The sun was setting behind the peaks of the Sierra Madres and I was just waking up. It had been two week since Svenka and I had left San Diego. Two weeks of bribing officials, sneaking past military barricades and killing the mindless undead. I felt we were finally starting to undo some of the damage Hex had done in Mexico.
It was difficult, exhausting and completely unrewarding work, but I felt responsible for not recognizing what had been happening to Hex. I felt responsible for him infecting humans with the virus that Burnham and his traitor accomplice James had concocted; after all him drinking human blood had been my suggestion. James, calling himself Mec, had been one of my closest companions for years and I’d never suspected he had been working for the enemy. The thought of delectable human vitae made me groan in hunger.
“Hey baby, you finally getting outta bed? It’s more than an hour after sundown, this is weird for you. Feeling tired?” Svenka was sitting at the desk in the hotel room, cleaning and sharpening her knife collection.
“Yeah, something about seventeen slugs to the chest kinda takes it out of a girl.” I rubbed the newly healed scar tissue, “Anything moving out there?”
“Shit no, it’s a goddam ghost town. I think you took out most of that squad of Mexican Regular Militia and they were the only living things in the town.” She set down the knife she had honed to a razor edge and picked up the next. “The infected don’t move unless they see food so it’s hard to tell but I’m sure there are a couple hundred of them out there at least. After you killed the one that could move shit with its brain they all sort of just hunkered down and I was able to sneak you back here.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I wish I could have saved a couple of the living though.” I did feel bad about the soldiers but those assholes and their fucking machismo attitude were an impediment to actually stopping the outbreak.
That and I had been hungry. Fucking ravenous. It had been awhile since I had worked with The Reapers and I had forgotten how famished I could get when using my abilities to their fullest extent. Even after my feeding frenzy I could still feel the ache of hunger at the edge of my consciousness. It seemed like it was a constant companion these days.
“Normally I’d disagree with you darling, but you and I both know that this is a special set of circumstances. Besides I can’t stand that bullshit attitude ya know?” She shook her head, “I can handle myself better than any of those fuckers, but you’d think I was helpless judging by the way they treat me.”
“And I can imagine no worse insult for you.” Svenka had been known as the Mork Varg, the Dark Wolf in her days as an assassin and was one of the least helpless women I knew excluding myself and a few of my fellow undead. “Personally I don’t give a shit as long as they don’t try to touch me.”
Since Hex I couldn’t abide the feeling of any man’s hands on my body. Not on any part of my body; I wouldn’t even shake hands voluntarily. I sat up in bed, the sheet falling off my naked torso and grabbed the cigarettes off the side table.
“You gotta let it go baby.” Svenka climbed in bed and put her arms around me, “It messes up your chi to hang on to this kind of bad energy.”
I lit a cigarette and leaned back against her, taking comfort in the familiarity of her scent and the warmth of her body. “I can’t. You of all people know I tried, but I just can’t let him go. After everything we went through together he’s the only man who ever kept all of his promises to me but one. The least I can do is remember him for what he was.”
“Listen, he was an amazing guy; pretty much the only one I’ve met who was worth the skin that covered his goddamn body, but he did what he did to help you, not to ruin your life.” She pulled me close, hands cupping my breasts and I wriggled against her, sighing in pleasure.
“He didn’t ruin my life dear, he didn’t take you away. Besides, acquiring a little phobia is nothing in exchange for my life. I’ll manage, just like I always have.” I took a deep drag on the cigarette and blew a plume of smoke towards the ceiling.
“I wish you’d quit that shit, it’s bad for you.” She said, more out of habit than anything else. We had about as much chance of getting cancer as we did of sprouting an extra head.
“I know; that’s why I do it. If I didn’t smoke I’d probably become a fucking superhero or something.” It was the only bit of me that remained from when I had been human. Before I was turned I had never been with a man, let alone a woman, never drank, never danced, never had a true friend. I could have given it up, but there was something about the ritual that kept me from quitting. It helped me fit in as well; smoking was a purely human act of self-destruction.
“You are a superhero already. Haven’t you heard? They’re calling you la Angelus Terribilus; the Terrible Angel.” She nibbled my earlobe. I shivered involuntarily; partly from her caress and partly for how closely the moniker matched my handle when I was with The Reapers… The Angel of Destruction. “So what’s on the docket for tonight then?”
“As soon as the sun goes down we’re going to destroy this entire town. Since there aren’t any living creatures within a mile radius of the town square I’m going to simply make it all go away. They’re too tricky about playing final death for me to take the risk.” I wasn’t sure I had enough energy to pull it off, but I was going to do it anyway.
“Is that even a possibility for you? I don’t want to be forced to try and scrounge you up some fresh blood in this fucking wasteland again.”
“I’ll be fine. We can’t let all the work we did here go to waste.” She was right though, I was dangerously close to ravenous. Ravenous wasn’t something I could afford to be, Svenka was the only edible thing within fifty clicks. If I lost my cool and killed her I would likely walk naked into the next sunrise.
“I don’t think you’ll be fine. Why don’t we see if we can’t scrounge some explosives instead? There’s a fuel tank at the gas station and maybe we can find some grenades or …” She saw the look on my face and her voice trailed off.
“It’s only about a night’s ride to the next town right? From what I’ve seen here I think we’ve just about wrapped up this little portion of the invasion. I wish I understood why some of these things gained Powers though. That is very unnerving.” I said, finishing the cigarette.
“I dunno hon. Maybe it’s a glitch in the infection right? I mean Hex was supposed to act like these guys wasn’t he?” Svenka winced at my expression but soldiered on, “From what I’ve seen this thing is some mixture of the arcane and a virus. Viruses mutate and different people’s immune systems react differently right?”
“Sure, but the ability to turn other being’s life energy into arcane Power is not supposed to be a communicable disease. Fucking Burnham.” I lit another cigarette and went to take stock of my weapons. Svenka sat beside me and began sharpening her knives again.
I laid out what I had been able to scrounge earlier although I was certain there was more to be looted off the bodies of those poor bastards I’d eaten. That thought reminded me of how similar the shambling lumps of rotting flesh that had once been the population of this little village were to my kind. With a shudder I ran my fingers through my hair and took inventory.
Three nine millimeters, a pair of forty fives, half a dozen spare magazines and a smattering of ammunition. I field stripped the first of the pistols, ensuring it was well oiled and in good operating condition.
“Hey, I’ve been thinking Ren. Those monsters with Power sorta like Hex’s… do ya think maybe they can… that they are sentient?”
I looked at Svenka incredulously, “What? You think we should try and talk to them?”
She spread her hands, “I dunno, but what if one of them managed to stay sane. Like he did.”
“It doesn’t matter. If I let even one of them survive, his death will be for nothing.” I took a deep breath, feeling the familiar pain that thinking of Hex brought. Like running your tongue over a broken tooth.
“OK, OK just a thought.” Svenka shook her beautiful head of white hair, “Have any of your old associates contacted you?”
“Who, the Reapers?” I put my hand in my pocket, touching a piece of paper that had been given to me a couple weeks ago. “No, and I don’t expect them to either. There might be someone I can get ahold of if I need to but I’d rather not if I don’t have to. This is my mess you know?”
“You can’t do it all on your own you know.” She said, giving me a stern look, “If you have a favor to call in do it.”
“I’m not doing it on my own.” I smiled at her, “I have you.”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t really count though do I?” The bitter look on her face surprised me.
“Hey.” I dropped the parts of the pistol I was re-assembling on the table and moved to sit on Svenka’s lap, straddling her lithe form, wrapping my legs around her and the chair back. I ran my fingers into her hair and pulled her in for a kiss. “You count more than anyone else in the world.”
An explosion rumbled outside, causing the room to shake as though we were being hit by an earthquake. In its wake, the door was kicked off its hinges and a figure stood in the doorway. He held a machete in one hand and a large bore pistol in the other.
“Stay where you are.” He said, gesturing with the pistol. “No sudden movements or I’ll give you an extra hole to breathe out of.” He was speaking English, which was a surprise.
“You an American?” Svenka asked, her thoughts mirroring mine as usual, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Hell. Now that’s more of a description of this place than a question aint it?” He looked over the room and the pair of us, “Well I guess you aint infected or else you wouldn’t be talking with me.” He lowered the gun and sighed.
I laughed, “No problem. I’m Ren. This is Svenka.” I kissed her on the forehead and unwrapped myself from her, standing up slowly. “Seriously, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.” He said, giving me a guarded look and half raising his gun again.
“Hey if you want me to show you mine first that’s fine.” I said with a sloppy grin, “I’m on cleanup duty. There’s a lot of disgusting flesh eaters out there that need to be dealt with. The locals call me la Angelus Terribilus.”
He let out a slow breath, a skeptical look on his face. “I’ve heard of her. Don’t know her story though. My name’s David Jackson… I was on vacation and the resort was overrun with these things. I managed to get away somehow and holed up in this little store for a few days. Found the gun behind the counter and the machete in the garage…”
“For fuck’s sake, will you just come in the goddamn room and sit? I wish you hadn’t fucking broken the door dipshit.” Svenka was taking his entrance into our lives with her usual acidic wit.
“Hey, I was just looking for a place to lay low for the night. I heard you talking and decided I had to check on it. I haven’t seen anyone who wasn’t one of those… things… for about a week now. I honestly didn’t think I was going to find people in here.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if his story added up properly, but I was too tired to think clearly. It was all I could do not to stare at the vein on his neck. I licked my cracked lips with a dry tongue. To distract myself, I picked up the door and propped it in its broken frame, wedging it in place with pieces of broken furniture.
“We’ve seen a few local militia and military but they don’t fare very well against the undead.” Svenka said, picking up her whetstone and beginning to work a notch out of the edge of one of her knives. “We have some special equipment that gives us an edge over them though. How about you? How have you managed to stay alive this long?”
“Undead? Fucking seriously?” He was looking a little wild around the eyes, hands clenching reflexively on his weapons. “How do you know that?”
“What did you think was going on? That this was just an elaborate hoax or that you’d somehow wandered onto a movie set?” Svenka rolled her eyes and put the finishing touch on one of her slender silver blades, “I’m sure you noticed that they don’t die unless you take their heads off right?”
“Actually I’ve mostly been hiding the entire time.” He admitted, “I haven’t needed to actually shoot anyone.” He moved to the couch, “I’ve seen the aftermath though, I guess I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.”
“What was that explosion out there?” Svenka asked, “Was that your doing?”
“Baby, you need to get him out of here.” I said to her over the mindlink. It had been quite some time since I used it but I couldn’t let David know what was going on, “I don’t think I can hold myself back. I’m just so hungry.”
“Yeah, I noticed you drooling over him. I was hoping you’d just bite him and be done with it.” She replied, “I know you need sustenance. You’ve been using the Power too much lately. I can’t afford to have you weak.”
“No that wasn’t me.” David said, “I’m not sure what’s going on but I think the gas tank on the other side of town went up.” He set his weapons down on the table and sat heavily in a chair.
“David, it’s not safe here, you shouldn’t stay with us.” I said, unable to keep myself from walking toward him.
“Shit, you’re the first living people I’ve seen in this place. I don’t like the idea of going back out there by myself. Especially with night approaching you know?” He looked at me, “Wouldn’t it be safer to stick together?”
“Not for you.” I could feel my fangs growing. Svenka looked at him with a mildly sympathetic expression on her face. Although she was technically mortal, the bond she shared as one who had tasted my blood extended her lifespan long beyond what was normal.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” David asked, looking between the two of us.
In an instant I went from being halfway across the room to his side, one hand holding his head and the other gripping his arm. I was breathing heavily, my predatory instincts only ignited further by the frightened whimper he released.
“We aren’t exactly living people.” I whispered into his ear, “I am sorry David, but I need this.” My fangs pierced his neck like hypodermic needles and his vitae flowed into my body. He didn’t even struggle, instead he let out a low moan of ecstasy and relaxed in my arms. Well, I supposed the Kiss was different for everyone.
To my intense relief, his blood was much more filling than I had expected and my hunger was sated long before I drank enough to kill him. He fell back in the chair, looking at me through hazy eyes.
“Who… who are you?” He murmured, a slight smile of pleasure still on his lips, “Who are you and what did you just do to me?” The relaxed smile faded into a look of fear as he saw my fangs slowly retracting into their sockets and realized I was licking his blood off my lips.
“I told you before. I am The Terrible Angel.” I said, the fresh blood seemed to be making me slightly giddy.
“Hey Renyovalia, what the fuck are you doing?” Svenka asked, grabbing my arm and shaking me.
I could feel the Power building in me. There was a shrill whine right at the upper register of my hearing; far beyond anything any human could hear. What the fuck was I doing? A low laugh escaped from David’s lips.
“I am a gift.” He said, a dangerous smile spreading over his face, “A present from The Tribunal. A leftover from your friend James, or so they tell me.”
Oh no. “Svenka. You have to get out of here. Get out now, he has something in his blood. I’m losing control my darling and if you get caught up in it I won’t forgive myself.”
“I’m not leaving your side.” She said stubbornly.
“Too late.” David said in a singsong voice, “Annih-“ Before he could finish uttering the Latin word that long ago had programmed me to release destruction one of Svenka’s slender silver blades blossomed in his throat. His mouth moved but all that came out was a harsh and bloody gurgle.
“We need to move dear. They know we’re here and he’s likely the first of many.” Svenka swept the pile of handguns and magazines into a backpack, leaving the one I had partially disassembled on the table.
In a twinkling, all her knives disappeared into their sheaths and she was dragging me out the door with the bag slung over one shoulder. I knew she was seriously nervous because she had David’s machete in her left hand and had even tucked his 357 magnum into her belt. She never used guns.
I trembled with Power, it was as though the sun had set inside my chest instead of dropping below the horizon.
“Stay with me Renyovalia. Stay with me my beloved, just let me get you away from here.” She whispered in my ear, “Fight it, don’t let these bastards win!”
“I’m going to remove this place from existence.” My voice sounded hollow in my own ears, “I will make it go away. It shall be destroyed in a pillar of fire.”
“There’s no need my beautiful, terrible angel. There is no need.” She was moving fast, we were on the edge of town already, on a bluff that overlooked what remained of the small town. “I don’t think there is anyone else left in there.”
My head still throbbed; I trembled with the desire to destroy. “I can’t take that chance. If one, even one of them survives it begin all over again.”
“If you’re going to do it, at least wait until you calm down. I’ve seen you like this before, you have no restraint right now. You’ll likely do more damage than you want to, and even worse you’ll exhaust yourself.” She lowered me to the ground and sat behind me, pulling me back to lean against her.
I could feel her slow and measured breathing, the slow beat of her heart, the warmth of her body. I would never feel warm like that again, but my connection to her allowed me to check my desire for devastation just enough for me to regain control.
A deep sigh escaped Svenka’s lips, “I can feel you letting go.”
I looked back into her face, her eyes were closed but tears leaked from them, rolling down her cheeks. I reached up to touch them, trying to remember what being able to cry was like.
“Why are you crying?” I asked, leaning on her, grateful for her strength.
“Because dear one, you can’t shed your own tears anymore.” She said, her arms hugging me tight enough that my ribs threatened to crack. I lost myself in that embrace, not wanting to be anywhere else, not wanting to be with anyone else.
“I don’t care.” I said, “I can’t trust anyone else. Not anymore. Only you.”
Her arms tightened around my torso with more strength than I thought she possessed. I looked away from her face and saw something glowing almost like the sunrise.
“No! Ren look out!” She rolled over, forcing me to the ground beneath her.
Then the burning began.
“What the fuck happened here?” The Sargent surveyed the town, the burned buildings still smoldered and corpses of soldiers and civilians alike scattered everywhere like leaves in the fall.
“Sorry sir, we are still working on details.” His subordinate said, “I don’t know what else to say but that it looks as though some wild animal tore this platoon of soldiers apart. The wounds appear on the hamstrings and throats of our men, leading me to believe this was the work of wolves.”
His voice faltered, “I know this sounds like something out of movie sir. A bad b-rate movie. But look at this.” He pointed to a soldier and the gaping wound across his throat, “You can’t deny that this wasn’t the work of any human.”
“And this one?” The Sargent gestured toward the white blonde woman at his feet. From behind she looked completely normal, but when they rolled her over the outline of a smaller person seemed to be burned into her body on the front. It looked like she had tackled a burning mannequin. He shook his head; this was just too strange.
“Sir! Sun is setting sir! Your cabin has been prepared sir!” A lieutenant was standing at attention to his right.
“Very well. I will retire and tomorrow we will go over this godforsaken town. I expect answers do you understand?” He turned to go but his left foot was caught on something. Looking down he saw instead of a branch or a rock a human hand was grasping his ankle. It protruded from underneath the loose soil and had a firm grip on him, just above the laces of his tightly laced boot.
“What in the hell is this?” He kicked his foot, and another hand burst from the ground, this one grabbing him slightly above the knee. A guttural roar of hunger, confusion and rage erupted from beneath the earth. The hands dragged and pulled at his leg and a scarred, bleeding figure tore itself from the ground, climbing up his body.
He screamed in horror, clawing his pistol from his belt and emptying round after round into the thing’s face. Pieces of skull and brain splattered on his leg but the monster ignored the damage, opening its mouth impossibly wide, showing row after row of razor sharp needles instead of teeth and bit down on his inner thigh.
Blood, oceans of blood, more than he ever imagined could be contained in his body flowed from the horrible lacerations on his leg and the thing seemed to revel in consuming as much as it could and letting the rest flow over its face. The last thing he saw were the wounds his pistol had inflicted knitting themselves back together before the white light staring at him from the place where the thing should have had eyes burned away everything else.
Agony subsumed my being. I was a thing of pain, made of pain, existing only by the providence of pain. The light of the moon hurt my eyes. Looking to my left I saw the remains of a corpse, its leg having been savagely bitten off just above the knee. The events that had led up to this were hazy, indistinct memories.
My skin was cracked and blistered. It felt like someone had been using my head for an anvil. The simple act trying to stand broke open a myriad of bleeding scabs. I steeled myself and attempted to take in my surroundings.
A massive crater, perfectly cylindrical and close to a mile across lay before me. The edge cut off mere inches from my feet. I knew this destruction more intimately than anyone alive or dead. I had done this.
After a few attempts I finally gave up trying to stand. Unimaginable hunger wracked my gut, I had felt the madness of Frenzy before and knew it wasn’t far off. Where, where was my lover, my anchor, my beloved? I reached out through the mindlink and found nothing. It didn’t necessarily mean she was dead. I couldn’t allow myself to consider that.
“Are you OK?” A voice interrupted my silent misery, speaking Spanish. Terror skittered around the edges of his speech, “We saw what you did. We know who you are. We will help the Terrible Angel on her crusade against the sickness if we can.”
I recognized the voice, it sounded vaguely familiar. I managed to move my head enough to look at the speaker. It was dark and the moon was a crescent in the sky, but I could easily see him. Dark vision was one of the benefits of my Dark Gift. He was wearing some sort of rough spun cotton robe, looking like a religious pilgrim from a forgotten age.
“I was there on the mountain pass. I was the first to begin spreading the word of your existence. The Terrible Angel who will deliver us from a world gone mad. She who has the power of destruction and can cleanse the sickness.” He said, his eyes now almost glowing with fervor.
Now I knew who he was. The last time I’d seen him he had been wearing military fatigues, sitting in the middle of the road anemic and exhausted from me drinking his blood, fighting off the shock of seeing the monsters Burnham had created in action. “Emilio.” I croaked, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“You remember me?” He asked with a smile, “I have been looking for you, following you so that I could repay you. We have walked for days, our numbers growing as we came.” He gestured behind himself and I could see a group of men and women dressed in the same kind of robes Emilio was wearing.
“What happened to you? Who could possibly put you in such a state?”
I looked at my body, blackened and burned almost beyond recognition. “I don’t know.” He helped me to sit. If I didn’t know better I would say I had been briefly exposed to the sun, but I wasn’t about to let a stranger in on that little secret.
“Take what you require. I know of your needs.” He pulled the neck of his robe down. I could see the thick blue vein throbbing there, begging for me to drink. In my weakened state it was more than I could handle.
I could hear the cries of horror from the assembled people as I sank my fangs into him, but Emilio was moaning in ecstasy. “Yes, more! I remember this feeling!” He melted against my body, begging me to take his life essence, to drink it all.
By sheer force of will I stopped before I killed him. My skin slowly regrew, knitting itself back together to the increased dismay of my supposed followers. The clothes I had been wearing, sturdy army fatigues, were completely burned off the front of my body. As I sat up, I left the remainder on the ground behind me and stood naked in front of the small army of people. I still felt weak and in more ways than one.
“Was there anyone else here? Did you see what happened?” My voice was slightly less rough now, but I was far from whole.
“I saw from afar. You brought your holy cleansing light to this place.” Emilio’s voice was shaking with fervor, “You removed the evil and the unbelievers, leaving nothing but perfection in their place.”
“Are you sure it was me?” My voice shook with grief. I knew he was right though, there wasn’t anyone else who could do this. Not anymore.
“Of course, who else could it have been?” He gave me a slightly unfocused look.
“Take me to the nearest shelter. I require time to rest and think.” I wasn’t about to tell him I would burn like a torch in the sun, and I couldn’t handle thinking about the possibility of Svenka being gone.
“Of course.” He stood, wobbling slightly on his feet, “We move to the cave at once!”
I attempted to lend him a hand but he waved me away, “You save your strength for your own tasks. I am unworthy of any more assistance from you.”
In spite of these words, he toppled and would have fallen had I not caught him. “Don’t be foolish. Carrying you is less difficult for me than wearing clothing is for you.” I brushed off his attempt to stop me as easily as you would wave away a mosquito and cradled him like a baby.
“Which way to this cave of yours then?” I asked, and began walking in the direction he indicated, not caring if the others were following.