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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 9


  It stood its ground, ears swiveling independently to catch all sound, nostrils huffing to gather the smells of the five people crouched in the road.

  Benny stared, eyes goggled wide, mouth open.

  “Is that a … a … a … ?” Nix tried to ask.

  “Uh-huh,” said Chong.

  The creature turned its head sharply toward them.

  “I’m dreaming this, right?” asked Benny.

  “Not a dream,” Lilah whispered, but even she looked rattled.

  “It’s a white rhinoceros,” declared Chong, a little too loudly. “But how?”

  “Shut up!” warned Tom, but it was too late.

  The huge animal suddenly gave a loud, wet snort and took a challenging step toward Chong. The massive rhinoceros grunted, a deep sound that was full of meaning and menace. It pawed the ground and blew out its nostrils.

  “Okay,” said Tom. “Run.”

  There was a beat where they all looked at him.

  “NOW!”

  The rhino tilted its wicked horns toward them, bunched the gigantic muscles of its back and hindquarters … and charged.

  19

  “Go! Go … GO!” BELLOWED TOM AS HE GRABBED NIX AND BENNY and Chong and shoved them toward the forest wall. “Into the trees!”

  “I’m sorry!” yelled Chong.

  “Shut up and run!”

  The ground shook as seven thousand pounds of furious muscle rumbled toward them. Despite its size, the animal was incredibly fast. Lilah flung her spear at it, but the blade merely slashed a red groove along its armored shoulder. It did nothing except make the rhino madder.

  “Oh,” she said softly, and then she was running too.

  Tom lingered a split second longer, sighting along the barrel of his gun at the rhino’s black eye. Then he whipped the gun away, shoved it into its holster, and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He caught up with the others and yelled at them to cut left so that they were running almost parallel to the road.

  The rhino tried to turn sharply to intercept, but the angle was too sharp. Its huge feet skidded on the dried mud of the road. Then, with a roar, it headed straight into the forest. The rhino’s shoulders slammed into a pair of slender pines, snapping them at the base.

  “Use the trees,” yelled Tom. “Circle around the big ones.”

  Nix was in the lead, and she shifted her angle to head toward a gnarled old sycamore. She dodged behind it, then spun and pulled Benny and Chong in behind her.

  The rhino spotted them and charged. It veered at the last second, so instead of hitting the tree full on, its horns slashed a deep gouge in the wood and shook the old sycamore from roots to leaves. The rhino whirled and rammed the tree again, and Benny threw his arm up to shield his eyes from the spray of splinters the impact blew out of the gouge. The animal tried to chase them around the tree, but they were more agile. It snorted and trotted away, then cut left and rammed again, and this time there was a crack! and the sycamore canted sideways and crashed down on the grass with a huge leafy whumpf!

  “Now what do we do?” whispered Chong in a strangled voice. Benny shot a look at him and saw that his friend’s eyes were wide and jumpy with fear that was very quickly going to overwhelm him.

  The beast galloped forty feet away and then cut right into a tight circle. This time it didn’t attack the tree but instead began angling to come around the trunk and go straight for Chong. The rhino came at them like a thunderbolt.

  “HEY!” Nix yelled as she stood up and waved her arms over her head. Instantly the rhino changed the angle of its charge and came straight for her. “Come on!” she cried to Benny, and then she was racing away from the fallen tree.

  “What are you doing?” Benny yelled in panic, but as soon as he said it he understood. Nix tore across ten yards of open field toward a line of massive oaks. The rhino could never hope to knock one of them over.

  Benny turned to pull Chong over the trunk so they could follow, but Chong was gone. Benny caught a glimpse of him running away from the oaks, heading toward a cluster of pines.

  “Chong, no! Not that way!”

  The rhino slowed to a trot and looked from Benny to Nix and then at Chong. Nix was vanishing behind the trunk of a monstrous oak. Benny was still partly covered by the huge bulk of dark roots from the overturned sycamore. Chong had a longer run ahead of him, and the only protection he had was a line of pines. Their bushy branches would hide him, but the soft pines offered no protection at all.

  The rhino charged after Chong.

  Benny broke from the side of the sycamore and began shouting as Nix had. “Hey! Big and ugly! Over here!”

  But if the rhino heard him, it didn’t care. Chasing Chong was a straight run and an easy kill. It thundered after Chong, crushing huckleberry bushes and saplings under its ponderous bulk.

  Benny made it to Nix’s oak and kept running. She was right with him, and they sprinted down the corridor of old oaks, heading for a gap that looked like it might have been either a country lane or a firebreak. Benny pointed as he ran, and Nix nodded. There was a chance they could turn left at the last oak, dash across the break, and enter the grove of pines. Benny figured they could come up behind Chong, pause long enough to beat some sense into him, then grab him and race back to the oaks.

  At the break they paused for a moment, looking around for Tom and Lilah. Benny spotted them, but they were on the other side of the rhino. Lilah was climbing into a cottonwood tree. Tom was circling to try and cut the animal’s line of approach to the wall of pines.

  “Hey!” Tom yelled. “Here!” He jumped up and down, waving his arms. When he got no reaction, he fired a shot into the air. That did it. The rhino skidded to a stop and turned its vicious eye on this new target. Benny was hoping that the animal would be getting tired by now, chasing one thing and then another. No such luck.

  “It looks really, really mad,” said Nix.

  The rhinoceros snorted a challenge, pawed the ground like a bull, tensed, and then launched itself straight for Tom.

  “Oh, crap,” said Benny, but he wasn’t talking about the danger Tom was in. Tom apparently had a plan. Tom always had a plan. No, he caught movement from the pines and saw Chong break cover to watch what Tom and the rhino were doing. The rhino twitched its head as it noticed Chong.

  “Oh for the love of—,” Benny began, then saved his breath for running.

  Chong was smarter than Benny, but in his panic he wasn’t using that brain. Rhinos were not like people, cats, dogs, and hunting birds. They weren’t predators. Despite the creature’s formidable strength and size, it was built for protection. Predators have eyes that look forward. Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their head. Usually that was to allow them to see threats creeping up from all sides. In this case …

  Once more the rhino wheeled and circled back toward Chong, who screeched, wheeled, and ran back toward the screen of pines.

  “Why does it keep going after Chong?” asked Nix as they ran.

  “’Cause he keeps heading for those pines,” grunted Benny.

  “Yeah, but why?”

  Tom fired another shot. The rhino ignored him this time and kept charging toward Chong. Tom yelled louder and jumped up and down, but the rhino had its eyes fixed on Chong. “Not that way!”

  Chong either couldn’t hear or was too scared to pay attention.

  Benny and Nix headed into the overgrown firebreak, crashing through the chest-high weeds, heading at a sharp angle to cut into the pines behind Chong so they could lead him out. The edge of the pine screen was fifty yards away. Benny saw that the shrubs and plants around here were already flattened down by the rhino’s massive feet, as if it had passed that way a hundred times.

  Benny was only a half step behind Nix. Then she screamed and suddenly pitched forward into the grass five feet in front of him. Benny had no way of stopping himself in time, and his foot caught on something and he was falling too. He landed on her legs, the impact punching a yelp of pain out of
her.

  “Oooof! Sorry!” he said as he rolled quickly to his left.

  And looked right into the eyes of a zom.

  20

  BENNY SCREAMED.

  Nix looked up. She saw the zombie … and screamed.

  The zom lay in the tall weeds inches from them. It did not scream. It snarled.

  Then it lurched forward and tried to bite Benny’s face.

  Nix grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back, and the creature’s teeth bit only empty air where Benny’s cheek had been. Benny flung himself backward, pushing Nix and himself away from the rotting teeth of the zom and the reaching white hands, but he wasn’t fast enough. One hand closed around his left sneaker, and the teeth chomped down on the rubber toe. Benny howled in agony as his toe was crunched between the zom’s jagged teeth.

  God! Am I bit? Am I bit? Am I bit? The litany of dread played over and over in his head.

  He swung his right foot and kicked the zom in the face, once, twice, again and again. The creature was dressed in farmer’s coveralls and had huge hands and shoulders. Even crippled and dead, it was immensely strong. Benny kept kicking, putting all his weight and fear into it, feeling the shock of each impact shoot like hot needles up his shin. Old bone cracked and rotted teeth snapped and then he was free.

  He pushed Nix away from the monster. She got to her feet and started to run, and immediately she screamed and fell. Benny scrabbled backward and turned to see a sight that threatened to tear the soul out of him. A second zom had crawled out of the weeds and attacked Nix. It had once been a huge woman, and it wore the black-and-white rags of a nun’s habit. There were two bullet holes in its cheeks, but they were ancient and the bullets had missed spine or brain. The zom had Nix pinned to the ground by the shoulders and was bending to take a bite that would destroy everything good and wonderful in Benny’s world.

  Nix’s face was covered in bright red blood. A black snake of terror reared up inside Benny’s chest. But his rage was bigger than his fear.

  “NIX!”

  He bellowed louder than a bull, louder than the rhino. He screamed a great unintelligible shriek of denial as he launched himself at the zom. His bokken lay forgotten in the weeds. He did not even think of pulling his knife. He crossed his arms over his face and slammed into the zom, hitting it like a thunderbolt.

  “Get away from her!”

  The impact knocked the zom backward, and they fell together in a hissing, snarling tangle, rolling over and over as Nix’s scream filled the air.

  The creature was desiccated, however; its arms were strong, but as they rolled Benny felt the dead-weight thump of its torso and legs. The zom’s spine must have been shattered below the shoulder blades so that its legs truly were dead.

  Its mouth, however, was not.

  The zom moaned in desperate hunger as it snapped at him. Their roll ended with Benny on his back and the zom atop him—not at all the way he wanted this moment to end. He shoved a forearm under its chin to keep those teeth from his flesh. He saw movement over the zom’s shoulder and there was Nix, her face running with blood and her eyes wild with fear, but she had her bokken in her small, tanned fists.

  “Now!” she screeched, and with a grunt of effort, Benny shoved his arms straight up, raising the snapping zom as Nix swung her wooden sword.

  CRACK!

  The top half of the zom’s head seemed to disintegrate, and the creature immediately went limp. With a snarl of disgust Benny threw it to one side.

  “Thanks—,” he began, but then he felt Nix stiffen beside him.

  “Oh my God!”

  Benny scrambled to his feet and looked around, and he could feel the blood drain from his face as he beheld a scene out of his darkest nightmares.

  The whole field of tall grass in which they stood was filled with zoms. Dozens of them. They lay between the weeds and snarls of wisteria, empty eyes fixed on them, hands reaching, mouths working. Their moans filled the air.

  But they were all broken. Shattered legs and hips. Shattered spines. Missing limbs. Huge holes torn through their chests and stomachs. Benny and Nix were surrounded by a legion of crippled zombies. They wriggled forward on broken limbs or grabbed tufts of grass to haul their twisted wrecks of bodies toward the fresh meat.

  “What is this?” Nix breathed, horrified.

  Benny drew his bokken, and they stood back to back with no clear way out. There had to be two dozen of the monsters. No … more than that. Much more. Others were climbing like gray slugs over fallen logs or out of depressions in the ground. Fifty of them. Sixty. More. All those dusty eyes and black mouths and rotted teeth. The dead cried out in rusted voices as they pulled themselves toward the smell of fresh meat and flowing blood. The terrible need, the awful hunger in that moan made Benny’s blood turn to ice water in his veins. It was such an ancient sound, old as all the pain and misery in the world.

  “We have to get out of here,” Benny whispered. He knew that the words were pointless, their meaning obvious, but there was a need in him to hear a human voice amid the dreadful wails of the dead.

  A few hundred yards to their left, Benny and Nix could hear the shouts of Tom and Chong and the indignant snort of the huge animal that had chased them all from the road.

  And then he understood. “God!” he gasped. “The rhino!”

  “What?” Nix asked, and then she got it. “Oh!”

  “Let’s get out of here.”

  She dragged her forearm over her face to clear the blood from her eyes. “How?”

  Benny licked his lips and took a firmer grip on his sword. “Fast and hard,” he said.

  He swung his sword and smashed the closest of the zoms, cracking the hardwood edge of the bokken against its temple. It flopped to one side, and Benny jumped over it. A dozen withered hands grabbed at his sneakers and pants cuffs, but Benny kicked and stamped as if he was being swarmed by cockroaches.

  “Come on!” he shouted, but Nix was already running past him. Her sword swished down and cracked and another zombie spun away, its jaw crushed.

  They ran and struck and ran. The blood on Nix’s face scared Benny so much his heart felt like ice.

  Had she been bitten?

  His toe hurt terribly.

  Are we bitten?

  Are we dead? “Benny!” Nix screamed. “Fight!”

  He bit down on his fear and swung the sword. It cracked against a reaching hand and shattered the wrist. He swung again and a zom who looked like he might have been a soldier flopped over on his back, his neck knocked askew. Benny swung and hit; Nix swung and hit; and all the time they screamed and moved and fought.

  “That way!” cried Nix, shoving him with her shoulder. Benny pivoted to see a narrow gap in the sea of crawling monsters. He pushed her in front of him.

  “Go!”

  She went, running and jumping, her sword flashing in a brown blur, the crack! against old bone sounding like gunshots.

  A pair of zoms—a grocery store clerk and a man in the tattered remains of a business suit—grabbed at him at the same time, each one clamping on to one of his ankles.

  Benny staggered and fell. But as he landed he twisted as Tom had shown him, rotating his shins so that the angles of his bones exerted leverage on the thumbs of the grabbing hands. The businessman lost his grip, and Benny pivoted hard to shake loose the clerk, emphasizing his need with a crushing downward blow with the flat end of the sword handle. The zom’s skull shattered, and his hand opened with a dying twitch.

  Benny scrambled to his feet and ran. Nix was fifty yards ahead of him, but he ran so fast that he’d nearly caught up by the time she reached the narrow gap.

  “Go! Go!” he yelled, and together they crashed through the circle of broken zombies and into the trampled area where Chong had run. It felt like escaping from the arms of Death itself.

  But the problem was far from over.

  There was still the rhinoceros.

  Chong was there, dodging in and around a stand of oaks as the rhino l
unged between the trunks, trying to gore him with its horns. Only the lucky chance of the trees having grown so close together was keeping Chong alive.

  Then they saw Tom standing with his pistol in a two-handed shooter’s grip.

  “Shoot it in the eye!” Benny yelled as they closed in on where he stood.

  Tom ignored him and called out to Chong, “I’m going to fire twice, and then I want you to run behind the trees. Head to your left and go as deep into the forest as you can.”

  “No!” cried Nix.

  Tom cut her a sharp look. “Why not?”

  “We just came from there,” she panted. “Zoms!”

  “Damn.”

  “Tom! I need to get out of here!” begged Chong as he twisted away from the horn. This time it missed him by inches.

  “Benny, Nix … head back to the road. Cross it and go into the other side. Find a tree you can climb and wait for me.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “Just do it!”

  Benny and Nix obeyed, but they ran only a dozen yards and then slowed to watch as Tom took a few steps toward the enraged rhino and aimed his gun.

  “Sorry about this, old girl,” Tom said aloud.

  The sound of the shot was strangely hollow. A pok! Benny expected it to be louder. The bullet hit the rhino in the shoulder. The creature howled, more in anger than in pain, but a second later it lunged at Chong.

  Tom fired again, aiming at the creature’s muscular haunch. The rhino shrieked, and this time there was pain in its cry.

  It turned with mad fury in its eyes … and charged Tom.

  “Why doesn’t he shoot it in the eye?” demanded Nix, but Benny shook his head.

  As the rhino rumbled past where they stood, Benny and Nix waved with silent urgency at Chong. He saw them, hesitated, looked at the retreating back of the rhino, and did nothing.

  “Crap!” growled Benny. “He’s too scared to move.”

  Then something pale rose up out of the weeds behind Chong.

  “Lilah!” gasped Nix.