Rot and ruin, p.29
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       Rot and Ruin, p.29

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 29

 

  They remounted, and Tom led the way down the grassy lane. The soft green of the grass as it ran along the glistening blue water, and the constant birdsong all around them, gave the moment a fairy tale feeling that Benny found hard to shake. It was unreal, even surreal in its gentle, unhurried beauty. So at odds with everything that was real in their immediate world of hurt and harm and hurry.

  “Tom? About Gameland. Do you know for sure that they rebuilt it?”

  “Not firsthand, but from people whose word I believe. People who said that Lilah’s been there. Even if we don’t find it today, I’ll keep looking for it. ”

  “Why? No one in town even cares about it. They won’t do anything about it. ”

  “I know. But I care. ” Tom sighed. “We lost the world, Benny. That should have taught us something about the value of human life. Gameland shouldn’t be allowed to exist. It needs to be taken down. ”

  “They rebuilt it once, wouldn’t they do it again?”

  “Maybe. And if they did, then someone should always be ready to burn it down again. ”

  “Who?” Benny asked. “You?”

  Benny was suddenly aware that too much of his skepticism about his brother’s abilities showed through in his tone. He immediately regretted his words. They were part of an old reflex, and he didn’t actually hate Tom anymore. In fact, after everything that had happened last night, on top of what they had experienced together that first time in the Ruin, Benny was seeing Tom in a different light.

  But the words were said, and Benny didn’t know how to unsay them.

  Tom squinted into the sun. Small muscles bunched and flexed at the corners of his jaws. “Some of the travelers and traders I’ve talked to say that certain bounty hunters that they declined to name have been gathering kids—girls and boys—to take to Gameland. ”

  “Kids from where? I haven’t heard about any kids from town going missing. ”

  “There are other towns, Benny. And there are kids living with some of the way-station monks. Some of the loners have kids, too. None of these kids would be missed, not by the people in Mountainside. The bounty hunters prey on them because of that, and there’s nobody out here to protect them. No one to stand up for them or speak for them. It’s a bad, bad world out here. ”

  “All of it?” Benny asked. “Is that all there is? Fear back in town and evil out here?”

  “I hope not. ”

  The path rounded a bend and then moved sharply away from the water and eventually left the shelter of the trees to run through a series of low, rocky hills. Without the canopy of cool leaves, the heat returned like a curse. Even through his shirt, Benny’s shoulders and back felt charbroiled. His forearms glowed with sunburn, and sweat boiled from his pores and evaporated at once without any perceptible cooling of his skin.

  Tom studied the landscape and slowed to a stop, looking concerned.

  “What is it?”

  “Something doesn’t make sense,” Tom whispered. He pointed to where their path curved around between two walls of rock. The red-rusted span of a train bridge arched over the path.

  “There’s a spot down there that everyone avoids. It’s thick with zoms, one of the natural lowland points where the nomad zoms gather. Last time I came this way, there were a few hundred of them. ”

  “Hundred?”

  “Yep, some of them had probably been there since First Night. Others just kind of wandered in. ”

  “Pulled by gravity, right? Following any downsloping path. ”

  “Exactly. There’s a crossroads down there. A highway intersects with two farm roads and this road we’re on. Big intersection. ”

  “So … why don’t we just go around?”

  “We can, but the trail we’re following goes straight along this road. ” He pointed to visible footprints in the soft clay beside the road.

  “That doesn’t make sense. Why would Charlie go right into a nest of zoms? Isn’t he supposed to know the Ruin as well as you?”

  “He knows it better than me. He spends more time out here. ”

  “Okay, look … I may only be your little brother, and I know I’m not a bounty hunter and all that, but doesn’t this have ‘trap’ written all over it in bright red paint?”

  Tom almost smiled. “You think?”

  “So you know it’s a trap?”

  “Benny, this whole thing is a trap. Everything Charlie’s done since he attacked Rob Sacchetto has been a trap. ”

  Tom stopped and suddenly pointed to the trail of footprints that led off around the bend. The prints were mostly those of a man with big feet. Charlie. However, at one point, another set of prints suddenly appeared beside his. Small bare feet.

  “Nix?” Benny asked.

  Tom put a finger to his lips and whispered, “It looks like Charlie was carrying her and set her down here. See? Their prints go all the way around the bend. Right toward the crossroads. ”

  “Maybe they don’t know how close we are,” Benny suggested. He looked for confirmation in Tom’s face, but didn’t see any. Benny started to draw his knife, but Tom shook his head.

  “Wait until you need to,” Tom cautioned. “Steel reflects sunlight, and that’ll attract zoms as much as movement. Now, I need you to stay steady, kiddo. Once we round this bend, it’s going to get weird. Maybe it’s a trap, maybe not; but even if it isn’t, this is one of the most dangerous spots out here. You’ll see why. ”

  “Great pep talk, coach. ”

  Tom grinned.

  Moving very slowly, careful not to make a sound, they rounded the bend in the road, hugging close to the wall and staying in the shade of the rocks. Apache and Chief were trained for this, and they moved only when and where they were steered.

  Around the bend, the view opened up, and Benny saw the roads that wandered from all directions over hills down to the crossroads.

  “God!” Benny gasped, but immediately clamped a hand over his mouth.

  It was neither the beauty of the vista of endless mountains nor the tens of thousands of silent cars crowding the road that tore a gasp from him. The crossroads and the fields surrounding it were crowded with the living dead. There were at least a thousand of them. Benny stared, searching for movement, waiting for the sea of monsters to turn and begin shambling toward them. But they did not. The zombies just stood there in one crowded mass. Others, alone or in small groups, stood along the roads or in the fields. All still, all silent.

  The horses now showed their training, and in the actual presence of the dead, they made no sound, but Apache’s trembling terror vibrated through his entire body and up into Benny’s.

  Benny tried to understand what he was seeing. He didn’t believe that all of them had just wandered here because the roads sloped down and they followed the unrelenting pull of gravity. There were too many for that. Maybe they chased some people down here and after the kills, they had nowhere to go and nothing to distract them. Some of the zoms were probably the people from the cars, who had been killed there and reanimated with no direction or purpose. The tough grass covered them to the waist, and some of them were completely wrapped in ivy and twists of wisteria and trumpet vines. There were soldiers, nurses, kids his own age, ordinary people, old people, many of them showing signs of the terrible bites that had killed them. Just standing there in the midday sunlight. It was such a strange sight—all these dead standing there like statues.

  No … that wasn’t it. They were like gravestones, using their own flesh to mark where they had died and where they would spend eternity. Not buried in a box but trapped in decaying tissue that could move, that would hunt and attack, but that, in the absence of something to attract it, would remain in place forever. The thought was as horrible as it was sad. Suddenly, Benny could feel something deep inside of him begin to undergo a process of change. His fear, which had been as big as the whole Rot and Ruin, seemed to shrink. Not completely, but enough so that
he was consciously aware of it. He thought he understood why.

  On their first trip into the Ruin, Tom had said that fear makes you smart, but Benny understood now that his brother had been talking about caution rather than fear. These zoms, every last one of them—even the smallest child—would kill him if they could, but not one of them meant him harm. Meaning, intention, will … None of that was part of their makeup. There was no more malice there than in a lightning strike or bacteria on a rusted nail, and as he sat there, he felt his terror of them give way to an awareness of them as something merely dangerous. The intense hatred of the dead he had once harbored was gone completely; burned out of him in Harold Simmons’s house. Only the fear had remained, and now that, too, was wavering in its intensity.

  Charlie, on the other hand, was something still to be feared. Charlie was far more dangerous than any single zombie on the planet because his malice was deliberate.

  Understanding the difference between these two types of dangers—unthinking and deliberate—felt like a huge revelation, and Benny wanted to tell Tom about this, but he said nothing. Now was definitely not the time.

  Tom turned sharply in his saddle, staring behind them. Benny saw a few of the zoms catch the movement and raise their withered faces.

  “What?”

  “Something’s burning,” Tom said, and that fast, Benny caught it, too. A sulfur stink that he knew very well. He’d smelled it a hundred times at the pit on the days when they set off dynamite to drop a layer of shale and loose rock down on the ashes and partly burned bones.

  “Fuse!” Benny shouted. Or … thought he did. Anything he might actually have said was erased by an immense blast that tore half a million pounds of sandstone from the cliff walls. Fiery clouds of jagged debris burst from both walls, exploding into the pass from ground level and above. Apache screamed and reared and then bolted away from the tons of rock that smashed down all around them.

  Benny kept screaming as the horse galloped at full speed, away from the collapsing walls … right toward the sea of zombies. Every single one of them turned toward him, a thousand black mouths opened, two thousand wax white hands reached for him as he raced without control toward them.

  34

  THERE ARE MOMENTS THAT DEFINE A PERSON’S WHOLE LIFE. MOMENTS IN which everything they are and everything they may possibly become balance on a single decision. Life and death, hope and despair, victory and failure teeter precariously on the decision made at that moment. These are moments ungoverned by happenstance, untroubled by luck. These are the moments in which a person earns the right to live, or not.

  Benny Imura’s horse galloped toward death as certainly as if the path was marked with signs. If he did nothing, his crazed and panicked horse would crash into the sea of zombies, and Benny would die. If he tried to slow Apache down, the zoms would surround him and drag him out of the saddle. If he dismounted and ran, they would close around him and he would be lost. There was only one possible choice left, and it was as improbable as it was insane. The Benny Imura who had gone reluctantly out with his brother ten days ago could not have made that choice. The Benny Imura who had faced the reanimated corpse of the artist Sacchetto but had not yet faced the other horrors that last night had forced upon him would not have made that choice.

  As Apache bore him toward the hungry mouths, Benny’s lips spoke a single word. It was not a cry for help. It was not his brother’s name. It was not a prayer. In his mind there was only one thing larger than his own death, only one thing more powerful than his fear of the living dead.

  He screamed, “Nix!”

  And he drew his wooden sword, kicked Apache’s flanks as hard as he could, and charged into the monsters.

  35

  THE HORSE RESPONDED TO THE KICK AND TO THE CONTROL THAT POWERED that kick. Within three galloping steps his flight straightened from wobbling panic to determined attack. Benny screamed as Apache’s broad chest slammed into the front rank of the zombies. Benny’s right arm rose and fell, rose and fell, slamming the brutal edge of the hardwood sword down onto faces and hands and necks and shoulders. The dead reached for him, but he kicked with both feet, and struck and struck and struck. Apache, covered in his carpet coat, felt only the muffled pain of bites that could not tear through the carpet and did no harm. Instead it drove him into a towering fury. He reared up and lashed out with steel-shod hooves. Jaws shattered, skulls cracked, and then they were through the front rank and racing toward the line of stalled cars. The zoms turned and followed, and those in front of them shambled toward the horse.

  Benny wheeled Apache around and tugged back on the reins to encourage him to rear up again and again. The hooves were backed with all the power and terror in the half-ton animal, and withered bodies crumpled before him. Benny’s carpet chaps protected his legs, but he wasn’t wearing his carpet coat. If he fell, or if the creatures grabbed a wrist, then only the last bits of the cadaverine would protect him. At the speed with which things were happening, they did not seem to have the time to react to the presence of the noxious chemical, and if any of them were repelled by it, Benny could not tell.

  “Go! Go!” Benny yelled, and Apache surged forward toward another line of the dead. Beyond that was open ground. The sword rose and fell, and Benny felt the shock tremble up his arm, but he used the pain to fuel his rage. He drew his hunting knife with his left hand and used it to stab and slash as the hands tried to drag him down, screaming inarticulate bellows that filled the air. But the blade hit bone, and the impact wrenched it from his hand, and he lost the knife.

  They slammed through the second line, and one hand snagged in his pants cuff and nearly tore him from the saddle. Benny slewed halfway around and slashed backward at the clutching hand, feeling the forearm bones break as he struck down.
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