A FALL OF ANGELS
The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings.
(FROM A SPEECH TO PARLIAMENT, FEBRUARY 23, 1855)
BENNY IMURA THOUGHT, I’M GOING TO DIE.
The hundred zombies chasing him all seemed to agree.
FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO NOTHING AND NOBODY WAS TRYING TO KILL Benny Imura.
Benny had been sitting on a flat rock, sharpening a sword and brooding. He was aware that he was brooding. He even had a brooding face for when other people were around. Now, though, he was alone, and he let the mask fall away. When he was alone, the melancholy musings were deeper, more useful, but also less fun. When you’re alone, you can’t crack a joke to make the moment feel better.
There were very few moments that felt good to Benny. Not anymore. Not since leaving home.
He was a mile from where he and his friends had camped in a forest of desert trees deep in southern Nevada. Every time Benny took another step on the road to finding the airplane he and Nix had seen, every single inch forward, he was farther from home than he had ever been.
He used to hate the idea of leaving home. Home was Mountainside, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of central California. Home was bed and running water and hot apple pie on the porch. But that had been home with his brother, Tom. It had been a whole hometown, with Nix and her mother.
Now Nix’s mom was dead, and Tom was dead.
Home wasn’t home anymore.
As the road had unrolled itself in front of Benny, Nix, Chong, and Lilah, and melted into memory behind, the vast world out here had stopped being something ugly, something to fear. Now this was becoming home.
Benny wasn’t sure he liked it, but he felt in some strange way that it was what he needed, and maybe even what he deserved. No comforts. No safe haven. The world was a hard place, and this desert was brutal, and Benny knew that if he was going to survive in the world, then he would have to become much tougher than he was.
Tougher even than Tom, because Tom had fallen.
He brooded on this as he sat on his rock and carefully sharpened the long sword, the kami katana that had once belonged to Tom.
Sharpening a sword was an appropriate task while brooding. The blade had to be cared for and that required focus, and a focused mind was more agile when climbing through the obstacle course of thoughts and memories. Even though Benny was sad—deep into the core of who he was—he found some measure of satisfaction in the hardships of the road and the skill required to hone this deadly blade.
As he worked, he occasionally glanced around. Benny had never seen a desert before, and he appreciated its simplicity. It was vast and empty and incredibly beautiful. So many trees and birds that he had only read about in books. And . . . no people.
That was good and bad. The bad part was that there was no one they could ask about the plane. The good was that no one had tried to shoot them, torture them, kidnap them, or eat them in almost a month. Benny put that solidly in the “win” category.
This morning he’d left the camp to go alone into the woods, partly to practice the many skills Tom had taught him. Tracking, stealth, observation. And partly to be alone with his thoughts.
Benny was not happy with what was going on inside his head. Accepting Tom’s death should have been easy. Well, if not easy, then natural. After all, in Benny’s lifetime the whole world had died. More than seven billion people had fallen since First Night. Some to the zombies, the dead who rose to attack and feed on the living. Some to the mad panic and wild savagery into which mankind had descended during the collapse of governments and the military and society. Some were killed in the battles, blown to radioactive dust as nuclear bombs were dropped in a desperate attempt to stop the legions of walking dead. And many more died in the days after, succumbing to ordinary infections, injuries, starvation, and the wildfire spread of diseases that sprang from the death and rot that was everywhere. Cholera, staph and influenza, tuberculosis, HIV, and so many others—and all of them running unchecked, with no infrastructure, no hospitals, no way to stop them.
Given all that, given that everyone Benny had ever met had been touched by death in one way or another, he should have been able to accept Tom’s death.
But . . .
Although Tom had fallen during the battle of Gameland, he had not risen as one of the living dead. That was incredibly strange. It should have been wonderful, a blessing that Benny knew he should be grateful for . . . but he wasn’t. He was confused by it. And frightened, because he had no idea what it meant.
It made no sense. Not according to everything Benny had learned in his nearly sixteen years. Since First Night everyone who died, no matter how they died, reanimated as a zom. Everyone. No exceptions. It was the way things were.
Until it wasn’t.
Tom had not returned from death to that horrible mockery of life people called “living death.” Neither had a murdered man they’d found in the woods the day they left town. Same thing with some of the bounty hunters killed in the battle of Gameland. Benny didn’t know why. No one knew why. It was a mystery that was both frightening and hopeful. The world, already strange and terrible, had become stranger still.
Movement jolted Benny out of his musings, and he saw a figure step out of the woods at the top of the slope eighty feet away. He remained stock-still, watching to see if the zom would notice him.
Except that this was not a zom.
The figure was slender, tall, definitely female, and almost certainly still alive. She was dressed in black clothes—a loose long-sleeved shirt and pants—and there were dozens of pieces of thin red cloth tied around her. Ankles, legs, torso, arms, throat. The streamers were bright red, and they fluttered in the breeze so that for a weird moment it seemed as if she was badly cut and blood was being whipped off her in ragged lines. But as she stepped from shadow into sunlight, Benny saw that the streamers were only cloth.
She had something embroidered on the front of her shirt in white thread, but Benny could not make out the design.
He and his friends had not met a living person in weeks, and out here in the badlands they were more likely to meet a violently hostile loner than a friendly stranger. He waited to see if the woman had spotted him.
She walked a few paces into the field and stared down the slope toward a line of tall bristlecone pines. Even from this distance Benny could tell that the woman was beautiful. Regal, like pictures of queens he had seen in old books. Olive-skinned, with masses of gleaming black hair that fluttered in the same breeze that stirred the crimson streamers.
Sunlight struck silver fire from an object she raised from where it hung on a chain around her neck. Benny was too far away to tell what it was, though he thought it looked like a whistle. However, when the woman put it to her lips and blew, there was no sound at all, but suddenly the birds and monkeys in the trees began twittering with great agitation.
Then something else happened, and it sent a thrill of fear through Benny and drove all other thoughts out of his mind. Three men stepped out of the woods behind the woman. Their clothes also fluttered in the wind, but for them it was because the things they wore had been ripped to rags by violence, by weather, and by the inexorable claws of time.
Benny got to his feet very slowly. Quick movements attracted the dead. The zoms were a dozen feet behind the woman and lumbering toward her. She seemed totally unaware of their presence as she continued to try and make sounds from her whistle.
Several more figures stepped out of the shadows under the trees. More of the dead. They kept emerging into the light as if conjured from nightmares by his growing fear. There was no choice. He had to warn her. The dead were almost upon her.
“Lady!” he yelled. “Run!”
The woman’s head jerked up, and she stared across the swaying grass to where he stood. For a moment all the zoms froze in place as they searched for the source of the yelling voice.
“Run!” yelled Benny again.
The woman turned away from him and looked at the zoms. There were at least forty of them, and more were materializing from the darkness under the trees. The zoms moved with the jerky awkwardness that Benny always found so awful. Like badly manipulated puppets. Their hands rose as they reached out for fresh meat.
However, the woman turned slowly away from them and faced Benny once more. The zoms reached her.
“No . . . ,” Benny gasped, unable to bear the sight of another death.
And the zombies lumbered past her. She stood there as a tide of them parted to move around her. They did not grab her, did not try to bite her. They ignored her except to angle their line of approach to avoid her and continue walking down the slope.
Not one of them touched the woman or even looked in her direction.
Confusion rooted Benny to the spot, and the sword hung almost forgotten in his hand.
Was he wrong about her? Was she one of the dead and not a living person at all? Was she wearing cadaverine? Or was there something else about her that made the dead forgo the feast at hand for the one that stood gaping at them down the slope?
The word exploded inside his mind, and for a crazy moment Benny thought that it was Tom’s voice shouting at him.
He staggered as if punched, and then he wheeled around and ran.
HE RAN LIKE HELL.
This was no time to contemplate mysteries. He pounded down the slope faster than a jackrabbit as the mass of the dead growled out a moan of hunger and followed.
A zom rose up out of the tall grass directly in his path. There was no way to avoid the thing, not with all the momentum of the downward run, so he tucked his head and drove his shoulder into it like he was trying to bust through a line of offensive backs on the school football field. The zom went flying backward, and Benny leaped over the thrashing creature.
More zoms came at him, rising up out of the weeds and staggering out from behind tumbled boulders. Benny still held Tom’s sword, but he hated using it on zoms. Not unless he had no choice. These creatures were not evil, they were dead. Mindless. Unless he could completely quiet one of them, chopping at them seemed . . . wrong. He knew they couldn’t feel pain and wouldn’t care, but Benny felt like some kind of malicious bully.
On the other hand, there was that whole survival thing. As three zoms closed in on him in a line he could not bull his way through, the hand holding the sword moved almost without conscious thought. The blade swept upward through one set of reaching arms, and the hands flew high above, grasping nothing but air. With a deft twist of his shoulder, he flicked the blade sideways and a zom’s head went flying into the bushes. Another cut left the third zom toppling to one side with one leg suddenly missing from mid-thigh.
“Sorry!” Benny yelled as he burst through the now disintegrating line of three zoms.
But there were more.
So many more, coming at him from all directions. Cold fingers fumbled at his face and tried to grab his hair, but Benny jagged and dodged and dove through them toward open ground.
His foot hit a rock and he sprawled forward; the sword flew from his hand and clattered thirty feet down the slope.
“No!” he cried as the sword vanished in the tall, dry grass.
Before Benny could get up, a zom grabbed a loose pocket flap on his vest and another grabbed his cuff.
“Get away!” Benny yelled as he thrashed and kicked and fought his way free. He scrambled to his feet, but his balance was bad and the slope was steep, so he ran like a sloppy dog on hands and feet for a dozen paces until he could get fully upright again.
More and more of the living dead staggered down the hill after him. Benny had no idea where they had come from, or why there were so many here. Even before Gameland, the zoms had started moving in packs rather than alone as they’d always done before. A month ago Benny, Lilah, and Nix had been under siege by thousands of them at a monk’s way station. How and why this flocking behavior was happening was another of the mysteries that no one had an answer for.
“Tom,” Benny said, gasping his brother’s name as he ran. He didn’t know why he spoke the name. Maybe it was a prayer for guidance from the best zombie hunter who had ever worked the Ruin. Or maybe it was a curse, because now everything Tom had taught him seemed to be in question. The world was changing beyond the lessons Tom had given.
“Tom,” Benny growled as he ran, and he tried to remember those lessons that could not change. The ways of the samurai, the ways of the warrior.
He saw sunlight glitter on metal ten paces downslope, and Benny leaped at the fallen sword, grabbing it by the handle with his left hand, switching it into a two-handed grip even while his legs continued to run at full speed. Zoms came at him, and the sword seemed to move with its own will.
Arms and legs and heads flew into the hot sunlight.
I am warrior smart, thought Benny as he ran and fought. I am an Imura. I have Tom’s sword.
I am a bounty hunter.
You’re about to be lunch, you moron, muttered his inner voice. For once Benny could not muster a convincing argument.
Everywhere he looked he saw another withered figure lurching toward him from beneath the shade of the big trees or from between tall shrubs. He knew—he knew—that this was not a coordinated trap. Zoms couldn’t think. It wasn’t that. . . . He must have simply had the bad luck to run into a swarm of them that was spread out across the whole width of the slope.
Run! yelled his inner voice. Faster!
He wanted to tell his inner voice to stop offering stupid advice and maybe instead come up with some sort of plan. Something that didn’t involve ending up in the digestive tracts of a hundred zoms.
Yeah, he thought. Good plan.
Then he saw that the tall grass twenty yards down the slope hid the dark cleft of a small ravine. It ran the entire width of the slope, which was bad news, but it was less than ten feet across, which was good.