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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 34


  Preacher Jack breathed in and out through his nose like a furious dragon. He was seeing everything he and his sons had built being torn down—again. By Tom Imura—again!

  He wanted Tom dead so badly it was like acid in his throat. Preacher Jack grabbed the shoulder of his closest guard and spun him toward the aluminum siding that covered the wagon.

  “Tear this off,” he ordered. The guards set to work to open a doorway out of the kill zone.

  It was madness. Zombies staggered out from the circus tent. They had no mind, no loyalties, no ability to discern Preacher Jack’s enemies from his allies. They attacked everyone. J-Dog and Dr. Skillz, both of them drenched in the last of their personal stock of cadaverine, cut the dead free—all of them, Preacher Jack’s entire congregation.

  As the zoms shambled out into the arena, J-Dog wiped sweat out of his eyes. “Dude, that old preacher’s gonna be piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiissed.”

  “Totally, brah,” agreed Dr. Skillz. He bent and picked up two objects Tom had given him. A pair of bokkens. “Let’s boogie!”

  They ran toward the pits.

  As he ran, Chong smashed and struck and bashed and broke, and even big guards fell to his assault. Before that moment, before Lilah fell, Chong had never hurt another person or raised his hand in anger to anyone but a zom. Now he saw faces break as he swung his sword; he felt arms shatter.

  He knew that they would kill him. There was no way out of this except through death’s doorway, but he didn’t care. He was already bitten. But he had seen Lilah die … he had nothing left to lose. So Chong ran forward into his last moment, accepting death because it had already accepted him, wanting to follow Lilah down into the darkness so that she would never again be lost and alone.

  On the other side of the hotel, Carrie Singleton and Foxhound Jeffries, respectively the youngest and the oldest of the bounty hunters who had come with Sally and Solomon, led a string of children into the woods at a fast run. Carrie had a crossbow and picked out a path that made maximum use of the trees and hedges to hide their escape. Foxhound had cross-belts of throwing knives. Once upon a time he had been a circus performer, a knife thrower who could put a blade through a playing card tossed into the air. Twice guards tried to stop them; each time they learned the error of that choice.

  “What’s going on up there?” Benny demanded. Everything above them was a single wave of confused noise: shrieks and gunfire and the clash of steel on steel. “How could Tom be doing all this?”

  Before Nix could say anything there was a different cry—a weird whoop of what sounded like pure joy—and then a figure dropped down through the pit opening. Tall, thin, wearing a football helmet and a carpet coat covered in pieces of license plates. He landed feetfirst on the shoulders of a zom, and the impact snapped the creature almost in two. He clutched three items in his hands: a spear that was almost identical to Lilah’s, and two curved wooden swords. The man pivoted and grinned at Benny.

  “Hey! Little samurai dudes!” shouted Dr. Skillz.

  “How … ?” demanded Nix.

  “Where …,” began Benny.

  Dr. Skillz tossed one of the swords to him. He dropped the thighbone and caught it. Nix dropped her shinbone and caught the other.

  “Surf’s up!” yelled the bounty hunter as he swung his broad-bladed spear over their heads. He spun in place like a dancer, and suddenly two zoms were falling sideways while their heads fell in the opposite direction.

  A thousand questions burned on Benny’s tongue, but more zoms closed in and there was no time to do anything but fight.

  Two of Solomon’s friends, Vegas Pete and Little Bigg, trade guards from Haven, saw Preacher Jack and his men go running for cover behind the corner of the bleachers.

  “Let’s get that son of a hound,” grumbled Bigg.

  “Go for it,” agreed Pete, and they ran a zigzag across the field, smashing zoms out of the way and shoving panicked spectators into the open pits. Pete fired a Winchester rifle from the hip, and Little swung an old-fashioned cavalry saber he’d long ago scavenged from a museum. Guards and spectators fell before them. Preacher Jack’s two remaining guards rushed them. Vegas Pete missed with his last shot and broke the rifle over one guard’s head. The second guard snatched up a pitchfork and ran at Little Bigg, but Little parried the thrust and ran the man through.

  That left Preacher Jack stuck in the corner with the two trade guards grinning at him.

  “Now ain’t this a pickle?” asked Preacher Jack mildly. He should have been cowering. He should have been looking desperately for a way out. He was fifteen years older than these men, and where they were packed with muscle, he was a stick figure.

  “Call off your goons, old man,” said Vegas Pete, “and you might walk out of this with a whole skin.”

  “Well,” said Little Bigg as he pulled his saber free, “I wouldn’t say a whole skin.”

  Preacher Jack’s lips twitched and writhed.

  “Glad you think this is funny,” said Pete, “’cause we’re gonna—”

  Preacher Jack kicked Pete under the kneecap and simultaneously chopped him across the throat with the stiffened edge of his hand. There was a sound like an eggshell cracking and Pete was backpedaling, fingers clawing at his throat as he tried to drag in air. His face turned red and then purple and he fell.

  Little Bigg wasted no time gaping. He slashed a killing blow at Preacher Jack, but the old man leaped forward inside the swing. He head-butted Little, punched him in the chest and bicep, and snatched the saber out of his hand. There was a flash of silver and then Little Bigg was falling, his eyes wide with total incomprehension. It was all over in three seconds.

  “Amateurs,” sneered Preacher Jack. He laid the saber within easy reach on the bleachers and set to work pulling at the aluminum siding.

  Chong reached the bleachers where he had seen Lilah fall. He swore to himself that he would defend her body until this was over, and then—Oh God, he thought, then what?

  He would have to quiet her. But … could he do it? The thought of it made him crazier still. He slashed at the legs of a man who stood on the bleachers trying to reload a pistol. The man fell, and Chong thrust the blunt point of the sword into a guard’s groin. The guard screamed and doubled over, and Chong knocked him flying into a line of five zoms. The creatures were already covered with blood, and two of them had been spectators themselves less than three minutes ago.

  Chong kept swinging and swinging. At one point he found himself fighting almost side by side with Solomon Jones. The bounty hunter had a machete in each hand, and they whirled like windmill blades. Zoms and humans fell around him like harvested wheat.

  “Get to cover, kid!” yelled Solomon, but Chong ignored him, and then a surge of battle swept him and Solomon apart.

  “Lilah,” Chong said, mouthing her name like a battle chant. “Lilah!”

  Benny and Nix fought back-to-back, swinging their swords at legs and necks and heads. Dr. Skillz worked the other tunnel, and despite the young bounty hunter’s laid-back persona, he fought with the speed and precision of an experienced killer. He shattered bone with the reinforced butt of the spear and cut off hands and heads with the blade.

  The burning zombie had crumpled to the ground, but not before two others bumped into it and caught fire. Heat and smoke were becoming a real problem.

  “We have to get out of here!” Benny yelled, then broke into a fit of coughing.

  “Waiting for a ride,” Dr. Skillz shouted back.

  “What?”

  As if in answer, a length of knotted rope flopped over the edge of the pit, and J-Dog poked his head in. “Um … dudes? Stop screwing around. It’s getting gnarly out here.” Then he was gone; a second later someone screamed, and one of White Bear’s guards dropped bonelessly into the pit.

  “You climb,” Dr. Skillz yelled. “I’ll hold ’em off!”

  Benny backed away from the press of zoms. There were four of them between him and Charlie. “Nix, c’mon!”

&nb
sp; She half turned to look at the rope, but then she shook her head. With renewed fury she wheeled back and kept hammering at the zoms.

  “What are you doing?” Benny demanded, but then he understood. He had been defending himself against the zoms, but Nix had been attacking them, chopping at them to fight her way toward Charlie. “God! Nix—don’t!”

  Nix rammed a zom in the throat and knocked it down with a foot-sweep.

  “Hey! Kids!” growled Dr. Skillz. “The rope … not a freakin’ request here!”

  Benny took and grabbed the dangling rope, but Nix was still cutting her way toward Charlie. Four zoms stood in her way now, and Charlie was clawing at them to get to her.

  “I’m going to regret this,” muttered Benny, and he flung the rope toward Dr. Skillz.

  “What the hell?” the bounty hunter demanded, but then two zoms rushed him and he had no time for anything except fighting.

  Benny jumped over a fallen zom to where Nix fought. As she cut down another zombie, one of them lunged for her blind side. Benny swung his bokken like a baseball bat inches above Nix’s head and hit the zom across the face. The blow snapped its head back, and the creature fell against Charlie with such force that its head and back struck the vest of nails and drove Charlie back a full step.

  Nix finished another zom with the same ruthless precision. Her face was flushed with exertion and panic and rage, and her freckles stood out like a brown constellation on her skin. Charlie lumbered forward, his white hands barely two yards from Nix.

  The remaining zom was nearly as tall as Charlie but only half as wide. He had a face like a quiet schoolteacher, but when he snarled, his jagged yellow teeth said all that needed to be said about the dreadful gulf between what he had been in life and what he had become in death.

  Benny mouthed the word “Sorry” as he swung his sword. The blade hit the man on the crown of the head, and the zom instantly collapsed to its knees. Benny raised his arms to swing again, but the zom fell limply against him, and they both toppled back.

  In the few seconds before Benny could crawl out from beneath the corpse, he witnessed something that was as awe-inspiring and magnificent as it was heartbreaking and terrifying. Nix Riley stood in front of Charlie Pink-eye. He was six and a half feet tall; she was barely five feet. He weighed three hundred pounds; she was less than a third of that. He was covered in spikes and armor, and he wore an invulnerability to pain that was a dark gift of the zombie plague; Nix wore a vest and shirt and jeans and did not even have a carpet coat to protect her.

  Benny struggled against the zom’s limp body, but his own leg was folded under him, and there were bodies heaped everywhere. “NIX!” he screamed.

  Nix Riley looked at him for a brief second. The crazy look burned in her eyes and a weird, terrible smile played on her lips. Then she turned back just as Charlie reached for her.

  It was all over so fast… .

  Her bokken snapped out and slammed Charlie’s hands aside. Finger bones cracked and twisted out of joint. Without pausing, Nix shifted and swung the sword around and down and cracked it across Charlie’s left knee, and the impact knocked sweat from her face and arms. Plaster powder erupted from her pockets and filled the corridor with a pall like a graveyard mist. Charlie charged toward her, but his knee buckled and his leg crumpled sideways and crashed down onto the shattered knee. Nix’s sword swept through the cloud of powder, a ghostly image that was strangely beautiful. The tapered hardwood blade caught Charlie across the side of the mouth so hard that broken fragments of teeth struck the wall and stuck there, buried to half their length. Nix reversed her angle and struck the other side of Charlie’s mouth, destroying his jaw and shattering the last of his razor-toothed grin.

  Still the zombie reached for her. Crippled and with shattered bones, it could still drag her down and kill her.

  Nix stepped backward with the delicate grace of a dancer so that Charlie’s reaching hand lunged too far and the monster fell forward onto its face. Nix kicked at the steel helmet, once, twice, and then it went skittering off into the dark.

  “This is for my mother, you son of a bitch!” she whispered, and she brought the bokken up and down with every ounce of strength and hatred and love that she owned. The blade struck the base of Charlie’s skull—and both blade and bone shattered. The big man, the monster of all their nightmares, collapsed down and lay utterly still.

  Benny finally tore his leg from under the corpse. He struggled to his feet, then paused, staring at the damage. Staring at Nix.

  She looked down at what she had done, and at what it meant … then suddenly her face screwed up and she began to cry. Benny rushed to her, grabbed her, and held her, and she clung to him. Her tears were like boiling water on the side of Benny’s neck. The fires of madness that had burned in her eyes for so long … flickered once more and went out, and her face wrinkled into a mask of bottomless pain and release.

  “I k-ki-killed him!” she wailed.

  “Yes, you did,” he murmured into the foamy red tangles of her hair. “You killed the monster.”

  Benny looked over to see what was happening with Dr. Skillz, but just as he looked up he saw J-Dog leaning into the pit again. “Dudes? If you’re done goofing off down there, we could use a little help up here.”

  79

  DR. SKILLZ HELD THE ZOMS OFF AS NIX AND BENNY CLIMBED OUT OF the pit. Dr. Skillz came up after them. Benny and Nix stared around them at the absolute carnage. Scores of people lay dead, and some were already starting to reanimate. Hundreds of zoms filled the arena, and hundreds of people fought them and fought one another. There didn’t seem to be any sense to it. No battle lines.

  “Where’s Tom?” yelled Nix.

  Benny shook his head. “I don’t know.”

  Then Benny saw something that twisted his mind into a weird new shape. He suddenly recognized some of the fighters. Not the ones attacking him, but the people fighting White Bear’s men. These were faces he knew from Zombie Cards. It was a surreal moment.

  “S-S-Solomon Jones?” Benny stammered. Nix whipped around to see where Benny was pointing, and sure enough, the legendary bounty hunter with the twin machetes was carving a path along the bleachers. A dozen yards away Hector Mexico stood on the top step of one set of bleachers, firing blast after blast from his shotgun into anyone who came at him. He was surrounded by heaps of the dead. Across the arena Basher Bashman had a baseball bat in each hand and was using them to block people from entering the hotel—which was the only exit, unless people wanted to jump from the top of the bleachers, and that was a forty-foot drop. J-Dog now guarded the other door, and his double-bladed ax was painted bright red with blood. Others from the Zombie Cards were peppered throughout the battle.

  “I don’t understand,” said Benny, but Nix just shook her head.

  White Bear’s guards, the ones who still had guns, kept trying to shoot their way into the hotel, but there were sharp cracks from one of the upper hotel windows, and one by one the armed guards pitched backward, dead before they hit the ground. Benny craned his neck to see who was firing and had a brief glimpse of the Mohawk and intense face of Sally Two-Knives peering along the barrel of a high-powered sniper rifle.

  “Where’s Tom?” asked Nix again. Then she grabbed Benny’s arm and pointed. “There!”

  “TOM!” Benny whirled and yelled, but if Tom heard him, he had no time to respond. A wave of guards and bounty hunters were closing in on him. They were armed with spears and swords and knives and pitchforks. Benny saw Tom smile.

  Benny had seen his brother fight before, back in Charlie’s camp seven months ago, but even that battle was tiny compared to this. At least a dozen men closed in on Tom, and he smiled. Then his body became a blur of movement. As a man with a reaper’s scythe came at him, Tom lunged in and down and his blade whipped a silver line across the man’s midsection. Without even watching to see the effect, Tom rose and parried a pitchfork thrust and cut the man through arms and throat in a single move. A burly bounty hu
nter ran at him with two yard-long blades, but Tom darted forward between the weapons, and his blade rose through chest and chin and skull. The cuts were fast and elegant, worlds away from the awkward hacks and slashes of Benny’s moves with the bokken, but Benny knew the cuts. He practiced them every day. Benny was very good, but Tom was a master.

  Tom moved like a dancer, seeming to skim along the surface of the ground, turning gracefully to evade, using each turn to put incredible power into his cuts. It was ugly and beautiful at the same time, a ballet of destruction that pitted Tom’s lifetime of dedication to swordplay against brute strength and seemingly overwhelming odds. Yet with each flickering second of time the odds became less and less, as it seemed that Tom was building around himself a castle of corpses.

  Then a shout tore Benny away from the scene. He turned to see Heap charging toward him, but then a monstrous pink shape stepped into his path. Benny almost laughed at the sight of Fluffy McTeague in a pink carpet coat with a multicolored ruff and dangling diamond earrings. He looked silly, but he grabbed Heap by the throat and belt and heaved him all the way over his head, and with a bull roar threw him into a knot of the living dead. The big thug was instantly swamped by white hands and yellow teeth, and Benny could find no splinter of sympathy in his heart.

  “Saves me the trouble,” Benny said to himself.

  Fluffy caught him watching and gave Benny and Nix a charming smile and a comical wink. Then he reached inside his voluminous coat and produced two sets of brass knuckles. He was still smiling as he plowed into the melee.

  “This is nuts,” Benny said. Nix simply shook her head and then looked past him and screamed. Benny whirled and saw Preacher Jack pulling off aluminum siding on one of the wagons. He was seconds away from escaping. Without even thinking what they were doing, Benny and Nix launched themselves that way. Nix held Benny’s sword; Benny had the jagged stump of hers. Would that be enough against one old man?