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Jonathan Maberry

Tooth & Nail

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Author’s Note

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This story takes place between Flesh & Bone  and Fire & Ash .

Special thanks to Lisa Mandina, librarian Erin Daly, and the girls at the Chicopee Library Teen Book Club.


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Area 51

Benny Imura stood at the edge of a concrete trench that was all that separated him from the reaching hands and hungry mouths of half a million zoms.

Half a million.

The dead stood there, pale and silent, most of them as unmoving as statues. They looked like tombstones to Benny, their moldering flesh marking the only grave the wandering dead would ever know.

None of the creatures could reach him; the trench was too wide. Those that tried fell down to the concrete floor and could never hope to climb up the sheer sides. Benny was safe.


Such a weak and stupid word.

A year ago that word actually meant something to him. Safe was a concept he could grasp. Safe was his town of Mountainside. Safe was the chain-link fence, the tower guards, the armed men of the town watch. Safe was a sturdy oak door and good locks. Safe was shutters on the windows.

Safe was an illusion.

That illusion had been shattered when death came to town on a stormy night as a lightning-struck tree smashed part of the fence down. The concept of safety was battered by a zombie coming for him inside his own house.

The last fragments of the lie of safety had been ground to dust by the heavy boots of evil men — living men, not zoms — who’d brutalized Morgie Mitchell, one of Benny’s best friends, when he tried to protect Nix Riley and her mother.

The men had killed Mrs. Riley and kidnapped Nix.

Benny and his brother, Tom, had gotten her back, but not easily. Not in any way that rebuilt the walls of safety, or that put a fresh coat of paint on the illusion that everything would be okay again.

It wouldn’t be okay again.

It couldn’t be.

Mrs. Riley was dead.

Morgie was gone too. In a way. He and Benny had traded hard words on the day Tom had left town. Benny and Nix had gone with him, along with Lou Chong and Lilah, the Lost Girl. All of Morgie’s friends left town, and Morgie sent Benny on the road with a wish that they’d all die out here in the great Rot and Ruin.

Benny knew that Morgie was talking from a hurt place, not from his heart. But it was the last thing that had been said; it was the last memory.

Not even lifelong friendships were safe.

Not in the real world.

Not anymore.

Nothing was safe.

Tom was gone now too. Gone forever and for good.

His smile, his wisdom, his power.


Benny looked beyond the closest ranks of zoms to a squat white blockhouse of a building that rose into the hot Nevada air. In there, behind those featureless walls, another of his friends was gone too.


Infected, dying. Maybe already dead.

Maybe already returned from death as something inhuman. Something that, despite all their years of friendship, would try to kill Benny.

Try to eat his flesh.

No,  he thought as tears burned in his eyes, nothing is safe .

He felt the weight of the sword he wore slung across his back. It was Tom’s kami katana , a perfectly balanced weapon. It had been  Tom’s.

Had been.

Then, in a moment that was unavoidable and terrible and wild, Tom had used the last of his strength to try to draw that sword in order to stop a madman from slaughtering everyone. But Tom was already dying, and his strength failed him at last — but in that instant Benny reached for the handle, taking it from Tom, brushing his brother’s fingers, drawing the weapon, completing the action. Doing what had to be done. Fighting the monster.

Saving Nix and Chong and Lilah.

Losing Tom.

And, in the act of killing to save lives — even with all the moral and cosmic justification that carried — Benny lost a little of himself. That blade cut more than the flesh of an evil man. It sliced away a piece of Benny’s childhood and left it to die in the bloody grass around where Tom knelt.

Benny squatted down on the edge of the trench, took a handful of hot sand, and let it pour slowly out of his fist. The wind whipped it away from him.

Some of the zoms across the trench were dressed in black clothes with red tassels tied around their wrists and ankles, with white angel wings sewn onto the front of their shirts. Their shaved heads were elaborately tattooed with images of flowers, thorny vines, insects, and writhing snakes.

Reapers of the Night Church.

Because of them, no one was safe.

They were worse than the zombies. The dead meant no harm; they were driven by some impulse of their destroyed nature.

The reapers?

They actually believed that everyone — every man, woman, and child left alive — should die. They were converts to a new religion based on an ancient Greek god of death. Thanatos. And their leader, the cold and deadly madman Saint John, had trained them to be an army of superb and relentless killers.

Saint John believed that Thanatos had sent the zombie plague to eradicate the “infection” of humanity and thereby cleanse the world. Anyone who survived the plague and struggled to stay alive was going in direct defiance of Saint John’s god. It made them heretics and blasphemers. They were like weeds in a bizarre version of the Garden of Eden, and Saint John used his reapers to mow them down.

Then, when the last of the heretics were gone, Saint John planned to lead his own people into an orgy of mass suicide.

The insanity of it was scary enough. The fact that so many people joined the Night Church was insane. It was terrifying.

Benny and his friends had become embroiled in that unholy war.

Now they were injured, sick at heart, trapped, and dying.

And yet…

And yet.

Another emotion warred inside Benny’s heart and mind, fighting back the terror, shoving back the despair over all that he’d lost.


It burned inside him with a fire that was as cold as it was intense.

The thought that someone like Saint John would want to end life after all the years of struggle, of working together to overcome hardships, of finding a way to preserve the spark of life after plague and famine tried to blow it out… it made Benny burn.

He thought of everyone he knew who’d died, who’d sacrificed so much so that others — many others — could live.

Mrs. Riley, dying to try to protect her daughter.

Tom. Saving so many.

Maybe Chong, saving a little girl from reapers.

So many.

Too many.

If the reapers had their way, all of these deaths would be meaningless. To Benny, that was obscene.

Benny reached over his shoulder and touched the handle of his sword. He could feel his lips curl back in a feral snarl of hate. He imagined Saint John in front of him, within reaching, within cutting distance.

“No,” Benny said.

It was all he said.

It was enough.

Because, with everything he had and everything he was, he absolutely meant it.



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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

A voice rang out, sharp and full of threat.

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

The man who spoke was tall, broad-shouldered, bearded, and brutal-looking. He stepped out from behind an overturned tractor-trailer. He wore matched pistols in leather holsters at his hips and carried a working replica of a Scottish claymore sword in his knobby fist, the blade resting on one mountainous shoulder.

The man to whom he spoke was not nearly as bulky. Pale, short, slender, dressed in black clothes with angel wings embroidered in white thread on the front of his dark shirt. His garments were too big for him, and they bloused out around the red tassels tied to his wrists, elbows, ankles, and knees. He had a shaved head, and his scalp was covered in tattoos of bees crawling over a honey-rich hive.

“I’m just a humble traveler doing god’s work,” said the smaller man.

“Not on this road, pally,” said the big man. “This road belongs to Boss Keffler.”

As he spoke, there was an ominous sound. The smaller man turned to see other men step from concealment among the wrecked cars on the cracked highway. Four of them. All armed. One carried a shotgun in his hands.

“Ah,” said the traveler. “Let me guess — there’s a toll, am I right?”

That put a greasy smile on the big man’s face. “Oh yeah, there’s a toll.”

“Does it matter at all that I’m a servant of god? No, don’t look at me like that, I’m being serious here. I’m an actual servant of god. Doing god’s work. That get me any play here?”

The beefy man looked momentarily confused. Then he grinned. “God’s dead, ain’t you heard? And he left this road to Boss Keffler in his will.”

The big man guffawed, and the others joined him. The traveler smiled thinly, and as the laughter tapered off, he held up a hand.

“Yeah, yeah, okay, very hilarious,” said the traveler, his tone calm and reasonable. “You look like you’re the topkick of this crew. Am I right? What’s your name, brother?”

“I ain’t your brother.”

“Figure of speech. What, sir, is your name?”

“Tony Grapes.”

“Tony Grapes? Really? You’re going with that? Yes? Okay, sure, Grapes. Whatever. Look, Mr. Grapes, my name’s Marty Kirk. Brother Marty these days. We both know that you’re a large, scary individual, and your colleagues there are tough as they come. That’s obvious, that’s a given, no need to go further with that discussion. We know that. Just like we know that I’m a hundred and sixty pounds of middle-aged nothing. I’m not armed, and even if I was, we both know you could take away anything I had and make me eat it, raw, with only a little soy sauce. We’re there, am I right? We’re on that page.”

Tony stared at him with open mouth and narrowed eyes. Wary, but fascinated. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s about it.”

“So, let’s look at the last page of this script, ’cause I don’t think we’re reading from the same screenplay. In your version, I get my tuchus kicked and maybe my throat cut and you guys have a funny anecdote to tell the rest of the Neanderthals about how your combined weight of — I’m guessing here — three quarters of a ton of whale lard was able to stomp my skinny self into the dirt without so much as you bruising a hairy knuckle. I mean, let’s face it, you got that script, you’re reading those pages, am I right?”

“You’ve got a smart mouth.”

“I’ve been told. My point is,” continued Brother Marty, “my script has two different endings. One for the theaters, the other for the DVD extras, you follow? No? Forgot about all that already? Life’s sad, so much is lost. Whatever. In one version, the version where we all end the day happy and still sucking air, you and your four chums here drop to your knees, renounce your false god like the carnival phony he is, embrace Thanatos — all praise to his darkness — and one-two-three, you guys are part of my team. This is a nice scenario, am I right? This is a Hallmark moment and a happy ending.”

“This guy’s totally monkey-bat crazy,” said one of the gang.

“No kidding,” said Tony. He swung the sword out and laid the flat of it on Brother Marty’s shoulder. The weight of the blade made Marty’s knees buckle for a moment.

“But,” said Marty hastily, “let me get to the alternate ending. In that version we go for the edgy ending, the dark ending. The one that would play well at Cannes but score low in the word-of-mouth market. You dig where I’m going with this? No? Let me set the scene. In the alternate ending, you five goons don’t forswear your false god, you don’t accept the blessing of Thanatos — all praise to his darkness — and none of you are on call for the sequel to this summer blockbuster. Are you feeling me on this, Tony? You get where my GPS is taking us? That second ending sucks, neither of us like it. It’s a tearjerker, am I right? And, come on, is that really the best ending for the whole family? I don’t think so. I think we need to take a closer look at the first ending, the one the director wants to shoot, because, hey, it sells more popcorn and it’s a crowd pleaser.”

Tony Grapes said nothing. Neither did the others.

“No?” asked Marty. “Nothing? This is like talking to the screenwriter’s union. Suddenly nobody has words.”

One of the gang said, “Hey, Tony, it’s bad luck to kill a crazy person, you know that, right?”

Tony sneered. “He ain’t crazy. He’s trying to tap-dance his way out of it, that’s all.” To Marty, Tony said, “What were you before First Night? Some kind of con man?”

“I was a producer, so… pretty much, yes. But here’s my point, you fellas need to make a real career decision right here, right now. We could use some local talent, you dig? Someone who knows the ropes and knows the roads.”

“How ’bout we just have some fun kicking your ass up and down the road?”

“Feel free to try, and I mean that sincerely, guys,” said Marty. “But this is a one-time offer that expires… well, now, actually.”

Tony abruptly looked up to see another man in black clothes and red tassels climb up on the hood of a wrecked car.

“Oh, please,” he said with a gruff laugh. “It’s gonna take a lot more than…”

His voice trailed off. There was sudden movement all around them. A second figure climbed onto a car, a third stepped out from between two SUVs. A third, a fourth. Ten more. Twenty.

Too many.

In front and behind and on both sides. They weren’t there and then they were, the figures moving as silently as ghosts. They all carried weapons.

The closest ones were bigger, more muscular and more dangerous-looking than the others, and they had red handprint tattoos over their faces. Their eyes burned with bloodlust.

The gang member with the shotgun raised it to point at the nearest figure.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa now,” said Marty quickly. “Think it through. That there is a Remington model 870 pump shotgun, am I right? You probably have a six-shot magazine and maybe one in the pipe. I’m using that word right? Pipe? So you got seven shots. Your friend there has a Glock 23 with a thirteen-shot capacity, and again one in the pipe. At best — at best I’m saying — if you guys are Deadeye Dicks, you can take out twenty, twenty-two of us. The rest of you have knives and swords, and I’m here to tell you that we like our odds in an edged-weapon tussle. Not bragging, just saying. So, you take out a coupla dozen of us, and the rest of us spend the whole afternoon and evening teaching you guys all sorts of songs. Hymns, if you catch where I’m going with this. It’s a religious thing. Hymns to Thanatos — praise be to his darkness.”

All around them dozens upon dozens of voices echoed the chant.

“So,” said Marty, still being reasonable, “the math isn’t good. I like you boys, you have some pluck, and central casting could’ve put you in anything by Tarantino or the Coen brothers. Seriously, you’re great. But there’s so many of us my head hurts to do the tallies.”

Tony licked his lips but said nothing.

“Okay, I have your attention,” said Marty. “Now, the whole reason I’m here and we’re taking this meeting instead of just walking away from your bleeding corpses is that we need what’s in your head more than we need what’s in your veins. Okay, that’s a bad line. I’m a producer, not a scriptwriter. Follow me, though. It was a threat, but it was couched so as to present an offer. You got that, right?”

“O-offer…?” said Tony, so thrown off his game that he seemed to have forgotten the sword in his hands.

“Right. Like I said, we need someone who knows the area. Someone who can help us get around this part of California and up into the Sierra Nevadas. We need that more than we need to send all five of you into the darkness.”


“And, just to remove any confusion… we only need one of you. Whoever knows the area best. The rest… well, sorry, kids, but that’s how the Oreo crumbles.”

“Just one?” echoed Tony.

“Just one.”

“He’s messing with your head, Tony,” said the guy with the shotgun. “Don’t let him—”

“Shut up, Ralphie,” barked Tony. “I’m trying to think.”

Marty nodded encouragingly. “Listen, Tony, you look like an enterprising fellow. You’re a leader, you’re a trusted man? These guys are here working for you, am I right?”

“Screw that,” said another of the gang. “We work for Boss Keffler.”

Marty glanced at him, said nothing, then addressed Tony. “Correct me if I’m totally wrong, but Boss Keffler isn’t actually here. You are, Tony. And we are.”

“Tony,” said Ralphie, “don’t listen to this clown. We can—”

Without a second’s hesitation Tony spun and slashed him across the neck with the sword. Ralphie’s head leaped two feet into the air, propelled by a fierce burst of blood. Before Ralphie’s head even landed, Tony chopped down on the man with the Glock. The man screamed for half a second and then dropped to his knees, split from collarbone to groin. The other two gang members gaped for a moment; then they turned to run. Tony cut a look at Brother Marty, like a dog waiting for approval to do a trick.

“Earn it,” suggested Marty.

Tony ran them down and his sword did quick, terrible work. It was over in seconds. Tony was splashed with blood, and as he turned back to Marty, the reapers closed in around him. Tony did not resist or protest when strong hands took his sword away. Nor did he fight when they pushed him down to his knees in front of Marty. The producer nodded and ran a palm over his tattooed scalp.

Marty smiled at Tony. Even kneeling, the gang leader was nearly as tall as the reaper. “Tony, I’m liking you more and more. You have pluck, you have common sense, and you have timing. All good qualities. Now… let’s talk.”

Tony Grapes licked his lips. His eyes were bright and wet and his chin trembled.

“Talk about what?”

“About where,” corrected Marty. “My boss, a guy I’d knee-walk through broken glass for — and I don’t joke when I say this — really wants to find a place called Mountainside.” Marty leaned close so that his lips almost touched Tony’s. “Let’s all hope and pray that you can help us find it.”


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Area 51

A big man with a bowie knife tried very hard to kill Benny Imura.

Benny yelled something loud and inarticulate as he flung himself out of the way of the slashing blade. He could feel the steel whistle past his ear. As he turned his panicked dive into a roll, he bumped and bounced to minimum safe distance, losing his sword in the process. The katana —Tom’s sword — lay in the dirt between Benny and his attacker.

The man with the knife straightened and gave Benny a long, cold, harsh stare of contempt.

“I thought you said you could fight.”

Benny spat dust out of his mouth and unloaded a string of comments that could have burned the paint off a steel drum.

“Nice,” said the big man. “You kiss your mama with that mouth?”

“My mother’s dead,” Benny snarled. “Don’t you—”

“Everybody’s mother’s dead, Sherlock. It’s the apocalypse.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Benny climbed to his feet, eyeing the fallen sword. “Don’t look so smug… you missed me.”

“Sure, and missing you took some effort. It was all I could do to keep from carving a few pounds of stupid off you.”

Benny laughed. “Oh, yeah, that’s what happened. You missing had nothing to do with me dodging and evading and doing a combat roll. Yeah, you missed on purpose.”

Suddenly everything seemed to blur. The big man threw the knife with incredible, insane speed. One moment it was in his hand, and the next instant the knife was buried three inches into the hard desert sand exactly between Benny’s feet. But before it even stopped quivering the man hooked the toe of his boot under the sword, kicked it into the air, caught it one-handed, leaped forward, swung the sword, and then froze with the razor edge less than a hairbreadth from Benny’s throat.

“Yeah,” said the big man, “I did.”

The world was frozen into a moment of impossibility. Benny tried to look down at the blade without daring to move his head.

He said, “Um… urk…”

Behind him three pairs of hands began a slow, ironic round of applause.

The big man smiled — all white teeth and blue eyes in a seamed and scarred face — and stepped back half a pace. He reversed the sword in his grip and offered the handle to Benny.

Benny had to take a moment to remember how to breathe before he dared raise his hand to accept the weapon. His hand was shaking so badly he almost dropped it.

The audience was three girls — Nix Riley, Lilah the Lost Girl, and a former reaper named Riot. Nix and Riot were smiling, Lilah — typically — was not. The big man gestured for them to stop the applause and waved them over.

The four of them stood in a loose half circle around Captain Joe Ledger. The ranger’s dog, Grimm, a massive American mastiff who usually wore armor fitted with blades and had been trained to hack zombies rather than bite them, sat nearby, watching Benny with undisguised dislike.

The ranger’s own emotions were impossible to read. He had a sunbaked, scarred face that generally wore either a fake smile or a disapproving scowl. The man was still a bit unreal to Benny. He’d first read about him on a Zombie Card; Ledger was a hero of First Night, a former Special Operator. He had led a crew of world-class soldiers against terrorists who were armed with exotic bioweapons. In the weeks following First Night, Ledger was supposed to have saved thousands of people by organizing them, helping them find shelter, teaching them how to fight the limitless armies of the dead. He’d even fought alongside Solomon Jones, Fluffy McTeague, Hector Mexico, and Tom.

This man had known Tom.

The man had once been a great hero.

He was still fighting the zoms and leading the fight against the reapers. Without him, Benny and all his friends would have died in the Nevada desert.

He was a living legend.

And Benny wished he could bury the man up to his chin in an anthill and pour honey over him.

The feeling was clearly mutual.

“You know what your problem is?” asked Ledger.

“I’m standing too close to a jerk who thinks he’s Captain Wonderful?”

“Cute. But no… the problem is that you have some skills. For the amount of training you say you’ve had, you’re actually pretty good. And that’s what’s going to get you killed.”

Grimm looked at Benny the way a hungry wolf might look at a limping gazelle. Drool hung from his rubbery jowls.

Benny waited for the other shoe to drop, and it hit with a thud.

Ledger said, “What you are is an arrogant little…”

There was more, a lot more, but Benny stopped listening. He turned and began walking away. He got a dozen steps before a strong hand grabbed him and whirled him around.

It wasn’t Joe.

It was Nix.

She was beautiful even when she was furious, and right now she was absolutely furious. Her freckles glowed like hot embers and her green eyes were lethal. She pitched her voice into a low, fierce whisper that only he could hear.

“You listen to me, Benjamin Imura,” she snapped. “Captain Ledger is trying to help us.”

“I don’t want his help.”

“Don’t be stupid. We need his help. We need to keep training.”

“Tom trained us,” he fired back, his voice rising. “Tom was the best, and he trained us and we’ve been warrior smart. We survived everything because of Tom.”

Nix got right up in his face.

“Survived everything? Really? Why don’t you go tell that to Chong.”

It was worse than a slap across the face.



Benny tried to say something back, something witty and full of thorns, but the words caught in his throat; he couldn’t spit them out. Instead he turned, slammed his sword into its sheath, and stalked away.

* * *

Nix Riley watched Benny go. She was angry and hurt and sorry for what she’d said. Tears began burning the corners of her eyes. When she turned away from him, Captain Ledger was right there. She hadn’t heard him approach.

“He — he had to go and—” she began, but he stopped her with a smile and a shake of his head.

“Don’t make excuses for him.”

“He’s been through a lot,” she said quickly. “He’s not usually like this. It’s not his fault.”

“Fault?” he echoed as they rejoined the others. “No. But it is his responsibility. We’re at war, and we don’t have the luxury of letting our emotions get in the way of preparing for the fight.”

“No,” agreed Lilah, and Riot nodded too.

“Besides,” said Riot, “Benny don’t hold the only license on pain and grief.”

It was true enough. Each of them had suffered terrible losses.

And Lilah… she’d lost more than all of them. Lilah’s pregnant mother had died in an old farmhouse and Lilah, two years old at the time, had watched first her natural death during childbirth and then a second and more brutal death as the survivors defended themselves after she resurrected as a zom. A man named George became Lilah’s protector and guardian because he was the last survivor of that group of refugees in the farmhouse; but some years later he was murdered and his death made to look like a suicide. Around that time, Lilah and her little sister had been forced to fight in the zombie pits at Charlie Pink-eye’s Gameland. During an abortive escape, little Annie was mortally wounded and left to die on a desolate rain-swept road. Lilah found her just as Annie reanimated. And the Lost Girl did what had to be done. After that, Lilah lived alone in the wilds of the Rot and Ruin, fending for herself and killing zombies and bounty hunters and in the process becoming remote and strange. And perhaps a little crazy. She’d begun to come out of that shell after she’d been rescued by Benny, Nix, and Tom, and more so when she and Chong had fallen in love.

Now Chong was lost. Dying or dead. Or maybe a monster.

The people in the blockhouse on the far side of the trench wouldn’t tell them.

Benny had lost Tom. And that was hard enough. Tom was a bit larger than life, a man of great gentleness, wisdom, and power who ultimately saved the Nine Towns from the evil of Charlie Pink-eye and his family.

Nix cut a sideways glance at Captain Ledger, wondering what — and who — he’d lost; but the big ranger never spoke about himself. He didn’t even comment on the things he was said to have done to earn himself a place on the Heroes of First Night subset of the Zombie Cards.

Ledger caught her looking at him. “He’ll be back,” he said, misreading her thought.

Nix shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

The ranger smiled. “He’ll be back.”

The day burned away and Benny did not come back.


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Rattlesnake Valley

Southern California

They perched in the tree like a flock of birds. Five silent shapes, crouched on branches, their bodies and weapons dappled with sunlight and shadow. Only the fact that no actual birds shared the same tree hinted that they were there.

The tree was a stout and twisted cottonwood with many crooked arms reaching in improbable directions. Spring had come early this year and the branches were thick with leaves, but the early season had brought drought with it, and the leaves were already curling for want of water. It was the hottest spring any of them could remember. The sky above the valley was as hard and blue as bottle glass. Only a few small clouds moved above them, pushed along by a brisk wind that offered no relief from the heat.

A shadow cast by the largest cloud sailed down the far side of the valley, moving like a dark stain across the fields of weed-choked grass. The five figures watched as several zo

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mbies staggered in pursuit of the cloud shadow.

The dead always followed movement. They were slow but relentless, walking on legs stiffened to sticks by withered tendons and nearly moistureless flesh. They would follow the shadow until it vanished or until the sun fell into the Pacific Ocean nearly four hundred miles away. They would chase it the way they chased anything else that moved, hoping for a meal they didn’t need to satisfy a hunger that was as bottomless as forever. And if they caught up to the shadow and found that it was nothing but an illusion, with no substance, they would not cry out in despair, because that is an expression of emotion, and the dead were empty.

Nothing but empty shells.

As the watchers sat on their perches, they saw that the dead began angling toward one another while still pursuing the shadow. Soon a dozen of them were lumbering along in a loose and awkward cluster.

“See?” whispered Samantha, the oldest of the girls, pointing with the tip of her short spear. “I told you, they’re moving in packs.”

A second group of dead came in from another angle, staggering out from the ruins of a small factory where they had probably worked and where they’d almost certainly died. Seven of them, stepping into the sunlight through different open doorways, hearing the moans of the other zombies and catching sight of the shadow. Without pause the seven dead formed a new pack and moved off in pursuit of nothing.

“They’re doing it too,” said Laura, who was on a nearby branch. She had spiked hair and her face was painted to match the dappled sunlight. A hunting bow was slung across her back. “They never used to do that.”

“I know,” agreed Samantha. “But they’re doing it now. Amanda and I saw a bunch of groups like that while we were hunting last week.”

Amanda nodded. She was generally the quietest of the group, deep and brooding, but fierce in combat. She wore a pair of matched hatchets tucked through her belt. “We saw one pack with nearly fifty of them in it.”

Michelle, the second archer of the group, shook her head. “No, that’s impossible.”

“That’s too many,” agreed Laura.

“Amanda’s right,” countered Samantha. “At least fifty. We both counted.”

The two packs out in the field followed the shadow for long minutes, but then it reached the top of the valley and vanished from sight. The packs slowed as confusion set in. They looked around, saw nothing else to chase, and one by one the dead slowed to a walk and then stopped.

And stood there.

The five girls knew that they would continue to stand there until something else drew their attention. Otherwise they had no reason to go anywhere.

Some of the dead, lacking an impetus to hunt, stood in fields with years of vines wrapped around them. Zombies like that were among the most dangerous. One of them could be lying on the ground covered by vines or fallen leaves or low-growing plants like pachysandra, and you’d never know until they smelled you. Or until you stepped on one.

The girls remembered that lesson very well, as they remembered all such lessons.

There used to be twenty-two of them. Girls, boys, and three adults.

Now there were six girls. Five in the tree and one… missing.

Tiffany had been on patrol in the woods surrounding the old motel where the girls lived, and sometime this morning she’d vanished. They found her weighted fighting sticks and a scuffle of footprints, but nothing else.

The other five girls had formed a party to hunt for her. A cold morning had caught fire to become an inferno afternoon. Each of them was sick with dread at losing Tiffany. They couldn’t bear to lose another of their family.

Now they perched in a tree, letting the day tell them what was happening, what was there, what to expect.

They always paid attention to the lessons nature and experience provided. It was how they’d been raised. Samantha was the oldest of them by a few days. She’d been born one day before the world ended. The others had all been born in the days that followed. None of them ever knew their parents. Their mothers had been at a hospital near Sacramento. The nurses and doctors had tried to protect everyone from the dead, but they hadn’t been able to. During one terrible battle the hospital caught fire. Nine adults gathered up the babies in the nursery and fled in a convoy of cramped ambulances. The leader of that group of adults was a tough-as-nails prenatal care nurse named Ida from Haiti, a place that probably didn’t exist anymore. Because most places didn’t exist anymore. Not with names, at least. Ida brought her small group of survivors out of the teeth of the zombie uprising and away, deep into the forests of California, where people were always sparse even before the nightmare. There they settled and learned to survive. To forage, to hunt, and to kill.

Or so the story went.

That tale was passed down from the survivors of the hospital to other refugees they met along the way and finally to the children as they grew old enough to understand.

The five girls were the last of that group.

Ida’s main support and allies in the running of their group were Dolan, a man who used to be an actor, and Mirabel, who sold houses in Sacramento. Two springs ago Dolan had been attacked by a panther and dragged off. Ida said that the big cat probably escaped from a zoo during the End, or its parents did. There were all sorts of animals out here that used to be in zoos or circuses. Elephants and zebras and a huge white pregnant rhinoceros they saw heading north toward the Sierra Nevadas.

Mirabel and three boys had gone hunting one winter day, and none of them were ever seen again. The only trace of them that anyone ever found was Mirabel’s locket — a beautiful thing with a cameo front. Samantha spotted it hanging from a tree branch. But its owner and the last of the boys were gone. That was nearly three years ago.

And Ida… she died of the flu early last year.

Ida came back almost at once, but it wasn’t really Ida. It was a hungry thing that looked like her, but everything that had actually been her was gone.

The girls did what they had to do, what they’d been trained all their lives to do. Afterward they buried Ida in the cemetery, which used to be someone’s garden. Ida now slept in the cool, quiet ground along with the other kids and the adults who’d died at home.


They lived in what had once been known as the Rattlesnake Valley Motor Court. It was a V-shaped building with forty bedroom units, an empty pool, a tennis court, and a wall that had been meticulously built of tractor-trailers by previous tenants of the place who’d later died of plague. The tires of the big trucks had been slashed, and all the spaces under and around the vehicles had been packed with heavy stones and clay. There were a dozen ways out, but you had to know where they were and you had to have a working brain to use them. Even then, there were booby traps in case bands of human raiders tried to get in. A few tried every year. None had ever managed it. Not alive.

One thing Ida and the other adults had taught the girls was that they had to do whatever they needed to do in order to survive. The girls learned those lessons well, which is why these five were still alive. Along with the missing Tiffany, they were the top hunters, the best fighters. They were the fiercest of the little tribe that had lived — and died — at the Rattlesnake Valley Motor Court. They understood how to hunt, cook, do first aid, farm, observe, process, react, and fight.

They knew about their world, and they relied on what they’d been taught and what they’d learned from doing.

But now the rules were changing.

The dead were beginning to move in packs.

And Tiffany was missing.

Heather, the fifth and youngest girl in the hunting party, was the only one with a working pair of binoculars. While the others talked, she sat in silence and studied the dead through the high-powered lenses. When she finally spoke, her voice was filled with doubt and fear. “They look the same as always.”

“What did you expect?” asked Laura sharply. “Little monkeys sitting on their backs, steering them?”

“No, stupid… but if they’re the same, then why are they moving differently?”

None of the girls had an answer to that. When it came to the dead, their security, their hunting patterns, their lives depended on a total lack of change. So many other things in their world changed all the time — friends and adults dying, exotic and dangerous animals coming through, drought ravaging the crops, bad storms. Those things pushed them to their limits. If the dead somehow changed, then that could push them over the edge.

And they all knew it.

Michelle touched Heather’s arm and in a small and fragile voice asked, “Do you see…?”

She didn’t finish the question. There was no point. They all knew what she was asking.

Did Heather see Tiffany out there?

Among the dead.

Heather was a long time answering. Not because she was afraid to answer the question, but because she was being sure, making certain. She moved the glasses from face to face, lingering long enough to study the features. Most of the dead were ravaged by old wounds — the injuries, bites, or bullets that had killed them — or pocked by the diseases that had swept through the fleeing human populations after the dead rose. The flesh of any zombie older than a week would be withered to a leathery mask of wrinkles. Once, when doing this kind of meticulous search among a cluster of zombies, Heather saw a torn and twisted figure whose body lacked arms and had much exposed bone showing through the remaining flesh. She could not be sure — and she didn’t want to make sure — but in her heart she believed that it was Dolan. Or what had been left of him after the panther had done its awful work.

She let out a slow sigh.

“No,” she said with real relief, “she’s not down there.”

As relief went, it was as thin and capricious as a brief waft of cool air. It did not mean that Tiffany was still alive. All it meant was that she was not part of this group of the dead.

Suddenly all the dead turned at the same time, twisting around to the east, raising their heads as if listening to a sound; however, none of the girls could hear or see anything. The dead seemed to tremble with indecision for a moment, their fingers twitching, mouths opening and closing, and then as one they began moving toward the tree line on the east part of the valley.

“What’s going on?” gasped Michelle.

Samantha narrowed her eyes as she watched the dead move toward some very specific part of the forest. “I don’t know. They must have heard something.”

“Might be a deer,” suggested Michelle, but Samantha shook her head.

“No, they heard something, and deer don’t make enough noise to cause them all to react like that.”

The other girls nodded.

Small, strong hands gripped the tree limbs and tightened around the handles of weapons.

Then a yell split the air.

A high, piercing scream of total terror.

A millisecond later Tiffany burst from between two shaggy shrubs and came running full tilt into the field the zombies had recently vacated. Her clothes were torn and streaked with blood; she held a broken spear in one hand, and her dark hair snapped in the wind as she ran.

Michelle opened her mouth to yell out, to let Tiffany know that her friends were close by, but Samantha silenced her with a sharp gesture. Laura leaned forward and pointed.

“Oh my God… look!”

The darkness under the trees roiled and twisted, and then the zombies staggered out into the sunlight. All the ones who had followed whatever lure had drawn them to the east… and many, many more.

At least a hundred of the tattered gray figures lurched after their fleeing prey, and as if in chorus they opened their mouths to utter a moan of unbearable hunger. It filled the sky and tore another scream from Tiffany.

“We have to do something,” pleaded Michelle.

“If she makes it to the creek, she’ll be okay,” said Laura. A small ribbon of blue meandered through the valley floor. It was waist deep in places and the current, though not brisk, would nonetheless confuse the awkward feet of the mindless dead. They watched as Tiffany spotted the stream and cut right toward it, angling in the direction of the deepest section.

“Good,” said Samantha under her breath. “Good…”

She took the field glasses from Heather and spent several long, agonizing moments studying the darkness under the tree line. Heather and Amanda must have seen some expression on her face, because they both asked, “What?” at the same time.

“Look!” snapped Samantha. “Behind the zombies.”

They all looked, first by squinting and then as the binoculars were handed from one to the other. Soon they each wore identical expressions of mingled surprise, confusion, and fear.

“I don’t understand,” murmured Michelle.

“I don’t either,” said Laura.

None of them did, because what they saw made no sense in the world as they understood it.

As the dead continued to stagger out of the forest, a line of people walked slightly behind them. There were at least twenty of them, and they wore identical clothes: black pants and black shirts with some white design on them. Red cloth streamers were tied to their ankles, knees, waists, and wrists. Each of them held a weapon in one hand, a sword or ax or knife; and each of them held something to their mouths that flashed with silver light as they emerged from shadows into the sunny field.

None of them made a sound, though it looked like they were all blowing whistles.

Silent whistles.

“Are they… dog whistles?” wondered Michelle.

“I… think so,” said Laura. “Dolan found one in that house we raided for food three years ago.”

The people in black and red continued to walk forward without hurry, the silver whistles constantly held to their puffing mouths. Some came from different arms of the forest and stood waiting for the tide of dead to reach them.

The dead moved around them and past them, but not one of the cold zombies reached out a hand to touch what was clearly warm, living flesh.

It was a totally bizarre moment.

“What are they doing?” breathed Amanda.

Samantha shook her head.

But in fact it was clear what these strangers were doing. It simply seemed impossible.

Using their silent whistles, the strangers were driving the zombies into the field, calling them together, turning them into a pack.

And sending them after Tiffany.

There were now at least a hundred and fifty of the dead converging on Tiffany, and it was in no way certain that she’d reach the stream in time. The dead were coming from everywhere, some walking out of shadows to the north and south of the field, closing the teeth of this terrible trap. And now there were at least two dozen of the strangers. All of them were adults, and each of them carried a gleaming weapon.

Heather gripped Samantha’s arm with desperate force. “We have to do something.”

Samantha opened her mouth but she said nothing, gave no orders.

Because to go down there was certain death.

Absolutely certain.

Tiffany screamed again as she ran.

The dead moaned as they followed.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

Before Marty Kirk was a reaper, he’d been a top Hollywood producer. He put together movie deals that made hundreds of millions, he worked with the A-list of talent. His was a household name known even to people who didn’t often go to the movies. Marty Kirk. He was a regular guest on Jon Stewart and Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

But that was before Jon and Jay and Conan and their audiences of millions were swept away by a tide of flesh-eating madness.

That was before the Fall.

Now he was known as Brother Marty.

Now he was a reaper of the Night Church.

He wore the black clothes, the red tassels, the white wings. He dabbed his tassels in a chemical mixture that kept the living dead — the gray people — from attacking. He spent hours each day reciting prayers and singing hymns and listening to sermons about a god that Brother Marty had never even heard of before the Fall.

A god that, even now, he didn’t believe in.

Not at all. Not even a little.

And yet it was a god in whose name he had killed, and in whose name he had ordered other reapers to open red mouths in the flesh of the heretics and blasphemers.

Brother Marty never once spoke of his lack of personal faith. He never even hinted at it.

Brother Marty, above all else, wasn’t stupid.

As the old saying goes, he knew on which side his bread was buttered.

Over the last nine years he had risen within the ranks of the Night Church, first from the least capable foot soldier in the service of Saint John, to a member of the logistics team, to the head of recruitment, all the way to his current position as a member of the Council of Sorrows and a personal aide to the saint.

Now he traveled everywhere with Saint John. He’d gone with him from Wyoming to Utah, to Idaho and Montana, and all through Nevada. Zigzagged throughout the west, raising armies of reapers, burning towns and settlements of blasphemers, carrying out the will of Thanatos.

Or, as Brother Marty privately viewed it, carrying out the master plan of an absolute total nutbag. Saint John was a monster by anyone’s standards. A serial killer of legendary status before the Fall, a menace to society who had nonetheless been the inspiration for half a dozen movies and twice as many books, and who was now the charismatic leader of a vast army of killers. It was a crazy place to be, but in this world it was the only safe place left to stand. Marty always looked out for Marty. First and foremost. And to accomplish that, he did whatever he had to do, to whomever he had to do it.

He did not consider himself evil. Marty didn’t believe in evil. Evil was something priests and rabbis droned on about, and Marty hadn’t seen the inside of a synagogue since he was ten. He didn’t believe that there was anything after death. All there was after this was bones in a box. No redemption, no paradise. Nothing, zip, nada.

So the only smart thing to do was stay alive as long as possible, and stay as well fed and protected as possible until the last gasp.

Nowhere was safer than with Saint John. The reapers were an unstoppable force.

And Saint John knew how to call on an even bigger and far more dangerous horde — the living dead. The saint and his reapers used their protective chemicals to be able to walk among the gray people, and employed dog whistles to call and direct the rotting walkers.

Who could ever stand in the way of that?

A few weeks ago Saint John had left Nevada, taking the main body of his reaper army with him in search of a string of nine previously unknown towns in central California. Nine towns packed with people whose flesh, according to the saint, ached to feel the kiss of the knife.

The problem was… California was a big darn state, and these towns hadn’t existed back when maps were still being made. They were refugee camps that had grown into gated communities. Saint John wanted them destroyed. He wanted to burn them as a statement that no one may defy the will of Lord Thanatos.

All praise to his darkness,  thought Brother Marty sourly. All praise, yada yada yada. 

But as he approached the saint, he composed his face into one of reverence and humility.

He dropped to his knees. “Honored one,” said Marty as he bent and kissed the dirt caked on Saint John’s shoes. Then, like an obedient dog, he glanced up at the saint.

Saint John’s dark eyes were so deeply set that they made his pale face appear skeletal. His head was tattooed with a pattern of thorny vines. He wore black trousers and a billowy black shirt, his legs and arms wrapped with bloodred ribbons. On his chest was a beautifully rendered chalk drawing of angel wings. He was Saint John of the Knife, and the reapers were his flock, and he was the single most impressive and charismatic person Brother Marty had ever met. And he’d met everyone in Hollywood.

“Did you find a scout for me?” asked the saint.

Brother Marty hesitated for a moment. “I did… and I didn’t. It’s complicated.”

“Stand up and talk to me,” said Saint John. “Let me see your face.”

Brother Marty got to his feet. He did not tremble, as many of the reapers did in the presence of Saint John. He had that much self-control; he was too practiced a performer, even as a producer, to show weakness during any meeting.

“We found a small gang of crooks. Lowlifes, you know the type,” said Marty. “Their leader was a gun thug named — and I’m not joking — Tony Grapes. Real name. Anyway, I appealed to Tony’s better nature, and he very willingly and enthusiastically, I might add, opened red mouths in all four of his own goons fast as you can say summer blockbuster. Wham, bam, and down they go.”

Saint John nodded his approval. There was the slightest trace of a smile on his severe mouth, as there often was when he listened to Brother Marty.

“So, we do the whole conversion process, and our friend Tony here is an instant altar boy. He can’t help us enough, he can’t be more helpful. He’s so helpful I want to tell him to shut up already, but since I just told him to talk, I can’t very well turn that faucet off. Anyway, I ask him if he ever heard of a place called Mountainside, and he has. That’s good, that’s great, that’s peaches and ice cream.”

“But…?” coaxed Saint John.

“But… he don’t exactly know where it is.”

Saint John said nothing. He was a patient man, and he allowed Brother Marty to get to his point in his own way.

“So, suddenly Brother Tony and I are having a new set of contract negotiations, and you know how that goes. Things get loud, things get wet. Long story short, he knows a guy who knows a guy who does know where Mountainside is.”

“Was our new reaper able to tell us where to find this friend of a friend?”

“Ah, well, that’s where it gets complicated,” said Marty with a sad smile. “As it turns out, the guy he knows is a pal, but the guy his guy knows, the one who actually can tell us where Mountainside is — he’s not exactly a friend of our Mr. Tony Grapes.”


“It seems Brother Tony used to run with a crowd who did considerable business with someone this other guy didn’t like. There was some kind of wild craziness a while ago, and now this other guy would like to see Tony’s head on a pole. Maybe metaphorically, maybe not, Tony wasn’t clear on that point. This other guy scares the turkey stuffing out of Mr. Grapes.”

“Who is this other man?” asked Saint John. “Who is this enemy of god and where can we find him?”

“That’s what I asked Brother Tony, and he says that he can take us right to him, but he wants protection because this fellow has made some vague threats about throat-cutting and spinal separation. Credible threats, apparently. The man’s a trade guard who works all up and down the California border towns and outposts.”

“His name?”

“Sweeney,” said Brother Marty. “His name is Iron Mike Sweeney.”


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Area 51

Benny Imura went as far as he could get from Captain Ledger, his stupid training methods, and everything related to that oversize old creep. He was so mad that he growled at several of the monks, who shied back away from him.

Every time Benny thought about how Ledger tried to lord it over him or prove that he was a better fighter than Tom, or knew more than Tom, or could teach better than Tom, it made Benny even madder. He bent and snatched up a big rock and threw it as hard as he could against the side of the nearest of the big gray airplane hangars. The impact made a loud karooom  that Benny suddenly realized must have sounded like thunder inside.

He stopped and stared horrified at the spot where the rock had struck.

The hangar was filled with the sick and dying.

“Oh… jeez…”

The back door opened and a nun stepped out. Sister Hannahlily.

“Sorry!” yelled Benny, edging away.

The nun gave Benny a look that could have quieted a whole pack of zoms. He managed to endure it for two full seconds before he turned and fled. He could feel the heat of her disapproval stabbing him in the back like arrows.

Behind the hangars, foothills of red stone rose in broken walls to which tenacious vines clung. Spiky weeds sprouted up from the clefts. Benny caught movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced up to see a goat picking its way nimbly along a path so narrow that it wasn’t even visible from ground level. The goat threaded its way along the face of the cliff, and Benny kept pace with it, trying to let a pointless and temporary fascination divert him from his own glum thoughts.

Benny marveled at the goat, wondering how it had gotten here. Sanctuary was so remote and supposedly impossible to find without a guide. And yet here was a goat that was walking with the kind of confidence that suggested it was familiar with these rocks.

He felt himself frowning and actually had to stop and take mental inventory.

Why was he reacting that way?

Was something wrong about this?

If so… what?

Benny looked around, but there was no one to ask. He didn’t dare go ask one of the monks or nuns, not after the look Sister Hannahlily had given him. And there was no way in the world he was going to ask Captain Ledger. He’d rather kiss a zom than say another word to that jerk.

No, he decided, he’d find out for himself.

To satisfy his curiosity, he told himself.

To figure out why the presence of that goat bothered him so much.

He adjusted the katana  that he wore strapped across his back. Tom’s sword.

His sword now.

Benny took a breath, reached for the closest lip of rock, and began to climb.


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Rattlesnake Valley

Southern California

The four girls kept shifting their desperate stares from the zombies converging on Tiffany, then to Samantha, and back again. For her part, Samantha was working it all out. Distance, speed, the presence of the two dozen strangers, the terrain, everything. She was the leader of their pack because she knew how to work things out. Ida had called it three-dimensional thinking.

Samantha had to weigh the safety of the remaining girls against the small chance of saving Tiffany, and factor in the personal risk for all six of them. A trap set for one could catch a rescue party as well. All too easily.

She also had to try to assess what total strangers would do if the girls made a rescue attempt. The people in black and red were clearly alive, and somehow — impossibly, or so it seemed — they’d discovered ways to both control the dead and keep themselves safe from them. Until a few minutes ago Samantha would have thought neither of those things could be done.

However… the evidence was clear and irrefutable; therefore it could be done. Her view of the world needed to change to accept that and work with it.

“Okay,” she said quickly, an idea forming in her head. “Heather and Laura, I want you to go two hundred yards north. Stay low and stay hidden. Prep arrows and wait for my signal. Go!”

The two youngest girls, both of whom were superb archers, dropped from the tree, using the trunk to hide them. They melted into the high grass the way they’d been taught. Even Samantha, who was the best hunter in their group, lost sight of them at once.

“Good. Amanda, you and Michelle go south. Fifty yards will do it. Kindle a fire but use the driest brush you can find. No smoke. Wait for my call and then put wet stuff on the blaze. Soon as you do, leave it and go west. Find that old farm road and head for the barn. Wait as long as you can, but if we don’t catch up in ten minutes, get out of there.”

“What about you?” asked Michelle.

“I’ll be right here. We have to move fast. Tiff is running out of time.”

The girls moved fast. They dropped from the tree like squirrels and vanished into the brush.

Tiffany had a lead of maybe thirty yards on the main body of the dead, but she had six hundred yards to go to reach the creek. Two lines of dead were converging, and Samantha judged they’d cut her off sixty or seventy yards shy of safety.

Samantha counted off the seconds she judged were required for the other girls to get into position. It was going to be tight. So tight.

She still had the binoculars and, while she waited, she

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took a longer look at the people in black and red. The field glasses were very powerful, and now she was able to see the design each of them had on their chests.


White angel wings.

So strange a symbol for people who were driving the dead like a pack of dogs to try to murder a teenage girl.

What made it even worse was that the people with the wings and the knives were all smiling as they hunted Tiffany.



Who were these people?

Over the years Samantha’s ragtag family had met more than their share of wild loners, badlands human predators, bounty hunters, and worse. The fall of the world had driven so many people mad and corrupted so many others. That’s what Ida always said, and she’d prayed for them to find their souls again.

Samantha studied these smiling hunters of innocent girls and wondered how long it had been since they’d lost their connection to either God or humanity. The fact that there were so many of them, and that they were acting in a coordinated way, suggested intelligence and control. And yet what they were doing was mad.

It made no sense to her.

There was a loud birdcall to her right, and she glanced north. She could not see Heather and Laura, but she knew the call. They were in position. Samantha turned to the south and saw a few thin wisps of smoke. Amanda and Michelle were ready.

Samantha slung the binoculars over her shoulder, took a deep breath to steady her nerves, took her spear in both hands, and dropped out of the tree. She bent nearly in half and moved down to the closest point of concealment near the creek.

Tiffany was running as hard as she could, but by now she had to know that there was no chance she’d slip through the closing jaws of the trap.

Not unless…

Samantha set her spear down, cupped her hands around her mouth, and gave a sharp cry. The screech of a hunting hawk.

Instantly two threads of darkness stitched across the sky, and suddenly arrows struck quivering in the throats of the zombies closest to the right-hand part of the trap. One zombie fell at once, the brain stem clearly severed. The other staggered and crashed into another of the dead. They fell heavily, and the zombies behind them tripped and fell over them.

The zombies on that side of the field turned toward movement as first Heather and then Laura rose up, fired, dropped down, and rose up again a few yards away. Arrows flew across the creek, and each one hit a target. The girls were not trying for a kill, not at that distance, but they were good enough to hit heads and necks. Nerve and brain damage, even if not fatal, made the zombies far more erratic and confused. Within seconds that whole side of the trap was a jumble of falling bodies, thrashing limbs, frustrated snarls, and grasping hands.

Tiffany saw this and for an awful moment she slowed almost to a stop, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Then there was another birdcall — an eagle’s shriek — and within seconds thick white smoke billowed up from the south. Amanda and Michelle had thrown wet grass on the fire. The smoke was so dense that it did exactly what Samantha wanted it to do: It cast a writhing shadow on the waving marsh weeds. The zombies on that side of the trap staggered to a clumsy stop, and with Tiffany barely moving, their attention was now drawn by the column of smoke and its wavering shadow. The zombies turned and lumbered that way.

The path was now wide open, but Samantha knew it wouldn’t be for long. The people in black and red had spotted the smoke and the arrow-struck dead. They began moving toward those points, weapons glinting in the sunlight.

Samantha rose up out of the grass and gave a third birdcall. The wild, mournful call of a marsh bird.

Tiffany jerked erect, looked the wrong way first, and then swung around toward the cottonwood. When she saw Samantha, she didn’t waste a single moment gaping or waving. Instead she broke into a run again, pouring on the speed, racing with all her heart and fear and muscle toward the blue ribbon of water.

Samantha ran to meet her and as Tiffany splashed down into the deepest part, Samantha was there to catch her under the armpit and haul her to safety on the opposite bank.

“Who are those people?” demanded Samantha.

Tiffany was too breathless to say much, but she gasped out a single word.


There was no time to learn more. The dead had heard the splashing and saw the movement of the two girls in the water. So had the people in black and red.

The reapers.

Holding on to Tiffany, lending strength to her exhausted friend, Samantha ran toward the high ground and the tall grass. The forest reached out with shadows and green arms to enfold them.

However, behind them they heard the moans of the dead, the splash of feet in the water, and the yells — the very human yells — of the reapers as they ran in pursuit of their prey.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

Saint John of the Knife stood in the shadows of a live oak and waited for the slaughter to begin. He stood on a grassy knoll, looking down on a country lane that wandered lazily through the countryside. Birds sang in all the trees, and the air was alive with the buzz of honeybees and bluebottle flies. Sunlight slanted through the boughs, dappling the road in yellow and purple.

The wagon clattered along the road, wheels crunching against the edges of ruts worn into the cracked blacktop. Four heavy-boned horses pulled the wagon, their bodies wrapped in carpet coats and draped with metal mesh. Two men sat on the wooden bench seat, one with the reins in his hands, the other with a shotgun across his knees. The wagon was an old-fashioned chuck wagon that had probably been looted from a cowboy museum. The sides had been reinforced with metal sheeting, and the words gunderson trade goods had been painted in bright colors. Two men walked beside the wagon, one on each side, leading their horses. Fifty yards behind the wagon, another man rode slowly on a slate-gray Percheron that stood nineteen hands high and wore a helmet covered in spikes.

The man who sat astride the Percheron had flaming red hair gathered back into a ponytail, dusty jeans, cowboy boots, a Western shirt with flowers and hummingbirds stitched across the chest, and crisscrossed army gun belts around his lean hips, from which holstered Glocks hung. A widemouthed sheath, from which one half of a compound bow protruded, was slung from the saddle horn. It was a metal-and-fiberglass hunting bow fitted with cables and pulleys. A quiver heavy with arrows was slung across his back.

The man was big — tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular. His chest and arms were almost freakishly huge, nearly simian, but for all his mass there was something about him. A lurking potential to use that power with deadly speed. Saint John could see that right away; he was an excellent judge of combat potential.

This was the man they were looking for, he decided. He fit the description given by the Night Church’s newest reaper, Brother Tony. This was the man who knew where Mountainside and the other eight towns could be found.

The trade wagon and its guards were walking through country that was virtually empty of the gray people, and it showed in the slack disinterest of each of those men. Only the big man seemed to be alert. In fact, Saint John saw the precise moment when the red-haired giant realized that the woods were not as empty as they appeared. His horse passed through a patch of shadow thrown across the road by a crooked willow. As the rider passed out of the shadow and into the sunlight, his head jerked up and he looked around. First to the right-hand side of the road, then to the left. His body language changed as he shifted forward in the saddle.

He raised his head, and Saint John had the strange impression that the redhead was sniffing the air the way an animal would. Could he somehow smell the chemicals on the tassels of the hidden reapers? With all the wildflowers that bloomed on either side of the road, it seemed unlikely, improbable. It was why Saint John had chosen this particular spot for the ambush.

“Bobby, Harv,” called the big man. “Hold up.”

The two men leading their horses turned to look back at him. “What’s up, Mike?”

Iron Mike Sweeney used his thighs to guide his horse forward as he continued to look around.

“I don’t know… something’s…”

He let his voice trail off. And then it seemed to Saint John that the big man’s whole body appeared to blur. His hands were empty and then they were not. He’d snatched up his bow so fast that the eye could not follow it. An arrow seemed to appear on the string as if by magic, there was a vibrating twang, and then a wet scream tore the air. A reaper staggered from between two thick bushes with that same arrow buried to the fletching in his chest. He took two wandering steps and then toppled forward onto his face with no attempt at all to catch his fall.

“Trap!” yelled Iron Mike.

Before Harv and Bobby could even react, Mike had begun filling the air with arrows. One after the other, so fast that Saint John felt an electric thrill race through him. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. Screams filled the air as each arrow plunged into dense shadows to find a chest or throat or eye socket. Reapers fell, writhing in agony or still in death.

The shotgun man on the wagon stood up and swung his barrel around, firing blindly into the trees. Then he shrieked and pitched backward, a hatchet chunked deep into his lower back.

There was a thunderous cry, and the reapers rose up from behind bushes and rocks. A wave of them crested the top of the grassy knoll and washed down toward the road.

Harv and Bobby drew their guns and fired.

And fired and fired.

The reapers were so closely packed that every bullet hit a target.

The guns clicked empty and the guards tried to reload.


The reaper wave slammed into them, and they went down in a froth of red as silver knives ended them. Other reapers dragged the driver down and cut him into red inhumanity.

The arrows of the big trade guard never paused. He killed seven reapers, ten, fourteen. Twenty.

They surged toward him, and he hooked the string of the bow over his saddle horn and drew his Glocks. The reapers, the killers who served Saint John’s god, ran into the storm of bullets. They screamed the name of Thanatos. They screamed the name of Saint John.

They screamed the names of their mothers as the bullets tore them down.

Iron Mike filled the road with the dead.

His mighty Percheron, twenty-six hundred pounds of warhorse, reared up and lashed out with steel-shod hooves. The elite killers of the Night Church were flung into the air with shattered skulls and arms and chests.

And then a blade whistled through the air, turning end over end, and its point bit deep into the Percheron’s throat. The horse screamed and twisted sideways and fell.

Iron Mike leaped from the saddle and landed hard, tucking and rolling, coming up onto the balls of his feet, dropping empty magazines, swapping them out, turning, firing, killing. He dropped those magazines and slapped in his last two.

The reapers formed a wide circle around him, the diameter thirty feet across, the ranks of killers thirty deep. Hundreds of knives and swords and scythes glittered in the sunlight. The red-haired giant held the pistols out as he turned in a slow circle.

Everyone knew how this was going to end. He had fifteen rounds in each gun. He had no more magazines.

There were a thousand reapers around him.

Saint John walked slowly down from the top of the knoll. He paused to retrieve his knife from the horse’s throat; then he gave an order and the reapers parted to create a corridor. The saint wiped his blade clean on his thigh and slid the throwing knife into its sheath as he strolled toward the last trade guard. He stopped ten feet away.

The big man said nothing, but he lowered his pistols.

“I am Saint John of the Knife,” said the saint. “You understand that if I wanted you dead, you would be dead.”

The big man shrugged. “Everybody dies.”

His eyes were strange. The irises were red except for a rim of gold. Saint John had never seen eyes like that except in church paintings of vampires and demons.

“The question is, my friend,” said Saint John, “do you want to live?”


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Area 51

It took twenty-five grueling, exhausting, sweaty minutes to climb all the way up to the goat path. For most of that time the goat stood there, quietly chewing on a tough piece of vegetable root, watching him with placid curiosity. Each time Benny slipped, he could swear there was a look of pitying amusement on the goat’s face.

Only when Benny climbed onto a flat shelf near the goat did the animal move away. Even then it was at so leisurely a pace that it was as if the goat was daring Benny to give chase. The path it took was less than a hand’s-width wide. Giving chase was very low on Benny’s list of things to do in this lifetime.

Following, however, was another thing. He didn’t want to catch the goat, but he definitely wanted to know how it had gotten into Sanctuary. On his climb he’d figured out what was bothering him.

If a goat could climb over the mountains and reach Sanctuary, so could a person.

Or a lot of people.

The dead would never be able to manage it, of course. They were too clumsy and mindless, and climbing required strength, coordination, observation, sharp wits, and good judgment.

The reapers had all those things.

Benny smiled grimly. If he was able to prove that Sanctuary was unsafe, that it was vulnerable to a sneak attack because of goat trails like this, then he would be able to throw that right in Captain Ledger’s face.

This was being warrior smart.

That’s what Benny’s brother Tom called it. Warrior smart. Using training and good judgment, courage and determination to confront an obstacle and overcome it. The same rules of common sense and education applied. Faced with anything from finding food in the wasteland, avoiding the zoms, preparing a battle plan, to escaping a trap, or defeating an enemy.

Warrior smart was a better way of thinking than the gung-ho stuff Ledger wanted to teach.

Grinning, he began moving slowly and carefully along the goat path.

His courage and confidence stayed with him for almost three hundred yards, but after the first time the walkway cracked beneath his shoes, he began to doubt the wisdom of this plan.

Half an hour later he was only a third of the way to the crest of this broken hill, but the ground looked like it was a thousand miles down. Hot sweat ran down his face, but cold sweat tickled in lines beneath his clothes. His breath came in ragged gasps, and he tried to drill his fingers into the rock wall.

Once, when he closed his eyes, he thought he heard his brother Tom speaking to him.

Yo! Boy genius,  said Tom. Exactly what do you think you’re doing? 

“Shut up,” breathed Benny. “I’m trying not to die here.”

How hard are you trying? 

“Bite me.”

Not even if I was alive. 

They both laughed, but the laughs were ghostly and unreal. What Benny really wanted to do was sob. The ache he felt for his lost brother was almost unbearable at times. He kept seeing a hole in the world in the shape of Tom Imura, and he couldn’t imagine anything filling it.

However, he believed that he was supposed to fill it. He was supposed to become the next Tom Imura.


Not some old guy who used to be a soldier back when something like that mattered. Before the dead rose and humanity fell. Now — and especially to Benny — meeting an actual soldier was like being handed proof that the old system was never good enough, that it wasn’t strong enough. That it wasn’t warrior smart enough. The world still ended.

Hot wind whistled past Benny, flapping the cuffs of his jeans and stinging his face.

“Tom…?” murmured Benny.

Yeah, kiddo? 

“I… I don’t know if I can do it.”

Tom laughed. A gentle laugh. It’s easy. Put one foot in front of the other and try not to fall. 

“That’s not what I meant.”

For a moment Benny could really see Tom, standing there in the shade under the big oak that anchored one corner of their gated yard back home. Tom standing with a cup of iced tea. The smell of hot apple pie wafting out through the kitchen window. Really good pie too. With walnuts and raisins, the way Tom made it. Sour apples so it wasn’t too sweet.

“That’s not what I meant,” Benny said again.

I know what you meant,  answered Tom.

“Tom, I—”

But Tom was gone.

The wind howled as it tore through the crags of the red rock wall.

Benny took as deep a breath as he could and sighed it out. Took another. And another. And then he continued climbing.

It took almost forty minutes to reach the top of the crest. By the time he did, his body was trembling with fatigue and jumpy from the residue of adrenaline in his blood. He staggered away from the edge onto a flat section that was covered with withered grass and strewn with huge boulders left over from the last glacier. Benny took two wobble-kneed steps and then sank down onto his knees.

His exhaustion was the only thing that kept him alive as something whipped over his head.

Benny flung himself sideways, thinking that it was the goat lashing out with hooves to defend its territory.

It wasn’t a goat.

It wasn’t an animal.

The thing that had nearly cut his head off was a broad-bladed field scythe.

And it was held in the fists of a reaper.

All around him, others reapers were emerging from hiding places among the glacial boulders.


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Rattlesnake Valley

Southern California

Samantha and Tiffany plunged into the woods, and a veil of cool shadows dropped behind them. They ran hard and fast along a deer path for fifty yards and then cut sharply left toward a small stream that fed the larger creek. They stepped into the ankle-deep water and kept going, moving slower now, making sure they didn’t splash water onto the dry mud along the banks or dampen any of the low-hanging leaves. There was no way to know if their pursuers understood anything about tracking, but the girls were long practiced at stealth and concealment.

Samantha bent close to Tiffany. “Who were those people? Who or what are reapers?”

The younger girl was gasping for breath after her exertions, but she managed to get out what she’d learned. “I… was hunting in the eastern woods… and I heard a scream. I went running, thinking the dead were attacking someone, but it wasn’t that at all. Three men in black were chasing an old couple — they had to be seventy or eighty. The old lady saw me and begged for help.” She looked at Samantha for approval. “What else could I do?”

“No, Tiff, you did the right thing, I’m sure,” Samantha assured her. “Then what happened?”

Tiffany quickly told the tale. The old couple were the last of a small group of survivors who had been living in an old shopping mall. They barely had enough to eat, but they were safe from the dead. Then the people in black and red — the reapers — broke into the mall and just started killing everyone.

“Why?” asked Samantha sharply.

“That’s just it… they didn’t give any explanation. They kept yelling things about someone named Thanatos and about sending everyone into the darkness. Crazy stuff like that. The old couple and a few others escaped, but they were chased. They’d survived on the road, constantly heading west toward the mountains and forestlands, but the reapers picked them off one by one. Or they sent packs of the dead after them.”


“The old man said that the reapers made up some kind of chemical stuff that keeps the dead from attacking them. They dip pieces of cloth into it and tie the cloth around their ankles and like that.”

Samantha nodded. “The red tassels,” she said. “But how do they make the zombies do what they want?”

“The old man thinks they use dog whistles.”

“But how does—?”

“The dead can hear it. Certain calls make the dead come to them, other calls make them go away. So, I guess they use the whistles to, I don’t know, steer them? Crazy, isn’t it?”

“It’s smart,” said Samantha. “Really smart.”

There was a sound in the woods and they both stiffened, ready to run or fight, but it was only a couple of zebras. More zoo escapees. The striped animals turned to where the girls hid, sniffed the air, and then whinnied in irritation and trotted away.

“Why were these reapers chasing you?”

Tiffany flushed. “Well, what I left out was how I had the chance to talk to the two old folks.”

“Tell me.”

It was a simple thing to say, but Samantha knew that there was a lot behind it. There’s always more to something than what it seems.

What Tiffany said was plain and honest and brutal. “They were trying to kill those two old people, so I killed them.”

Samantha studied Tiffany’s eyes. There were ghosts there, moving from one room of her mind to another. The reapers might have deserved the fate they got, but Tiffany would still carry the memory of what she’d done — what she’d been forced to do — for the rest of her life. Samantha saw similar ghosts when she looked in the mirror.

It made her wonder if the reapers were similarly haunted by the terrible things they were doing. Why, in fact, were they raiding camps and killing innocent folks? In a world where there was almost no one left, it was bad enough killing in defense of the innocent or oneself; but to kill for the joy of it, or for some other equally crazy reason, was a sin.

“What happened to the old people?” asked Samantha tentatively, afraid of the answer.

“I… was bringing them home. I thought we could help them….”


“But the reapers caught us. So many of them. They attacked us, and before I knew it the old couple was down. It was awful, Sam. What they did to those people was bad.”

Tiffany’s voice was fragile with pain and anger. And with shock, and Samantha knew how dangerous that was.

“I took another of them down, but there were too many, and I ran. You know the rest.”

“Reapers,” echoed Samantha. “If they’re coming this way, we may have to leave the motor court. We can’t defend that place against an army, and if they can control the dead, then that’s what they have.”

Leaving the motor court would be a sad thing. They’d spent most of their lives there. Their friends were buried there. And there were too many supplies to carry if they had to simply pack and run. And they had no idea what was west of where they lived. Some travelers told rumors of a bunch of small towns somewhere in the mountains, but if they’d given any specific details, that knowledge had died with Dolan and Ida.

There were birds in all the trees, but suddenly there was a single sharp owl cry. Samantha and Tiffany stopped whispering and listened. Heard it again. Samantha responded with the sound a baby owl would use to call its mother. Immediately two figures stepped from the shadows beneath an old weeping willow, both of them with arrows nocked to the strings of yew-wood bows.

Heather and Laura lowered their bows and rushed forward to help.

“I have her,” said Samantha, waving them off. “We need to get to the barn to meet the others. Buy us some time.”

Tiffany, who was puffing and gasping, croaked, “I’m all right… I don’t need help….”

They ignored her.

However, Laura said, “I’m almost out of arrows. I’ll take Tiff and find the others.”

Samantha nodded and, despite Tiffany’s breathless protests, let Laura take up the burden of supporting the exhausted Tiffany. Then Samantha took the short spear from the leather scabbard into which she’d thrust it. The weapon had a four-foot hickory shaft and a blade scavenged from a broken sword Dolan had recovered from an empty house. A Scottish claymore. Dolan said that the sword had been on the ground next to over a dozen corpses that had once been zoms. Someone had made a heroic last stand, but now that person was probably wandering the earth as one of the living dead. That was how it was in last-stand fights. The defender ultimately runs out of ammunition, or their weapons break, or they just fatigue out against an enemy that can never get tired.

However, twelve inches of that old sword now protruded from a sturdy knot of leather at the end of the spear. The metal was heavy enough to use as a cleaver, sturdy enough to block most blades, and sharp enough to cut through leather, flesh and bone. Samantha called it her dragon’s tooth, and with it she’d defended against a great number of enemies, living and dead.

She and Heather watched the other girls move off; then they addressed the ground. When Samantha and Tiffany came out of the water, they’d left a wet trail. That had to be erased. They set to work, using dry brush to remove all footprints, then scooping handfuls of dried leaves, sticks, and stones and laying them like a haphazard carpet over any wet piece of ground. Within seconds the trail looked old and disused.

Then they erased their own footprints as they crept into tall grass. They moved in silence, knowing that they were invisible to anyone except maybe a hunting tiger or wolf. Their route cut across the path most likely taken by the people in black.

The reapers.

Then they heard sounds.

Human voices.

“—this way, I’m sure of it—”

Samantha and Heather ducked down again and watched as three figures came hurrying along the deer path. Two men and a woman. All dressed identically, and at closer range Samantha could see that the white angel wings embroidered on their shirts were highly detailed. Good needlework, done with skill and care. They moved ineptly through the forest, either because they lacked woodcraft or because they simply did not care if they made noise.

She felt Heather trembling beside her. Her eyes were glassy with fear, but that was understandable. Samantha put a hand on the younger girl’s arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. Heather flinched, but after a few moments her trembling eased a bit.

The reapers were getting closer, and the girls caught bits and pieces of their conversation.

“—be good to get some hot food once we catch up to the main army. I haven’t had a cooked meal in—”

“—Saint John will open red mouths in the flesh of every—”

“—ought to skin that girl—”

Samantha touched Heather’s bow and then pointed to the reaper out in front. He was the smaller of the two men and the one most likely to run out of bowshot faster than his companions.

Heather nodded and very quietly drew the fletched end of the arrow back to her ear.

“Now!” said Samantha in a sharp whisper, and the arrow vanished from the bow. There was a meaty thuk , and it appeared as if by magic between the reaper’s shoulder blades.

Samantha was in full motion before the other two reapers could react. She struck the middle reaper — the woman — in the temple with the butt-end of her spear and with a grunt and a pivot drove the blade into the chest of the third killer. He opened his mouth to scream, but he died before the sound could escape. As he collapsed, Samantha wrenched her spear free and whirled toward the fallen woman, who was bleeding and dazed. The woman had lost her ax when she fell, but she scrabbled at her belt to draw a draw a long-bladed skinning knife. Samantha kicked it out of her hand and put the edge of her spear blade under the woman’s throat.

“One word and you’re dead,” she hissed.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

“My name is Brother Martin,” said the small man who stood next to Saint John. “But everyone calls me Brother Marty. I was never comfortable with Martin. I’m more of a Marty kind of guy.”

Iron Mike Sweeney said nothing. The big red-haired trade guard stood with his arms wide, wrists lashed to tree trunks, feet tied to roots, shirt stripped away, pale skin running with bright red blood. The woods around them were filled with silent reapers.

“What’s your name?” asked Brother Marty.

Iron Mike didn’t answer directly. Instead

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he made a suggestion that was rude, obscene, and physically impossible. Saint John’s mouth compressed into a tight line. The closest reapers cut looks at him and then glared at the prisoner, ready to kill him for the insult.

Brother Marty merely sighed. “While that would make for an interesting little film back in the day when making interesting little films was how I earned a buck, I don’t think your suggestion gets us very far. It doesn’t open a dialogue.”

Iron Mike said nothing.

One of the reapers, a big man marked with the tattoo of a red hand on his face, stepped close and whispered into Brother Marty’s ear. The smaller man nodded and waved him away.

“Ah,” said Brother Marty. “If I’m hearing this right, you’re known as Iron Mike Sweeney. Also known as Big Mike Sweeney and Bloody Mike Sweeney.”

Iron Mike said nothing.

“‘Iron’ Mike,” said Brother Marty, putting the name out there to taste it. “Talk about truth in advertising.” He glanced at Saint John. “He’s as tough as iron, that’s no joke.”

The saint pursed his lips but did not comment.

To Iron Mike, Marty said, “On behalf of the Night Church and our Honored One, Saint John of the Knife, I got to say that you are one bad mamba-jamba, and we admire that. You got the stuff, man, you got that X factor that sets you apart from other men. You know how rare that is? Especially in these times? You could’ve been a star back in the day. The Rock, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger — they had it, but I don’t know how many of them could spend the kind of afternoon you’re having without so much as a peep. I’m really impressed. You know how many reapers you killed? Between arrows, guns, and that horse? Thirty-four. Thirty-four. I couldn’t sell a body count like that even in a summer blockbuster.”

Iron Mike smiled at him. It was not a nice smile, and it erased the grin from Brother Marty’s face.

Marty cleared his throat. “Okay, don’t do that again, because it creeps me the heck out. And what’s with the eyes? Red eyes? Really? And those aren’t contact lenses?”

“I have my father’s eyes,” said Mike.

There was something in the way he said it that made Brother Marty want to run and hide. It did not make him want to ask who Mike’s father had been. Or indeed what  Mike’s father had been. The world was too big and too scary already without exploring any new territory.

“Enough,” said Saint John, and as he stepped forward Marty was more than happy to retreat. He faded to the edge of the clearing and watched the saint.

“You’re boring me,” said Iron Mike. There was no hint of pain or discomfort in his voice. That scared Marty too. “Say your piece. If you want to kill me, then go for it. If you have a deal, pitch it.”

“Let’s start with a deal, Mr. Sweeney,” said Saint John. “And it’s a simple deal.”

“I’m listening.”

“We want some information. The location of nine towns.”

The prisoner snorted. “This is California, friend. Used to be the most populous state. There are a lot of towns here. Take your pick.”

“We’re looking for the town of Mountainside. It won’t be on any map made before the Fall.”

Iron Mike said nothing.

Saint John leaned closer to him. “As dear Brother Marty said, we are impressed with your strength. Of body and of will. But I am a saint abroad in a world of sin, and I am charged by god to cleanse the earth of the infection of life. This town of Mountainside is one of a group of towns that represent the largest population west of the Rockies. Its existence is an affront to god.”

“Whose god?”

“The only god. Lord Thanatos.”

“All praise to his darkness,” chanted the reapers.

“Thanatos, huh? Minor Greek god of death,” mused Mike. “Known as Mors to the Romans. Son of Nyx, the Night, and Erebos, the Darkness.”

“You know your history,” said Saint John, “but you don’t understand the truth behind the historical propaganda.”

“You don’t know what I know,” said Iron Mike. He craned his head forward to speak. Drops of blood fell from his chin and spattered on the saint’s clothes. “I know you. I know who you are, Saint John of the Knife. I know who you were before the Reaper Plague began eating the world.”

“Do you?”

The red eyes burned, and the mouth below them smiled. “I know. And even if I hadn’t heard of the serial killer named Saint John in newspapers and books, all I have to do to know you is to look into your eyes. You know the saying — the eyes are the windows of the soul. Do you want to know what I see when I look into your eyes?”

Saint John did not answer.

“You want me to tell you?” asked Mike in a tone only Saint John and Brother Marty could hear. “In front of your ‘flock’?”

The saint did not reply, but Marty raised his hand, snapped his fingers with a sound like a dry stick breaking, and waved the reapers back. He kept waving until they were well beyond earshot even of normal voices.

“You want me out of here, boss?” he asked.

Saint John nodded. “Question the last of the guards. Tear the truth from him if you must. Do it down the hill, but come when I call.”

Before he left, Brother Marty looked up into Iron Mike’s face. “You are one very spooky guy, you know that?”

“It’s come up in conversation.”

They smiled at each other for a moment.

“Be cool if you were on our side,” said Brother Marty.

Iron Mike’s smile grew cold. “I’m not on anybody’s side.”

Marty studied his eyes, then turned and moved quickly away.

When they were alone, Saint John said, “You try very hard to be impressive, Mr. Sweeney. Go ahead… impress me. Reveal your insights. What is it you think you know?”

“Seriously? You want to go there.”

“Seriously,” agreed the saint.

“Okay. Like I said, I know you. I look through the windows of your eyes and I know you. I can see what made you.”

“I doubt that…”

“I can see the little boy you used to be. The tortured one. The abused one. The humiliated one.”

“You’ll have to do better than that. Before the Fall the newspapers ran all sorts of stories speculating about me. They trotted out FBI profilers who said that I was the product of an abusive home life. All very cliché.”

“All very true.”

“You’re trying to buy your life back by teasing me with information anyone could have gotten.”

Mike slowly shook his head. “I know the secret word….”

Saint John froze.

“I know what it is and where it is,” said Mike. “A word your father burned into your skin with cigarette butts. A word that he burned onto your mother’s face right before she killed herself. Do you want me to tell you what that word is?”

The saint did not reply. His mouth went dry, and his heart beat with strange rhythms.

“I know what you did to your father,” continued Iron Mike. “I know what you did to try and stop the pain. The horror. The ugliness.”



“No… you can’t know that. No one…” Saint John’s voice died in his throat.

The prisoner shook his head slowly. “Look… you and I aren’t as different as you might think. I did my own time in hell when I was a kid, and I have the scars to prove it. Inside and out. I know what it feels like to be turned from an innocent kid into a monster. Believe me… I know.”

“You don’t know my life,” murmured the saint. “No one knows what happened….”

“Look at me,” said Iron Mike quietly, “and tell me if I’m like anyone you ever met.”

Saint John shook his head.

“Look at me and tell me if you ever saw anyone like me except in the mirror.”


Saint John tried to stare the man down, but the longer he looked into those burning red eyes, the more he felt the ground beneath him begin to melt, to turn to quicksand.

“What are you?” he demanded.

“I’m like you,” said Mike Sweeney. “I’m a monster. We were both born in a furnace, raised by predators, and then vomited out into the world.”

“Monster…,” echoed Saint John. His knees wanted to buckle.

“You call yourself a saint of god,” mocked Mike Sweeney. “It’s a front, it’s a paint job you slap over bare stone walls. I know all about that. I wanted to remake myself too. I wanted to whitewash my soul. I couldn’t do it before the world ended. Not really. But every day since, I’ve been trying to be a new person. Not the thing my father made me… no, I wanted to be the man I should have been if the old world had shown me even a splinter of grace.” He laughed, short and bitter, full of nails and broken glass. “But maybe people like us can’t really ever escape who we are. I was a monster before the Fall and I’m a monster now. A different kind of monster, sure, but then again it’s a different world.”

“I’m not a monster,” said Saint John in a low, tight voice that was filled with menace. “I am a saint of god.”

Iron Mike studied him for a long moment, then sighed and nodded. “Maybe you are. Maybe even heaven’s broken and the old gods are fighting over the scraps. One of them might need a man like you to be his garbage collector down here. What do I know? But if you’re a saint of your god, then maybe I’m a hound of mine.”

Saint John’s lips formed the words “hound of god.”

Mike grinned with red-streaked teeth and eyes the color of blood.

The saint said, “You speak of mysteries. You speak as if you know about me.”

“I do.”

“You can’t.”

Iron Mike shrugged as best he could — a lift of muscular shoulders and a smile that seemed unable to acknowledge fear or the presence of death. Saint John searched the man’s strange eyes, looking for a sliver of doubt, of fear, even of humanity. All he saw was something alien, something that did not fit into his world or his faith.

And that was an impossible thing.

That had never happened before.

Not once.

As if sensing his thoughts, Iron Mike gave a sad shake of his head. “You’re looking in the wrong direction.”

“What do you mean? We know the towns are in—”

“No,” said the prisoner. “That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about when you look at the world. All you can see is the world of machines and governments and science — all the things your kind hate; and when you look into the future, all you see is the end of all pain and the simplicity of your darkness. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What else is there?”

Iron Mike flexed his hands and gave a playful tug on his bonds. “You seem like a smart guy, educated. Ever read Hamlet ? Remember the scene in the graveyard, that line everybody quotes? ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy?”

Saint John said nothing.

The prisoner nodded, however, as if the saint had acknowledged the quote and its meaning. “You treasure the darkness, and who knows, maybe you’re really damaged enough to serve your version of the darkness with your whole heart, but—”

“My ‘version’?” cut in Saint John. “There is only the darkness.”

“Ah,” said Iron Mike, “you’d better hope not. You’d better hope that there are many kinds of darkness. That’s what I believe. Hell, I bet we even see different stars when we look up at the night sky. I believe there are worlds within worlds, shadows within shadows.”

Saint John grunted with disgust. It was a dismissive sound. “What a pity,” he said, “after all of this it turns out that you are merely mad. For a moment there, I will admit, I believed that you had insight, that you were some kind of damaged prophet. But… no. Merely another person driven mad by having to endure endless days in this world of flesh.”

Something flickered in the prisoner’s eyes, but Saint John could not accurately read it.

“It’s okay if you believe that,” said Iron Mike. “Sometimes even I think I’m nuts. If you’ve seen the things I’ve seen, done the things I’ve done, saw the world through my eyes…” The prisoner laughed quietly and shook his head. “Being insane would be nice. It would be a kindness, and I can’t remember the last time this universe threw me a bone. Everything I’ve ever loved has died or been torn away from me. Am I crazy? I wish to god — any god who will listen, even your god — that I was.”

“I pity you,” said Saint John, and he mostly meant it. This man disturbed him on so many levels. His words, as mad as they were, threatened to open doors in his head that had long since been nailed shut and bricked up. “Tell me where the Nine Towns are and I will end your pain and your suffering. I will send you on into the darkness.”

“Killing me would be a blessing,” said Iron Mike, “but not in the way you think.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing… but…”

“But what?”

Iron Mike looked up at the trees, above which the sun was a bright ball of fire. He closed his eyes and took in a long, deep breath.

“It’s going to be a full moon tonight,” he said, eyes still closed. “Did you know that?”

“So what?”

Iron Mike opened his eyes, and they seemed to burn with palpable heat.

“You really don’t understand this world,” he said in a voice that was not at all human. It was low and wild and wrong. “There’s darkness and then there’s darkness. Real darkness. You think you understand what’s on the other side? You want to go into the darkness? You crave it. Keep thinking that, keep bringing pain to people who aren’t as strong or as crazy as you. But when it’s your time, when you step through the door into the big black… I’ll be waiting there for you. And I’ll show you what darkness really means.”

In a flash, before he knew he was going to do it, Saint John drew a knife and buried the blade in Mike Sweeney’s chest.

The big man made a single sound. It was not a grunt of pain. Not even of surprise.

It sounded more like a snort of mocking laughter.

Saint John tore his knife free and stared numbly at the bloody blade, watching in detached fascination as the red dripped down onto his hand. With a cry he flung the knife into the woods.

Then he spun away and fled.

When he reached his bodyguards, he waved them away and hurried toward the road where the army waited. Brother Marty followed at a run.

“Honored one,” panted Marty, “what happened down there? What did he say to you?”

Saint John suddenly wheeled, and one bloody hand darted out and caught Marty by the front of his shirt. He lifted the smaller man to his toes, pulled him so close that spit flecked Marty’s face as the saint spoke in a fierce whisper.

“We will never speak of this again. Never. I will personally flay the skin from anyone who mentions that man’s name. I will cut his tongue out and nail it to his—”

“Honored one,” croaked Marty, “please, please… it’s okay, it’s all cool. We don’t need that freak.”

Saint John’s eyes blazed at him, and it took a visible effort of will to stop the flow of his words and respond with a modicum of calm. “What do you mean?”

“Look at this.” Marty reached into his pocket and removed a folded paper and, with a flick of his wrist, shook it out. He held it up to show the saint. It was an old AAA road map of California. Dozens of notations had been handwritten onto the map. “The wagon driver had this under the seat. Look there… see? Haven, Mountainside, New Town… and six others. All nine towns are marked clear as day.”

Slowly, slowly… Saint John eased the force of his grip on Brother Marty’s shirt, letting the smaller man settle back onto his feet. Marty held the map out like it was an offering, or a shield. Saint John snatched it from him and stared at it.

Saint John closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. When he opened them, the look of wild panic in the saint’s eyes scared Marty more than anything had since the dead rose. This was not a man who was ever frightened. Not of the living or the dead.

The map seemed to work some magic on Saint John. Calming him, driving the wildness from his eyes. The saint took another breath and let it out slowly.

“There is great evil all around us, my friend,” he said in a ragged voice. “The sooner this world is destroyed, the safer all our souls will be.”

He turned and walked away.

Brother Marty stood there, quivering, bathed in cold sweat.

Marty cast a nervous look down the slope to where the red-haired man hung between two trees. Even now, even slumped in death, there was something about the prisoner.

Something deeply, deeply wrong.

Marty backed away, spun, and ran to catch up with Saint John.


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Area 51

Benny whirled and saw more reapers emerge from points of concealment. Six of them.

No… seven.

His mouth went instantly dry, and his heart sank all the way to his feet.

“Oh God…,” he whispered.

One reaper, a tall man with a hook nose and tattooed beetles and scorpions covering every inch of his shaved head, pointed at Benny with a two-handed field scythe, but spoke to the other reapers. “You see, my brothers and sisters? He calls on a false god when confronted by the servants of the only true god. All hail Thanatos.”

“Praise be to his darkness,” intoned the others in unison.

Benny licked his lips, which were so dry it felt like they were covered with sand. “I don’t want any trouble.”

It sounded as lame as it was, and the reapers smiled.

“Unless you accept the darkness, you are lost in a world of trouble.”

Benny looked quickly around. There were five men and two women, all of them lean and hard-looking, all of them armed with knives and swords. Their white angel wings seemed to glow with inner light on their chests, as if the intensity of their strange beliefs burned with real fire.

“Kneel, brother,” said the man with the scythe. “Humble yourself and pray for release, and in the name of our god we will send you into the sweet and perfect darkness.”

Benny stood and considered the man and his offer. Then he reached over his shoulder and slowly drew the kami katana .

“Or not,” he said.

The reapers looked at the sword and then at the teenage boy who held it.

They burst out laughing.

It was, Benny mused, not exactly the ideal reaction.

His mind was racing furiously, trying to remember every lesson Tom had ever taught him. The path he’d used to come up here was behind him and he could reach it, but it was impossible to negotiate it fast enough to stay alive. Even though none of these reapers carried bows and arrows — and none of them ever carried guns — they could simply stand at the edge of the cliff wall and throw stones at him. They’d batter him off the wall and send him plunging down into the jagged rocks below.

All other potential routes out of here were blocked by reapers. Benny could see some paths beyond them. One wending through dry grass looked well trodden. Benny realized with a jolt that the reapers must have been using this spot to observe Sanctuary. Why weren’t there soldiers up here? There were soldiers across the trench below; Benny had seen a few. Why wouldn’t they have people up here?

Or… had some of these reapers once been soldiers who’d been forced to kneel and kiss the knife, to accept membership into a church built on total human extinction?

Too many questions. Not enough time to discover answers.

All that was left for Benny to do was fight.

The reaper with the scythe had been watching him very closely and must have seen the acceptance of the inevitable in Benny’s eyes. He raised his scythe.

“Kill him,” he said.

And the reapers, with their smiling faces and gleaming knives, attacked.


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Rattlesnake Valley Motor Court

Southern California

“Heather,” snarled Samantha as she crouched over the female reaper. “Watch her.”

Heather had another arrow fitted and she drew it back, aiming at the woman’s chest. Samantha quickly searched the woman and removed four other knives. Two were very good and she pocketed those; the rest she flung into the brush, where they vanished completely. She did the same with the ax and the weapons of the men. Then, while Heather kept watch, Samantha ran quickly down the path to survey the forest. There were no other reapers that she could see, which meant that they had split up to search the woods. That was good for the moment, but she and Heather would have to get out of here soon and warn the others. As she started to turn away, she caught sight of several figures farther down the slope. Slow, clumsy figures, but they were coming this way.


She turned and ran back to the site of the ambush.

The reaper woman was still semi-dazed from the vicious blow of Samantha’s spear, and her eyes were glassy.

Samantha knelt in front of her and once more put the knife edge against her throat.

“Who are you and why are you killing people?”

The woman sneered. “A killer asks a question like that?”

“Self-defense, sister. You started this when you tried to kill my friend. So what’s with that? World’s full of zombies and you want to start killing some of the people who are trying to survive?”

The woman actually managed to smile. “You’re a heathen and a blasphemer and you wouldn’t understand.”

Samantha had heard those words “heathen” and “blasphemer” only in old Bible stories. She couldn’t imagine how they applied to something like this.

“Try me,” she said, and emphasized the request by pressing harder with her knife.

“We are reapers of the Night Church, faithful servants of the Lord Thanatos, all praise his darkness. We are the soldiers of our god. We are sent into the wasteland to find all those who defy our god’s will by clinging to the lie that is life.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not to the unenlightened.” The woman continued to smile. “When the old world ended, many people believed that it was the judgment of their god. And in a way it was, but the god of the old world, the god of the Christians and Jews and Muslims, and the heathen gods of the Hindus and all those other false idols were proven to be lies told by blasphemers. The truth is that Lord Thanatos — all praise to his darkness — is the one true god, and he has judged mankind and found it wanting. He raised the dead, his holy gray people, to open red mouths in the flesh of all who live in this world of sin. Through the sacred doorway of death the impure are made pure, and in the vast and formless darkness they know true peace and joy.”

Samantha almost smiled. “Wait, let me get this straight… you people believe that we have to die to be saved?”

“Of course.”

“And that’s why you’re killing everyone you meet?”

“We bring the blessings of Saint John of the Knife, the holy minister of our god. With the sacred blades we open the doorways to—”

“Paradise, right, I got it. But you guys have a weird double standard. You believe in death, but you’re still breathing and running around causing problems.”

“No,” said the woman, “we remain clothed in flesh only until the full will of god is completed. And then, with joy and songs on our lips, we will open the red mouths in each other’s—”

“Something’s coming,” said Heather, swinging around to aim her arrow into the woods.

“Zombies,” said Samantha. “I saw them a minute ago.”

“We have to go.”

“I know.”

The reaper said, “Why not stay and let the gray people send you into the blessed darkness?”

Samantha shook her head. “Thanks, but I think we’ll pass.”

She closed her hand around the silver dog whistle that hung around the woman’s neck. “You use this to control the zombies?”

“Yes. It is a gift from Lord Thanatos, all praise his—”

“Darkness, right.” With a grunt she yanked the whistle hard enough to snap the chain, looked at it for a moment, then stuffed it into a pocket. “Heather, get the other whistles.”

The younger girl hesitated, casting a nervous eye at the woods, then nodded and ran to comply.

“Get those red streamers, too.”

“They stink!”

“They smell like death,” said Samantha. “Kind of useful, don’t you think?”

Heather thought about it for a moment, then gave a small smile of understanding. She drew a knife and began sawing at the tassels on the two dead men. They could hear the zombies thrashing through the brush as they came.

Time was just about up.

Samantha looked at the woman.

“What you’re doing is wrong.”

“It is the will of god.”

“Not a chance. No god would want his people to do this much harm. If someone told you that, they were either lying to you or they’re crazy. Either way, what you’re doing is wrong.”

She removed the edge of the spear blade and stepped back.

“It is the will of god,” growled the reaper, her smile gone now.

Samantha shook her head.

“Go ahead, then,” said the reaper. “Kill me. Use your weapon and open the red doors in my flesh. You’ll see the joy on my face as I cross into the darkness.”

The zombies were less than a hundred feet way now, and they were closing in from all sides. Heather whimpered softly and restrung her arrow.

Samantha holstered her spear and drew one of the knives she’d taken from the reaper. The woman smiled again as if in welcome of what she thought was coming. But behind that smile, Samantha thought she detected a flicker of something else.

Doubt, maybe.

Or fear.

With a flash of silver, Samantha crouched and slashed away the red tassels the woman wore, then quickly gathered them up and stuffed them into her pocket. Then she backed away from the reaper. The zombies were entering the small clearing. A circle of them, their gray faces slack, their eyes empty, their mouths working as if biting the air.

Samantha began backing away, pushing Heather as she did so.

“You have those tassels?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” stammered Heather.

“Then let’s go. No! Don’t run… follow me and we walk out of here.”

The reaper woman looked at them in horror.

“Wait — you can’t leave me here.”

“Why not?” asked Samantha.

“Give me my tassels back.”

“Not a chance.”

The zombies were a dozen feet away now, reaching with pale hands.

“My whistle…”


“But… but…”

Samantha could feel the coldness of her own expression. “You said that the dead were here to complete your god’s will. Who am I to interfere?”

“Please!” begged the woman.

Samantha pushed Heather backward, and then the girls turned as two zombies closed in on them. Heather still had her arrow ready, and Samantha once more held her spear.

The zombies sniffed the air and their fingers grasped in their direction, but then they moved around the girls, indifferent to them, and shambled toward the woman who knelt on the ground.

“Please… god, please…”

“Don’t look,” said Samantha. “Just go and don’t look.”

Together they fled the scene, first walking, and then running, pursued only by the echo of the woman’s dreadful screams.

The last cry of “Please!” sounded like it had been torn from her throat.

Serves you right,  thought Samantha coldly.

The echo of that last cry seemed to hang in the air, refusing to faded into nothingness.

Samantha tried to feel good about what she’d just done. She wanted to feel smug about how she’d spun the situation on the reaper. She tried, but by the time they reached the barn and the other girls, she was sobbing so hard she could barely run.

“I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I’m sorry.”

Heather told the other girls what happened, and they in turn tried to tell Samantha that she had done the right thing. That it was justice. That it was okay.

But they all knew they were lying.


Without another word, they headed off to the Rattlesnake Valley Motor Court to pack what few things they needed. The woods were full of reapers and zombies. The day was closing like a fist around them.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

As the reapers marched away into the hills, Brother Marty found himself unable to stop thinking about the big man Saint John had killed. The one who must have said something that had ignited fear in the saint’s eyes — a thing Marty did not think was possible.

Who was Iron Mike Sweeney?

There was something about the man.

Something very wrong.

Something weirdly wrong.

Although Marty had accepted the path of the darkness and the way of the knife, part of him was still an ordinary man. A pre — First Night man. He’d been raised in a Jewish household, but not a strict one, and over the years agnosticism had drawn him away from his faith and his traditions. He was, however, always a very superstitious man, though he ascribed that to working in H

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ollywood. The movie business seemed to swing between the poles of very good or very bad luck. The superstitions that became part of him were in no way tied to his previous faith — or any faith. Luck was luck, and the world was always a little weird to him. The angels he sometimes prayed to never appeared in anyone’s holy books. Then or now.

As the reaper army marched on, he sat on his quad and rumbled down the center of the road behind Saint John, who was flanked by his personal guard, the Red Brotherhood.

Marty tried to shake his weird feeling and simply could not.

Finally he peeled off from the procession and signaled for four of the Red Brothers, and with them in tow he made a U-turn and headed back down the road to the place where the trade wagon had been ambushed. They reached the spot in less than thirty minutes. Marty pulled to a stop in the woods where he had a good view of the scene of slaughter. Most of the dead had risen and wandered off. A few — those with traumatic head wounds — lay where they’d fallen. The wagon stood there. Saint John had ordered the quartermasters of his army to take the uninjured horses and to slaughter the rest. The massive Percheron lay sprawled and dead beneath a crowd of vultures. Up the slope loomed the place where Iron Mike Sweeney had been executed by Saint John.

The two trees that had held him stood as silent as mourners. Ragged ends of rope hung from each, flapping weakly in the breeze.

But the man was gone.

Brother Marty sat immobile for a long moment. Then he signaled to one of the Red Brothers.

“Come on, guys. I want to know who cut him down and what happened to his body.”

The four Red Brothers dismounted and followed Marty up the slope. They stayed off the path to prevent any useful footprints from being obscured by their own shoes. When they reached the two trees, one of them — Brother Zeke — crept forward, knees bent, body bowed low to read the tale of the ground. Brother Marty followed close behind.

Zeke suddenly stopped, and from his posture it was clear there was something puzzling about the scene. He squatted down and poked at the ground, then picked up the pieces of rope that had been used to tie Mike Sweeney to the tree. Frowning, he turned to Marty.

“What is it?”

“Something’s weird about this, boss,” said Zeke.

“Don’t talk to me about weird,” said Marty. “We don’t want weird. We don’t like weird. This Iron Mike fellow is dead, and either he’s dead  dead and some maniac body-snatched him, or he’s walking around dead-ish looking for a hot meal. That’s ordinary, that’s what I want to hear. So, tell me what I want to hear.”

The reaper’s expression was difficult to read beneath the flaring red of the hand tattooed across his face, but even so the lift of his eyebrow and the tilt of his head conveyed plenty of meaning. He held out the ropes. They were torn apart, shredded. It was clear even to Marty that it hadn’t been done with a knife, either.

The rope ends looked gnawed.

Zeke squatted down and touched the dirt at the base of the trees, where deep marks were cut into the ground. Footprints.

But they were not made by human feet.

Each print was huge, bare of shoes, with wide-splayed toes. The tip of each toe print was gouged deep into the dirt as if by a savage claw. The reaper placed one palm over the clearest of the prints. It was bigger than his whole hand.

“That ain’t no dog,” muttered Zeke. He looked genuinely frightened. Sweat beaded on the red ink tattooed across his face. “And it’s too big to be a wolf. Or… at least not any kind of wolf I ever want to see. Except…”

“What?” asked Brother Marty.

“I don’t know. Something my granddad told me once. Some old legends from the deep woods in Canada where I grew up.” He half smiled, then shook his head. “No, that’s stupid stuff. That’s fairy-tale crap. Forget I said anything.”

“No, I want you to tell me,” insisted Brother Marty. “What exactly are you saying here?”

Zeke looked at him for a long five count, then down at the prints, then off into the woods. Finally he shook his head.

“I’m not saying anything, brother,” he said in a wooden voice.

“Where’s the body? Who took it? What’d they do with it?”

“It’s gone.”

“I can see that it’s gone, genius. I’m asking you to tell me what you’re suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything, brother,” said Zeke. He paused, and in a more confidential tone said, “Look, Marty, all kidding aside here, you know me. I can track pretty much anything. My dad and granddad took me hunting soon as I could walk. They taught me how to track like a pro. I can read signs. I can do that like you read a book. But I got to tell you, man, I don’t want no part of this. No sir. Tell on me to the Honored One if you got to, but I’ve said all I’m going to say.” He got to his feet and pointed into the woods. “And I will not go looking for whatever made those tracks. Not for anything.”

Brother Marty glared at him, but Zeke shook his head. He dropped the pieces of chewed rope and backed away from the paw prints. Then he turned and stalked back to his quad, muttering, “This is too weird for me, man. This is way too weird for me.”

Then he stopped and came back to Marty. “I’m just a grunt, brother,” he said quietly, “and you’re on the Council of Sorrows, so my opinion doesn’t mean either jack or squat. But we’ve been friends ever since we got scooped up by the Night Church. I thought we could, you know, talk to each other.”

“Say what you want to say, Zeke,” said Marty irritably.

Zeke pointed to the place of execution. “I think we should bug the heck out of here and not tell anyone about this. Not Saint John, not the Council… not anyone.”


“Because this spooks me, man.” The big reaper actually shivered. “Whatever this is… it’s wrong. Wrong in ways I can’t put into words. It’s creeping me out. I say we bug out and write this off.”

Marty studied him. Before he knelt to kiss the knife, Brother Zeke had been an enforcer for a group of road pirates working the Dakota badlands. Before that he’d run with a biker gang. He was not an imaginative or fanciful person. He was also not stupid. If he was scared — and that was evident from the man’s tight face, nervous glances, and twitchy eyes — then Marty did not want to stick around to try to prove that this was all nonsense.

Not for one second longer.

“Okay. We’re out of here right now,” Marty told the reaper. They exchanged a look that was equal parts understanding and agreement and moved quickly down the slope to their quads.

They fired up the quads and roared away at full speed.

It was a very large, very strange world, and not all of that strangeness belonged to the plague. Marty wondered if they had just cruised the edge of something older and less defined even than the dead rising to eat the living.

They never once looked back.

Marty was afraid that something would be watching them go.


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Area 51

Tom Imura had taught Benny and his friends to be warrior smart.

It was all about a way of thinking. A way of acting and reacting to the world. A way of working with the world in the way that it actually was rather than in the way one assumed it was.

Tom was a practical man. That he had died was no fault of his own.

Benny was seldom practical, but he was working it. Flexing that muscle. If he lived long enough, he figured he’d get there.

The current odds on that, however, were pretty crappy.

He dodged under the whooshing swing of the wicked scythe and tried to cut the leader of the reapers down, but he missed. The force of his swing sent him sprawling on his face, and for a moment all the reapers had a perfect chance to slaughter him.

If any one or two of them had tried, Benny would have died right there.

As it was, all of them attacked at once, each of them so eager and desperate to make the kill that they gave absolutely no thought to themselves or one another.

They crowded in, and stabbing knives met reaper flesh, shoulders collided with shoulders, heads cracked together. Like a clown act from a May Day festival, the reapers reeled back from one another. Not one blade had touched him.

With a whimper of mingled joy and shame, he quickly rolled sideways and scrambled to his feet. His mind burned with the thought that the only reason he was still alive was because he’d been so incredibly clumsy that he’d somehow infected the reapers with stupidity.

He knew, however, that it was going to be a momentary thing.

“Come on, Tom,” he said under his breath, “some Zen wisdom would be good right about now.”

Tom did not say a word, and Benny could imagine his brother doing a face-palm and walking away in embarrassed disgust.

“Thanks,” muttered Benny.

Three of the reapers were hurt, two badly. They reeled away from their fellows, one clutching an arm that had been laid open from biceps to wrist, the other clamping hands over a chest wound that pumped bright blood.

That left five, one of whom had a deep cut on his forearm, but that didn’t seem to keep him from gripping his ax with fierce intent.

Benny’s mind raced through the countless hours of warrior-smart training, the endless scenarios Tom had drilled into Benny, Nix, Lilah, Chong, and Morgie. Solo attacks, group attacks, all sorts of variations.

One of Tom’s most important rules started shouting at him inside his head.

Stay in motion. 

Suddenly Benny felt himself move, felt his arms lift, felt the sword come alive in his hands. It was an illusion, of course; it was the training kicking in, those hours of repetition. It was muscle memory and reflex and his deepest need to survive.

Fight a single enemy, never a group. 

He rushed at the closest reaper and battered aside the fall of a butcher knife that was aimed for his heart. As he parried it, Benny stepped to the side so that for a moment the reaper was between him and the others.

Isolate an enemy and engage. 

Benny cut the man across the upper shoulder, aiming to wound rather than kill. The reaper shrieked in pain and staggered back. Right into the arms of two others who’d been trying to circle him to get at Benny.

If retreat is impossible, attack without hesitation. 

Benny lunged to one side, going behind the tangle of reapers, chopping and slashing at their arms and thighs. Two of the three reapers buckled, falling into the third and bearing him to the ground. Benny leaped over the closest reaper and then leaped backward as another of the killers hacked at him with a meat cleaver. As the big blade sliced downward an inch from his nose, Benny pivoted and kicked him sharply in the knee. As the man crumpled, Benny kicked him again, this time in the chest, knocking him backward against a woman reaper who had a pair of hatchets. One of the blades flew straight up into the air, and Benny struck the other with his sword, taking it and part of the woman’s hand in one slice.

Out of the corner of his eye, Benny saw the leader come charging at him with the scythe.

Benny began to smile. He was winning this.

He was going to win.

He rushed forward into the attack, bringing his sword up in a graceful, powerful sweep, his body set and balanced for the parry and the counter-cut that would destroy this reaper.

Sword met scythe blade.

Benny felt the shock of the impact shiver through his hands and vibrate along his arms. The force was ten times what he’d expected, and he found himself falling backward, the sword dropping from nerveless fingers. It clanged onto the hard ground, and Benny thumped down onto his back.

The reaper with the scythe stood over him, panting with fury.

Benny twisted and kicked out, aiming for the man’s knee with a ground-fighting kick Tom had taught him.

With a snarl of contempt the reaper moved his leg, and as Benny’s foot shot past, the man snapped out with a kick of his own. It caught Benny in the back of the calf. The man pivoted on the ball of his foot and side-kicked Benny in the chest, knocking him flat and breathless.

Benny tried to roll over to hands and knees. But couldn’t.

He tried to reach for his fallen sword. But couldn’t.

Tried to come up with one of Tom’s rules for a situation like this. For anything that would save him.

But couldn’t.

The scythe rose into the air. The other reapers — those who could still stand — clustered around to watch him die. The blade reached the apex of its lift, and golden sunlight ignited along the wickedly sharp edge.

“No!” cried Benny.

And the reaper said, “Unnh…”

It was a soft, surprised grunt.

The scythe trembled in the air and then fell backward as the reaper’s fingers uncurled from it. It landed hard.

The reaper’s knees began to bend. Slowly, slowly… until he dropped down into a kneeling position directly in front of Benny.

He said, “Unhh…” again.

Then the reaper fell flat on his face and did not move.

The other reapers stared in shocked horror.

Not at the fallen body. Nor at the leather-wrapped handle of the knife that stood up from between the reaper’s shoulder blades.

They stared past their leader’s corpse.

As did Benny.

A man stood there.

Tall. Grizzled. A scarred and tanned face and the coldest blue eyes Benny had ever seen. Beside the man stood a monster of a dog. Two hundred and fifty pounds of mastiff, but with armored plates all over him and a spiked helmet.

Joe Ledger said, “Sic ’em.”

Benny could swear the dog laughed as it leaped forward to attack the reapers.

And they, armed and in greater numbers, stood no chance at all.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

Hard miles broke slowly under their feet as they ran.

The woods all around them were filled with the dead, though, and every way they turned they encountered teams of reapers leading packs of zombies. Some packs had only a dozen of the dead, but the farther west they went, the larger the packs grew. Once they had to stop for ten minutes as a swarm of at least a thousand of the dead shambled by.

Samantha and Heather shared out the tassels among the girls, and there were enough for each of them to tie half a dozen to their clothes. For a while they worried whether that would be enough, but as the afternoon burned toward sunset, it became clear that the dead were not drawn to them. Either they could not smell living flesh through the chemical stench, or the stench deceived them into thinking the girls were other zombies.

All the time that they were running and hiding Samantha was trying to understand what she’d done back in the clearing. She could have given the reaper a chance to run, could have left her with at least a tassel. She could even have cut her throat and given her the quick death the woman apparently wanted.

Instead she’d left her to be consumed by monsters.


Even though the reaper’s screams had faded into nothingness hours ago, Samantha knew that they would echo inside the caverns of her soul forever.

Like all the girls, Samantha had grown up hard and along the way had been forced to spill blood many times. Human in defense, animals when hunting. Zombies constantly.

But never once had she been cruel.

Never once had she treated life without regard.

Never once had she been as much of a monster as the things that haunted and hunted her.

Until today.


With the hard miles her tears had dried, but she never ceased wanting to stop where she was and simply collapse in tears. Maybe in the path of the reapers.

As they ran, she occasionally caught quick looks from the other girls. Each of them assessing her, judging her, measuring themselves and their own potential for darkness against what she’d done. None of them met her eye. Maybe it was contempt, pity, or perhaps to prevent Samantha from seeing a familiar darkness in the eyes of a friend.

The sun seemed to expand into a supernova as it fell down behind the western haze.

The six of them moved downland through rougher country than the reapers chose to use, cutting into ravines and through dense brush. It was slow, but it gave them safety, and the terrain would slow down any attackers, human or otherwise. The dying sun spilled its paint box across the sky, splashing the sky with gaudy shades of blood and fire.

Michelle ran point and she suddenly stopped, her fist raised in the way Dolan had taught them. They all saw the closed fist and froze, hands on weapons, eyes and ears alert.

Michelle waved them on and they clustered around her, looking where she pointed. “There’s something down there.”

A hundred feet downslope was a road, and through the leaves they could see the humped back of an old-fashioned wagon like the ones in storybooks of the Old West.

“Something’s dead down there,” said Laura.

They all nodded. Although the tassels blocked their sense of smell, they could hear the drone of blowflies. Samantha looked up to see that the sky was filled with crows and vultures turning in slow circles.

“Really dead,” she said. The others nodded at that, too. In the perversion of death that was the zombie plague, carrion birds did not feed on the living dead. Only corpses whose life force had been totally extinguished by injury to the brain or brain stem rotted in a way that attracted scavengers.

Samantha took point now and led them down through the brush. The closer they got to the road, the more the trees and shrubs thinned out and the more a horror was revealed.

The wagon was an old-fashioned chuck wagon that had probably been looted from a cowboy museum. The sides had been reinforced with metal sheeting, and on the sides the words gunderson trade goods had been painted in bright colors. There were bodies everywhere. Humans and horses. They had been killed in ugly ways, and they’d been left to rot. The ground was splashed with blood and littered with shell casings from pistols and shotguns.

Nothing moved except the flies.

If any of the victims of this massacre had reanimated, their living corpses had wandered off.

The girls fanned out across the road, looking at the dead, checking the wagon, scanning the surrounding woods.

“Reapers?” asked Laura.

Tiffany nodded. “Has to be. Who else would do something like this?”

“Why’d they kill the horses?” asked Heather. Ida had found an old wild horse years ago, and they’d had it for seven years before it died. Heather was destroyed when the horse was found dead in its stall. She stood looking down at the body of a massive Percheron. “Why would anyone kill a horse?”

Samantha shook her head but didn’t say anything about the slaughter. She knelt for a moment and looked at tracks that were cut into the bloody soil.

“What’s that?” asked Laura.

“I don’t know.”

“A wolf?” asked Michelle.

“Too big.”

“A dog?” suggested Amanda. “Like a mastiff?”

Years ago, when the adults were still alive, a traveler had come through the area. A big man accompanied by a monstrous American mastiff. He’d stopped only for a cup of coffee before moving on, and afterward Samantha and the girls had looked at the prints left behind in the road. They were similar to these.

“It’s not a mastiff,” Samantha decided. “These are too big.”

They looked around at the darkening woods. There were so many strange animals out there. Wild creatures that had escaped from zoos or came in packs from other countries like Mexico and farther south. There was no way to identify these prints now, and no time to waste in trying.

Samantha said, “It’s getting dark. We need to find a place for tonight.”

One by one the girls turned away, sickened and saddened by the senseless death. Samantha watched them head up the road, moving off the road and preparing to cut across country. There were plenty of empty houses and old buildings everywhere, and they hadn’t seen a reaper now for almost two hours.

Samantha lingered for a moment longer, thinking about the killings. She wanted to find some justification for what she’d done. These dead bodies were proof that the reapers were evil.

Right?  she asked herself. What I did to that woman wasn’t wrong. It was justice. Right? 

The questions echoed inside her head like thunder.

She wiped at her eyes, turned away, and hurried after the others.

But then she jerked to a halt as she saw something in the thickening gloom. It was a figure sitting slumped over against a tree. Big, bulky, bleeding.

It was in near-total darkness, except for one slack, outstretched arm that was covered with blood.

The blood looked fresh.

Had it moved? Did the fingers of that slack arm twitch?

Was it a victim of the attack reanimating as a zom?

That fit the circumstances but not the timing. This massacre was hours old, maybe as much as half a day. Any dead would have risen.


There were two real possibilities. A person who’d been injured and had recently passed, and was now reanimating. Or a person who was injured and perhaps dying. Alive, but badly wounded.

Samantha wanted to turn and run. This wasn’t her matter; it had nothing to with her. If it was a zombie, then dispatching it was a dangerous waste of time. If it was a wounded person, then it would be a drag on resources and a burden when efficient flight might be the only thing that would help Samantha and her little tribe survive.

She started to turn. She actually took three small steps away from the slumped fingers, but then she stopped again.

The hand twitched again.

Samantha backed away. She wanted no part of this; she wasn’t sure she could be a participant to another death. She’d had her fill.

She turned her back on the figure and began to jog along the path taken by the other girls.


It was a single word, and she could have imagined it.

Perhaps it was not even a word.

She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut.

The word echoed in her head.


Up ahead the other girls were making good time, but Heather, the last in the line, glanced back.

“Come on!” called the girl.

Samantha nodded.

But not to Heather.

She abruptly turned and walked back to the slumped figure.

That one arm lay in the last of the day’s fading light. Pale skin with red hair that was coarse as wire. A thick wrist, corded muscles. Blood. Beneath the gore the arm was crisscrossed with scars, old and new. Samantha had seen every kind of injury in her young life, and she could recognize the marks of violence. Knife cuts and other trauma. Whoever this person was, he’d been hurt over and over again. Some of the scars were so faint that it was evident they were very old, perhaps wounds suffered in childhood.

The figure spoke again. Hoarse, a damaged croak of a voice.


Samantha licked her lips. “Are… are you one of them?”


“Are you one of them? Are you a killer?”

The shadow-shrouded body moved, and with a hiss of pain and a grunt of effort, the man leaned his head and shoulders out of the shadows. He had pale eyes that seemed to reflect the fiery light of sunset. His face was lined with pain and white with blood loss.

“I’m a killer,” he said in a voice that was filled with darkness and cold winds. A voice filled with a great and terrible sadness. “But… not like them.”

Samantha said nothing. Her spear felt like it weighed a million pounds.

The man spoke very softly. “I’m… like you.”

“Like me?”

He nodded and gave her the faintest of smiles. “Like you.”

Samantha bristled. “You don’t even know me.”

He didn’t reply to that, but instead reached out his bloody hand. “Please,” he said, “help me.”

She took a small step backward. “Why should I?”

The man didn’t answer, and his hand remained out for her to take.

“Come out where I can see you,” ordered Samantha. “If I see a gun or knife, I’ll put you down like a dog.”

The man made a sound. It could have been a laugh.

But then he moved, his bulk shifting inside the bank of shadows. He got clumsily and slowly to his knees; then, with small grunts and hisses of pain, he managed to get to his feet. He took two trembling steps forward and then stood swaying in the fiery light.

“God…,” breathed Samantha.

The man was huge, with massive muscles that seemed molded onto him like lumps of clay. His clothes were torn and slashed, and there were barely enough left to cover him. The ruined shirt and trousers revealed limbs and a torso that were covered with scars and old burns and what looked like healed-over bullet wounds. Even with all the refugees and survivors of the Fall she’d seen, Samantha had never once beheld a person who had suffered a tenth as many injuries as this man.

There was a fresh wound on his chest, almost directly over his heart, but it could not have been as deep as it looked. Blood was painted across his body and down each limb.

He looked down at her with the strangest and least human eyes she had ever seen. The irises seemed to be as red as the sunset, and they were rimmed with burning gold.

“What — what — happened to you?” stammered Samantha.

Those eyes were filled with sadness.

“Too much,” he said.

He carried no weapon, and despite his muscles he seemed on the verge of collapse. His face was pale, almost gray, and his lips were dry and cracked.

For reasons Samantha wasn’t able to explain, she stepped close to the man, reached out a hand, and lightly touched the edge of the wound over his heart.

“Are you going to die?” she asked.


“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he said, but if anything the sadness in his eyes intensified as he said it.

“Can you walk?”

He shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “Not alone.”

“Are you safe?” Samantha raised her hand from his chest to his cheek. “Will you hurt me?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not safe.”

She almost pulled her hand away.

“But I won’t hurt you, Samantha.”

She stiffened. “But — but — how do you know my name?”

He did not answer the question. “My name’s Mike.”

In the gathering dusk, caught in the web of so strange an encounter, Samantha remembered two things. The first was something Ida had said to them once about twilight when all the girls were little.

“Twilight is a strange time, my girls,” Ida had said. “In daylight you can see things the way they are. At night everything’s a guess, ’cause so many things are hidden by shadows. But twilight is a little of both. It’s real and unreal. You see things, but you can’t be sure of what you see. People used to believe that twilight was when the world of what’s real and what’s unreal creaks open. If you’re not careful, you can step right through into who knows where. Or maybe something from over there can step through.”

Heather had asked, “Something from where?”

And Ida had answered, “From anywhere that isn’t here.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” declared Samantha, who, even when young, was not given to fancy.

Ida gave them all a wink and a knowing smile. “During twilight nothing has to make sense.”

Now it was twilight, and things seemed to have stopped making clear sense. It was like the sharp edges that defined the world during the day had been sanded down to a point where they were indistinct and untrustworthy.

“Listen to me,” said Mike, wincing as pain flashed through him. “I’ll make you a deal.”

“What kind of deal?” asked Samantha suspiciously.

He shivered with the onset of shock and fever. “If you help me now, tonight… then I’ll make sure nothing ever happens to you and your friends.”

“You can’t make a promise like that.”

He smiled. It was the most human thing about him. Despite the blood and his wounds, despite the strangeness of his eyes and the impossibility of his knowing her name, despite everything that made this encounter seem like something out of a dream, that smile held no trace of threat. None.

“Yes,” he said, “I can make that promise.”

She started to back away.

“Please,” he said.


In the woods far behind them, they could hear the dead moan as they followed the silent calls of the reapers.

Without realizing that she was going to do it, Samantha turned sideways to him.

“Come on,” she said, “lean on me.”

He hesitated. “Are you sure? You can still walk away.”

She looked down at the ground. His feet were bare, and there was dirt caked under his toenails as if he’d dug them into the ground. His clothes did not look like they’d been cut. They looked like they’d burst apart.


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tha knew that she should have been terrified. She knew that she should shove this man away from her, that she should run to find her friends and then run farther until this place was far behind her.

She knew that.

And yet.

There was something about this man.

Here was a person who had suffered so much, survived so much, had so much will to live that he risked making promises despite being on the edge of death. And in the woods here were the living dead and those whose purpose was to exterminate all life.

It came down to that choice.

Between the takers of life and a man who clearly fought harder than anyone she had ever met to belong to life.

If it was a strange choice for her to make, then she blamed it on twilight.

Somehow she knew Ida would approve.

She took the big man’s arm and laid it across her shoulders.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll help you.”

Together Samantha and Iron Mike Sweeney made their slow and careful way past evidence of carnage, away from death, toward life.


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Area 51

It took a long time to walk down the mountain.

They didn’t take the goat path. Instead they went a back way that was easier but longer. Fifty feet down that road they came to a spot where two soldiers lay. Both were dressed in the uniforms of the American Nation, the new government that had formed after the destruction of the old world. It was clear that these men had been on guard but had been surprised, overwhelmed and murdered by the reapers. It was equally clear that Captain Ledger had quieted them. Both of them had distinctive knife wounds in the backs of their heads, right at the weak point where the spine enters the skull. What Tom had once called the “sweet spot.”

“I didn’t know there were guards up here,” said Benny.

“Of course there are guards up here,” said Ledger. “There are also a crapload of land mines and you’re lucky you didn’t step on one.”

“The reapers didn’t step on any mines.”

“Not this time,” said the ranger, “but over the years? Yeah, a whole bunch of them have gone into the darkness at high velocity.”

“It’s not funny,” said Benny.

“No,” admitted the ranger, “it’s not.”

Benny considered the two soldiers. “What were their names?”

“Private Andy Beale and Private Huck Somerton.”

“Do they have family?”

“Back home. They’re from Asheville, North Carolina.”

“I’m sorry,” Benny said.

“Yeah,” said Ledger. “But at least we know that the reapers have found a way through our back door. I’ll make sure it’s nailed shut again.”

“Is that worth two people’s lives?”

The ranger shook his head. “No. But we take what we can to save more lives down the road.”

“The reapers… they’ll keep trying, won’t they?”


“Won’t they ever give up?”

“Not as long as Saint John is driving them.”

“They’re afraid of him,” said Benny.

“It’s worse than that,” said Ledger. “They love him. They really do think he has the answer. They think he’s going to solve all their problems.”

The kept walking. Grimm trotted along behind, his armor clanking. Joe carried the dog’s spiked helmet.

After a while Benny asked, “How’d you know I was up here?”

“I didn’t. But I was looking for you and didn’t find you anywhere else. You didn’t take a quad, and you weren’t in one of the hangars. There’s not too many other places you could be.”

They walked and the sun slid red and swollen into the west.

“I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” said Benny.

“I didn’t think you would.”

They looked at each other. Harshly at first, then with small smiles of acknowledgment. Like chess players.

“Thanks, though,” said Benny.

“Jeez, kid, that sounded like it actually hurt to say.”

“It did. My gums are bleeding.”

Ledger laughed, and the sound of it bounced off the stone walls. They walked for another ten minutes without speaking.

“There’s a war coming,” said Benny at last, “and I’m not ready for it.”

The ranger gave a slow nod of approval.

“It takes a…,” Joe began, but stopped.

“What?” demanded Benny, some sharp edges still evident in his tone. “What were you going to say? That it takes a ‘man’ to make a decision like that? Don’t bother, we both know I’m not a man. I’m a kid, and I’m doing the best I can.”

Captain Ledger gave him a small smile. “No, kid, that’s not what I was going to say. What I was trying to say was that it takes a real warrior to make a decision like that. To accept the world for what it is. To ask for help. That’s what your brother would call being ‘warrior smart’… and that has nothing to do with how old you are.”

He held out a big, tough, calloused hand.

After looking at it for a long moment, Benny took it.


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South Fork Wildlife Area

Southern California

Saint John sat near the glow of a massive campfire. He’d ordered it built big tonight, and there were three times as many guards posted. Most of the reapers were already asleep. Even Brother Marty was dozing.

Saint John sat apart from everyone and stared deep into the chaotic heart of the fire, watching the snakes of flame twist and tangle and writhe.

He listened to the crackle and pop of the wood as the purifying fire consumed it.

And he listened to the sounds of the night.

Listening for…

For what?

The sad laughter of a stranger?

The howl of a wolf?

“I will cleanse this world of all flesh, all life,” he told the flames, speaking in a voice so soft he could barely hear his own words. “I am a saint of the Night Church. We own the night, we hold it in the palm of our hand. There is no force in this world or any other that can stand against us.”

Although his voice was quiet, he spoke with the force and cadence of a litany. Repeating each phrase, each promise, each vow.

Repeating and repeating it until he believed it once again.

That, however, took all night.

Tomorrow, with the dawn, he would take his army of the living and the dead and set out with a will toward Haven. Toward the first of the Nine Towns. There were hard weeks of forced marches ahead of him. His army would have to forage and provision, and that would lose them hours, days. It didn’t matter.

Even if there were things out in the night that he didn’t understand, he had his army and he served the will of Thanatos, all praise to his darkness.

He finally slept, and for the first time since his troops attacked the caravan, he had a smile burned onto his hard mouth.


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