Authors: Jonathan Maberry
Author’s Note: This story takes place between
Flesh & Bone
Fire & Ash
Special thanks to Lisa Mandina, librarian Erin Daly, and the girls at the Chicopee Library Teen Book Club.
Benny Imura stood at the edge of a concrete trench that was all that separated him from the reaching hands and hungry mouths of half a million zoms.
Half a million.
The dead stood there, pale and silent, most of them as unmoving as statues. They looked like tombstones to Benny, their moldering flesh marking the only grave the wandering dead would ever know.
None of the creatures could reach him; the trench was too wide. Those that tried fell down to the concrete floor and could never hope to climb up the sheer sides. Benny was safe.
Such a weak and stupid word.
A year ago that word actually meant something to him. Safe was a concept he could grasp. Safe was his town of Mountainside. Safe was the chain-link fence, the tower guards, the armed men of the town watch. Safe was a sturdy oak door and good locks. Safe was shutters on the windows.
Safe was an illusion.
That illusion had been shattered when death came to town on a stormy night as a lightning-struck tree smashed part of the fence down. The concept of safety was battered by a zombie coming for him inside his own house.
The last fragments of the lie of safety had been ground to dust by the heavy boots of evil men—living men, not zoms—who’d brutalized Morgie Mitchell, one of Benny’s best friends, when he tried to protect Nix Riley and her mother.
The men had killed Mrs. Riley and kidnapped Nix.
Benny and his brother, Tom, had gotten her back, but not easily. Not in any way that rebuilt the walls of safety, or that put a fresh coat of paint on the illusion that everything would be okay again.
It wouldn’t be okay again.
It couldn’t be.
Mrs. Riley was dead.
Morgie was gone too. In a way. He and Benny had traded hard words on the day Tom had left town. Benny and Nix had gone with him, along with Lou Chong and Lilah, the Lost Girl. All of Morgie’s friends left town, and Morgie sent Benny on the road with a wish that they’d all die out here in the great Rot and Ruin.
Benny knew that Morgie was talking from a hurt place, not from his heart. But it was the last thing that had been said; it was the last memory.
Not even lifelong friendships were safe.
Not in the real world.
Nothing was safe.
Tom was gone now too. Gone forever and for good.
His smile, his wisdom, his power.
Benny looked beyond the closest ranks of zoms to a squat white blockhouse of a building that rose into the hot Nevada air. In there, behind those featureless walls, another of his friends was gone too.
Infected, dying. Maybe already dead.
Maybe already returned from death as something inhuman. Something that, despite all their years of friendship, would try to kill Benny.
Try to eat his flesh.
he thought as tears burned in his eyes,
nothing is safe
He felt the weight of the sword he wore slung across his back. It was Tom’s
, a perfectly balanced weapon. It
Then, in a moment that was unavoidable and terrible and wild, Tom had used the last of his strength to try to draw that sword in order to stop a madman from slaughtering everyone. But Tom was already dying, and his strength failed him at last—but in that instant Benny reached for the handle, taking it from Tom, brushing his brother’s fingers, drawing the weapon, completing the action. Doing what had to be done. Fighting the monster.
Saving Nix and Chong and Lilah.
And, in the act of killing to save lives—even with all the moral and cosmic justification that carried—Benny lost a little of himself. That blade cut more than the flesh of an evil man. It sliced away a piece of Benny’s childhood and left it to die in the bloody grass around where Tom knelt.
Benny squatted down on the edge of the trench, took a handful of hot sand, and let it pour slowly out of his fist. The wind whipped it away from him.
Some of the zoms across the trench were dressed in black clothes with red tassels tied around their wrists and ankles, with white angel wings sewn onto the front of their shirts. Their shaved heads were elaborately tattooed with images of flowers, thorny vines, insects, and writhing snakes.
Reapers of the Night Church.
Because of them, no one was safe.
They were worse than the zombies. The dead meant no harm; they were driven by some impulse of their destroyed nature.
They actually believed that everyone—every man, woman, and child left alive—should die. They were converts to a new religion based on an ancient Greek god of death. Thanatos. And their leader, the cold and deadly madman Saint John, had trained them to be an army of superb and relentless killers.
Saint John believed that Thanatos had sent the zombie plague to eradicate the “infection” of humanity and thereby cleanse the world. Anyone who survived the plague and struggled to stay alive was going in direct defiance of Saint John’s god. It made them heretics and blasphemers. They were like weeds in a bizarre version of the Garden of Eden, and Saint John used his reapers to mow them down.
Then, when the last of the heretics were gone, Saint John planned to lead his own people into an orgy of mass suicide.
The insanity of it was scary enough. The fact that so many people joined the Night Church was insane. It was terrifying.
Benny and his friends had become embroiled in that unholy war.
Now they were injured, sick at heart, trapped, and dying.
And yet . . .
Another emotion warred inside Benny’s heart and mind, fighting back the terror, shoving back the despair over all that he’d lost.
It burned inside him with a fire that was as cold as it was intense.
The thought that someone like Saint John would want to end life after all the years of struggle, of working together to overcome hardships, of finding a way to preserve the spark of life after plague and famine tried to blow it out . . . it made Benny burn.
He thought of everyone he knew who’d died, who’d sacrificed so much so that others—many others—could live.
Mrs. Riley, dying to try to protect her daughter.
Tom. Saving so many.
Maybe Chong, saving a little girl from reapers.
If the reapers had their way, all of these deaths would be meaningless. To Benny, that was obscene.
Benny reached over his shoulder and touched the handle of his sword. He could feel his lips curl back in a feral snarl of hate. He imagined Saint John in front of him, within reaching, within cutting distance.
“No,” Benny said.
It was all he said.
It was enough.
Because, with everything he had and everything he was, he absolutely meant it.
South Fork Wildlife Area
A voice rang out, sharp and full of threat.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
The man who spoke was tall, broad-shouldered, bearded, and brutal-looking. He stepped out from behind an overturned tractor-trailer. He wore matched pistols in leather holsters at his hips and carried a working replica of a Scottish claymore sword in his knobby fist, the blade resting on one mountainous shoulder.
The man to whom he spoke was not nearly as bulky. Pale, short, slender, dressed in black clothes with angel wings embroidered in white thread on the front of his dark shirt. His garments were too big for him, and they bloused out around the red tassels tied to his wrists, elbows, ankles, and knees. He had a shaved head, and his scalp was covered in tattoos of bees crawling over a honey-rich hive.
“I’m just a humble traveler doing god’s work,” said the smaller man.
“Not on this road, pally,” said the big man. “This road belongs to Boss Keffler.”
As he spoke, there was an ominous sound. The smaller man turned to see other men step from concealment among the wrecked cars on the cracked highway. Four of them. All armed. One carried a shotgun in his hands.
“Ah,” said the traveler. “Let me guess—there’s a toll, am I right?”
That put a greasy smile on the big man’s face. “Oh yeah, there’s a toll.”
“Does it matter at all that I’m a servant of god? No, don’t look at me like that, I’m being serious here. I’m an actual servant of god. Doing god’s work. That get me any play here?”
The beefy man looked momentarily confused. Then he grinned. “God’s dead, ain’t you heard? And he left this road to Boss Keffler in his will.”
The big man guffawed, and the others joined him. The traveler smiled thinly, and as the laughter tapered off, he held up a hand.
“Yeah, yeah, okay, very hilarious,” said the traveler, his tone calm and reasonable. “You look like you’re the topkick of this crew. Am I right? What’s your name, brother?”
“I ain’t your brother.”
“Figure of speech. What, sir, is your name?”
“Tony Grapes? Really? You’re going with that? Yes? Okay, sure, Grapes. Whatever. Look, Mr. Grapes, my name’s Marty Kirk. Brother Marty these days. We both know that you’re a large, scary individual, and your colleagues there are tough as they come. That’s obvious, that’s a given, no need to go further with that discussion. We know that. Just like we know that I’m a hundred and sixty pounds of middle-aged nothing. I’m not armed, and even if I was, we both know you could take away anything I had and make me eat it, raw, with only a little soy sauce. We’re there, am I right? We’re on that page.”
Tony stared at him with open mouth and narrowed eyes. Wary, but fascinated. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s about it.”
“So, let’s look at the last page of this script, ’cause I don’t think we’re reading from the same screenplay. In your version, I get my tuchus kicked and maybe my throat cut and you guys have a funny anecdote to tell the rest of the Neanderthals about how your combined weight of—I’m guessing here—three quarters of a ton of whale lard was able to stomp my skinny self into the dirt without so much as you bruising a hairy knuckle. I mean, let’s face it, you got that script, you’re reading those pages, am I right?”
“You’ve got a smart mouth.”
“I’ve been told. My point is,” continued Brother Marty, “my script has two different endings. One for the theaters, the other for the DVD extras, you follow? No? Forgot about all that already? Life’s sad, so much is lost. Whatever. In one version, the version where we all end the day happy and still sucking air, you and your four chums here drop to your knees, renounce your false god like the carnival phony he is, embrace Thanatos—all praise to his darkness—and one-two-three, you guys are part of my team. This is a nice scenario, am I right? This is a Hallmark moment and a happy ending.”
“This guy’s totally monkey-bat crazy,” said one of the gang.
“No kidding,” said Tony. He swung the sword out and laid the flat of it on Brother Marty’s shoulder. The weight of the blade made Marty’s knees buckle for a moment.
“But,” said Marty hastily, “let me get to the alternate ending. In that version we go for the edgy ending, the dark ending. The one that would play well at Cannes but score low in the word-of-mouth market. You dig where I’m going with this? No? Let me set the scene. In the alternate ending, you five goons don’t forswear your false god, you don’t accept the blessing of Thanatos—all praise to his darkness—and none of you are on call for the sequel to this summer blockbuster. Are you feeling me on this, Tony? You get where my GPS is taking us? That second ending sucks, neither of us like it. It’s a tearjerker, am I right? And, come on, is that really the best ending for the whole family? I don’t think so. I think we need to take a closer look at the first ending, the one the director wants to shoot, because, hey, it sells more popcorn and it’s a crowd pleaser.”
Tony Grapes said nothing. Neither did the others.
“No?” asked Marty. “Nothing? This is like talking to the screenwriter’s union. Suddenly nobody has words.”
One of the gang said, “Hey, Tony, it’s bad luck to kill a crazy person, you know that, right?”
Tony sneered. “He ain’t crazy. He’s trying to tap-dance his way out of it, that’s all.” To Marty, Tony said, “What were you before First Night? Some kind of con man?”
“I was a producer, so . . . pretty much, yes. But here’s my point, you fellas need to make a real career decision right here, right now. We could use some local talent, you dig? Someone who knows the ropes and knows the roads.”
“How ’bout we just have some fun kicking your ass up and down the road?”
“Feel free to try, and I mean that sincerely, guys,” said Marty. “But this is a one-time offer that expires . . . well, now, actually.”
Tony abruptly looked up to see another man in black clothes and red tassels climb up on the hood of a wrecked car.
“Oh, please,” he said with a gruff laugh. “It’s gonna take a lot more than . . .”
His voice trailed off. There was sudden movement all around them. A second figure climbed onto a car, a third stepped out from between two SUVs. A third, a fourth. Ten more. Twenty.
In front and behind and on both sides. They weren’t there and then they were, the figures moving as silently as ghosts. They all carried weapons.
The closest ones were bigger, more muscular and more dangerous-looking than the others, and they had red handprint tattoos over their faces. Their eyes burned with bloodlust.
The gang member with the shotgun raised it to point at the nearest figure.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa now,” said Marty quickly. “Think it through. That there is a Remington model 870 pump shotgun, am I right? You probably have a six-shot magazine and maybe one in the pipe. I’m using that word right? Pipe? So you got seven shots. Your friend there has a Glock 23 with a thirteen-shot capacity, and again one in the pipe. At best—at best I’m saying—if you guys are Deadeye Dicks, you can take out twenty, twenty-two of us. The rest of you have knives and swords, and I’m here to tell you that we like our odds in an edged-weapon tussle. Not bragging, just saying. So, you take out a coupla dozen of us, and the rest of us spend the whole afternoon and evening teaching you guys all sorts of songs. Hymns, if you catch where I’m going with this. It’s a religious thing. Hymns to Thanatos—praise be to his darkness.”
All around them dozens upon dozens of voices echoed the chant.
“So,” said Marty, still being reasonable, “the math isn’t good. I like you boys, you have some pluck, and central casting could’ve put you in anything by Tarantino or the Coen brothers. Seriously, you’re great. But there’s so many of us my head hurts to do the tallies.”
Tony licked his lips but said nothing.
“Okay, I have your attention,” said Marty. “Now, the whole reason I’m here and we’re taking this meeting instead of just walking away from your bleeding corpses is that we need what’s in your head more than we need what’s in your veins. Okay, that’s a bad line. I’m a producer, not a scriptwriter. Follow me, though. It was a threat, but it was couched so as to present an offer. You got that, right?”
“O-offer . . . ?” said Tony, so thrown off his game that he seemed to have forgotten the sword in his hands.
“Right. Like I said, we need someone who knows the area. Someone who can help us get around this part of California and up into the Sierra Nevadas. We need that more than we need to send all five of you into the darkness.”
“And, just to remove any confusion . . . we only need one of you. Whoever knows the area best. The rest . . . well, sorry, kids, but that’s how the Oreo crumbles.”
“Just one?” echoed Tony.
“He’s messing with your head, Tony,” said the guy with the shotgun. “Don’t let him—”
“Shut up, Ralphie,” barked Tony. “I’m trying to think.”
Marty nodded encouragingly. “Listen, Tony, you look like an enterprising fellow. You’re a leader, you’re a trusted man? These guys are here working for you, am I right?”
“Screw that,” said another of the gang. “We work for Boss Keffler.”
Marty glanced at him, said nothing, then addressed Tony. “Correct me if I’m totally wrong, but Boss Keffler isn’t actually here. You are, Tony. And we are.”
“Tony,” said Ralphie, “don’t listen to this clown. We can—”
Without a second’s hesitation Tony spun and slashed him across the neck with the sword. Ralphie’s head leaped two feet into the air, propelled by a fierce burst of blood. Before Ralphie’s head even landed, Tony chopped down on the man with the Glock. The man screamed for half a second and then dropped to his knees, split from collarbone to groin. The other two gang members gaped for a moment; then they turned to run. Tony cut a look at Brother Marty, like a dog waiting for approval to do a trick.
“Earn it,” suggested Marty.
Tony ran them down and his sword did quick, terrible work. It was over in seconds. Tony was splashed with blood, and as he turned back to Marty, the reapers closed in around him. Tony did not resist or protest when strong hands took his sword away. Nor did he fight when they pushed him down to his knees in front of Marty. The producer nodded and ran a palm over his tattooed scalp.
Marty smiled at Tony. Even kneeling, the gang leader was nearly as tall as the reaper. “Tony, I’m liking you more and more. You have pluck, you have common sense, and you have timing. All good qualities. Now . . . let’s talk.”
Tony Grapes licked his lips. His eyes were bright and wet and his chin trembled.
“Talk about what?”
“About where,” corrected Marty. “My boss, a guy I’d knee-walk through broken glass for—and I don’t joke when I say this—really wants to find a place called Mountainside.” Marty leaned close so that his lips almost touched Tony’s. “Let’s all hope and pray that you can help us find it.”