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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 35
It was one of the living dead who changed everything.
Had Preacher Jack’s own men not reanimated, he might never have seen Benny and Nix, and everything would have ended there. But just as the preacher tore off the last piece of siding, a hand clamped around his ankle. The old man looked down in mild surprise and irritation. He jerked his foot free, turned to reach for his saber, and saw the two teenagers running straight at him. He picked up the saber and quieted his guards with two quick thrusts. Vegas Pete began to twitch a moment later, and Preacher Jack finished him. Little Bigg, however, sprawled there in the dust and did not move. Preacher Jack grunted. It was not the first time he had seen this. He shrugged, turned, and strode forward to slaughter Tom’s brother and the Riley girl.
Chong got to the top of the bleachers by leaping over the people who had been burned by Lilah’s attack. He stepped through the screen of smoke. And Lilah’s body was not there. He looked over the edge to see where she had fallen. But she was nowhere.
Then something hit him on the side of the head with such shocking force that he sagged to his knees and tumbled onto the burning bodies. He screamed and twisted away from the flames and went rolling onto the next bleacher with a jarring thump.
Chong felt warmth on his face, and when he touched the side of his head, his fingers came away red with blood. He lifted his aching head to see a massive form come lumbering toward him. It wasn’t a zom or a guard.
It was White Bear.
“Well, well, little man,” grumbled the man with the melted face. “If it ain’t dead man walking.” White Bear was splashed with blood, though Chong didn’t think that any of it was his, and he carried two improbable weapons: a heavy wrench in his left hand and a crowbar in his right. Behind him was a trail of destruction—crushed and broken bodies, human and zom. “Get up, boy … at least have the stones to die on your feet.”
Chong tried to rise, but the blow he’d taken to the head made the whole world spin sickeningly. His knees buckled. Blood ran down his face and into his mouth.
“Then take it on your knees, boy,” seethed White Bear. “I’m going to wear your skull on a chain around my neck so everyone will know you don’t mess with White Bear.”
Chong fumbled for his fallen bokken. “Tom will kill you,” he said with a bloody smile.
“Not a chance.”
Chong shook his head. “No … Tom will kill you. You’re going to die out here tonight, and the best you can hope for is to come back as a zom. You and your fruitcake of a father.”
“Watch your mouth, little man.”
Chong spat blood on White Bear’s shoes. “Or what? You’ll kill me?” He turned to show his injured shoulder. “I’m already dead, remember? I got bitten in the pit. You killed me, and if I can’t kill you, then Tom will. Or Solomon Jones or Sally. You and your father are vermin … and your time is over.”
“Go to hell,” growled White Bear as he raised his crowbar high over his head. Chong raised his bokken, but they both knew how this moment was going to end.
“Lilah,” Chong said, and he wanted it to be the last word he ever spoke.
As White Bear’s arm reached the top of its lift there was a loud, wet whack! White Bear paused, crowbar still held high, but now his eyes were open too wide, as if his eyelids were glued to his forehead. He suddenly coughed, and dark blood bubbled over his lips and down his chin.
“What?” said Chong.
But White Bear had no answer. He shuddered and abruptly dropped to one knee, the crowbar falling harmlessly to the dirt. Then a slender figure rose up behind him. The figure was wild-eyed and covered with soot and blood and sweat. She had hair as white as snow and eyes the color of honey, and in her strong brown hands she held a spear made from black pipe, the blade buried to the hilt between White Bear’s shoulders.
Lilah placed her foot on White Bear’s back, and with a snarl of disgust she kicked him face-forward into the dirt and tore her blade free. Chong, who had spoken her name a hundred times in the last few minutes, could not make a single sound.
• • •
Tom Imura saw White Bear fall, and a tiny smile touched his mouth. He would rather have handled that maniac himself, but there was justice in what had just happened.
The fight was going both well and badly. The good news was that Gameland was disintegrating around him. At least half of White Bear’s men were down, and an equal number of spectators. The bad news was that when he’d told J-Dog and Dr. Skillz to let a few zoms loose to liven things up and provide a distraction, he had meant just that: a few. Not all of them. The zoms were like a tidal surge that was gradually pushing the living across the arena. People were falling into the pits, and so were zoms, and at this point Tom didn’t think anyone was coming back out of those holes alive. At this rate the zoms were going to turn this whole place into an all-you-can-eat buffet, and that was definitely not part of Tom’s plan.
A pair of guards rushed at him, both armed with woodsmen’s axes. Tom parried one ax swing and slashed high, ducked under another and cut low, and the two men were down. Behind them were six zoms, and Tom realized that he was caught with an open pit to one side and the dead on the other. He’d have to fight. He did. But this kind of slaughter burned layers off his soul. He knew that. Why hadn’t the people here in the arena taken his offer and walked away? Not one of them had gone. Why?
He cut at the arms and legs of the zoms, and kicked the limbless torsos into the pit. This was blunt butchery, nothing more.
In a moment’s respite he turned and waved at Sally. When she spotted him, Sally gave a thumbs-up and abruptly vanished from the window. Tom whirled. Now he had to find Benny and Nix, and then get everyone out of the place while there was still a chance.
Across the field, Preacher Jack strode forward with his stolen saber in his bloody hand. He slashed left and right, cutting down anyone who stood between his fury and the two teenagers who had just escaped from his Pits of Judgment. A hard-faced young man with a Chinese broadsword suddenly appeared and used his free hand to push Benny and Nix back. Benny recognized him as Dieter Willis, one of the twin sons of the famous LaDonna Willis who had been a hero of First Night. Dieter was wiry and strong and was known to be one of the best swordsmen in the Ruin.
“Get back,” he growled. “I got this.”
Dieter rushed at Preacher Jack, feinting high and then attacking low in a blinding assault. Preacher Jack caught the blow on the edge of his sword and riposted with a counterattack that was too fast to follow. Dieter staggered back and brought his sword up again, but then faltered, his eyes registering total surprise. The broadsword tumbled from his fist, and he clamped his hands to his throat, but it was too little and too late to staunch the spray of blood that erupted from the savage wound. The preacher didn’t even bother to watch him fall. He stepped aside to avoid the spray of blood and kept walking toward Benny and Nix. He had barely broken stride to cut down one of the Ruin’s most feared fighters.
There was a scream, and LaDonna herself came charging out of the crowd, a heavy cleaver in each hand. Preacher Jack turned to her and let her come to him. Then he parried her cleavers one-two and whipped his sword across her throat. She fell without a word onto the limp body of her son. Nix howled in fury, and Preacher Jack turned to her and smiled.
“Come and get yours, girl,” he taunted.
“No!” Benny yelled, and snaked out a hand to grab her. He caught the hem of her vest and yanked her backward just as Preacher Jack lunged forward to try and drive his sword into her chest. The tip of the blade missed Nix by an inch, and Benny hauled her over him as he did a desperate back-roll. He heard the whoosh of the sword and felt the thud of the blade as Preacher Jack tried to chop them as they rolled. Two zoms rushed at the preacher from his right.
From the tangled heap where he and Nix landed, Benny saw Preacher Jack’s moment of indecision as he was faced with the choice: Cut down the zoms in front of everyone and prove that his so-called “religion” was not
hing more than a sham and a con game in which he had no genuine belief; or let the Children of Lazarus use his flesh as a sacrament. Benny had no doubt how Brother David would have handled this same challenge.
Preacher Jack was no Brother David, and Benny doubted that the “preacher” was even from the same species as the gentle way-station monk. With a growl of annoyance, Preacher Jack stepped into the rushing zoms—and cut them down.
“Hypocrite,” jeered Nix, yelling the word as loud as she could. Even through the din of the battle, Preacher Jack heard her. He wheeled on them, his face almost purple with wrath.
“I’m going to enjoy strapping you down and letting the Children feast on—”
Nix threw a pouch of powder in his face. The old man tried to slash it out of the air, but his blade merely cut it open, and that made it worse. A cloud of plaster powder enveloped Preacher Jack. He spun away, coughing and gagging, and that fast Benny was up and running. He drove his shoulder into Preacher Jack’s side and sent the man sprawling.
Right into one of the zombie pits. Into the Pits of Judgment.
Benny saw the white faces and white hands reaching up for the man as he pinwheeled down toward them, his sword slashing uselessly at empty air.
“I saw you get shot!” Chong exclaimed. “I saw you fall.”
Lilah held up the spear. A big chunk of the blade was missing, and the remaining portion was twisted at a weird angle.
“They shot this. It knocked me down.”
“Thank God!” Chong said. He wanted to grab her and hug her, but instead Lilah grabbed him, and for a delicious moment he thought she was going to kiss him. Instead she slapped him across the face. Hard.
“Ow!” he cried, staggering back. “What was that for?”
Her face was an almost inhuman mask of fury. “I heard what you said,” she yelled as loud as she could with her raspy voice. “I heard! You were bitten?”
Chong turned his shoulder away and put his hand over the bite, not wanting her to see it. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay?” she demanded. “How is it okay?”
Chong wanted to run and hide, but he held his ground. “I … it’s my fault.”
“Did you let yourself get bitten?”
“No … I mean—everything. All of it, since we left town. It’s my fault. You were right. I’m a town boy. I have no business being out here.” He sighed and let his hand fall away from the bite. “And I guess this is proof. I’m no good out here.”
Lilah threw down her spear and grabbed his shoulder, using both hands to squeeze the edges of his bite until drops of blood popped up. “How long ago?” she yelled, and when he didn’t answer right away, she screeched at him. “How long ago?”
“Ten hours ago. Maybe twelve.”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” he said. “It could have been longer… .”
Lilah let go of his arm and jammed her fingers under his jaw to feel his glands, then pressed her hand to his forehead. There was a moan behind her as a zombie lumbered out of the smoke; and with a grunt of irritation at being disturbed, Lilah whirled, grabbed the creature by chin and hair, and snapped its neck with a vicious sideways twist. Then she turned back to Chong, grabbed his hair, and pulled him close so she could examine his eyes.
“Tell me what happened,” she screamed. “Exactly what happened.”
“What—now? There’s a big freaking fight going on and—”
Chong shook his head and told her in quick terms how the big zom had clamped teeth on his skin just as Chong hit him with a pipe. Lilah made him repeat that part.
Then she slapped him again. Harder than the first time. It rocked his head sideways, and he almost fell.
“OW! What the hell?” Chong demanded, reeling.
“You stupid town boy,” she said harshly. “You’re not dying.”
“Wait … what?”
“The zom had your skin pinched between his teeth but you fell away from him. It tore a flap of skin off. That’s all … the infection is in the zom’s mouth, not in its teeth … you did not get bitten!”
Chong stared at her.
“You aren’t allowed to die!” she growled, and her eyes seemed to radiate real heat.
Chong’s mouth opened and shut several times without sound. “I—I—” And then he suddenly dropped onto his knees. Lilah knelt in front of him and there were tears in her eyes, sparkling like diamonds in the firelight.
“I—,” Chong said. “God … I thought I was …”
She took his face in both her hands and stared at him with almost lethal intensity. “You are not allowed to die!” she said fiercely, growling the words with her graveyard voice. “Not now! Not ever! Promise me or I’ll kill you.”
Chong almost smiled. “I promise,” he said.
Then, despite fire and gunplay and screams and the living dead, Lilah did what she had never once done in her entire life. She kissed a boy.
“We have to get out here,” barked Tom as he raced to intercept Benny and Nix. “Right now!”
“How?” asked Benny, looking around. The zoms were everywhere. Before Tom could reply there was a huge explosion, and they turned to see several of the wagons that formed one of the walls of the arena disintegrate into a fireball that knocked down at least a third of the surviving people in the place. Zoms were flung halfway across the gaming floor, and a dozen spectators and guards fell screaming into the open pits.
“That’s our cue,” said Tom. “This whole place is about to blow itself into orbit. We have to go now!”
“But we can’t go! Chong …”
“Here,” came a painful reply, and they turned to see a bloody, limping Chong running alongside Lilah—who looked strangely distracted despite the carnage. Nix ran to embrace Chong and Lilah, but Benny looked from Tom to the burning wagons to the hotel.
Chong asked, “Did I hear something about this place blowing up?”
“All to hell and gone,” said Tom, grabbing them and shoving them toward the smoking hole in the wall of wagons. “There’s five hundred pounds of C4 in the hotel lobby, and I rigged it. MOVE!”
And they were running. As they raced Benny cut a last look around. Many of the bounty hunters were down; the rest were already leaping over flaming wreckage.
Tom yelled, “Go … GO!” They ran into the smoke and through flaming wreckage and out into the cool darkness of the big field. Behind them the last of the guards and spectators were still fighting the zoms. Benny wondered if they were all crazy. Did they think they could win? Or were they so locked into the moment that violence was the only response they were capable of? He hated them and pitied them and ran from them.
Benny ran with his arm wrapped around Nix. Lilah dragged Chong with her. Fluffy McTeague ran with Sally Two-Knives in his arms like a baby doll. J-Dog and Dr. Skillz were racing each other and laughing; and a whole phalanx of the surviving bounty hunters followed them off to the left, into the woods. Tom was heading right, straight for the hedgerows and the road.
Benny opened his mouth to shout at Tom, to ask him if he was sure that he knew how to rig an explosion, when the world seemed to detonate around them and the entire Wawona Hotel leaped high into the night sky. A massive glowing fireball punched hundreds of feet into the air, igniting the surrounding trees, vaporizing the water in the ponds, and flinging the armored wagons far out into the fields. Benny and Nix zigged and zagged as flaming debris crashed down all around them with the force of a meteor shower. The grass caught fire and superheated winds pursued them like a host of demons.
Benny heard Tom cry out in pain and saw him stumble, but his brother picked himself up and staggered on. Debris struck the ground all around them.
“Go!” Tom growled through bared teeth.
They ran all the way to the gates and beyond, and down the road into darkness. Debris continued to fall for a full five minutes, as if the ghosts of Gameland were hurling artillery at them. They ran an
d ran until they could not run any more. They were all spread out across a mile of firelit landscape, Benny and his friends in the field, the bounty hunters deep in the forest.
TOM SLOWED TO A WALK AND THEN A SHAKY STAGGER AND FINALLY stopped, waving at the rest to stop. Chong and Lilah stumbled and collapsed to their knees, shocked that they were alive. Tom bent forward and rested his hands on his thighs. He looked totally spent. Benny sank to his knees and hugged Nix, and she clung to him. She smelled of smoke and blood. He kissed her face and hair and the tears on her cheeks.
Then Benny heard a sound and saw Tom walking slowly toward them.
“We made it!” said Benny, fighting a crazy laugh that threatened to break from his chest.
“Yes,” said Tom in a whisper of a voice. “We made it.”
“Benny …,” Nix said softly, and he turned as Chong and Lilah came walking toward him. They both looked like they’d been through a war, and Benny figured that was a pretty fair assessment. There was an awkward moment when the four of them stood and stared at one another. Everything that had happened since they’d left town—could it really only be two days ago?—floated like embers in the air between them.
Benny smiled first and punched Chong lightly in the chest. “You stupid monkey-banger!”
Chong grinned, and despite the dirt and blood on his face, it made him glow. He arched his eyebrows in best “wise sage” style and observed, “As usual, you opt for an erudite and insightful comment that is entirely appropriate to the moment.”
“Not even if I was a zom.”
They burst out laughing, and Benny grabbed his best friend and gave him a hug so fierce that it made them both yelp with pain, which made them laugh harder. Then Benny stopped and cut a look at Lilah. The moment stalled. His inner voice was trying to feed him clever lines, but he mentally told it to shut up. Aloud he said, “I’m an idiot, and I’m sorry.”