—has been assigned to me.
When the Housing Manager shows me inside, I find a clean, empty room painted grey, flat and featureless carpet, also grey, and two windows at the far end. A beige couch sits on one end of the room opposite a kitchenette and dining area. A door near the stove leads into a bedroom where two more windows let in more sunlight I cannot see. A bathroom that I will never use is attached to the bedroom, stocked with a toothbrush, hairspray, and nail clippers. I stifle a laugh, putting a hand to my mouth, and when the Housing Manager asks me what’s funny, I tell him, “Nothing. Nothing’s funny at all about this.” I start to laugh again, so I bite a fist to suppress the untimely urge.
When the Housing Manager leaves, the laughter dies. I peer out a window, feeling strangely tired, and watch as a couple of lovebirds stroll down the street arm in arm.
“John,” I murmur, remembering.
Haven’t been in my apartment more than a minute, I’m already out the door. I hurry down the steps, break into the street, then weave through a dizzying set of streets before arriving at a familiar courtyard. When I cross it, I realize with a sick stab to the gut that it’s the same stretch of cement where I once encountered the metal-legged Warlock dwarf. I’d had a band of Humans with me at the time and we were just footsteps away from a way out, but the Warlock stopped us, and too soon a companion of his joined: Grimsky himself. I realize I’m standing in the same place I was when Grim pulled out a sword and betrayed his own kind, stabbing the Warlock instead of me. He’d paid a price to save me that day. He’d paid many prices, Grimsky had …
The surge of emotions burns in my chest. Grimsky was also the one who set the tree-structure on fire from which John fell to his doom. Grimsky, the man who found me, who betrayed me, then betrayed his own kind, then took away the Human man I’d loved. How could I ever know where Grimsky’s true loyalty lies? He’s betrayed so many people and principles and beliefs, I wonder if there’s a real person in him at all.
But just before he abandoned me that day long ago in Garden, just before he left me to helplessly embrace my dying John, I saw the flash of awareness in his horrible green eye. Was it his Waking Dream that I witnessed? Did he, in that moment of surprise, experience his long-awaited and assumed-never-to-occur Waking Dream? He’d kept saying that the Deathless sacrificed their Waking Dreams, but I was never convinced …
I think Grimsky learned who the true Grimsky was that day. There’s no other way to explain his behavior.
When I find the hospital, I’m certain a hundred hours have passed. The Necropolis is not an easy place to navigate; I learned that when I was once its prisoner. Pushing through the glass doors, I arrive at the counter to find a button-nose lady with curly blue hair staring at me expectantly. “I’m looking for John,” I tell her, uncertain. “He’s, um … He’s supposed to be receiving Upkeep. He was a recent Raise.”
“Yes, he’s been released,” responds the lady.
I gape at her. “Released? To whom? He’s a new Raise, he can’t just be
I’m screaming at the lady, her eyes wide with surprise and stammering for a response.
I turn to the new voice. A sweet-faced woman dressed in a blue uniform with a giant scorpion-shaped broach at her neck stands there, a clipboard hanging from her hand. She looks as sweet and polite as can be.
“WHAT?” I bark rudely at her.
She takes a step toward me, her lips pursing into a timid smile. “You don’t recognize me?”
My demeanor changes at once. “Robin,” I slowly realize. The twelve years have made her thinner, longer, gentler. “Of course. Robin. Wow.”
She comes up to me, offers a quick hug, then pulls away. “The news of your return is spreading fast. My brother’s excited. You’re still about the only Undead he likes, even after all this time. Little’s changed about him,” she jests, chuckling lightly. “He’ll be happy to see you.”
“Rake,” I say, remembering her twin brother’s name. “You’ve grown.” I’m getting sick of telling people that.
She smiles cheerily, gives a little hop of excitement, then wiggles her fingers at me. I notice she’s showing off a little band of steel on her ring finger. “Married, too. Two boys of my own now, Jay and Lil’ Crow, three and four.”
“Big old happy family of birds,” I say, attempting to sound pleasant, but instead I sound horribly mocking. She doesn’t seem to notice, thankfully, beaming cheerfully at me. “Can you—Can you tell me where John—?”
“I met him as a patient here,” she goes on, playing with the steel wedding ring as she talks. I realize belatedly she means her husband, not John. “See, my brother and I were taken under Doctor Collin’s wing. He gave us a quick and dirty training in human anatomy over the course of the last six years. Doctor Collin said Rake and I are about the closest thing this world has to certified doctors, whatever that means.” She laughs, finding that funny I guess, and does a little dance and a twirl in her blue doctor’s uniform. I mimic her laughter, attempting to keep the cheer alive, though all my thoughts are desperately on John. “My now-husband, Leo, came to us in a time of need. He was on his own out there, encountered a giant beast and was badly injured. When he found the Necropolis, he was almost a goner. I cared for him, mended his wounds and, well …” She blushes. “I guess things went on from there, you can say.”
“Nothing quite like an inappropriate doctor-patient relationship to better the world,” I jest sweetly, feeling so anxious I could fry a pancake on my head. I don’t even know what that means. “Listen, Robin. This kind lady at the counter that I just yelled at said they released John. To where, precisely, was he released?”
“Oh, of course! It’s been so long since we’ve had a Raise, I’m so confused.” She giggles. I giggle. Seriously, please Robin, just answer the damn question. “He’s been taken to the Crafting, Jobs & Services Headquarters.”
“And where the hell is the Crafting, Jobs & Services Headquarters located?”
“I’ll take you there!”
The lady at the counter regards me with squinted, scandalized eyes as we leave. When Robin’s not looking, I scoff at the lady, certain I’ll never see her again anyway. She gawps at me, offended, and I sneer triumphantly, then nearly run into the wall on my way out the door.
Who cares. I’m dead.
The streets are a bit more populated now than they were when I first arrived, perhaps because the storms have (hopefully) exhausted themselves for the day. It is a strange feeling, to interpret the storms as Mother Nature’s polite way of ridding the world of my kind. I never asked for this Second Life any more than the next Undead did, and yet we are being duly punished by the planet, washed away as though we were some sick perversion. But if we came from the planet somehow, if we were Risen out of its own soil, birthed from its sodden recesses, then aren’t we just as … natural?