Post Mortem Chapter 7

“Hey.”  A gentle, familiar hand touched my shoulder.  “Sun’s down, it’s time to go.”

“Thanks Miranda.”  I said, rolling out from under the truck where I’d been sleeping the daylight away.  It was a touch morbid to rest inside a body bag but they were proof against ultraviolet radiation and honestly I was a walking corpse anyway.  I had forgotten how great it was to have someone who could look out for me that I could trust, I slept soundly knowing Miranda would be watching out for me.  “We ought to be there at around midnight.”

“Are you sure you want me to stay here?”  She asked, a touch of concern in her voice that I wouldn’t have been able to discern had I not been able to feel her emotions as easily as my own.

“Yes, you would only slow us down out there.  Besides, I don’t want to risk you; this is likely to get nasty pretty fast.”  I looked at her and found myself wondering how I had been able to survive without what she gave me.

“Ok, but you need to get back to me as soon as you can.”  I could feel her allowing me to feel fear, compassion and sorrow without emotion taking me over.  “I don’t want to lose you to the bitterness again.”

I touched her hand and smiled a genuine smile, “Yeah.”  For just a moment I felt something else, but then it was gone.  “I’ll be back before sunrise.”

“Take care.”  She said, smiling at me like I imagine my mother would have.

“You as well.”  I replied, smiling at her as though I imagine I would have had she been my mother.  “I don’t expect trouble but…”

“Oh please.”  She said with a laugh, “You always expect trouble.”

“Fine.”  I said, mildly annoyed.  “I expect trouble and that’s why I want you to stay back here.  If anything big happens you should be far enough away that you’ll be able to-“

“Get away?’”  She interrupted, “Escape and go where?”

“No, not escape.  I can tell you haven’t done anything like this before.”  I said with a grin, “I’m leaving you and most of the muscle out here so you can come in and bail me out if I get into shit I can’t get out of.”

Her eyes widened in mild surprise, “Really?  I thought you were being all over-protective… isn’t the rear guard the most dangerous position?”

“Only when you’re running away.”  I said, wondering what movie she’d seen that gave her that bit of insight.  “Right now it’s a lot safer than walking straight into the lion’s den like we plan on doing.”

We were on a mild rise above the city, and it was an unsettling sight.  Broken shambled about aimlessly, making me wonder just how long they could continue to be mobile until something gave out.  Burnham had designed this disease quite well it seemed.  What could burn below was doing so, bright orange flames belching black curls of smoke that blended into the darkness of the night.  Those flames were the only lights visible.

“Why hasn’t the government stepped in to do something here?”  Miranda asked, her voice reflecting the disbelief I could feel from her when she surveyed the scene.

“I don’t know.  My first guess would be they tried and failed.  I said, grimly cataloging the number of vehicles that had been destroyed.  “I’m honestly surprised they haven’t called in an airstrike.”

A burst of automatic gunfire drew my attention and I squinted, trying to focus in on the spot it had come from.  As one, the entire group of Broken turned and moved toward the sound.  It was frightening to think about that many of them moving all at once.  Of course I could use my Power on them, but that would destroy any innocent survivors there might be too and would leave me ravenous and exhausted.

I wasn’t completely unwilling to sacrifice survivors, but it was a last resort that would leave me vulnerable and in the hands of humans who would most likely be unfriendly at best.  In this particular time and place I was walking a razors edge.  I had to be careful.

Besides, I didn’t necessarily need to use my Gift for this exercise.  I had enough weapons to arm a small police force and a highly trained group of mercenaries waiting to pull me out if things went south.  I began to buckle on my gear, black flak vest over long sleeved black spandex shirt, twin silenced 9mm pistols in shoulder holsters, thin black leggings made of Kevlar webbing, throwing knives in a thigh sheath on the left and a collapsible night stick on the right.

My only truly unconventional pieces of attire were my shoes; black Vibram soled toe shoes.  I liked to be able to feel the terrain and I could move with almost absolute silence wearing them.  It wasn’t as though I had to worry about bruising my feet on rocks.  I wiggled my toes, making sure they were settled and suppressed a chuckle.  They did look sort of silly.

“Holy shit…” Cor said, watching as the Broken began to run toward the center of the city.  “What exactly is your plan?  You do have a plan right?”

“We’re going to have to play this close Cor.”  I said, switching my attention to him.  “I hope you know how to run because I don’t plan on moving slowly.”

“What?”  He tore his gaze from the burning city and its throngs of undead.

“Keep up.  I don’t want to leave you behind.”  I said, crouching and giving Miranda a languid wink before leaping from the hillside in a bound that covered nearly a half mile.  He landed about a hundred yards behind me, aggravation carrying over the Mindlink.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” He asked, exasperated.  “This isn’t a fucking game, you can’t just run in headlong without a plan-“

“I do have a plan.  To run in headlong.” I snapped, “There’s no guarantee I’ll have another chance to get by all those damn Broken so if you have a better idea tell me right FUCKING now!”  Not wanting to lose momentum, I was already leaping again heading for a rooftop this time.

“Well.  No.  But that doesn’t make this any less insane.”  He said, following my leap with one to match.

“Then shut the hell up and watch my back.” I said, “And help me keep a lookout for something that doesn’t look like it’s been overrun with Broken.”

“What?  Why?  Just exactly what do you think you’re going to do?  Just kick in the door and demand their surrender?”

“I was just going to kill them all.”  I said, “Why ask for surrender?”

Cor hesitated while we landed and jumped again, “Was that a joke or are you serious?”

“They have fucked with the wrong whelp, and this bitch is out for revenge.”  I said, “Wait, look left.”  I landed on a rooftop and Cor was only a few seconds behind me.

“You think this is their stronghold?”  He asked, and I gave him an ironic smile.  The building in question was a high chain link fence topped with a triple row of barbed wire surrounding a warehouse that took up half of a city block.

“I don’t see any Broken inside the walls, do you?”  Although he was on the opposite edge of the roof, the Mindlink made him sound as though he were standing next to me.  “Besides, there’s one other thing that sets this building apart.”

He looked for a minute and then sighed in understanding, “Lights.  There are electric lights inside.”

I listened carefully and could hear the low thrum of a diesel engine underneath the cacophony of other sounds that fractured the quiet of the night.  I circled the warehouse, easily leaping from rooftop to rooftop, trying to pinpoint the location of the generator by feeling the vibrations it made.

“Renyovalia, we only have a few hours before sunrise.  We should move quickly if you want to escape.”  I could feel the tension in his sending; he was afraid.  I didn’t know if it was fear of the sun, fear of the unknown or fear of fighting but I didn’t care.

“Shut up Cor, we have four hours until sunrise.  It’s time for you to be useful.”  He had been with me for days now and I’d never seen him use his Gift even once.  “Their generator is on the first floor of that parking ramp.  From here I can’t see it but I’d bet there’s a fuel tank right next to it.  I want you to Shadowstep over there and shut it down.  Once they come to investigate we can evaluate whether to kill them and retrace their steps or move in on another entrance.”

I shifted slightly, positioning myself to get a better view and almost didn’t notice a rush of air passing my face.  Behind me a chip of a brick chimney broke off and the whine of ricochet made me drop to my stomach.  Several more silent bullets whined as they hit the edge of the rooftop, mere inches from my face but there still wasn’t any sound of a gunshot.  It was pure luck that I’d avoided being shot the first time, but now I was relying on skills gained from a lifetime of survival.  This was my game.

“Cor?”  I reached out through the Mindlink and found it dead.  Shit.  Either he had been shot or someone out there was using something to block me.  Whoever these Breakers were, they knew something about my kind.  That was enough of a red flag for me to tread far more lightly than I had initially intended.

Since they were shooting from a distance with a silenced rifle I imagined they were likely using night vision.  Well.  I could do something about night vision.  Even though my Gift was becoming more and more unstable, I still refused to shy away from it completely.  It was a part of me and I needed to be able to trust it even if it was becoming a wild, untamed thing.

I took a small flashlight from a pocket on my vest, turned it on and rolled it across the rooftop.  It bobbed for a moment and when I heard the snap of a bullet hitting the brickwork I lashed out with a thread of Power.  Instead of only destroying the flashlight, I took a pumpkin sized section of roof with it.  The dazzling light of my Gift would have certainly blinded anyone looking through an augmented scope.  Even as I tamped down the wild rage of Destruction I knew I’d only managed to bypass the first challenge.

Before my adversaries had time to recover, I ran with blinding speed, leaping off the second story rooftop, sailing easily over the chain link fence and tucking to roll to my feet a mere hundred yards from the warehouse.  I kept my pace, barely breaking stride and covered the distance to the parking garage in seconds.  An easy leap took me to the second level and I was weaving between concrete pillars, slowing my pace gradually.

The generator was right where I thought it would be.  In moments I had located the kill switch but I hesitated.  Was I really going to try and do this alone?  Had they actually killed or disabled Cor, not just shut down the Mindlink?  Up until this point, I hadn’t considered what had happened on the rooftop.

I had only been reactive; if someone really had blocked the Mindlink that meant there were other immortals here, and that meant trouble.  If they were actually using bullets that could kill one of us that quickly and silently, that could be even worse.  A door opened, spilling a beam of electric light into the parking garage and I ducked behind the generator.

Heavy footfalls tromped over to the other side of the machine, the glare of a headlamp illuminating the instrument panel on the side.  “Still got half a tank of fuel.”  A man’s rough voice said in clear, unaccented English.  The click and hiss of a radio letting me know he was reporting this to someone inside.

“Any sign of intruders?”  A voice came over the radio, audible to my enhanced ears.

“Nah.  Whoever it was across the street either Smith got ‘em or they took the hint and fucked off.”

“Good.  So no sign of the target?”

There was a hesitation, “I don’t think so.  Smith says they dropped a flashbang and messed his optics.  You don’t think that’s her do ya?  One way or another she’d have reduced this place to rubble right?  She aint known for being subtle.  There was a brief blip of chatter but-”

“Do a perimeter sweep.  A serious, full perimeter sweep.  Use the serum to make sure she’s not hiding somewhere and then report back to me.”

The man sighed and clipped his radio back onto his tactical vest.  I narrowed my eyes and gave his outfit a closer inspection, there were no sigils or insignia on it anywhere.  When he pulled a vial of faintly glowing green liquid and placed it into an injection gun I froze.  This wasn’t just a highly trained mercenary, nor was he some operative from a government agency.  He was a Hunter.

Specifically designed to destroy my kin, Hunters were a genetic experiment taken to the extreme.  The architect behind their creation was a man actually codenamed The Architect by The Tribunal and he had been slain some weeks ago by Hex.  Well with a little help from a few others, myself and Svenka included, but without Hex, we wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Now some things fell into place.  This place wasn’t an accident.  The Mexican military not being involved wasn’t an accident, the sheer number of Broken in the city wasn’t an accident.  This was an elaborate trap and I, being the blind idiot I sometimes am, had walked straight into it.  Of course, they didn’t realize I was here yet and with luck they wouldn’t until it was too late.

I whipped one of the throwing blades from my thigh sheath and threw it underhand, taking the Hunter in the throat.  He grunted and pulled it free, the wound seeming to be more of an annoyance than anything else.  Before he had time to do much more than turn to look my way another knife was in the air and I had a pistol in the other hand.

He brushed the knife flying toward his face aside as one might a gnat, but I was already firing.  My target wasn’t him, but the injector gun in his left hand.  He realized my ploy too late, growling in anger as it shattered in his hand.  The Hunter flung my knife back at me and brought up his sub machinegun.  Taking advantage of the wall behind me, I kicked off the cement and kicked him in the chest so hard that I heard his sternum shatter.

His body flew backwards and smashed into a concrete pillar.  He slumped to the floor of the parking garage, his gun clattering from limp fingers.  I ran to his side, grabbing the tactical bowie knife from its sheath on his hip and savagely hacking his head from his shoulders.  There was no way I was taking chances with a Hunter.  His blood was a slow, sluggish trickle of glowing emerald ichor.

I hefted the knife with approval.  It had good balance.  I stripped the sheath off his belt and added it to mine, carefully cleaning the blade before sliding it home.  I also grabbed his radio and crushed the other vials of serum that were in a pocket on his chest.  No reason to leave that shit for anyone else to use.  After a short search, I also turned up a single key.  Hopefully it would open any door I needed to bypass quietly.

After a quick scan of the area, I decided I was still in the clear.  The door opened with the key I had appropriated from the fallen Hunter and I slipped into the hallway, squinting against the light.  My vision adapted rapidly and I moved down the hallway, looking for a staircase down.  Instinct told me what I was looking for would be hidden and hidden usually meant down.

Post Mortem Chapter 6

After realizing I was serious about Ciudad Obregón, or perhaps after seeing me destroy half a town and then drink human blood, most of the survivors decided they were going to stay behind.  It was a much better option; I had killed the majority of the Broken and Cor had sent his men out during the day to finish the job.  Individually or in small groups, the Broken were far less dangerous and attracting them was as easy as making a bit of noise.

The only thing that nagged at the back of my mind was that they found no trace of the self-aware Infected.  I wasn’t sure if I hoped I had Destroyed them all or if I hoped they had somehow survived and escaped.  I needed to know more about them, that much was certain and if there had been a dozen here there were likely to be more elsewhere.

“We’re leaving tonight?”  Miranda asked me for the tenth time in as many minutes.  She had attached herself to me ever since I’d bitten her wrist the night before.  I had originally intended to leave immediately, but the sheer amount of work it took to organize the group of survivors had taken up so much time that I had eventually given up.

“Yes.  As soon as the sun goes down I plan on moving.”  I had found, with a bit of work, a couple of old Land Rovers from the early 1980’s with no computer bits.  The headlights were shattered, but I didn’t need them to be able to see anyway.  The only real problem was they had to be push started, but that didn’t bother me much.  I had plenty of people to put to work when it was time to go.

“So you really can’t go out in the sun?”  She asked.

“Not for long.”  I said, not wanting to reveal the entirety of my weakness.  This was foolish of course; everyone knew about vampires and sunlight unless they read those stupid sparkly books.

“You don’t seem so bad really.  I mean I guess I thought you’d be more like…” She trailed off, averting her eyes and looking out at the shadows the setting sun was throwing across the section of the city that I’d destroyed the night before.  I wasn’t sure if she was thinking about the Broken or how I’d obliterated upwards of a dozen city blocks or something else entirely.

“Well, I might not now, but you haven’t seen me when I’m truly hungry.  Or angry.”  I took the last cigarette out of the pack and lit it, wishing the sun would set faster.  “Why the hell are you following me anyway?”

She blinked, as if startled I was asking such a strange question before shrugging.  “I thought we were tied together or something now.  I mean, you fed off me right?”

I gave her a level look.  “If every human I drank from was following me around like an abandoned puppy I would repopulate this town ten times over.”  I blew a perfect smoke ring, refraining from telling her that it was when she tasted my blood that the bond would begin.  I didn’t trust any of these people to know that much… many of my own kind didn’t know that secret.

“Why can I sense where you are then?”  She asked me.

“It’s your imagination.”  I said, taking another drag, “Lots of people think there should be some sort of connection or bond between us and those we bite, but time and experience have shown me it’s purely psychological.  None of the people I’ve bitten without them knowing have expressed any sort of attachment.”

Miranda met my gaze for just a moment before looking down.  “I was I guess just hoping…  I’ve lost so much… I wanted a new beginning you know?”

“This isn’t the beginning you want.”  I said, exhaling a narrow stream of smoke, “This isn’t the beginning anyone in their right mind actually seeks out.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.” She put her face in her hands and tears leaked between her fingers.

“I don’t know what exactly?”  I grabbed her chin and forced her to look into my eyes.  “I have seen generations of people I cared about die.  I have killed children to live.  I don’t even remember what it was like to feel the sun on my skin without it blistering me.  I’ve destroyed the lives of more people than you’ve ever met.”

“My babies.”  She sobbed, “I let them take my babies.”

Her words hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.  I had never been able to have children.  “Sorry.  Living forever won’t make the pain less.”

“I don’t want to make the pain less.”  She said, looking at me through her tears.  “I don’t think one lifetime of suffering is enough to atone for my sins.”

I considered her for a long moment, wondering why I was even thinking about this.  She wasn’t anything special, didn’t have any fighting ability like Svenka or really anything else that made her stand apart.  Something else was resonating between us.  I decided I needed to know what it was.

“Sin is an illusion created to keep the masses afraid.  I will not give you the Last Kiss Miranda, but I can give you something else.”  I said, “Svenka might kill you though.”

“Is that who you are after?  Is she … who is she?”

“She is my lover and my anchor.  Only one other has ever made me feel the way she has and he died to save me.  Died to save us… to save everything.”  I said, finishing my cigarette and flicking the butt into the street.  “Miranda, you don’t understand what you are getting into so I’ll let you have a taste.”

“A taste of what?”  She asked, tears still leaking from the corners of her eyes.

“A taste of the horror that is immortality.  Most can’t handle it.  I have the feeling that you won’t last long, but that’s your concern, not mine.”  I gestured toward the building, “Come on, do a shot of Mezcal with me; I promise it’ll make you feel better.”

She followed me into what was left of the building I’d destroyed the night before.  I walked into the room that had once been a bar and snagged the last bottle of Del Maguey Arroqueno off the shelf.  With a flick of my thumb I broke the top off the bottle, making sure to allow the jagged edge to cut me enough that I would bleed.  The two shots I poured had a slight reddish color as my blood mingled with the alcohol.

“To misguided trust and unfortunate circumstances.” I said, raising my shot glass.

“To Miguel and Angelina.”  She said, raising hers in return, “My they forgive me.”

“I hope you can feel the same for me.”  I said, pouring myself another shot and waiting for what I knew was coming.  Miranda sat down hard, falling backward to land slumped against the wall.  She looked at me, her eyes becoming unfocused like she’d just shot heroin.

“What.  Was.  That….” She trailed off, only able to stare into my eyes.  After over a minute without blinking, she finally shuddered and closed her eyes.  “I can feel you.  Really feel you.”

I could, of course, feel her also.  I had plenty of practice and though I buffered myself against her emotions I felt the tears waiting to claim me.  How could she resist this emotion?

“How can you stand the pain?” Miranda asked, looking at me with tears streaming down her face, “How can you … why aren’t you crying?

“What?”  I was surprised, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh gods… the sorrow.” Miranda closed her eyes, but tears continued to stream down her cheeks, “I never imagined… I never thought…”

She was losing her mind and I knew the only way to help her was to take on some of the burden she was experiencing.  Even though I didn’t want to, I opened myself to her.  Her pain became my pain, I allowed it to course through my mind.  It was almost more than I could take.

“I never had children.”  I said, my voice flat.

“How are you not crying?  Right now?”  She repeated, looking into my eyes.  “I’m bawling my eyes out and you’re there like this pillar of ice.”

“You don’t have any idea.”  I said, “You have the sorrow of one generation in your veins.  I have the pain of several.”

“How…”  Miranda turned her tear stained face to mine.

“Time to go.” I said, “The sun’s down.”

“What do you mean?” She asked, stumbling to her feet.

“I warned you.”  I gave her a feral grin, “Most can’t handle what I have to offer.  You have lost your children and your husband.  I have lost lifetimes of friends and family.”

“You never had children.”  Miranda said, looking at me and smiling through her tears.  “I may feel pain but you will never know the joy.  I am sorry.”

Her emotions washed over me and I realized I was a fool for thinking I knew all there was to know.  I cried for what my mother must have felt for me before she died.   I wept for the things I’d never known.  The things I would never know.

“Your babies.”  I said through the tears I couldn’t stop from coming, “I wish I could have met them.”

“What?”  The surprise in her voice was palpable, “I thought-“

“I know.  You thought wrong and so did I.” I said, “There’s so much more.”  This was what I needed from her.  I needed to balance my destruction with her love of life and creation.  Oh, Svenka wasn’t going to be pleased… or maybe she would get some perspective from it as well.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath I reached into one of the pockets on the tactical vest I’d appropriated from Cor’s extra clothing stash and removed a fresh pack of cigarettes from it.  Miranda was stumbling after me, dazed and unsure of herself.

“Don’t worry too much.  It’ll get better.”  I said, lighting the cigarette and moving toward where Cor’s mercenaries were loading one of the trucks.  “Maybe try and sleep it off… although I’d recommend getting up at around midnight.  If you’re traveling with me you’ll need to keep my hours.”

“Ren.  We’re ready to move out.” Cor said, giving my companion a dismissive glance.  “We have a lot of ground to cover before sunrise.”

“Let’s go then.”  I climbed in the first truck, pulling Miranda into the passenger’s seat and Cor got into the second.  We each had a half dozen people, a mix of mercenaries and civilians.  It was going to be a long drive.  I grinned, feeling hopeful for the first time since Svenka and I were separated.  I was going to find her and then I was going to make the ones who hurt her pay.

Post Mortem Chapter 5

There were forty people in the building still alive.  Cor’s men were barricading the doors so we could have some time with the survivors without being interrupted by the occasional Infected.  When none of the people in the room seemed as though they were going to step forward and take the lead, I chose one at random.

“What were you all doing in this place with those Infected?”  I asked a man with a shocked, beaten expression on his face.  With intense concentration, I found learning Spanish hadn’t been nearly as difficult as I thought it was going to be.

“They were… keeping us.”  He said hesitantly, looking at me and then at the soldiers.

“I’m not blessed with an overabundance of patience in the best circumstances.”  I said with an intentionally toothy smile.  “Answer the fucking question.”

“They eated some and keeped the others safe from the broken ones.”  A regarded me with too-serious eyes.  He couldn’t have been older than ten.  “That what mommy said.  How many are you going to eat to keep us safe now?”

I looked at the man I had originally been speaking to.  He didn’t meet my eyes.  Whatever the cost had been, they’d paid it to survive.  How had things gotten so out of hand for them so quickly?  Why hadn’t anyone been fighting back?  What could possibly possess anyone to make such a deal?  I certainly couldn’t sit around here and babysit, I had things to do.

“I’m looking for someone.”  I said, forcing myself not to look at the kid and instead focus on the man.  “She has an athletic build, white blonde hair in a braid that hangs to her waist, lots of silver knives, might have been here a day or so ago.”

“She’s gone, with the rest of them.”  He said in a dull voice.  “The same guys who took the others.  They all had guns… what could we do?”

I looked around at the room and realized there was one major discrepancy.  The only women here were under ten or over forty.  “Was she OK?  Look, I know her there’s no way a bunch of thugs with guns would be able to just drag her off.”

“No.  She didn’t go quietly.” He said, his face finally showing something other than despair.  “She killed seven of them.”

“Only seven?”  I asked, “She must have been really hurt.”

“Yeah.  There was burns an stuff.”  The boy said, “Just standing cracked her skin and made her bleed but she fighted anyway.  She was amazing.”

“Burns?”  I knew where she had gotten those from.  Protecting me from the heat of the sun, putting out the fires that were blossoming on my skin had cost my lover dearly.  In spite of knowing I had hurt her terribly, I wanted to sing.  She was alive.

“It was the strangest thing I ever saw.”  The older man said, “She had such terrible burns… but only on the front of her body… almost looked like it was in the shape of a smaller body.”

“That’s exactly what it was.” I said, “Where the hell is she?  Where have they taken her?  If I can’t get there in time she’ll have died saving me instead of just being burned.”

“They’ve got a place in Ciudad Obregón.  It’s mostly gone to the things… the Broken.”  He said, “There’s only two powers there, the Broken and the Breakers.”

“Damn.  I guess I have to go there then.”

“But… you can’t.”  The boy said, “You taked our protection.  We will all get eated if you go away and you will get eated if you go to Ciudad Obregón.  You will get eated if you leave here at all!”

A crash against the door echoed his comments.  How many of the damn Broken were out there anyway?  “I’m going to go check it out.”  I said, turning to climb the stairs.

When I got to the second floor and found a window to look out of I was honestly astonished.  There must have been nearly a thousand shambling forms outside, drawn by the scent, light and noise coming from the building.  Did I dare use my Power?  I didn’t know how far reaching The Tribunal’s influence was.  Even if I chose someone at random they might have something worse in their veins than their last little ‘present’ David had.

Of course the alternative wasn’t stellar either.  I didn’t have anywhere near the firepower I’d need to shoot my way out of here and if I left these people without protection they would certainly die.  Things had gotten more out of hand than I’d ever anticipated they could have been but now that I was in the thick of things I could hardly turn my back and walk away.

I went back downstairs and sought out Cor.  I wanted his true, unvarnished opinion and for that I didn’t want to use the mindlink.  I wanted him to tell me what he thought on his own.  Cor was supervising the reinforcement of the most vulnerable portals against the tide of Broken.  When he saw me approaching he came over.

“What’s it look like out there?”  He asked a slight frown on his face.

“Bad.  Upwards of a thousand of them from what I could see.”  I said, “We don’t have enough rounds even if we take every one down with a single bullet.”

“So what’s the plan then?”  His slight frown deepening was the only sign of his increasing concern.

“I was hoping you might have an idea.”  I said, “I can’t use my Gift… I don’t know if I can trust the blood of any of these.”

“Yeah, it’s tough with the Broken all around.  You never know who might have some of that contamination in their vitae.”  He shook his head, “Damn.  Well… I might be able to scrounge up something…”

“Like what?” I asked, curious as to what was going through is head.  Before he could answer, we were interrupted by the back door shattering under the pressure of the Infected battering away at it from the outside.

I only hesitated for an instant; but even that was too much.  The nearest person to the door was grabbed by horribly strong fingers and pulled into the ravening horde beyond.  I never even knew the little boy’s name.  It was too much.

I crossed the room in the blink of an eye the pistol appearing in my right hand and the machete in the left.  The first three Broken fell with bullets through the forehead, and then I was among them with blade forming a wall of sharpened steel that struck with the strength the Dark Gift granted us all behind it.  Skulls split like pumpkins, but they kept coming.  In less than a minute there were so many corpses in the doorway that the other Broken had to climb over them.

I gathered myself to use my Gift, to remove them from existence and I felt the Power flare inside me.  It was just like when I’d used it and nearly killed Svenka.  I pushed it away in terror; I couldn’t risk losing control again.  I fought desperately, dropping the pistol and switching the machete to my right hand.

“DOWN!” Cor’s voice broke through the red mist of combat and I dropped like I’d been poleaxed.  A burst of gunfire swept across the Broken, all but sealing the entrance and I backed away, shaking.

“We have to leave.  We have to go, right now.”  I knew I was panicking but I couldn’t stop, “I can’t use it Cor, I don’t trust myself… nothing that big… I can’t… without her it’s too dangerous, I get close to the precipice and there’s nothing holding me back.  If I fall from it I’ll take everything with me.”

“Relax.  We have time to evacuate.”  He said, staring at the corpses blocking the doorway with a look of mild surprise, “I can’t believe that actually worked.”

“There is another building across the alley that I think we could use.”  A woman in her late forties approached us, trying not to look at the bodies.  “If we’re quiet they might not notice us.”

Was I really going to run away from this?  These things were what I’d come to destroy, was I going to let them intimidate me?  If I left now, what would become of Hex’s sacrifice?  I needed to overcome whatever was standing in my way and this should be a small obstacle.

“No.  I will remove them.”  I said, squaring my shoulders.  “The rest of you should get ready to run.  I will deal with the Broken.”

A flash of Destruction removed the front of the building.  I was vaguely aware of the people behind me, but was too focused on what I was doing to pay much attention.  The raging flood of anger and fear boiling within me lashed out in a column of pure white annihilation and I could feel it breaking free of my control.  I fought desperately to rein it in, but all that happened was it burned hotter.

An arm linked with mine and I saw the woman who had tried to convince me to run just moments before.  Someone else did the same on the other side and I could feel the rest of the Survivors forming ranks behind me.  Their trust was more than I could bear and at the same time pushed me beyond my limits.  I dominated the need to destroy by trusting that it would obey.  This was my Gift, no matter who had altered it and made it more powerful… it was still a part of me.

I opened my eyes and saw a wide expanse of perfectly clear sky.  The buildings ahead were all gone; their foundations gaping like empty graves in the light of the waxing moon.  The restless dead were also absent, nothing was moving within my line of sight.  I was hungry, but not as ravenous as I feared I would be.

“What… are you?”  I expected incredulity from the humans, but this question came from Cor.

“She’s our savior.”  The man on my right said, “That’s enough for me.”

“You don’t know what I am.”  I said, my voice low and hollow.  “You wouldn’t be so accepting if you knew the truth.  Not that it matters; I will take what I need when I need it.”

He tried to remove his arm from mine and after a moment I let him.  There was fear in his eyes, but after all he’d seen and agreed to what more could I possibly do to him?  Certainly I could end his life, but I hadn’t so far and in fact had protected him.

“I’m leaving.  Right now.  If you want to come with me, you will have to accept that I can’t always keep you safe and the likelihood of you dying will grow with each passing day.  I will require you to give me your blood, but not your lives, in exchange for this protection even as unpredictable as it is.”  I turned to look at them, knowing my eyes would be shining silver in the moonlight.  “If any of you moves to betray me in any way you will die.  I have no time for scheming, power struggles or games.”

“You need our … blood?”  The woman on my left quavered.

I smiled a feral, toothy smile at her, “Yes.  I am a filthy, bedamned bloodsucking monster in spite of whatever misconceptions you might have had based upon my briefly winged appearance and the fact that I saved your lives.  I’ll do whatever it takes to do what needs doing and if you stand against me nothing will save you, no matter which of your impotent gods you pray to.”

“Then take mine first.”  She said, meeting my eyes with a fearful but determined gaze.

In spite of it all, humans never ceased to amaze me with their strength… and their cowardice.  I knew she was overcoming a terrible fear but also that she was giving up at the same time.  It had been a long time since I had overcome such an obstacle.  All too often I’d been content with giving up lately.  That was going to change.  Without ceremony, I grabbed her hand, turned the wrist so the inside faced me and bit.  And drank.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 6

Callindra woke with sore muscles but not as bad as she had feared.  The herbs Glarian had put in the bath must have helped, although her healed leg was shaky and sent a thrill of pain up her spine when she put weight on it.  She stretched and felt a strange wind blow against her skin.  It was almost as though air was moving from all sides of her room towards her at the same time.  She shivered, and not because she had slept naked.  The dust whirled around her in the predawn glow.  Something was changing, and it did not feel like a natural or welcome change.

Her hair was tangled and she remembered how it had gotten in her way the day before.  On a whim she drew the sword Glarian had given her and gathered her hair in a bundle at the nape of her neck.  The edge was good enough that she was easily able to hack the majority of it off in a ragged line.  She didn’t really care if it was straight or not as long as it didn’t interfere with her baldric.  How was Glarian able to properly wield his sword with that huge braid?

She wrapped her chest, tying it off just behind her left arm, and then donned the rest of her clothes.  Wide, loose breeches, a shirt with short sleeves and a wide neck for ease of movement, light wool socks that would pad her feet properly inside her thin leather shoes but still allow her to feel the ground.

Glarian was already out in the main room drinking tea and stirring porridge.  “You’re up on time.  Good, I have a busy day planned for you.  How are your muscles feeling this morning?”

“Not as bad as I feared, but not perfect.  That bath certainly helped.”  She said, helping herself to some tea.  Feeling his eyes on her, she flushed slightly. “My leg hurts but I can handle it.”

“This morning we will start with something slightly different.  We must meditate and stretch before training each day from now on.”  He served some porridge for them, adding a generous spoon of honey.

“I understand the stretching, but why meditation?  Isn’t that for priests and the like?”  She asked, confused.

“Do not question the methods of your Master.  It will benefit us both I think.”  He said.

After breakfast, Glarian instructed her to follow him outside and sit in the center of the small courtyard she had practiced in yesterday, sword across her knees, hands touching hilt and flat of the blade.

“The first Korumn is breath.  You must learn to control your breathing as this is the source of your power.  For others breath gives life, but for us it also takes life away.  Be aware of your breath flowing into your body through your nose.  Be aware of it leaving your mouth.  Feel its power and pull that power to the center of your abdomen.”

She closed her eyes and tried to do as he instructed.  As she relaxed something began building inside, almost as though when she breathed out the air was staying inside.

“Do not hold the power; let it flow through you like the wind through the trees.  Although it surrounds and fills you, allow it to calm and focus you instead of being a distraction.”  His voice droned on, and Callindra lost herself in the ebb and flow of her breathing.  When he touched her shoulder to let her know it was time to begin the day’s training she was startled to see the sun well above the horizon.

“Now we will begin with the strikes I taught you yesterday.”  Glarian said, “Then I will show you something new.”

“Something new already?  But I haven’t mastered the first two strikes you taught me yet!”

“Mastered?”  Glarian laughed heartily, “Girl I have been a disciple of the Sword for longer than you’ve been alive and I don’t consider myself to have mastered any of it.  There is always room for improvement.  Remember, no matter how often you practice or how experienced you are, there is always more to learn.  To cease learning is to die.”

Where had she heard that before?  She was sure she had heard someone say something like that before.  Or maybe she had read it.  Before she had the chance to ponder it further, Glarian started the day of training.  The thought was soon lost in physical exertion.

It had been a month now and Glarian was pushing much harder than he would have with any other student.  Callindra was developing far faster than he had been afraid she would but not as fast as he needed her to.  He didn’t like being a harsh task master, and forcing her to the very edge of her limits had put a strain on their relationship.  More often than not he had to rely on her anger to get her through and he knew he had to change tactics before she built up bad habits.

He had to make sure she was strong enough though.  She was on the verge of collapse, nearly at her limit but there was something there still.  One problem was that leg; he wasn’t sure it would withstand what it needed to.  She had to be tested.

“Only the strong survive girl.  You’re useless to me if you can’t even stand on your own two feet.  Didn’t you say you wanted to be stronger?  If this is all the resolve you have you wouldn’t last one day under a true Master.”  She looked up at him through tear stained eyes.  “I said get up.”

Staggering to her feet, she barely managed to rise completely before the leg that had been shattered buckled and she had to catch herself by grounding the tip of her practice sword.  Glarian shook his head seemingly in disgust.  “Go back to bed.  You aren’t fit to walk on that leg, much less learn even the most rudimentary stances.  Females have no tolerance for pain and limited ability to learn.”

“NO!”  Callindra assumed the first Stance, her left leg shaking from the effort, her face white from agony as sweat began to drip down her forehead.  “I told you I’d do your damn training in two seasons and if you can’t stand to see a girl in pain maybe you should get a nursemaid to help you through your dotage.”  Glarian’s eyes narrowed slightly, smoothing out wrinkles on his weathered cheeks.

“Fine, I don’t want to hear you blubbering all night long again though.  I’m a light sleeper.  After you run the first six Stances ten more times there’s wood to be split and water to be hauled.  You’d better haul double if you want a warm bath.”  He turned and walked back to his small stone house without looking back, his long steel-gray braid swinging like an agitated cat’s tail.

Wiping the sweat and tears from her face Callindra ground her teeth against the pain and began moving slowly through the Stances.   “I’ll show him, if I don’t have talent I’ll just have to practice harder.  Just because I’m weak doesn’t mean I have to stay that way.  I will prove to him I’m worthy of being his disciple.  I have to.”  Unaware of the eyes watching her intently from the darkened window of the house, she moved through all ten of the Stances Glarian had taught her instead of just the first six.

“Damn.  If I push her hard enough she just might survive the testing.  If she manages to survive, perhaps she can carry my fighting style on.  Maybe it won’t have to die with me.  She’ll need something unique though; she’s just not strong enough to use the sword it calls for.  In order to unlock her true potential and to protect the blade itself from her wielding it I’m going to have to bend the rules a little.”

Sitting on the hearth he drew his blade, after meditating for a few minutes with the bared blade across his knees he passed his hand over the mirror polished surface; calling arcane letters to the surface with a whisper of wind.  “Belach.  I’m calling in that favor.  I need a Blade.”

Forming an image of Callindra in his mind and her potential, he raised the blade he blew the spell off the end, completing the Sending.  With a sigh, he sat back next to the fire and packed his pipe with tac, waiting for a response from the smith.

The reply to his Sending came after a shorter period of time than he’d anticipated.

“Glarian, you cocky fuck.  Do you really think you’ll get away with it?  Whatever, I’ll make her a sword; after all it’s a challenge and I owe you regardless.  I’m warning you though, it won’t last.  That girl… she’ll destroy it.  She’s got too much power for that frame and she’ll take it out on whatever sword you give her.  Either that or it’ll kill her and you along with her.  If she was here for me to measure her potential myself I might be able to pull it off, but that little whelp is fucking dangerous, you’re nuts if you try to train her.

“In other words, I know you’re training her you stupid bastard.  Watch your ass and I’ll get the sword to you in a year.  Stay alive until then, and keep her alive.  I don’t want all this fucking work to go to waste.”

So it was bad then, worse than he had feared.  Glarian took a deep breath and blew it out, nearly extinguishing the fire in the process.  It was years since he had exhibited lack of self-control like this.  He was committed now though; there was no turning back.

He walked outside, unsheathing Sakar as he went.  This was going to be a difficult journey.  He had better be in condition to handle whatever came; it was beginning to worry him that no one had come to challenge him in spite of the talismans being active for a month.  It was only a matter of time; they were probably watching him already.

Callindra was too angry to feel the pain and exhaustion as she went to the wood shed and began splitting kindling for the evening fire.  Thankfully the axe handle touched different places on her palms than the sword hilt and she made quick work of it.  She was too weak and she knew it.

Next she grabbed the yoke and buckets for water.  She hated the yoke because it was hard to fit over her shoulders when she had the baldric on and because she had difficulty taking it off without getting help or spilling all the water.  Her arms weren’t up to the task of carrying the buckets on their own though.  Not yet.

The path down to the stream was well-worn.  She and Glarian weren’t the only animals who walked it, they shared it mainly with deer but she had seen signs of bears and even wolves as well so she always made her way carefully.  After all, Glarian had killed that puma not far from here.

A flock of birds took to wing on her left, she tried to turn quickly to track where they had come from but the yoke and buckets hampered her.  With a growl of frustration she hurried to the stream, filled the buckets and walked back to the house as fast as she could, trying to look in every direction at once.

She entered the clearing and saw Glarian.  He was practicing the Seventh Korumn, she had seen it before although she was in no way ready to try it.  With every swing he jumped in the air, each time getting higher and higher until he hardly seemed to touch the ground at all.  When the Korumn was finished, he balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, a blast of air from the impact of his landing seeming to move Callindra’s hair, even at this distance.

Seeing his skill and the beauty of the Korumn wiped the thoughts of anger from her mind.  “Master, you are amazing!”

She knelt next to the cistern, ducking out from underneath the yoke.  Her leg screamed at her, but she ignored it.  Pain was fleeting; unless she managed to push past it there was no way she could ever get stronger.

“It has been too long since I have completed all seven Korumn in a row.  I’m actually quite rusty.”  He was stripped to the waist, sweat beading on his forehead.  The muscles on his shoulders rippled as he sheathed his sword.  Callindra was reminded of how far she had to go, even just in basic strength.  She marveled at his perfectly muscled frame, wondering if she would ever be able to measure up to his expectations.

“That should be enough water for you Master; I’ll go get water for my bath now.”  She said, shouldering the buckets again in spite of the sharp protest her muscles made.  She would become stronger.  She would rise to the challenge he had presented.  She didn’t have a choice.  When she turned to go, she missed the approving look on his face.

His apprentice was finally showing some grit, Glarian smiled as she left to get more water.  That limp had him worried though, he had to make sure she didn’t push herself too hard.

“I think she shows promise, although it won’t matter in a few minutes.”  A voice seemed to come out of nowhere.

Glarian turned calmly, hands at his sides.  “It was clever of you to wait until after I’d practiced.  A good strategy, but I have plenty of stamina.  I’m not your typical old man.”  A man slipped from the shadows, drawing a wicked looking scimitar from his belt.

“You’re right.  You are a dead man.”  The attack was so fast Glarian barely had the chance to draw his sword.

He rapidly retreated, whirling Sakar in a defensive arc and deflecting multiple blows that would have sliced him in half.  In spite of the frantic appearance of his blocks, he made sure to bring the thicker back edge of his blade in contact with the exact same part of his opponent’s scimitar.  When the onslaught was over, he took two more steps back and shook his head.

“It is customary to issue a challenge before attacking.  I like to know who I am fighting and why.”

“I am Sain and you are The Master of the North Wind.”  He spun his scimitar in an ornate pattern, the tassel that hung from the pommel whirling in counterpart to the blade.  “This is Kha’darn and today we shall take that title from you.”

“The challenge is accepted, until one of us is dead, whether it be man or weapon.  Sakar severs the life of man or blade with equal contempt.”

Sain hesitated for a moment as if the idea of risking his sword had not occurred to him.  In that moment, Glarian lashed out with all the force he could muster, striking his opponent’s sword at the precise spot he had already weakened.  The scimitar Kha’darn exploded into fragments of steel.

Without so much as admitting defeat, Sain fled into the trees.  Glarian picked up the discarded sword hilt and brought it inside the house with him.  Entering through the lean-to he hung it next to the first clay token of challenge.  The first trophy of many.

He opened the spigot over the bath, gravity filling the large copper tub that sat next to the fire.  The fire was low, but Callindra had split enough wood to get it going again.  In a few minutes the water was hot and he was soaking comfortably in it when he heard Callindra return.  It looked as though she had bathed in the cold water of the stream instead of waiting for a hot bath.

She paused in the doorway to her bedroom, “Master, I’m sorry.  I know I’m weak but I will get stronger.  I will become worthy of your training.”

“I know you will Disciple.  I won’t allow you to fail.” He said, unable to keep the approval from his voice.  He saw the smile on her face as she turned and knew she understood.  He would not allow her to fail.

Post Mortem Chapter 4

As a general rule, our race are terrible parents.  Most of the children we make are accidental before we know better or poorly conceived mistakes based on some former emotional attachment.  Once entering Second Life, most of us undergo a complete alteration of self as the Dark Gift renders its blessings and curses upon us.  As with an apple seed, you never know what the result will be until the tree bears fruit.

I didn’t recognize Cormir, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know him.  I had been so young when I was brought into the world of the Undead; both in years and in attitude.  Barely twenty one, I had grown up living on the streets in the slums of Moscow.  I was part of a gang of between a dozen and a score of kids.  We looked out for each other to enough of a degree that we didn’t have to worry about freezing or starving.

The older we became, the more complicated our needs were.  It didn’t take long for us to get into more trouble than we could handle.  Kids like us were as common and as disposable as toilet paper and all too many people were willing to treat us as such.

I’d seen a lot of kids come and go, as well as more than my fair share of death by the time I had been bitten.  I still don’t know who my Sire was, or what made him or her choose to turn me instead of just killing me.  Perhaps it was a backwards attempt at revenge on one of my companions.

I say this because I awakened in the abandoned warehouse where my crew, such as they were spent most of its free time.  We’d never really evolved past pack mentality, the strongest, fastest and smartest lead and the rest of us followed until we thought we could do better.  When consciousness returned to me I exploded into a ravenous rampage; tearing apart nearly all of the people I had once called family and feasting upon their blood.

My old human self would have been horrified, but the newly born Nosferatu only knew hunger.  By the time I recovered from the blood frenzy my surviving friends had fled.  Very little of what I had been before remained and, like many of my kind, I began to build a small empire based around my newfound power.  Humans did what I told them to and I was allowed to run rampant through my little corner of the Moscow underworld for a short time.

Instinctively, I knew how to create more of my kind and I was beginning to build an army by the time The Tribunal sent the Reapers to ‘deal with’ us.  That is when my Power of Destruction first manifested itself.  That is when I was offered a choice between Final Death and fifty years of service.  None of my undead progeny were offered the same choice.  I had thought them all sent to Final Death.

Now, a lifetime later here was a survivor of that first genesis.  I could… smell his blood.  He smelled like me.

“This is where we think they are.”  Cormir’s voice was a whisper in my mind, “There should be at least a hundred of the monsters holed up here.”

“Fine.  Move in and clean them out.”  I said, “We leave no infected alive… if you can call it that.  I’ll cover this exit.  Oh, and this time if there are any humans still alive in there don’t I repeat DO NOT kill them.”

“You’re the boss.” Was his cheery reply.  In spite of myself, I was discovering that his positive, irreverent attitude was growing on me.  He and his armed escort had only been with me for a few days but the ease with which I was able to integrate them into both my modes of travel and my fighting style was a bit surreal.  The soldiers were impressively effective, especially for being simple, un-augmented humans instead of being bloodslaves like Svenka.

I waited outside the door, the Kalashnikov one of the mercs had given me held at the ready and was not surprised when it slammed open with enough force to remove it from its hinges.  A group of figures poured out of the door.  I wasn’t sure if they were human or not so I held my fire, waiting to see what would happen.

“Oh God.  Oh GOD!”  The man in the lead yelled, running away from the building.  “Run!  We have to get away!”  The people behind him ran with a single-minded determination in his wake.  Well shit; this was a group of survivors, not a nest of Infected.

“Cor, stand down.  These aren’t Infected, they’re survivors.”  I made sure the sending had plenty of intent behind it; bending him to my will.

“Sure… the few you saw might have been…”

“If there are Infected in there END THEM if not, leave the humans alone!” I all but dominated his emotions, forcing him to accept what I was sending.  After a moment’s resistance I felt his will crumble.

“Of course Ren.  I will do as you require.”

“Damn right you will.”  I continued watching the dozen or so figures as they ran, waiting to see what was following.  The last person to leave glanced in my direction and I froze.  Its eyes were glowing a faint phosphorescent purple.

“Keep moving.” It said, “I’ll cover the retreat.”  The thing was looking directly at me and somehow I knew it could see me as clearly as I could see it.  The remaining survivors ran down the empty alley toward another building and the last one… the one with eyes like Hex… the one pulsing with a hint of Power finally broke eye contact with me and turned to follow.

Shit, I couldn’t just let it go… could I?  “Wait.” I said, my flat, normal tone of voice hiding the tension I felt.

“You are there.”  It said, spinning back to face me faster than any human could have.  “Who are you?  Why are you killing us?”

“I’m not killing them.” I said, gesturing to the retreating survivors, “And I can’t kill you.”

It raised its hands and cocked its head to one side, “Why?”  The glow was slowly fading from its eyes.

“Because you’re already dead.”  I said, keeping my rifle trained on its head. “Why are you following those people?”

“I was protecting them.”  It said, still standing with hands raised.

“You don’t need to protect them from me.”

“Not from you.  From them” It pointed over my shoulder.

A quick glance showed me a street filled with the dead.  I hesitated, looking at the strange, seemingly intelligent Infected which was still standing with its hands up and then back at the shuffling forms of the mindless ones.  They made my decision for me; the one in the lead raising its face toward me and sniffing loudly before breaking into an awkward run.

“Shit!  Cor!” I all but shouted through our mindlink, swinging my Kalashnikov around and picking them off with precise bursts of lead.  The Infected might be uncoordinated but they made up for it with speed, raw power and utter immunity to pain.

Cor failed to appear before they were so close that I let the rifle fall in its harness and whipped the machete from the nylon sheath at my side.  I wove through the charging bodies, blade flickering as I removed heads in quick succession.  The last of them almost got a hand on my arm, but I deftly twisted and hacked off the offending arm before following up with a brutal overhand strike that split the skull down to the collar bone.

A low whistle made me spin back to the building.  I knew it was Cor by the admiration coming over the mindlink before I saw him in the doorway.  He had his rifle in his hands and was scanning for any other enemies but his attention was really on me.

“Where the FUCK were you?” I demanded, “I call, you come.  That’s how it works.”

“Well, I was trying to obey your first command.  I was inside, protecting the survivors… there’s about fifty or so in there still.” He looked at the bodies strewn across the street, still radiating admiration, “I have to say, that was really amazing, but I have a question.  Why didn’t you just … delete them all?”

“It’s not good to rely too much on your Gift I find.”  I said shortly.  “I’ve seen what happens when someone becomes dependent on it.”

“Did you get that group of them that fled when we broke into the building?  Last I saw they were heading for this exit.”  He said, giving the corpses a closer inspection.  “They seemed… different you know?  Like they knew we were coming or something.  Like they were still able to reason.”

I shivered, “What?  Those were Infected?  Jesus… Cor, I actually talked to one of them.”  I had known that the one I had spoken with had been … well he’d been like Hex.  Hex was the one who started the whole plague infection in the first place, but I hadn’t even noticed that the others were dead too.

“Yeah, didn’t you see them?  I mean sure, their clothes were in better shape and they didn’t seem to be rotting but there was no mistaking it… was there?”  He gave me a quizzical look, “Wait, you talked to one of them?”

I nodded.  “It said it was protecting the others from these.”  I gestured with my machete and realized it was still covered in gore.  I bent and carefully wiped it clean on the shirt of one of the corpses before sheathing it again.

“Damn.”  He ran his fingers through his hair, “So… what now?”

I frowned and paused to light a cigarette, “I don’t know.”  I let the smoke trail from my nostrils, trying to think.  “I really don’t know.”

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 5

Glarian wasn’t sure what had brought about the sudden change in attitude, but it was definitely a pleasant variation.  It had been nearly five days since the first time he had come into the house from his morning routine and found her setting out breakfast.  The deer were once again plentiful, coming back to their favored watering hole as though nothing had happened and he’d finally been able to shoot one today.

As if she’d sensed when he would be back, Callindra was waiting in the lean-to with his skinning knife, carefully honing the edge.  “I see you had luck today.  Hang him up here and I’ll take care of the rest.”

When Glarian nodded his thanks and went into the house, he saw she had a fresh pot of tea brewed and had also set out his tobacco, pipe and even a taper.  He was smoking contentedly when she joined him.

“I skinned the deer and re-wrapped the hide around the carcass.  Letting it hang for a couple days will improve the flavor of the meat and make it tenderer.  We should eat the tenderloins though, they dry out quickly.”  She set the two strips of meat on a plate and covered them with a bit of cloth.

“Good work.”  He said in approval, but before he could continue she interrupted in a rush.

“Please teach me the Sword.”

When he didn’t respond she went on “Please, I saw you in the courtyard.  It was like a dance.  You moved so beautifully and yet at the same time I could feel… those motions imitated combat.  With many people; at least 6 I know it.  I could almost hear their screams as you first stabbed the heart, severed the jugular, disemboweled, spun to slice from breast to navel, rebounded to hamstring and finally disarmed the last opponent, holding your blade at his throat.”

Her eyes shone with admiration and he was too stunned to say anything at first; she had named each of the first 6 Stances of the beginning form he had been practicing exactly.  She took his silence for refusal because she declared in ringing tones “I will be your disciple.  Six months from today I swear to be ready.”  Her words sang in the air and he could feel the resonance with his Power that he had felt in that clearing months before.  He found himself agreeing.

Callindra heard soft footfalls entering her room and was instantly awake.  Glarian stood by her bed holding a candle, his face as serious as she ever remembered seeing it.  He set a small clay jug and an ancient bowl made of some metal she didn’t recognize on the bedside table.

“Today is the day.  Today it begins.  Today I shall forswear the Oath I exchanged for my life.  Today I shall once again take a student.”  He was wearing the massive blade on his back.  She watched in fascinated horror as he drew the sword easily in spite of its length and the size of her room and cut himself across the palm.

“I swear to teach you swordplay.  I swear to ask of you only that which will be required for you to learn to reach your full potential.”  His blood dripped into the bowl, seeming to swirl around in the bottom.  He took a scabbarded blade from behind his belt and tossed it on the bed next to her.  “Do you swear to obey your Master as is required to learn?”

She picked up the sword he had given her and drew it from the sheath.  The edge looked wickedly sharp.  Callindra took a deep breath and cut her own palm, “I swear to obey Glarian Sol’Estin, my Swordmaster as he requires in order to learn the way of the Sword.  My body will be iron for him to temper into steel.”  As her blood joined his in the bowl she would swear hers spun in the opposite direction that his was.

He chuckled, “You’ve been reading again.  Well said disciple.”  He poured liquid from the jug into their mingled blood, she was certain she could see motes of light flickering in the depths of the bowl.  “Now drink and your fate is sealed.”

He handed her the bowl and she took a deep swallow.  It was bitter, then sickeningly sweet, then salty with a tang of iron.  She handed it back and he drank the rest, “Thus the pact is made.  It shall be followed in letter and spirit.  By blood, steel, tree and honor I am bound.”  As he finished this last proclamation he was momentarily surrounded by a thousand fireflies that seemed to race into his body.

“Get up, we’re starting early from here on.”  He left the room, sheathing his sword like an afterthought, as though he was shrugging his shoulders or scratching an itch.

She scrambled out of bed, gingerly allowing weight to fall on her left leg.  It was more or less recovered but so much weaker than her right that it made walking difficult and more often than not it would tense in a muscle spasm and crumple under her if she wasn’t careful.  After wrapping her chest with a long band of cloth for support she pulled on her breeches and shirt.  Callindra buckled the baldric on and felt the weight of a sword over her shoulder for the first time.  It felt good.

It had been six months to the day since she made that stupid oath to be ready to train with him, two seasons of painful rehabilitation.  She had pushed herself as hard as possible, past the point of exhaustion on many days.  As a result, her leg was strong enough to hold her up, but only just.

The main room of the house was empty so she walked outside.  Glarian was waiting for her, “You’re too weak right now.  We will start with some conditioning and continue building on the strength of your leg.  You’ve done well there, but your upper body needs a lot of work before you’ll be able to hold your own with a blade.

Callindra was disappointed, she wanted to learn swordplay.  “Strength training?  But I thought-“

“You thought I would start teaching you strikes right away?”  He smiled, “Oh believe me you will be learning strikes.  There is no better way to strengthen the muscles you will be using to wield a sword than by wielding a sword.  You will not use that one though, you will use this.”

Glarian handed her a bar of steel with a leather wrapped sword grip on the end.  “First I will test you to see what style fits you best.  I believe you may be able to use the style I do, although you will always need to use both hands and it may not be as effective as it could be if you were more muscular.”

Callindra hefted the steel bar, it didn’t feel that heavy.  “I can do it.  Please, show me the strikes.”

Glarian gave her a feral smile, “I knew you’d be up for it.  Let’s see if you can maintain that attitude.”

“Bring it on!”  She said, how hard could it be?

He drew his sword, holding it close to his body and then made a lightning fast slashing motion that would have slit an opponent from shoulder to pelvis.  The cut started and stopped precisely with no wasted motion.

“Remember this is not a stick, nor is it a club or an axe.  This is a sword and it does not use brute force to inflict damage on its enemies.  A sword is a cutting weapon; to use it to its full advantage you must draw that cutting edge along your opponent’s flesh as you strike.”  He showed her the motion again, slower this time.  She could see his arms extend and draw closer to his body as he struck.

Callindra mimicked his motion as best she could although the motion was awkward.  The weight of the ‘sword’ she was holding threw her off and was much more difficult than she had anticipated to swing.

“You must not use exaggerated motions.  The slightest overstep in a strike will leave you open to attack yourself.  Your sword is not just for attacking, it is also your defense.  The sword must start here.” He took her hands and positioned them at a particular angle, “Move thus.”  He pulled her hands and arms out, then down and back, “And end here.”

She tried to visualize what the strike was for and swallowed hard, thinking of the damage it could inflict.  She wanted to learn, there were others who would gladly do worse with less thought.  If she could learn to defend herself against them she could rise above the fear and carve out a place for herself in the world.

Stepping slightly back to put less weight on her weak leg, she tried again, this time imagining one of the Lord’s Huntsmen who had attempted to assault her.  The end of the steel bar whistled through the air, making a perfect arc that traced the strike exactly as he demonstrated it.  Muscles in her shoulders twinged as she stopped the blade; this was going to be far harder than she thought.

“Well done, do it again.”  She stepped slightly back and repeated the swing, “Excellent.  A score more and then we’ll switch to the second strike.  After that, I will show you how to chain them together.”

She was barely able to drag herself back to the house.  Callindra’s arms burned, her leg throbbed and muscles she never knew existed complained.  Muscles in her back, muscles that crossed her chest, it hurt to hold her head up.  Glarian stood in the yard next to the house with his arms folded.

“I drew a bath for you today since this is the first day of your training.  Don’t count on it happening again.”

Callindra wanted to protest, to tell him she wasn’t tired, that she could haul her own water, but she was defeated by the scent of cooking venison and the thought of hot water on her aching muscles.

“Thank you Master.”  She couldn’t believe it, even as tired as she was, Callindra was elated.  She had met a Swordmaster, a TRUE master of his steel.  And he was going to teach her.  She would never have to run from anyone again.

Glarian watched his disciple carefully, making sure she didn’t exhibit the signs of a strained muscle or injured tendon.  To his relief her tiredness seemed to simply be genuine exhaustion.  He had pushed her hard, but this was only the beginning.

He shook his head; her physical capabilities were the absolute least of his worries.  He had started her with a weighted bar instead of an edged weapon, most Blademages could not manifest power without an edged weapon in their hand.  There were a few exceptions, he knew of a man who used a hammer, but he was certain that Callindra was a Swordmage.  She used his style, she had his spirit and the winds seemed to frolic at her feet, begging for attention.

The bar he had given her to use only to practice the most basic of strikes, just strengthening exercises, had sparked and arced with weave.  It was trying to force her to acknowledge its existence, eventually it would break free.  He shuddered to think about the damage it could cause.  There was no other way; he would have to seal it.

Callindra was bathing, the exhaustion, hot water and relaxing herbs he had put in it should have put her to sleep by now.  He slipped into the room, she was drowsing, one arm hanging out of the tub.  She had satisfied smile curling up the corners of her mouth.

The Oath of the Master gave him pause.  Was this truly necessary for her to learn?  Although she might be a danger to him or to herself, life in general was dangerous as he knew from his recent encounter with a hungry puma.  Swordplay was dangerous also and learning, even from a master, was not without its perils.  Then there was the amount of mystic energy he would have to expend in order to perform the seal; it was sure to attract the attention of Shojin even if it wasn’t enough to get the notice of rest of The Order.

Glarian sighed and quietly left her where she lay.  He sat on the stoop, smoking his pipe and trying to make sense of the things in his head.  Every time he tried to balance the risks of the possible courses of action, his thoughts scattered like dandelion fluff on a blustery day when he thought of Callindra.  She had some kind of hold over him that he couldn’t explain.  He stood and made his way back to where the bath was set up in front of the fire.

“You need to go to bed Callindra, tomorrow the real training is going to commence.”  He tossed a towel over her face as she began to shake off sleep.

She murmured something he couldn’t quite make out and emerged from the bath, barely bothering to towel herself off before stumbling into her room to collapse on the bed.  Glarian pulled a blanket over her and blew out the candle before he left her to rest.  Moving to the center of the main room, he stood on a chair and reached into the darkness above the rafters.

With a grunt of effort, Glarian pulled a large case down with a thud.  Noting with satisfaction that the hinges and clasp were still well oiled, he opened the lid, revealing a dozen or more swords of different shapes and sizes.  He carefully removed them, and reached back inside to take a long leather-wrapped bundle from the bottom of the case.

“I can’t seal Callindra’s power, it would be too risky.”  He muttered to himself, “Maybe I can mask her activity and temper the Weave’s enthusiasm a little.”  Inside the bundle were a multitude of pouches, wooden boxes and one long roll of leather.  He took out a medium sized box filled with small clay tablets and selected four with the same set of runes carved on them.

“This should buy us a little time.  Maybe enough time for me to help her tame that wild side, or at least how to ride it without a saddle or bridle.”  He shook his head, glancing toward the room where Callindra slept.

“You have dragged me reluctantly back onto the precipice where the North Wind rages.  I swore never to teach swordplay, and never to instruct another to command the Weave on pain of death.  Now that I have forsaken those oaths, The Order will most certainly come for me.  Not only them, but once I deploy these talismans once again challengers will begin to appear.  I’m betting the hope that one of them will kill me and take my Title will keep Shojin and the other Inquisitors off my back until I can properly prepare for their arrival.”

Post Mortem Chapter 3

This type of travel was one I knew Hex had truly enjoyed.  Our bodies were more resilient than they had been when we were human and the ability to leap huge distances in a single bound was right out of the pages of comic books.  Normally we couldn’t jump around like outsized grasshoppers though; doing so in a city risked exposing us and it was sometimes tricky to time landings.

In a few minutes I had landed at the spot where I almost entered Final Death.  Opening my senses I allowed myself to experience the world in a way no human ever could.  Even after a day I could smell Svenka here and the momentary emotion connected to that scent caused me not to notice my assailants until they had already trained weapons on me.

“Ground those firearms, that’s Renyovalia.”  I recognized the voice, able to put a face to it but not a name.

“You never introduced yourself last time.”  I said, pretending I couldn’t now smell the phosphorous in the bullets pointed at me.  “Yet you seem to know my name.”

“My apologies.”  The man who stepped from the shadows seemed to truly be stepping … from the shadows.  “I am called Cormir.”

I had heard of undead whose blessing gave them the ability to travel great distances between shadows but had only seen it happen once.  Even then I hadn’t necessarily trusted my senses to interpret what I’d seen.

“Cormir.  Mind forcing your men to lower their weapons since they didn’t listen to your command?  I don’t relish the thought of the burning holes those rounds could inflict on one of our kind.”  The soldiers began to smell of mistrust and fear.  So they hadn’t known.

“Please, when we met last you seemed more in control.”  Cormir said, taking a step to the side and appearing directly in front of me.

I flinched backward in spite of myself.  Shadowstepping was one of the rarest of our Gifts, and as a result was something I was unaccustomed to.  “Why didn’t you tell your men that you were a filthy bloodsucker?” I asked, taking refuge in my usual sarcasm.

“Because they didn’t need to know.”  He said with a shrug.  “What did you tell your group of cavemen up there?”

“Those idiots found me, not the other way around.  Why are you here?”  I didn’t trust him, but I needed his help.  Or someone’s help anyway… and here he was with an armed troupe of soldiers right on queue.  It seemed too good to be true.

“Your blood hit the paper.  I assumed you needed assistance.” He, shrugging again.

“Have you heard anything from the Tribunal?”  I asked, their most recent communication with me had been in the form of an archo-scientific assassin and I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about having another chat with them.

“Haven’t you heard?  There’s a price on your head my dear.  A rather sizable one too.”  He gave me a speculative look.  “I don’t know what you did to piss them off but they’re gunning for you pretty hard.”

“Huh.  I never thought they’d be this aggressive.” I said, “And here you are leading a posse armed with phosphorus rounds.  How convenient.”

“Oh please.  If I wanted to collect I’d have done it long ago.”  He said with a grin and then looked around with a guarded expression on his face, “Can you tell Svenka to come out from wherever she’s hiding?  The thought of one of those silver blades of hers in my eye is less than pleasant.  I never did understand how someone with a head of white hair could be so adept at hiding in the darkness.”

“She’s… missing.” I said, forcing the words out.  “I was attacked by something that was like the sunrise.  I don’t know if she died or if she was captured, but I have to find her.”

“Is there a more hospitable place we could talk?”  He asked, looking around with a twist of distaste on his face.  Some of us never got used to roughing it… others, like myself, never got used to the life of luxury that immortality could grant.

“Not really; I accidentally deleted the only town within walking distance.”  I gestured toward the crater, noting the scent of fear from his men spike.

“Someday you’ll have to show me that Power of yours.”  He said, his eyes shining with greed for just a moment.

“It’s not the easiest thing to control.”  I said with a syrupy smile, “You probably wouldn’t like the result.”

“I just have an attraction to power.” He said, his expression feral, “I suppose it’s why I hate The Tribunal so much; they’re just so weak.”

Well, that was an interesting take on the situation.  I hadn’t known what to expect from him, but certainly hadn’t thought he’d be this straightforward.  Well, if he was really being honest that is… but what reason would he have to lie?  I could care less about The Tribunal and their politics.

“I don’t give a shit about them.”  I said with a dismissive gesture, “I just want to find Svenka and stop this fucking plague from destroying humanity.  You know… so we can all keep Final Death at bay?”

“Well they give a shit about you.  A million shits actually.  What’s this about a plague?  I thought that was just a nasty rumor.”

“No.  I didn’t destroy that town and all the things before it on a whim.”  I said, “The threat is real and my response to it is the only thing that will save the human race.  Or our race for that matter.”

“Huh.  I can honestly say I didn’t see that coming.”  He crossed his arms and gave me an appraising look, “OK, well I guess we can go back to my base of operations.  Such as it is.”

I hesitated, unsure as to whether or not I should put myself any more in his power than I already was.  “I would hate to have to destroy you Cormir.  You had better not try anything nefarious.”

“Nefarious?”  He burst out laughing, “I can tell English is not your first language Ren.  Nefarious.”  He snorted another laugh, “Who even says that in a normal conversation?  It’s like you’re a James Bond villain or something.”

His laughter was infectious; I hadn’t heard laughter or laughed myself in ages.  Soon even his men were smiling.  I finally recovered and looked him in the eye.  “I am not joking Cormir.  I’ll kill you without the slightest bit of remorse if you betray me.  I don’t have time for games.”

His men stopped smiling and trained firearms on me; their faces grim.  I pointed to a large boulder about fifty yards away and allowed the Power of destruction to course through me.  The flare of energy caused a halo of light to surround my body and for just a moment I appeared to have wings made of pure white light.  Then the boulder I was pointing at was engulfed by a flash that made the sun look like a flash light.

When the after image had cleared from their eyes I knew they saw what I did.  The stone was gone, sliced off mere millimeters from the ground.  Cormir walked to where the rock had been and bent to pick up the tiny remnant.  A low whistle escaped his lips.

“Look at that shit… boys she’s the real deal.  I’d avoid pointing guns at her unless you want to be…”  He looked at me with a cautious smile on his face, “Deleted?”

“Damn straight.”  I grinned in spite of myself, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to go to your secret base.  Maybe you can show me your tree fort after this is all over.  For right now, I have to focus on finding my… on finding Svenka and on destroying this infection before it destroys us.  I would welcome your help though, if you’re willing to give it.”

“A bargain then?”  He asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Bargaining means equal exchange.” I said, “What do you get out of the deal?”

“How about you give me a seat in your new Tribunal?” He said with a rouge’s rakish grin.

“My new… do you honestly still think I’m some goddamn revolutionary?”  I asked, incredulous.  “Look Cormir, I just know that I made a mistake about six months ago.  As a result some of my best friends died and a … well for lack of better term a disease was unleashed upon humanity.  I aim to fix things, no matter what.  If anyone has something to say about that I’ll fucking end them, whether they’re the President of the United States or the ruling council of The Tribunal.”

I had unwittingly infused my tirade with a touch of Power; something that Mec had taught me what seemed like an age ago.  The mortals had taken a few steps backward, involuntarily letting their assault rifles fall from numb fingers.

“I won’t stand in your way.”  Cormir said with a smile on his face, “Take what you want.”

“You don’t have what I want.” I said, bitterly.  “What I truly want is gone forever.”

“If I can’t help you, then perhaps you can help me.” Said Cormir, now looking at me with serious eyes.  “There is something I need desperately.  Please come with me.”  He held out his hand but I shied away.  I couldn’t bear to touch him.

“What do you want?”  My voice sounded cold, even to me.  “Why do you think I can give it to you?”

“Because, you gave it to me once before my Sire.”  Cormir knelt before me in the dirt, reaching for me with trembling hands.  “You gave me hope when all was lost, you took my life and gave me more.  You… Renyovalia, you cannot leave me now.”

Oh.

As a general rule, our race are terrible parents.  Most of the children we make are accidental before we know better or poorly conceived mistakes based on some former emotional attachment.  Once entering Second Life, most of us undergo a complete alteration of self as the Dark Gift renders its blessings and curses upon us.  As with an apple seed, you never know what the result will be until the tree bears fruit.

I didn’t recognize Cormir, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know him.  I had been so young when I was brought into the world of the Undead; both in years and in attitude.  Barely twenty one, I had grown up living on the streets in the slums of Moscow.  I was part of a gang of between a dozen and a score of kids.  We looked out for each other to enough of a degree that we didn’t have to worry about freezing or starving.

The older we became, the more complicated our needs were.  It didn’t take long for us to get into more trouble than we could handle.  Kids like us were as common and as disposable as toilet paper and all too many people were willing to treat us as such.

I’d seen a lot of kids come and go, as well as more than my fair share of death by the time I had been bitten.  I still don’t know who my Sire was, or what made him or her choose to turn me instead of just killing me.  Perhaps it was a backwards attempt at revenge on one of my companions.

I say this because I awakened in the abandoned warehouse where my crew, such as they were spent most of its free time.  We’d never really evolved past pack mentality, the strongest, fastest and smartest lead and the rest of us followed until we thought we could do better.  When consciousness returned to me I exploded into a ravenous rampage; tearing apart nearly all of the people I had once called family and feasting upon their blood.

My old human self would have been horrified, but the newly born Nosferatu only knew hunger.  By the time I recovered from the blood frenzy my surviving friends had fled.  Very little of what I had been before remained and, like many of my kind, I began to build a small empire based around my newfound power.  Humans did what I told them to and I was allowed to run rampant through my little corner of the Moscow underworld for a short time.

Instinctively, I knew how to create more of my kind and I was beginning to build an army by the time The Tribunal sent the Reapers to ‘deal with’ us.  That is when my Power of Destruction first manifested itself.  That is when I was offered a choice between Final Death and fifty years of service.  None of my undead progeny were offered the same choice.  I had thought them all sent to Final Death.

Now, a lifetime later here was a survivor of that first genesis.  I could… smell his blood.  He smelled like me.

Post Mortem Chapter 2

I awoke in the innermost room of the cave where Emilio had led me after a time of unconsciousness I barely had a concept of.  My hunger was mercifully gone, I had taken drinks from a dozen or more of Emilio’s followers, but I could feel terrible loss in its place.  I vaguely recalled the destruction of the second unit of soldiers who had found me after the horror of the first sunrise I had seen in a millennium.  The pain from which I knew my lover had saved me from; likely at the expense of her own life.

“Angel?  Are you awake?”  A voice that trembled with suppressed fear asked.

“My name is Ren.”  I said, thankful that I healed to the point where my words no longer sounded like they were being dragged from a burning building.  “How long have I slept?”

“For an entire day Angel.”  The voice said, still quavering.

“You have no need to fear me.  What is your name?”   I asked, “And please call me Ren.”

“Mi nombre es Maria.” Came the quavering reply, either she had a limited grasp of English or else she was reverting to her native tongue when frightened.  I guessed the latter.

“Thank you Maria.” I said, realizing there was hardly any light in the room.  Although the darkness was no impediment to my vision I was certain my companion was unable to see anything.  I saw a pair of worn jeans, threadbare white t-shirt and abused leather jacket lying next to one of those horrible looking robe things Emilio and his followers wore.  I pulled on the jeans and t-shirt, patting the pockets by habit, checking for things that weren’t there.

“Tienes sed?”  She whispered, forcing the words out.  Are you thirsty?  Now it made sense.  Emilio must have left her here for breakfast.  He didn’t really understand how my vampire body worked and that was just as well.  I didn’t trust him very much; fanatics always make me nervous.  I only really needed to feed when I was exhausted or had burned the life force of the creatures I had fen on

“Do you have a cigarette?” I asked, ignoring her question about thirst.  She didn’t move from where she crouched by the opening.  “I’m not going to hurt you Maria” I said and since she didn’t offer a cancer stick I went in search of a more likely donor.  I knew Emilio was a smoker.

The few people I met in the all but ran away from me.  No surprise there, but I could now much better understand the importance of keeping our kind a secret.  This kind of behavior was annoying; it made me look at them in contempt… and it also aroused my predatory instincts.  Seeing prey running away always made the wolf want to give chase.

Since there was only one way out of the bit of the cave system I had been in, finding Emilio was quite easy.  He was standing in the dying rays of a sunset at the mouth of the cave speaking to an assembled group of people.  As much as I craved the ritual of a cigarette I wanted to avoid a crowd of fearful, or worse adoring, people even more.  The physical addiction of nicotine had vanished with the normal functioning of my human circulatory system.

I leaned against the wall, the distractions of the moment gone allowing me to really feel what was missing.  The needs of my body were sated, however I still felt empty.  Svenka was gone, I hadn’t seen any sign of her at all after I recovered from my frenzy.  What had caused it anyway?  I hadn’t been hungry, instead my last clear memory was of my lover soothing away my need to destroy, calming the overabundance of mechanically augmented thalmaturgic power within me.

Memory struck me like a hammer.  Someone or something had attacked us with a glow that was as hot as the rising sun to my sensitive skin.  Whatever it had been, Svenka had saved me from being destroyed by covering me with her own body, even as I had begun to blister and burn.  My instinct and brutal strength had allowed me to burrow beneath the soft sandy ground and there I had survived.

She didn’t react to the sun’s rays though; she wasn’t one of the undead. But the fact remained that I still couldn’t reach her.  She was either too far away, unconscious or … I had to concede that she might be dead.  I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the rough wall of the cave.  A tear fell from the corner of my left eye, burning as it forced its way through a tear duct that had long since stopped being functional.

During our last conversation, Svenka had claimed that I couldn’t cry.  She wasn’t precisely correct.  We could still shed tears after death, but it wasn’t the same.

“Why do you weep?”  Emilio had approached without me hearing him, both a testament to his stealth and my distraction.  His eyes widened as he saw the trail of red down my face.  We could cry, but the tears were blood.

“For things lost.”  I said, wiping the blood off my face in a dismissive gesture, my voice cold.  “I have work to do.  Do you have any leads on freak activity in the area?”

“Freaks?  You mean those Demons you destroy my Angel?”  The fervor in his eyes began to shine, and my unease at his attention returned.

“Yeah, call them what you will.”

“No my Angel.  You have destroyed all in your path.  We have always followed you, we do not presume to predict your movements.”  Emilio said, his eyes downcast.

“It doesn’t matter.”  I said, slightly relieved that he didn’t know things I did not.  “I will find them on my own.  You all should stay here, I’d hate to risk you.  It’s dangerous where I tread Emilio; more dangerous than you can imagine.”

“We have nothing to fear with you leading us Angel.”  He said, all but bowing to her.

“I am no angel.”  I whispered.

“With you walking before us, the road is perfectly smooth and flawless.” Said Emilio, as though he hadn’t heard me, “As smooth and perfect as glass.”

“I’m going and you are staying here.” I said, forcing the emotion from my voice.  “Any who follow will die, either by my hand or by another.”

“It would be an honor to die by your hand Angel!” Emilio said, white spittle gathering in the corner of his mouth.  “Any of us would gladly open our hearts to serve your purpose!”

“The whole point is to not kill humans.”  I said, “I’m trying to fix this, not make thing worse.”

“You are fixing things Angel.  You cleanse the world of their filth with your holy light.”

“Do you have any vehicles?”  I asked, trying to change the subject.  The sun had just set… it was time for me to go.

“Of course not Angel, your presence renders electrical things inert.”  Emilio showed me his wrist. His watch had stopped at exactly the moment when I had saved him from the small horde of undead that had been on the road outside of Heroica Guymas.  Shit.

I spun on my heel and walked to the cave entrance.  The people outside were separating and going about menial tasks after Emilio’s… sermon or whatever.  One of the men had a hand rolled cigarette in his mouth.

“Can you roll me one of those?” I asked.  He turned toward me, stumbling back in surprise when he saw who had addressed him.  When he looked at me in confusion, I pointed to his cigarette.  I really should have spent more time learning world languages, but growing up in Russia hadn’t offered many opportunities and I’d never wanted to leave the United States after I’d immigrated.

He handed his cigarette over and I took a deep drag, exhaling smoke out my nose and sighing in satisfaction.  My options were limited.  I couldn’t contact the messenger from The Tribunal without the blood on the piece of paper he’d given me the night after Hex had died since it had burned away with my old clothes.  I would have a very hard time accomplishing much without someone to watch my back now that Svenka was gone.

Tonight would be about looking for answers.  Who had tried to kill me, where was my lover and how was I going to call in the cavalry if I needed them?  Damn, I shouldn’t have waited so long.  Taking the last drag on the cigarette, I pinched the end off and crushed the ember underneath my bare foot.  Turning to look down the hill, I gathered myself and leaped in the direction of the town I had most recently destroyed, easily clearing the tops of the trees.

Post Mortem, Chapter 1

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.