Fire and Ash

Page 1

PART ONE

THE HINGES OF DESTINY

Changing is what people do when they have no options left.

—HOLLY BLACK, RED GLOVE

1

BENNY IMURA SAT IN THE dark and spoke with monsters.

It was like that every day.

It had become the pattern of his life. Shadows and blood. And monsters.

Everywhere.

Monsters.

2

THE THING CROUCHED IN THE darkness.

It stank of raw meat and decay. A metal collar was bolted around its neck and a steel chain lay coiled on the bottom of the cage, looking like the discarded skin of some great snake.

The thing raised its head and glared through the bars. Greasy black hair hung in filthy strings, half hiding the gray face. The skin looked diseased, dead. But the eyes . . .

The eyes.

They watched with a malevolent intensity that spoke of a dreadful awareness. Pale hands gripped the bars with such force that the knuckles were white with tension. The thing’s teeth were caked with pieces of meat.

Benny Imura sat crossed-legged on the floor.

Sick to his stomach.

Sick at heart.

Sick in the depths of his soul.

Benny leaned forward. His voice was thick and soft when he spoke.

“Can you hear me?”

The creature’s lips curled.

“Yes, you can hear me,” said Benny. “Good . . . can you understand me? Do you know who I am?”

A fat drop of bloody spit oozed from between the creature’s teeth, rolled over its bottom lip, hung for a moment, and then dropped with a faint plash to the floor.

Benny leaned closer still. “Do you recognize me?”

After a long moment, the thing in the cage leaned forward too. Its face underwent a slow process of change. Doubt flickered in its eyes; the lips relaxed over the teeth. It sniffed the air as if trying to identify Benny’s scent. The doubt in its eyes deepened. It bent closer still, and now the lips seemed like they were trying to shape a word.

Benny pushed himself even closer, trying to hear what sound that word carried.

“Huh,” murmured the creature in a rasping croak, “. . . huh . . . hun . . .”

“Go on,” Benny encouraged. “Go ahead. You can do it. Say something. . . .”

The creature rested its forehead against the inside of the bars, and Benny leaned all the way forward.

“. . . hunh . . . hunh . . .”

“What is it?” whispered Benny. “What are you trying to say?”

The creature spoke the word. It came out as a whisper. A full word. Two syllables.

“Hungry!”

Suddenly it lunged at Benny; gray hands shot between the bars and grabbed Benny’s shirt. The creature howled with triumph.

“HUNGRY!”

Wet teeth snapped at him. It jammed its face between the bars, trying to bite him, to tear him.

To feed its hunger.

Benny screamed and flung himself backward, but the creature had him in its powerful hands. The teeth snapped. Saliva that was as cold and dirty as gutter water splashed Benny’s face.

“Hungry . . . hungry . . . hungry!” screamed the thing.

Behind Benny a voice shouted in anger. The soldier, moving too slow and too late. Something whistled through the air above Benny’s head and rang off the bars. A baton, swung by the soldier with crippling force.

The creature jerked backward from a blow that would have smashed its jaw and shattered its teeth.

“No!” bellowed Benny, still caught by the thing’s hands, but squirming, fighting it and swinging his arms up to block the soldier.

“Move, kid!” snarled the guard.

The baton hit the bars again with a deafening caroooom!

Benny bent his knees and forced his foot into the narrow gap between him and the bars, then kicked himself backward. The creature lost one handhold on his shirt, but it grabbed the bar to brace itself so it could pull even harder with the other. Benny kicked out, once, twice, again, slamming his heel into the hand holding the bar, hitting knuckles every time. The creature howled and whipped its hand back from the bars. Its screech of agony tore the air.

Benny’s mind reeled. It can still feel pain.

It was the strangest feeling for Benny. That thought, that bit of truth, was a comfort to him.

If it could still feel pain . . .

It was still alive.

“Out of the way, kid,” roared the soldier, raising his stick again. “I got the son of a—”

Benny kicked once more, and the whole front of his shirt tore away. He collapsed backward against the soldier, hitting his legs so hard the man fell against the concrete wall. Benny sank onto the cold floor, gasping, shuddering with terror.

Inside the cage, the creature clutched its hands to its gray flesh and let out a high, keening cry of pain and frustration.

And of hunger.

The soldier pushed himself angrily off the wall, hooked Benny under the armpit, hauled him to his feet, and flung him toward the door. “That’s it. You’re out of here. And I’m going to teach this monster some damn manners.”

“No!” shouted Benny. He slapped the soldier’s hands aside and shoved the man in the chest with both hands. The move was backed by all of Benny’s hurt and rage; the soldier flew backward, skidded on the damp concrete, and fell. The baton clattered from his hand and rolled away.

The creature in the cage howled and once more lunged through the bars, trying this time to grab the fallen soldier’s outflung arm. The guard snatched it out of the way with a cry of disgust. Spitting in fury, the soldier rolled sideways onto his knees and reached for the baton.

“You made a big damn mistake, boy. I’m going to kick your ass, and then you’re going to watch me beat some manners into—”

There was a sudden rasp of steel and something silver flashed through the air and the moment froze. The soldier was on his knees, one hand braced on the ground, the other holding the baton. His eyes bugged wide as he tried to look down at the thing that pressed into the soft flesh of his throat. The soldier could see his own reflection in the long, slender blade of Benny Imura’s katana.

“Listen to me,” said Benny, and he didn’t care that his voice was thick with emotion or that it broke with a sob. “You’re not going to do anything to me, and you’re not going to do anything to—”

“To what? It’s a monster. It’s an abomination.”

Benny pressed the tip of the sword into the man’s skin. A single tiny bead of hot blood popped onto the edge of the steel and ran along the mirror-bright surface in a crooked line.

“It’s not a monster,” said Benny. “And he has a name.”

The soldier said nothing.

Benny increased the pressure. “Say his name.”

The soldier’s face flushed red with fury.

“Say it,” snarled Benny in a voice he had never heard himself use before. Harsh, cruel, vicious. Uncompromising.

The soldier said the name.

He spat it out of his mouth like a bad taste.

“Chong.”

Benny removed the sword and the soldier started to turn, but the blade flashed through the shadows and came to rest again, with the razor-sharp edge right across the man’s throat.

“I’m going to come back tomorrow,” said Benny in that same ugly voice. “And the day after that, and the day after that. If I find even a single bruise on my friend, if you or any of your friends hurt him in any way . . . then you’re going to have a lot more to worry about than monsters in cages.”

The soldier glared at Benny, his intent lethal.

“You’re out of your mind, boy.”

Benny could feel his mouth twist into a smile, but from the look in the soldier’s eyes it could not have been a nice smile.

“Out of my mind? Yeah,” said Benny. “I probably am.”

Benny stepped back and lowered the sword. He turned his back on the soldier and went over to the cage. He stood well out of reach this time.

“I’m sorry, Chong,” he said.

Tears ran down Benny’s face. He looked into those dark eyes, searching for some trace of the person he’d known all his life. The quick wit, the deep intelligence, the gentle humor. If Chong was alive, then those things had to still be in there. Somewhere. Benny leaned closer still, needing to catch the slightest glimpse of his friend. He could bear this horror if there was the slightest chance that Chong was only detached from conscious control, if he was like a prisoner inside a boarded-up house. As horrible as that was, it suggested that a solution, some kind of rescue, was possible.

“C’mon, you monkey-banger,” Benny whispered. “Give me something here. You’re smarter than me . . . you find me. Say something. Anything . . .”

The thing’s gray lips curled back from wet teeth.

“. . . hungry . . .”

That was all the creature could say. Drool ran down its chin and dropped to the straw-covered floor of its cage.

“He’s not dead, you know,” Benny said to the soldier.

The soldier wiped at the trickle of blood on his throat. “He ain’t alive.”

“He’s. Not. Dead.” Benny spaced and emphasized each word.

“Yeah. Sure. Whatever you want, kid.”

Benny resheathed his sword, turned, and walked past the guard, out through the iron door, up the stone stairs, and out into the brutal heat of the Nevada morning.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Three weeks ago we were in a war.

I guess it was a religious war. Sort of. A holy war, though it seems weird to even write those words.

A crazy woman named Mother Rose and an even crazier man named Saint John started a religion called the Night Church. They worshipped one of the old Greek gods of death, Thanatos. Somehow they got it into their heads that the zombie plague was their god’s deliberate attempt to wipe out all of humanity. They considered anyone who didn’t die to be a blasphemer going against their god’s will.

So, the people in the Night Church decided that they needed to complete Thanatos’s plan by killing everyone who’s left. They trained all the people in the church to be really good fighters. They call themselves the reapers.

When that’s done, they plan to kill themselves.

Crazy, right?

According to our new friend, Riot, who is (no joke) Mother Rose’s daughter, the reapers have killed about ten thousand people.

Ten thousand.

A lot of reapers were killed in a big battle. Joe killed them with rocket launchers and other weapons we found on a crashed plane. Joe’s a good guy, but seeing him kill all those killers . . . that was nuts. It was wrong no matter what side I look at it from.

But then . . . what choice did he have?

I wish the world still made sense.

3

MILES AND MILES AWAY . . .

The man named Saint John walked along a road shaded by live oaks and pines. The trees were unusually dry for this time of year, victims of a drought that was leeching away the vital juices of the world. The saint did not mind, though. It was another way that his god was making it impossible for life to continue in a world that no longer belonged to mankind. Saint John appreciated the subtlety of that, and the attention to detail.

His army stretched behind him, men and women dressed in black with white angel wings sewn onto the fronts of their shirts and red tassels tied to every joint. Each head was neatly shaved and thoroughly tattooed with flowers and vines and stinging insects and predator birds. As they marched, these reapers of the Night Church sang songs of darkness and an end to suffering. Hymns to an eternal silence where pain and indignity no longer held sway.

Saint John did not sing. He walked with his hands behind his back, head bent in thought. He still grieved for the betrayal of Sister Rose. But his spirits were buoyed by the knowledge that Sister Sun and Brother Peter—two of his Council of Sorrows who would never betray him—were working tirelessly to serve the will of their god. They would light the fire that would burn away the infection of humanity.

While they labored back in Nevada to start that blaze, Saint John led the bulk of the reaper army through deserts and forests, across badlands and into the mountains in search of nine towns—nine strongholds of blasphemy and evil. Until yesterday he did not know the way. But they had met a traveler who was willing to share all that he knew of those towns. He was reluctant at first to share, but with some encouragement he was willing to scream everything that he knew.

The first of the towns was named Haven. As unfortunate and naive a name as Sanctuary.

The second town was a place called Mountainside. . . .

He listened to the songs of the reapers, a dirge lifted by forty thousand voices, and Saint John walked on, content.

Out in the dark, beyond the ranks of the reapers, came a second and much larger army. One that did not need to be fed, one that never tired, one that required only the call of dog whistles to drive it, and the presence of the chemical-soaked red tassels to control their appetites.

Yet, in their own way, they too sang. Not hymns, not anything with words. Theirs, lifted by tens of thousands of dead voices, was the unrelenting moan of hunger as the army of the living dead went to war under the banner of the god of death.

4

THE SUN WAS A SPIKY crown of light resting on the mountaintops to the east. Benny closed his eyes and turned his face to the light, soaking in the heat. The holding area had been too cold. Benny had never dealt with air-conditioning before, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. The sunlight felt good on his face and chest and arms. By this afternoon he would be hunting for even a sliver of shade, but for now this was nice.

We’re going to save Chong, said his inner voice.

“Yes we are,” Benny growled aloud.

A shadow crossed over his face, and he looked up to see a vulture glide through the air from the top of the six-story hospital blockhouse. It flapped its big black wings as it came to rest atop a parked jet that stood still and silent two hundred yards away.

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