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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 31
“Until when?” demanded Nix. “Until tomorrow’s games? And then the next day and the next until we’re dead?”
“Nope. This is a real deal, straight up and hand to God. You ring that bell and we pull you out of there and put you on the road. No weapons or rations or none of that stuff, but you walk free.”
That seemed to catch Nix off guard, and she turned sharply to Benny. “Is he telling the truth?”
“I … think so,” Benny said quietly. “What’s he got to lose? If we die, then Preacher Jack proves to the crowd that we’re sinners. If we make it out and they let us go, Preacher Jack and White Bear prove that their word is good. Either way they win.”
Nix chewed her lip. He stepped closer and touched her cheek.
“Hey … are you okay? No, wait—that is the stupidest question ever asked. What I mean is—”
Nix blinked and smiled, and for a moment she was back. The old Nix. Strong and smart and sane. She grabbed Benny and gave him a fierce hug, and in a tiny whisper filled with enormous emotion said, “I don’t want to die down here, Benny.”
“Hey!” yelled White Bear. “When you two lovebirds are done making out, can we get a move on? Lot of people paid good money for this.”
Benny and Nix made the same obscene gesture at exactly the same moment. White Bear laughed out loud, and the audience applauded.
Before Benny released Nix he whispered, “We can do this. Find the bell, get out.”
“Warrior smart,” she said.
“Warrior smart,” he agreed.
“Hey!” yelled Nix. “Aren’t we supposed to have weapons or something?”
Preacher Jack leaned out over the edge. “The Children of Lazarus carry no weapons, and yet they strike with the power of the righteous. How would it be fair to arm you against them?”
“Okay,” said Benny, “then are we going to face two zom—I mean two Children—who are the same size and weight and age as us?”
The smile on Preacher Jack’s face was truly vile. It was filled with everything polluted and corrupt and unnatural that could show through smiling lips and twinkling blue eyes.
“Prayer and true repentance are your true weapons,” he said.
He stepped back, and other faces began filling the edge of the pit. Torches were placed in stands mounted on the rim, and their light turned the maze into a dim eternity of dirty yellow shadows.
Nix suddenly grabbed Benny’s arm, and he turned to see that the shadows were not empty. Things moved down the twisted tunnels. Stiff figures shuffled toward them through the gloom, and then they heard the low, hungry moan of the living dead.
CHONG STOOD IN THE SHADOWS AND WATCHED TOM IMURA WALK UP onto the hotel porch. There were two guards there, both of them armed with shotguns. They stiffened as Tom mounted the steps. One guard gestured for him to stop on the top step.
“If you’re here for the games,” he began, “you need to go around—”
Those were his last words. Chong never saw Tom’s hand move. All he saw was a flash of bright steel that seemed to whip one way and then the other, and suddenly both men were falling away from Tom. Blood painted the wall and door of the old hotel.
It was the fastest thing Chong had ever witnessed, and on a deep gut level he knew that it was necessary, but it was also wrong. These men were part of Gameland, they were forcing kids to fight in zombie pits, and yet their lives had ended in the blink of an eye. They were discarded. Tom used chiburi—a kenjutsu wrist-flick technique that whipped all the blood off his sword blade. The sword gleamed as if it had not just been used to take two human lives.
Tom turned as Chong crept up the porch steps. He looked sad. “Sorry you had to see this, Chong.”
“Me too,” said Chong sadly. “Guess we had no choice.”
“Not if we want to save Benny and Nix.”
“This is war,” said Chong. “And these people are monsters.”
Tom put his hand on Chong’s uninjured shoulder. “Listen to me. There are good people too. No matter how bad this gets, kiddo, never forget that. There are more good people than bad.”
Chong said nothing. He absently touched the bite on his other shoulder. “Aren’t you going to quiet them?” he asked.
“No. We need all the help we can get. Let them wander around and confuse things. I’ll take care of them later if there’s time. Right now we have to find Benny, Nix, and Lilah.”
Chong said, “I hope she’s okay.” He was aware that he’d said “she” rather than “them,” but Tom didn’t seem to mind.
“Sorry things didn’t work out with you two,” Tom said. “For what’s it worth … she couldn’t do any better.”
Chong didn’t reply.
Tom quietly opened the front door and stepped inside. And stopped dead. His eyes went wide, and when Chong followed him in, he also stared. On one side of the room, weapons, ammunition, and explosives were stacked from floor to ceiling; on the other were hundreds of smaller, more well-used guns and rifles, each of them hanging on a nail driven into the wall. Small paper tags hung from each trigger guard.
“What is all this?” asked Chong in a hushed voice.
Tom listened for sounds of other people, heard nothing. Then he touched the barrel of one of the new rifles. “Probably scavenged a military base.”
Chong pointed to the older weapons. “And these?”
“They probably collect firearms from everyone who comes to Gameland. They did that before. Keeps people from shooting each other over bets.” He bent and read several of the small tags. “Damn.”
Tom held out one of the pistols. “Read the tag.”
“Lucille Flax.” Chong looked up, confused. “I don’t understand. Mrs. Flax is my—”
“—math teacher. I know. There’s a shotgun here with Adrian Flax’s name on it. That’s her husband.”
“Wait,” said Chong, “are you trying to say that they’re here? That my math teacher and her husband come to Gameland?”
“How else would you read it?”
“It doesn’t make sense! They’re regular people… . Mrs. Flax doesn’t come to places like this. She can’t!”
“Why not? Chong … no matter how often you see someone, you can’t ever say that you really know them. Everyone has secrets, everyone has parts of themselves that they hide from the world.”
“But … Mrs. Flax? She’s so … ordinary.”
“Well, kiddo, it’s not like people walk around with signs saying, ‘Hey, I’m actually a creep!’”
Chong kept shaking his head. “And I was running home to people like that?”
“Remember what I said. There are more good people than bad. Even so … you always have to pay attention.”
Chong sighed. “I guess this shouldn’t hit me so hard. After all Benny, Morgie, and I used to hang around Charlie and the Hammer all the time. We thought they were—”
“—cool. Yep, I know.”
“Still. My math teacher? Jeez … so much for civilized behavior.”
“Walls, towns, rules, and day-to-day life doesn’t make us civilized, Chong. That’s organization and ritual. Civilization lives in our hearts and heads or it doesn’t exist at all.”
Then Chong spotted something that made him yelp. He ran across the room to a big urn in which long-handled weapons stood like a bouquet of militant flowers. He slid two items from the urn: a pair of wooden swords.
Tom took the bokkens from him. “Son of a—”
They both froze as they heard a sound from somewhere else in the hotel. A sharp cry. A child’s yelp of pain.
Tom turned and looked at the broad staircase.
“That’s not Benny or Nix. Too young,” gasped Chong in a horrified voice.
“I know,” Tom said bitterly, and headed up the stairs. “Stay behind me and let me handle things.”
They moved up the stairs as quickly as they could, but the building was old and the stairs creaked. Luckily, the
laughter from outside was so loud that most of the noise was hidden. However, when they were near the top step, one board creaked louder than all the others. The hallway was empty and poorly lit by lanterns set on shelves along the walls, with doors leading to rooms on both sides. One door stood ajar, and from that there was a sharp call.
“I’ll be right back,” said a man as he stepped into the hall. Chong estimated that he was at least twenty feet from where Tom crouched on the top step. It seemed like a mile. The man looked up and down the hall and was starting to turn back to the room when he saw the figures crouched in the shadows of the stairway.
“Hey,” he said, his voice rising an octave in alarm. It was the last thing he said. Tom surged forward, racing at full speed toward the man. His rush was so sudden that the twenty feet melted into nothing. Steel flashed and red sprayed and then the man was falling. Without a second’s pause, Tom kicked open the door and leaped into the room.
Chong was running now.
There were screams and the rasp of knives being drawn, then a single muffled gunshot. The bullet punched through the plaster wall a foot behind Chong, making him jump. He crouched low and peered inside the room. The sight was one that he knew he would never forget.
It was a big room, a suite. Along the far wall was an old iron radiator, and through its metal structure the guards had run three lines of chains. The chains were connected to iron rings that were bolted and locked around the necks of at least forty children. The oldest was Chong’s age, an Indian girl with one eye puffed shut and a split lip. The youngest was no older than six. All of the kids were bruised, and each one looked absolutely terrified. A smoking pistol lay on the floor with a man’s severed hand still attached to it.
The rest of the room was a slaughterhouse. Five men lay on the floor, or sprawled over furniture, or in a heap on the bed. Three men were still on their feet. Tom was one; the other two were guards. One of the guards was wandering away from the fight, hands clamped to a ruined throat, eyes already fading into emptiness. The remaining guard held a machete in his hands but he, too, was backing away from this man, this thing that had burst into the room in a storm of death. The machete dropped to the floor as he brought his hands up in total surrender.
The entire fight was over already.
Chong stared at Tom. Benny’s brother looked as cold and calm as if he was watering his rosebushes or cutting a slice of pie, even though his face was splashed with fresh blood.
“Is the hallway clear?” Tom asked in a disturbingly serene voice.
Chong stammered an affirmative.
Tom nodded. He extended his sword toward the remaining guard. “Are there any other guards on this floor?”
“N-n-no! Two on the porch and us … I mean me. God … don’t kill me, please … I got kids of my own.”
Tom stepped forward and touched the bloody sword tip to the guard’s cheek. “Do your kids have to fight in the pits?” The curl of his lip was the only clue to the emotion he was keeping in check behind his bland face.
The man flicked a guilty look at the children huddled by the wall.
“These kids … I mean … hey, man, I was just doing what I was told. White Bear and his old man call the shots around here.”
Tom flicked the blood off his sword, careful not to let a single drop go anywhere near the kids, all of whom were locked into a moment of traumatized silence. He resheathed his sword.
“Keys,” he said. The man very carefully dug into his pocket and then gingerly held out a ring of keys. Tom snatched them from him and tossed the ring to Chong. “Get them into the hall.”
While Chong rushed to free the captives, Tom walked forward, making the guard stumble backward until the man’s back hit the wall. Tom stopped, his face an inch from the terrified guard’s. “You know who I am?”
“Yes … oh God … please don’t … I know who you are … don’t …”
Tom bared his teeth. “Where’s my brother?”
BENNY PRESSED NIX BACK AGAINST THE WALL AS THE FIRST OF THE DARK shapes moved toward them. The pit they were in was thirty feet across, with large blank sections of wall interspersed with side tunnels. The torches were too high to reach.
“Mattress!” Nix blurted, and they rushed over to the stack of rotten old mattresses and began dragging them toward the tunnel with the zoms.
Benny squatted and upended one and used it to block them from view. “Might not stop them,” he warned. “And my cadaverine’s worn off.”
“Better than nothing,” she grunted as she dragged another one over and pulled it upright. There were only three mattresses, but they nicely blocked half the tunnels. “Maybe it’ll confuse them, slow them down.”
Benny jerked his head toward one of the open tunnels. There was no movement in that one, but torchlight spilled down from another opening around the far bend. Benny pulled Nix inside, and they peered up to see if White Bear or the crowd could see them. The crowd booed and yelled for the dead to go fetch their dinner.
“I think we’re good,” whispered Nix. Immediately she pulled out the tails of her shirt and reached inside her clothes. Benny did the same, and they knelt down and placed several hidden items on the ground. When the guards had locked them in the empty hotel room, they had thought that the two teenagers were helpless; but Tom had spent the last seven months teaching them to never be helpless. He said that in ancient times a samurai warrior was never unarmed, even if he had no sword, knives, or spear.
“All weapons are made,” he once told them. “They’re fabricated from the things we find: wood, metal, rope, leather, stone. Nature always provides, but only a smart warrior can look at what circumstance offers and see the potential.”
While waiting for White Bear to come and take them to the pits, Benny and Nix had looked at what the room had to offer: an old light fixture, crumbling plaster walls, dry laths, a window. Now on the ground in front of them they examined what circumstance had provided. They had several lengths of broken lath—thin, narrow strips of some straight-grained wood; several yards of copper-cored electrical wire; and long pieces of jagged window glass wrapped in torn strips from their shirts—strips whose absence was hidden by their vests. All their pockets were filled with plaster dust.
There was a loud moan from around the bend. One of the zoms had reached the end of the first tunnel. The crowd began cheering. Benny hoped the wall of mattresses would confuse the zoms. Every second mattered to Benny and Nix.
“Hurry,” breathed Nix.
They worked as fast as they could. They placed layers of jagged glass between strips of lath and used the wire to bind it in place. Benny wrapped the wire around and around as tightly as he could. While he did that, Nix used another piece of glass to slash strips from their pant legs and then poured the white plaster powder into pouches made from those strips. When she was done, she and Benny swapped jobs. She took the makeshift glass-bladed hatchets and used more strips of their jeans to bind the laths from end to end, wrapping them the way an ancient weapons maker would wrap the haft of a war ax. Benny took the pouches and tied loose knots in them and began stuffing them in his pockets.
There was a soft thud as one of the mattresses fell into the main pit. A second later a white hand grabbed the corner of the mattress wall, and then a lifeless face moved into view. Black eyed and black mouthed, it moved past the temporary obstruction, then turned toward them and moaned. The sound was answered by other moans behind it.
Benny and Nix snatched up their weapons and began backing away. There was another chorus of moans. This time the sounds were behind them, coming from another tunnel. Benny turned sharply and saw three zombies stagger around the far bend, their dead faces painted yellow by torchlight.
Far above the crowd howled, and a commentator began calling out what was happening to those members of the crowd who couldn’t see. “Looks like we’re coming up on round one, folks,” he yelled in a fast-paced, high-pitched voice. “And oh! Here’s a twist: Someho
w our two competitors have managed to sneak in some weapons.”
There were eight zoms shuffling through the main pit now, and more coming out of the side tunnel; but still only three in front of them blocking their easiest line of flight.
“Benny,” Nix whispered, “we have to try.”
“Okay,” he said, but his throat was dry. “Let’s go!”
Hatchets in hand, they raced forward, screaming at the top of their lungs. There were two men and a woman in the first pack. The closest one was a wild-looking man wearing the bullet-pocked remains of a carpet coat. He bared his teeth and lunged at Benny, but just as the white hands were about to close on him, Benny jagged right, parrying the grab with his left hand; then he pivoted and chopped down on the back of the zom’s head with the hatchet. The layered chunks of glass bit deep into the weak area at the base of the monster’s skull. It was a good hit, a solid hit, and for once Benny’s aim was right on the money. The zombie pitched forward.
At the same time, Nix broke left from behind Benny and threw herself into a tight shoulder roll right under the reaching arms of the second zom. She came straight up out of the roll, pivoted on the balls of her feet, and slashed her hatchet across the back of the zom’s knee. It was one of Lilah’s favorite combat tricks. The withered tendon parted like bad string, and the zom started to fall. Nix rammed it with her shoulder, and the creature crashed sideways into the third zom so that the two of them fell.
“Go!” Benny yelled, grabbing the shoulder of her vest and pulling her. One zom was down for good, one was crippled, and one would be able to get back up; but the most important thing was that for a moment the three of them sprawled in the middle of the tunnel, creating a temporary roadblock.
Above them the commentator was fumbling to explain this to the crowd, and his words were met by a mixed chorus of boos and applause.
“Freaks!” snarled Nix.
Benny saved his breath for running. They rounded the bend and skidded to a halt as two more zoms lumbered toward them. A side tunnel broke right, and Nix started to go that way, but Benny didn’t like it. There was no light at all down there.