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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 36


  Lilah glared at him. Nix shifted to stand next to her, and took her hand.

  “Yeah,” Benny said, “that’s cool. If you guys want to team up and beat the crap out of me, go for it. I deserve it after what I said.”

  “Why? What did you say?” asked Chong, but no one answered him.

  “It’s okay, Benny,” Lilah said in her icy whisper. “I’ll kill you later.”

  Benny’s throat went dry. “Hey, wait… . I—I—”

  Then Nix and Lilah burst out laughing. Chong, who had no idea what was going on, laughed anyway.

  “God!” cried Nix. “Did you see the look on his face?”

  “Wait,” Benny said again, “did you … just make a joke?” That made the others laugh harder.

  “I can make jokes,” said Lilah, and then playfully punched him in the chest the same way Benny had to Chong. Except her playful punch was about fifty times harder.

  “Ow!” he yelped. The others kept laughing, at him, at everything, at the realization that they had all survived. Rubbing the fiery bruise in his chest, Benny laughed too.

  They turned to Tom, beckoning him over, wanting him to laugh, needing to see the grim sadness washed off his face. Benny hugged his brother. “We did it, man! Now can we finally get the heck out of this place. Ready for a road trip?”

  Tom didn’t laugh. His eyes were fixed on the burning hotel. “Yes,” he said again, his voice even quieter. “I guess it’s time to leave… .”

  “God, yes,” agreed Nix. “I think we just saw the last of our bad luck go up in smoke.”

  Tom sighed, and then he suddenly dropped to his knees. The others stared at him in surprise.

  “Tom?” asked Lilah.

  Tom gingerly opened the flaps of his vest. “Damn,” he murmured.

  Nix screamed.

  Benny saw it then. Blood. So much blood. He screamed too.

  Tom coughed and slumped forward. Nix and Benny caught him and lowered him carefully to the ground. Benny ripped open Tom’s shirt. What they saw tore a sharper cry from Benny and another scream from Nix. When Tom had stumbled during the flight from the hotel, Benny thought he had been hit by a piece of flaming debris. But that wasn’t it … it was a thousand times worse than that.

  Tom had been shot.

  “We have to stop the bleeding!” Nix cried. She no longer had her first aid kit, so she dug through Tom’s vest pockets and grabbed rolls of bandages to uses as compresses.

  “What happened?” demanded Chong.

  “Benny,” Nix said urgently as she worked, “this is bad. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

  “Let me help,” said Lilah as she pulled the first aid kit from Tom’s vest and removed several cotton squares.

  “IMURA!”

  The voice that roared out of the darkness seemed to belong to a monster, a demon from out of hell itself. They all turned to see a tall figure emerge from the smoke, with fires burning the world behind him.

  Preacher Jack.

  He held an old-fashioned six-shot pistol in one hand and the curved cavalry saber in the other. His black coat was streaked with soot and blood and his face was pale madness in the starlight. “Imura!” he shouted. “Did I kill you? Did I kill the son of a bitch who murdered my sons?”

  “Benny, Nix …,” wheezed Tom, grabbing Benny’s sleeve. “Run!”

  Benny peeled Tom’s hand away. “No,” he said fiercely. “We have to stop him.”

  “You can’t stop him,” gasped Tom. “He’s too fast … too strong. He’ll kill us all.”

  As he spoke, Tom tried to get to his feet, but a furious wave of pain crashed him back down onto his knees. Nix tried to help him up, but her hands slipped on the blood.

  “Keep the compresses in place,” warned Lilah.

  Benny got to his feet and watched Preacher Jack stalk toward him. He knew that Tom was right. None of them were a match for this madman, old as he was. Preacher Jack had been a soldier and killer his whole life, and the hard years since First Night had only made him tougher. There was no way Benny could beat him, but maybe he could stall the old mercenary long enough for Lilah or Chong to wound him. Or kill him. Even if it meant sacrificing himself to make that possible. Benny looked at Tom, injured and helpless. And at Nix. And Lilah and Chong. He would die for any one of them. He might have to die for all of them.

  Benny turned back to the preacher and raised the jagged stump of Nix’s bokken. It was the only weapon he had left. It was broken, but the end was sharp. Maybe that would be enough.

  Or would it? Preacher Jack stopped ten paces away and raised the pistol.

  Damn, Benny thought. So much for heroic last stands.

  Then he felt something move behind him and there was Chong, coming up to stand at his side, his bokken in his hands. He smiled at Benny and took another step forward, putting himself between Benny and the pistol.

  “What are you doing?” Benny whispered, but Chong ignored him.

  Preacher Jack sneered. “Out of the way, rat meat.”

  “Bite me,” said Chong, and his voice quavered only a little. “You want Tom, you’ll have to shoot me first.”

  Preacher Jack grinned, and his teeth were bloody. “Hell, boy … I’m going to shoot all of you.”

  “You won’t have time. One of us will get you,” Benny said, not sure if it was true. Preacher Jack also had the sword.

  Lilah snatched up her spear and stood on Chong’s other side. She pointed the broken blade at the preacher. “You’re mine, old man.”

  “No!” cried Tom weakly. “No … all of you—run!”

  “Not going to happen,” said Chong firmly. “I’ll die before I let him win.”

  “This ain’t about winning, boy,” Preacher Jack said with a laugh. “This is about justice. You killed my sons! You killed my whole family. Don’t you understand the full weight of your sin? You did what First Night and three hundred million dead could not do! You killed the House of Matthias!”

  “Your sons were trash,” said Benny, his voice heavy with contempt. “Your whole family is nothing but trash. You’re everything that was wrong with the old world, and you want to rebuild that world and make it in your image. You want the world to be about pain and suffering and hurt. How can you pretend to be a preacher, a man of God, and do the things you do?”

  Preacher Jack eyed him with burning hatred. “You don’t speak to me like that, boy. You don’t dare.”

  And he pulled the trigger.

  Click!

  The hammer fell on a spent cartridge. Preacher Jack pulled the trigger again and again and then, with a snarl, he threw the empty pistol at Benny.

  Benny ducked.

  Suddenly Lilah was running at Preacher Jack, driving her spear toward his chest and screaming like a banshee. The blade was an inch away when he suddenly pivoted and let it slice through his lapels; he kept turning in a circle and drove his elbow into the back of her head as she passed. Lilah pitched forward onto the ground. Preacher Jack pivoted toward her, raising his foot for a kick that would have shattered her face—but Chong was up and moving faster than Benny had ever seen his friend move. He dove at Preacher Jack and tried to tackle him.

  The attack made the kick miss, but it did not take the preacher down. Preacher Jack caught Chong as he flew at him, and with a snap of his hip sent his attacker pitching off into the grass. Chong landed hard. Preacher Jack stamped down, but Chong rolled desperately away.

  Benny was up now, clutching the broken bokken as he closed in on Preacher Jack’s blind side. He jumped forward, stabbing at the man’s unprotected back, but the man shifted as quick as lightning and flashed out with a backward kick that caught Benny in the chest. Benny flew backward, landing in a heap.

  Lilah climbed to her feet and rushed the preacher, faking high and low, and aimed a vicious cut at the man’s knee, but Preacher Jack blocked the cut with his sword. Lilah rebounded from the cut and slashed again and again and again, and for a moment her attack was so ferocious that the preacher gav
e ground, backing away and parrying the blows as fast as he could, his sword flashing in the moonlight. For a few golden seconds Benny thought that Lilah was going to do it, that she was going to kill the man; but then he sideslipped the spear and caught the shaft with his free hand. He instantly chopped down with the sword, and Lilah was forced to let go to save her hands. He kicked her and sent her tumbling to the ground, then flung her spear out into the smoke and shadows.

  Benny and Chong climbed painfully to their feet and spread out to flank Preacher Jack. The old man smiled at the tactic, shaking his head in amusement. “Children’s games,” he said. “If that’s the way it has to be, then let the lesson begin.”

  They rushed him, but Preacher Jack was too fast. He stepped into Chong’s sword thrust, parried it, and whipped his blade across Chong’s body. Blood exploded out from Chong’s bare chest and he was suddenly staggering back, his sword dropping to the grass, his hands clamped to his body to staunch the bleeding.

  That left Benny on his feet.

  “Now you, boy,” said Preacher Jack. “I’ll cut you some and then let you watch what I do to the others. When you beg me for death, I’ll show you how merciful I can be.”

  Benny had no quip, no smart retort. He knew that he was doomed. He had twenty inches of burned and broken wooden sword to try and stop a man who had killed untold numbers of people. A soldier. A warrior. A killer, and a man who was the architect of all the pain in Benny’s world.

  With all that, Benny still had to ask the question that had been burning in him since they had first met this man.

  “Mr. Matthias,” Benny said, “do you … do you even believe in God?”

  Preacher Jack’s smile flickered and then intensified, the original secretive grin replaced by a goblin’s leer. “There is no God,” whispered the old man. “There’s just the devil and me and the Rot and Ruin.”

  The sword glittered as Preacher Jack suddenly faked a few cuts at him, taunting and playing with him. The tip of the sword was a silver blur, and Benny felt a burn on his cheek and knew that he had just been cut too fast to even see.

  “Drop the weapon, boy,” demanded the preacher. “Put it down and I really will show you mercy. I’ll let you and these other pukes walk out of here. But I want Tom. I want his head and by God I’ll have it.”

  “Never!” declared Nix, clutching Tom to her.

  “Don’t …,” Tom said weakly as he fought to get to his knees. His eyes were burning and his sweating face was bright with fever.

  “Why don’t you just give up?” snapped Benny as he backed away. “Your crew is dead. Gameland is destroyed. Why are you still—”

  “I am Gameland, boy! Don’t you get that? While I’m alive, it’s alive, and I’m going to build it back, bigger and better than ever. I’ll build it in the center of Mountainside if I have to … and there won’t be anyone left to stop me. Not you and not your brother. Look at him! He’s halfway to dead already. He just needs a little push.”

  Benny saw the future. It was as if the whole world had become bright and clear, and in that clarity he saw how this was going to play out. With sinking horror and grief he knew that there was only one path to walk, and that path was a red one. Preacher Jack began to raise his sword for the final cut. It was all spiraling down.

  Benny had backed away as far as he could. Tom was beside him, on his knees, blood spilling down his stomach and thighs. With painful slowness Tom reached over his shoulder to grasp the handle of his sword.

  “Gameland is closed,” he whispered. “That is the law.”

  “There is no law,” snarled Preacher Jack as he lunged forward. Benny turned away from the cut, his hand moving toward Tom. Tom began to pull his sword, but there was not enough strength left in him. He knew it. Preacher Jack knew it. Benny and Nix knew it. The sword came only partway out of the sheath, and Tom’s hand began to open as his strength failed.

  Then Benny’s hand closed around the handle, just below Tom’s. It was a sloppy grip, awkwardly placed, but it had power in it, and Benny turned and the sword ripped itself free from the scabbard as Benny turned and Preacher Jack’s sword whistled through the air and Benny turned … and turned… .

  And the moment froze.

  Preacher Jack stood there, tall and triumphant, his lips curled into his crooked smile.

  Tom Imura knelt, head bowed, hands empty.

  Benny stood between Tom and Preacher Jack, his right hand extended all the way out to one side, the sword—Tom’s kami katana, the demon blade—extended far into the night. All along the silvery edge of the blade there were threads that glistened like black oil.

  Preacher Jack spoke first.

  He said, “No.”

  Quietly. Wetly.

  Then his sword dropped from his hand, and with infinite slowness he leaned backward and fell onto the grass. There was a line of black wetness stretched across his throat from side to side.

  Nix looked up at Benny and saw that his arm was starting to tremble. Then his mouth. She got quickly to her feet and pulled him to her, pushing his arm down. The demon sword fell, and drops of blood flew from it.

  Chong staggered to his feet and put a toe under Preacher Jack’s shoulder and rolled him over. He bent and slid a knife from the old man’s belt, placed the tip at the sweet spot, and shoved. Tears gleamed like molten silver on his cheeks, but his eyes were as hard as pebbles.

  He turned to look at Benny, who gave a single distant nod of approval. Lilah staggered to her feet, and the four of them closed in around Tom. Tears rolled down their faces as they worked, pressing bandages in place, propping Tom’s head in Benny’s lap. From the forest the bounty hunters came running. Solomon Jones and Sally were first. J-Dog and the others followed. They lit torches and sorted through their medical kits.

  “Oh God,” cried Sally as she studied the wound in Tom’s chest. “Get me a needle and thread!”

  Tom smiled and shook his head. A small movement. “No,” he said. “No …”

  Nix looked around at the bounty hunters, panic and fury in her face. “We have to do something!”

  Sally Two-Knives pulled Nix to her, and despite the pain it must have caused her, she held Nix to her bosom.

  Solomon knelt and touched Tom’s arm. “We’ll take care of them, Tom,” he promised. “We’ll get them all back home—”

  “No, Solomon,” Tom whispered. “No … that’s up to … them. It’s their lives … their choice.”

  Solomon nodded and sat down, his eyes filled with sadness and tears.

  “Benny,” Tom said, so softly that only his brother heard him. Benny bent close.

  “I’m here, Tom.”

  “Benny … I … I want you to give me your word.”

  “Anything, Tom … just please … tell me what to do.”

  Tom’s other hand lifted a couple of inches, and he pointed to the east, where the false dawn was teasing the edges of morning. “Keep going,” he whispered. “Keep going until you find what you’re looking for. You and Nix. Lilah, too.”

  “I will,” Benny promised him. “I’ll find somewhere we can be safe.”

  “No,” said Tom firmly. “No … find somewhere you can be free. Alive … and free.”

  Nix began to cry. She picked up Tom’s hand and held it to her cheek.

  “Be strong,” Tom whispered. “I … wish that I could go with you. To see you grow up. To see who you’ll become.” He smiled. “But I guess I have … and I’m so proud of you. Of all of you.”

  Benny caved in over his hurt until his forehead rested on Tom’s. Benny’s tears fell like rain.

  Tom raised a finger and wiped away one tear. “Funny … all I wanted to do … was get out of … that damn town.”

  He closed his eyes for a moment, and his breath was very shallow. Lilah and Chong huddled close to Nix. They were all crying, broken sobs that drove jagged cracks in their chests. Lilah took Tom’s other hand and held it to her chest as if the beating of her heart could encourage his to keep g
oing. Tom opened his eyes again, and it seemed as if he was looking at something far away, over the horizon, far beyond what any of them could see.

  “Benny …”

  “Yes,” said Benny, his voice nearly shattering on that single word.

  “I … I’m going to try not to come back.”

  Then Tom Imura closed his eyes.

  A terrible sob broke from Benny’s chest. Nix leaned toward him and held him, and Lilah and Chong crawled over too. They held one another as dawn tore open the morning.

  EPILOGUE

  -1-

  I’M GOING TO TRY NOT TO COME BACK.

  That was what Tom said. The last thing he said. He would try. It wasn’t a promise, and Benny knew it. People couldn’t make those kinds of promises. Maybe in another age of the world, before the horror, before First Night, a dying brother might have said it differently. He might have said, “I’ll try and reach you. No matter how far I go, I’ll try and reach you. Just so you know it’s okay over there. On the other side.”

  That was before. The plague had changed everything.

  J-Dog and Dr. Skillz wasted no time. They made a stretcher out of spears and coats, and they, along with Benny, Nix, Lilah, and Chong, quickly carried Tom into the empty shed where Lilah had gotten the deflated sports equipment she’d used for fireballs during the fight. It stood apart from the hotel, the only building left intact after the blast. The other bounty hunters followed. No one spoke. They laid Tom down on the floor. Dr. Skillz set something on the floor beside the stretcher. When Benny saw what it was, he shook his head. The bounty hunter nodded and left without comment, but he left the object behind.

  “I can stay in here,” offered Lilah. “And …”

  Benny shook his head. “No,” he said. “No … this is mine to do.”

  Lilah nodded, and even she looked grateful to be spared that horrible task. Chong wrapped his arm around her and they left the shed, both of them weeping quietly.