David Wellington

Monster Planet

Archive for the ‘Monster Planet’ Category

Title Page

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

UPDATE:
Frostbite, the new novel by David Wellington is now available at www.brokentype.com/frostbite

Welcome to MONSTER PLANET, the third volume in a serialized trilogy of zombie novels by David Wellington
Please be advised that this website contains graphic textual depictions of violence and gore and is not appropriate for sensitive readers.
If this is your first visit, you may wish to start with Monster Island, the first book in the trilogy, and then read Monster Nation, the second volume, before returning here.
To start reading Monster Planet, the third volume, please proceed to Part One, Chapter One.
If you’d like to browse through the novel, start with the Table of Contents.

About the Book

Monster Planet is a novel posted in blog format, set twelve years after the events of Monster Island and Monster Nation. The novel is complete and commenting is closed (to prevent spam) but you may still contact us via email.
If you enjoy the novel, please help us spread the word by telling your friends and linking to us; we’re always looking for new readers.
If you’ve read all three books and want more, please visit DavidWellington.net.
If you’re looking for zombie-related games, check out www.Undeadgames.com.
For zombie news in general, you can’t go wrong with www.Allthingszombie.com.
Thanks, and welcome,
David Wellington (Author)
Alex Lencicki (Publisher)

Pod of The Dead
Monster Island and Monster Nation are now available as text files for the ipod.

The BIG ANNOUNCEMENT… now with Acknowledgements

Tuesday, October 11th, 2005

Hello, everyone, and welcome back. If you’re looking for the acknowledgements, skip down to the bottom.
I have a lot to say today. Some of it is more important than others. If you’re impatient, just skip to the BIG NEWS. You’ll know you’re in the right place. For those of you still here I’d like to say thanks again. Thanks for reading the books, and for helping me learn how to write effective serialized novels. Thanks for your comments and your emails and your good thoughts. It really made a difference and it made this project a joy to write.

I’ve been tallying up your emails to see what kind of epilogue you’d like for the story (keep ’em coming, folks) and I have to say I’m a little surprised. I wanted to know whether you’d prefer Gary or Sarah to win, but the vast majority of entries haven’t mentioned either of them. Most of you, it seems, would prefer to see Bannerman versus a great white shark, with the shark winning. You’re a very strange bunch of people.

In other news… don’t stop watching this space. It is my intention to always have something here for you to read. Starting soon I’m going to start a blog on zombies and horror in general. I’ll review movies and haunted houses and books and so on: whatever I find interesting, which I hope you will also enjoy. I’ll send a notification when the blog is live.

In the coming year there will also be a new serialized book here, though it won’t be a Monster Island book and that’s all I’m saying. If your signed up for email notifications you’ll get one when the new book starts. And whenever we have big news.

AND NOW… THE BIG NEWS!

Well, most of you guessed already. I got a book deal! Monster Island will be released in April of 2006 by Thunder’s Mouth Press. I’m extremely excited and I have all of you to thank for it, all of you who legitimized my silly zombie stories by actually reading them.

Don’t rush out to Amazon.com yet–there’s nothing there right now. And when it does appear there, hold off on ordering. In order to launch the book we want to coordinate the orders so that they all happen around the same day. We don’t know yet what the exact on sale date of the book is, but when it happens, if you’re signed up for notifications, you’ll get an email telling you the book is available. And when it is, we’d like for you to buy the book that very moment to improve the sales ranking. The idea is to pop the book on the online booksellers so that reviewers (and who knows, maybe even movie studios) take notice.

Ah, to heck with it, I hear you thinking; I’ve already read that book. Why should I buy even one more copy?

That’s an excellent question. And I have an excellent answer.

When you order the book that day you’ll get confirmation email. And if you forward the email to contactmonster@hotmail.com (don’t worry, other than you name and shipping address, the confirmation doesn’t have any personalized information) I’ll send you a PDF file of a collection short stories set in the monster universe. The PDF will also include never before seen illustrations of the major characters by Joel Carroll (http://www.joelcarroll.com/art/ ) and whatever other cool bonuses we can come up with between now and then.

So keep your eyes out for that email.

I’m going to ask you for one more favor which is what you’ve been doing already: and that’s to spread the word. It was your word of mouth that brought Monster Island to the attention of the publishers, and it’s word of mouth that will help sell the book. Maybe you know some people who thought MI sounded interesting but didn’t want to read something on the web. Maybe you know some horror fans who don’t have internet access. Maybe your friends and family are just looking for a good read. Just let them know how much you enjoyed this trilogy. That’s all it takes. Give them the URL or, when the time comes, point them toward the book. Believe me, it makes all the difference.

We’re also planning all kinds of guerrilla zombie events to help spread the word about the book next spring. If you’re interested in taking part in any of them, keep an eye on the blog, or send me an email.

So. For now, I’ll say thank you. I’ll be saying it a lot from now on. I owe you guys. You see, I’ve been writing for twenty-one years now, ever since I was thirteen. I’ve gotten a few short stories printed here and there but never anything serious. This book deal is the culmination, in all seriousness, of my life’s work, and without you it wouldn’t have been possible. Did I say thank you yet? Thank you.

Aw, shucks. Anyway, the PDF file is just the start of the goodies we’ll be handing out, so stick around, and keep the faith!
Sincerely,

David Wellington

…and now… the long-awaited ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS!

When I finished Monster Island I put up a page thanking the readers and especially the commenters and especially Adrian (from Scotland) who at the time was a source of drunken comic relief. I did it again with Monster Nation, and I need to do it one last time.

It’s tough, though. There are so many people who have contributed to the trilogy in one way or another. So many who encouraged me or threw a little money in the tip jar or just came by and read a few chapters and emailed to say they liked it.

I’d like to say thank you to all those people by name, but I can’t. I literally can’t keep track of everyone who helped me out along the way, there have just been too many of you. So if your name doesn’t appear below, please, know how grateful I really am for all your help and support. It made all the difference.

Here are some names, in no particular order: Ashnack, digbeta, Raul, Don, briangc, Meek, Laura, Pencil Lad, Mike, bagelgod, Donny D, saketini99, Ed Adkins, Javier, Timmy, liam, Scarecrow, shadowfusion99, Ann Towey, davidkaye929, iGame3D, Carlos, Rakie, Senecal, Mendoza, dreadlocksmile, hearwritenow, and marbotty.

Some of those names have been with us for the whole long ride, some are almost brand new. They’re the people who commented the most often (no science was used in computing this alleged piece of data) and who made it a treat to come back again and again, Monday after Wednesday after Friday. Thanks. I know I’m forgetting somebody–go ahead and include yourself in that list if you want.

alnjo, who is in fact two people sharing one virtual identity (the handle with two brains?), gets singled out for being such a hardass over and over again, right from the start, and sticking around even though there were mummies, stupid, stupid mummies. alnjo kept me from thinking I was all like hot shit–which believe me, is a valuable service for someone with my runaway ego.
Joel Carroll gets a special mention for drawing the most incredible picture of Gary I’ve ever seen (be nice and I’ll show you some time). You should really check out his work at joelcarroll.com.

Ann Towey drew the creepiest picture of Gary. No, there was no contest or anything, people just liked to draw pictures of Gary.
Adrian, who is still from Scotland but is now 21 and could drink in America, too, is still around. His work schedule kept him from commenting much on Monster Planet (and he was sorely missed) but he never lost touch and in the end he rallied like a champ. Seriously, Adrian made this process a lot more fun than it could have been. His antics got me through some pretty tough times.
I need to send a very special thanks to Mark Frauenfelder, who liked Monster Island so much he not only gave me a great review on Boing Boing, he then went and helped me get the book published. Cory Doctorow (also at Boing Boing) gave us another mention on Oct. 13th, which also helped.

John Oakes, my publisher, gets a big thank you, for taking a chance on all of us, one which I believe is going to pay off for everyone.

My wife Elisabeth needs to be thanked profusely. Maybe we could have a receiving line. In a year when death and destruction stopped being the proper subject of fiction and became far too real she stood by me. At times when she had her own worries she never stopped cheering me on. When I told her I had a book deal she cried tears of joy–how can you ask for more than that?

And finally (yes, finally) we need to thank Alex once again. Everyone started clapping… NOW! Hey, I think I heard you all the way over here. Alex made this thing happen with his own two hands. I just wrote about zombies. I would have written about zombies anyway. Alex turned this thing into the culmination of my life’s story. I’ve been writing for twenty-one years, if you can believe it, but nothing of any note happened until I met Alex. Thanks, Alex!

Okay, okay, dry your eyes and let’s move on. There are blogs to be written and guerilla marketing tactics to be tactified. See you all very soon!

Sincerely,
David Wellington

Chapter Twenty

Friday, October 7th, 2005

A few ghouls chased her but she was faster and she  passed the boundary before they could even come close.  Her feet stumbled constantly on the broken bones that littered the valley floor but she kept running.  Once she tripped and fell forward, her hands reaching out for solid ground, a jagged end of femur looming up toward her face.  Somehow she managed to roll back up to a standing position.

It was not difficult to find Mael Mag Och.  His body was burning, although not as quickly as it should be.  A thin reef of smoke hung in the air where he passed, a semi-visible trail for her to follow.  He was moving slowly, his undead body unable to hurry, and the way was difficult.  Sarah figured she had a good chance of catching him, but then what?  How was she supposed to bind him?

I’ll show you, when the time comes, Nilla said inside of her mind.  Sarah nearly fell over—she’d forgotten the half-melted nose ring in her hand.  She’d forgotten she could still talk to the blonde lich.

“When he reaches the Source, what will he do?” she asked.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, Nilla told her.  If it does—he’ll step right into the middle of it, into its center.  Even I won’t be able to protect him then but it won’t matter.  His body will disintegrate but his consciousness will merge with the life force itself—not just the Source, not just the rupture, but the biological field of the planet itself. At that point there’s not much he won’t be able to do.  He’ll have more power than his Teuagh ever dreamed of.

“You’re right,” Sarah said.  “Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

Ahead of her, maybe a quarter mile up the slope, she could see Mael Mag Och.  Flickering light touched his shoulders and his head.  It was too much to hope that his brain would boil in his skull.  Even if his body failed, he could merely grab another from the mob of handless ghouls back by the flatbed.  She pushed ahead, pulling herself up the side of a mountain, clutching at spines and skulls and arm bones, pushing herself bodily up the hill.

The relics will allow you to bind him to this body, Nilla said.  It’s why the Tsarevich wanted them so badly.  Then you can destroy him, and it will be over.  He’ll be destroyed.  Even the part of him that still resides inside of Gary will be drawn out and dissipated.

Sarah panted and sweated and cursed as she moved higher, up into thinner air.  It was hard to breathe.  She could see very little, her eyes dazzled by the light of the Source.  She put her arm over a knob of rock and hauled herself up and there she was, on top of the valley.  She saw the eroded sculptures of dinosaurs, sunlight streaming through the chicken wire-lined gaps in their plaster.  She saw the low buildings, which had collapsed over twelve hard winters.

At the center of it all, where the Source was so bright it made her head throb, an honor guard waited for Mael Mag Och.  Two skeletons, held up by nothing but pure energy, stood there on either side of the singularity.  They were like something from the vision of the eididh she had shared with Nilla, and yet perversely horrible at the same time, as she had come to expect things to be in reality.  One was nearly human in appearance, or at least he looked like a human skeleton, except that the top of his skull was torn off as if he’d blown it off with a shotgun in his mouth.  The serrated edges of his skull made him look like he was wearing a profane kind of crown.  The other skeleton—and somehow she knew it was female—was twisted and bent, her bones deformed in some way Sarah didn’t recognize.  They were pitted and chipped and in places looked like melted wax.  Her skull was fused into the top of her rib cage and the bones of her left shoulder.  She looked as if she’d slowly melted, a candle left out in the sun.

The skeletons were undead, surely—they were animate, anyway, because they moved as she watched, shifting their weight from foot to foot, raising their hands to beckon the Druid onward—yet their energy was not dark, nor was it bright.  It was pure, clear, the unadulterated energy of the planet itself.

Mael Mag Och stepped up before them and they bowed to him, welcoming him to his destiny.  Sarah rushed forward as Nilla shouted instructions at her.  Throw the noose over his head.  Sarah did it.  Mael didn’t even turn around.  He was too close to achieving his apocalypse.  Place the armband on his—on his stump.  Sarah did it.

Now.  The sword.

Sarah remembered she didn’t have the sword.  She still searched her belt, her back, but she knew she didn’t have it.  “The Tsarevich’s people took it from me.”

You need to pierce him with the sword.  It’s the only way to keep him from jumping to another body.  The sword, Sarah.  The sword.

“I don’t have it!  I don’t even know what they did with it.”

Nilla was very close to her, physically nearby.  Sarah could feel the disappointment in the air.  The fear, and the failure.

“There has to be another way,” Sarah said.  But of course there wasn’t.

There is.

Mael Mag Och had finished with the skeletons.  Whatever passed between them was not for Sarah’s ears.  The Druid walked past them, into the wreckage of the buildings.  The skeletons closed ranks—they would not let Sarah pass.

There is a way.  It’s so simple.  He needs me to shield him from the Source.  I can’t stop doing that, any more than you can stop breathing.  But I can make myself visible.

“What?”

Nilla’s voice was very soft.  I’m only able to perform this function because of my power, the ability I have to subtract my own aura.  If I make myself visible I will be consumed by the Source, just like any other dead thing.  Mael Mag Och will lose his protection and his body will be destroyed.  I think his consciousness will be trapped here, since all the possible bodies he could inhabit are too far away.  Does that make sense?

Sarah’s body shook.  “I can’t—I can’t ask you to do that,” she said, but she knew that if Nilla refused she could, in fact, ask, she would beg her to do it.  She would threaten her, plead, beg.  “But you’ll die!”

I died a long time ago, Nilla said.  It’s okay.  I’ve got my memories.

It happened so fast, then.

Nilla appeared before Sarah, beautiful, blonde, dressed all in white.  There was a sad smile on her face.  She erupted in a column of flame, instantly.  Sarah could only hope there was no pain.  Even her bones burned, reducing in a second down to nothing but ash.

The skeletons didn’t move.  From beyond their barrier Sarah heard a single, throttled scream, and saw another burst of fire.  She rushed forward.  The skeletons held her back but she could see Mael Mag Och’s body burn as fast as Nilla’s had.  Perhaps even faster.

Banners of flame licked at Mael Mag Och’s ashes.  The skeletons waited for a moment, then parted, allowing her past if she so chose.  She could have the energy of the Source, if she wanted it, they were telling her.  If she possessed the faculties to manipulate it.  If she knew how, she could undo everything.  She could lay the dead to rest, and make the world green again.  If she knew how.

She didn’t, and there was no one left to teach her.

She turned around and headed back to the flatbed in the valley below.

“What did you do?” Ayaan demanded when she arrived.

Sarah couldn’t seem to get the words out.  She could only point.  Her finger stabbed out toward the mass of ghouls that had been waiting patiently in perfect formation for the world to stop.  Now they were moving, surging forward as a mass.  They were headed for the event horizon.  Sarah had an idea why.  Mael Mag Och was trapped, just as Nilla had suggested.  He could project his consciousness a certain distance to take another body, but all the available bodies were too far away.

“What did you do?” Ayaan asked again.  She grabbed Sarah by the arms and shook her.

Sarah looked up into her mentor’s face.  “I answered a question,” she said.  “They asked me what was more important than the end of the world, and I told them.”

Ayaan released her.  “What could be more important…?”

The ghouls marched right into their own destruction.  As each of them reached the event horizon he or she was consumed, utterly.

“You stopped him, I take it,” Ayaan said, very quietly.  “That… that’s good,” she said.  The smoke from the burning dead stained the air around them and the stink was oppressive.

Eventually there were none of them left.

“It’s over,” Ayaan announced.  “Come on, let’s get out of here.”  She jumped down from the flatbed and headed for the pass that lead down toward the road.

“I just have a couple of things to do,” Sarah said.  “You stagger along.  I’ll catch up.”

Ayaan frowned at that but she could hardly deny that Sarah could walk a lot faster.  She shrugged and headed down the path.

Sarah pulled Gary’s tooth out of her back pocket.  “Are you watching this?” she asked.  “He’s out of bodies.  He’s trapped inside the Source.  I don’t know if that counts as killing him or not but he’s powerless now.”

I don’t think you can kill him any more.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  As for being powerless—don’t make the mistake of underestimating him.  I’ve got part of him inside of me.  He likes to taunt me and call me names.  He’s still there.  You’ve stopped him though, for now.  Gary sounded very faint and very far away.  Sarah imagined it had to be a trick.  He would be somewhere close, holing up and licking his wounds.  He didn’t want her to find him.

Well.  He had good reason.

“Gary,” she told him, “there’s no one left to heal you.  You’re not bulletproof any more.”

I have a right to exist, he told her.

“I don’t recognize that right,” she replied.

He was silent for a very long time.  Let’s not forget that I helped you out when you needed it, he suggested.

“And let’s not forget you kept my father a prisoner of conscience for twelve years.  I’m coming for you, Gary, and I will put you down.  That’s what I do.  I kill liches.”  She didn’t want to hear his reply.  She threw the tooth as far away from her as she could manage.  It was lost instantly in the scattered bones of the valley.

Ayaan wouldn’t have approved.  She would have said that the tooth represented a source of intelligence, that the more Sarah knew about Gary the easier it would be to kill him.  Sarah reminded herself, though, that everyone who ever listened to Gary had reason to regret it.  He could seduce with words, and he could lie with the best of them.  Let him fear her.  Let him wonder where she was.  It would do him good.

That was taken care of, then.  Just one more loose end to tie up.  She searched the yurt at the back of the flatbed.  She found the female mummy waiting for her, her arms still outstretched to take back the jar.  Sarah shook her head.  “You’re free now.  Ptolemaeus Canopus died to make you free.”

The mummy didn’t move.  She might as well be dead.  Well, she had plenty of time to figure it out on her own.  Most likely she wouldn’t spend eternity there waiting for the jar to return to her arms but if she did—it was her own choice.  At least somebody had been successfully rescued.  Sarah sighed and dug through the various boxes and chests in the yurt until she found what she wanted.  Her Makarov PM.  She shoved it in the pocket of her hooded sweatshirt and stepped back outside and down from the flatbed.

Ayaan was about two hundred yards away, her back turned to Sarah.  It couldn’t be that easy, though.  Sarah owed Ayaan something more.  She jogged to catch up and then tapped the lich on the shoulder.

Ayaan turned around painfully as if she had a stiff neck.  She didn’t look at all surprised to see the pistol in Sarah’s hand.

She didn’t waste any time begging for her life.  She had a better argument to make.  “When your father was dying I was with him.  I was in your position, looking down my sights at a monster.  He asked me not to shoot, and I didn’t.  I think you’re probably glad for my decision.”

“You just killed my father, like, permanently!” Sarah said, blood rushing into her cheeks.  “How dare you invoke him now?”

“You had a little more time together.  Wasn’t that better than nothing?  Life is precious, Sarah, and death is eternal.  Any reprieve from the void is a good thing.” Ayaan said.

“Come on.  You’re a lich, Ayaan.  You’re an abomination.  What would your God say if he saw you now?”  Sarah’s hand was shaking.  She switched to a two-handed grip and it helped.

“Oh, He sees me just fine,” Ayaan said.  She closed her eyes and her mouth moved silently for a while.  Sarah knew exactly what she was doing.  She was praying.  When she finished she opened her eyes and looked very calmly down at Sarah.  “This is what you’ve made up your mind to do, then.  I will not beg like a dog.  If you truly believe you can pull that trigger then please do so now.”

Sarah gasped.  She could barely think straight.  “It’s what you taught me to do.”

“I did not,” Ayaan said, very slowly, “teach you to talk.  I taught you to shoot.  I hope you will remember what it takes to kill a lich.  I hope you remember how you will have to mutilate my corpse.  You will need to smash my head to powder, are you prepared for that?  My body should be burnt, or crushed with heavy stones.”

“You think I can’t do it,” Sarah said.

“I’m betting on it, actually.”  Ayaan considered her with a long, cool look.  “I think you haven’t prepared yourself psychologically for this.  I think that you will be haunted by it for a very—”

Sarah squeezed the trigger.  The noise of the gunshot bounced off the walls of the valley.  When Osman found her, several hours later, she had burned Ayaan’s body with gasoline and spread the ashes on the wind.  Only the heart remained.  It refused to burn.  There was no magic in that—a human heart was a hard lump of dense muscle tissue and not very flammable.  Sarah held it in her hand when Osman came for her.  She was hoping to hear Ayaan’s voice in her head.  She was hoping that Ayaan had become a ghost like Mael Mag Och.

She was also hoping that nothing of the sort would happen.  In that she got her wish.

Osman took one look at the charred organ in her hand and rubbed his head with his long fingers.  “You can’t bring that on my helicopter,” he said.  “No way.”

Sarah dug a little hole in the ground near the valley of the Source and buried the heart.  It was the closest thing to a grave Ayaan could have.  Sarah remembered what Ayaan had taught her about baraka, the dangerous blessedness of the Sufi saints.  It was said you could invoke baraka when you stood by the tomb of a powerful person.  Sarah wondered if in some future generation warriors would come to where the heart was buried and from it gather some strength.  She left no marker, no gravestone.  Those future warriors would have to find the burial place on their own.

She strapped herself into the co-pilot’s seat of the Jayhawk and they lifted up and away.  Osman carried her off over a green world, a world of trees and rock and water and no people.  An emptied-out world where even the dead were in scarcity.  A truly silent, truly haunted place.

It was that kind of planet.  It was going to be that kind of planet for a long time to come.

Chapter Nineteen

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

“They’re out of range,” Ayaan said, leaning over the edge of the flatbed.  She had tried, with no success, to engage the army of ghouls who waited below them.  Every time they made a move to come down off of the flatbed the dead men with their sharpened arm bones and their lipless grins would take a step closer.  Every time Sarah moved toward the machine gun they would take a step back.  “It’s a stalemate.”  Not that it mattered.  The world was going to end any second.

Sarah clutched the half-melted nose ring in her fist.

You look scared, Nilla said.  That’s the first thing we need to fix.

“Of course I’m scared.”  Sarah sat down on the deck of the flatbed and watched Mael Mag Och’s stolen body dwindle in the distance.  “You’re part of this,” Sarah said, her voice very high.  “Without you he couldn’t be doing this.”

That’s true.  Listen, there are better ways for us to talk.  Close your eyes.

“Are you kidding?” Sarah demanded.  “Now?”

Nilla wasn’t kidding.  Just close your eyes.  It won’t make things any worse.

That was fair enough.  Sarah’s blood was racing too fast to let her truly relax but she leaned back against the machine gun’s pintle and forcibly closed her eyes.

Instead of darkness she saw bright white light.  It filled her head and stroked her brain.  It calmed her down and slowed her breathing.

“You’re inside the Source, sort of,” Nilla said.  She came forward out of the center of things and moved toward the edge without walking or passing through any kind of space.  “Or maybe this is its shadow.”

Sarah blinked and everything changed.  She found herself sitting on a landscape of bones.  Heaps of bones, piles of them.  Unlike the bones that littered the valley of the Source, this bonescape went on forever.  Or at least as far as she could see.  The hills and rises of bones before her were obscured by a thin brownish-red mist.  Sarah turned around and saw she was standing ankle-deep in a pool of bright red liquid.  Blood.  She looked down at her reflection and saw that she, herself, had been skeletonized.  She could see her bones, picked clean of all her soft tissues.  Her hands were bony claws, her body defleshed, her sweatshirt draped over her pelvis and rib cage .  She looked up and saw Nilla come toward her.  Nilla was nothing but a skeleton as well.  A skeleton dressed all in white.

Sarah had no idea what was going on.

“When we die, our bodies decay.  You’ve seen plenty of that,” Nilla explained.  She took Sarah by the humerus and lead her around the curve of the lake of blood.  “Our personalities, though, and our thoughts, our feelings, all of the electrical patterns in our brains don’t just disappear.  They’re stored here, in what he calls the eididh.  It has lots of other names too: the Book of Life, the Akashic Records, the Monobloc, the Omega Point.  Gary called it the Network.  He imagined it as a kind of internet with human souls instead of packeted data.”

“It’s all written down and stored forever?” Sarah asked.

“Not exactly.  This place is outside of time.  There’s no storage.  Here all of your thoughts and memories and beliefs are all still happening.  All of them you ever had—and all of them you ever will have.  If you know how you can read them.”

“What about his memories and ideas?” Sarah asked.  “The druid’s, I mean.”

Nilla nodded.  Her skull swayed back and forth on top of her spine.  It was impossible, there were no integuments or sinews holding it on, but somehow the skull didn’t fall off the vertebral column.  The bones made a squeaking noise as they moved, that was all.  “Yes.  His personality is here.  It’s what you’re looking at.  None of this,” she said, and waved a bony hand at the bony world, “really exists.  It’s simply how he imagines the network.”

“We’re inside his soul, then.  You’ve seen his soul.  So you must know he’s crazy,” Sarah tried.

“I’ve seen his visions here.  They’re here and they’re real.  I’ve seen the father of tribes at the bottom of his bog.  He’s never lied about that—he really did see what he claims he saw.  If you want me to stop him because he’s insane, you’ll have to convince me that what he saw was less true than what you’re seeing right now.”

Sarah’s rib cage flexed in despair.  “So you believe him?  You believe that he should kill everyone just because some moldy old god told him to?  You think that gives him a right?”

“I think he’s a monster,” Nilla said, and her skull turned toward the sky.  There was a moon up there, directly above them.  It was, of course, an enormous skull.  Sarah got the idea that it was Mael Mag Och’s skull.  “But I don’t see how else this should end.  I mean, what’s more important than the end of the world?  I’m sorry, Sarah.  I hate saying that, it just sounds mean.  But it’s true.  The only way the dead can get any peace is if the Source is collapsed.”

“Bullshit!”  Sarah leapt up and down in her rage.  “I refuse to accept that!”

“Relax, Sarah.  Won’t it be such a relief not to have to fight any more?  I can tell you from personal experience.  Death is no biggie.  You come here and you spend eternity with your own memories.”

“And your own guilt?” Sarah demanded.

“Yeah, there’s some of that, too.  But I know what I’m talking about.  Before Mael taught me how to access this place I was a mess.  I had massive brain damage and I couldn’t even remember my real name.  Now I’m back in touch with my life.  It was a good life, if a little short, and I’m grateful.  That’s what I owe him.”

“And me?”  Sarah said, grabbing for Nilla’s ulna.  “What do you owe me?  Why did you bring me here?”

“You were so upset.  I thought it might help if I showed you the other side.  It’s so calm here.  Peaceful.  But maybe you don’t see it that way—you’re still alive, so maybe this place is scary to you.”

It wasn’t.  That was the weird thing.  Standing on the edge of a lake of blood, watched over by a moon that was nothing but a giant grinning skull Sarah did feel the peace, the tranquility.  The permanence of the boneworld gave it a certain kind of security.  Nothing would ever happen there—which meant nothing bad would ever happen there.

Nilla touched her jawbone with slender phalanges.  “You can go back now, if you like.  I won’t hold you against your will.  Or you can stay with me and just… wait it out.”

Sarah thought about it.  She was going to die in just a few minutes anyway.  Would it be easier if she just stayed there in paradise or whatever it was?  She kicked at some of the bones at her feet and a fine powdery dust blew up, the dust of bones so old they had been worn down by eternity and yet still something remained.  Her own memories were in that dust, in a very real way.  Everybody’s were.  Some of her memories concerned Ayaan.  Ayaan was back in the real world.  Would Ayaan think she was being abandoned?  Sarah dug in the bone meal with her hallux.  The dust brought up memories, random memories, but literally—as she stirred the dust her brain cast itself backwards on days she recalled of her life.  The day she had ridden a camel with the Bedouins.  Wow, that had been a good day.  The day her father had told her she was going away to boarding school in Switzerland and she cried because she was afraid of all the white girls with their straight hair.  The day Ayaan had first let her hold a pistol.  The first time Jack had asked her what was more important than the end of the world.

“Wait,” Sarah said.

“There’s not much else I can do in here but wait,” Nilla told her.  “And in another sense there’s no such thing.  What’s on your mind?”

“You asked me, what’s more important than the end of the world?”

Nilla nodded.  “Mael says that all the time.  It’s like his mantra or something.  I’ve been over it a million times and I’ve never come up with an answer.  There is nothing more important than the end of the world.  I mean, really, how could you top apocalypse?”

“Only a dead person would think that.”  They couldn’t change, the dead.  Her father couldn’t understand she had grown up.  Ayaan couldn’t accept that she’d become an abomination.  Jack—or Mael—couldn’t see that his old god was dead.  For a living person, of course, the answer was easier than the question.  Ayaan had shown her as much, by way of example.  By example of her entire life and also by recent events.

Her father had shown her the answer the day he left her behind.  The day he turned her over to the Somalis and asked them to care for her.

In their own self-serving ways Gary and even Marisol had demonstrated the truth of the answer.  Every survivor, everyone who had lived through the Epidemic had shown her the answer.  The whole living world was the answer.  It had been for twelve years.

“The next day.”  The only thing more important than apocalypse was what you did afterward.  What you chose to do when the world stopped making any kind of sense.

“The next day,” Sarah repeated.  “That’s the answer.  The one thing more important than the end of the world is the next day.”

“Seriously?” Nilla asked.

“Yes.  Even if the world ends.  Even if everything goes to hell—you still need to keep living.  You have to get up, dust yourself off, and rebuild.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Nilla told her.  “We should go back.”  The eididh itself bent and curved around her.  Sarah was pulled sideways through space and time and plunked down on the flatbed, right where she’d been before.  Ayaan was there, and all the ghouls.  Except none of them were moving.  Sarah looked down and saw that her flesh was back, though she wasn’t breathing.

“I’ve stopped time for a few seconds, at least time as you perceive it,” Nilla said.  She stood beside Sarah, perfectly clean and enfleshed in her white clothes.  Where she sat Sarah was at eye-level with Nilla’s belly button, which was surrounded by a black sunburst tattoo.  She looked up and saw Nilla looking down at her.  “We have no time left to waste.  You’ll need the relics.  The Tsarevich knew that Mael was up to something and he figured out the right spell to truly trap him in that jar.  He sent his best lich to collect them—Amanita, I’m sure you remember her.  She was after the three items he needed to really bind Mael.  Then you beat her to them.  That was a really good thing, Sarah.  It’s going to save us now.  Go.  You have to catch him and bind him before he reaches the Source!”

Nilla disappeared and time started up again.  Sarah looked at Ayaan, who just looked confused.  Then she jumped down from the flatbed and started running toward the event horizon of the Source.

Chapter Eighteen

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

“Hello, lasses,” the armless ghoul choked out.  It laughed at them, a sputtering, horrible noise.  “Honestly, I am glad to see you both still with us.”

All that remained of the Tsarevich were a few lumps of indistinct meat skewered on the steel spikes, fuming and smoking as they smoldered away to black carbon.

“I want you to know that I never wanted anyone to suffer.”  He staggered closer to the edge of the scaffolding.  Another step and he would fall onto the spikes.

“Mael Mag Och, I presume,” she said.

The ghoul flexed the ragged nubbins of bone he possessed in place of arms.  “In the flesh.”

“What’s going on here?”  Ayaan shook Sarah’s shoulder but Sarah didn’t know how to answer.  “What happened to the Tsarevich?  The machinery was supposed to heal him!  It was supposed to make him whole again.  What went wrong?”

Mael Mag Och shrugged.  It made the skin of his chest split and peel.  “The machinery worked just fine, lass.  Or at least it would have, if I’d let it.”

“You?  You killed him?”  Ayaan was nearly shrieking.  Sarah wished she would calm down.  “How is that possible?”

“It helps to have friends on the inside.”

“Nilla,” Sarah said, getting it.

He tried to smile but the remains of his mouth merely twitched.  “His plan required her to condition the energy of the Source.  To step it down to a level his bodily tissues could accept.  At my command she merely fed him an extra little jolt.”

“But why?” Ayaan demanded.  “Why did you do this?  Why did you kill him?”

“Sarah knows,” he told her.  Sarah bit her lip.  She had a feeling she did know, and it terrified her.  When Gary had told her about Mael Mag Och she’d thought of him as a laughable sort of visionary.  Someone stuck in the mindset of the Dark Ages.  That was, of course, before he got his hands on the ultimate power of the life force itself.

He wanted to end the world.  Finish ending it, anyway.

“So I was saying that I never wanted this to be such a difficult transition.  You should ask Gary some time, Sarah.  He would tell you, I’m sure, just how much compassion I still had in my heart, back in those all-too-brief days when I still had one to call my own.  A heart, that is.  How I wanted to make things easy on you.  All of you survivors.  Instead you chose blood-curdling violence and pain.”

“We chose nothing,” Ayaan spat.  “What are you talking about?” She leapt down from the flatbed and took a few steps toward the scaffolding.  The ghouls moved toward her just as quickly.  She had watched them tear Enni Langstrom to pieces.  She took a step back.

Mael Mag Och acted as if nothing had happened.  “It’s a hard lot to be a raw consciousness stripped of form and left spinning in the void.  If it made me a bit cranky, well, I do apologize.”

Ayaan grabbed Sarah’s arm tight enough to hurt.  “What is it, Sarah?  What does he want?  What is he going to do?”

She struggled to find the best words.  “His god told him to destroy the human race.  Like, all of it.  I think he’s going to do something to the Source.  He’s going to collapse it—make it stop altogether somehow.”

“Very good,” he told her.  “The Source is a hole in the side of the world.  Imagine a balloon with a tiny little pinprick in it.  Imagine the air coming out, just a little at a time.  Enough to keep the likes of you upright, that’s all.  Now imagine what happens if you let all the air out of the balloon at once.”

Ayaan shook her head in disbelief.  She’d seen what happened to the dead who got too close to the Source.  If enough of that energy was released at once, how much damage could it do?  Plenty, she decided.  “You’d kill everything.  Animals, plants, trees, people.  Everything.”

“Hmm.  It is a pity about the trees.  But I’ve been given a mission.  If I’d had a bit of help from the start maybe things wouldn’t have come to so drastic a pass.  I asked Gary for his help and the buggering bastard ate my head.  I asked the Tsarevich and instead he turned himself into the king of the blighted world.  I asked you,” he said, the clouded orbs of his eyes burning as he stared at Ayaan, “and you spat in my face.”

Sarah put her hands over her mouth.  She couldn’t believe this.

“Ah, yes, I asked young Sarah as well, though I was a trifle dishonest about things.  She was the only one who actually tried to help me.  Too bad she was such an ineffectual little child.  In the name of the father of tribes himself, lass, did you honestly expect to fight an army with a couple of mummies?  I’m fond of the Egyptian folk, I truly am, but they’re crap against modern weaponry.  You really missed the point.”

“You’ve been planning this all along,” Sarah said, dumbfounded.  “You wanted me to kill the Tsarevich.  You tried to get Ayaan to kill him, too.  So you could take his place.  You put the idea into his head in the first place that he could come here and heal himself.  Because this is where you needed to be.  How long have you been playing this game?”

“Since your Gary slaughtered me, since I realized how silly it was to think I could finish humanity one at a time.  Since I realized it would take cunning, not main force.  You have no notion, lass, of how many snares I’ve laid and schemes I’ve hatched to get us here.”

“And my gift, my special vision?” Sarah demanded.  “That was all part of your plan?”

“No, no, lass, that was Nilla’s idea, you’ve her to thank.  She took pity on you, a soft wee bairn in the hands of such rough folk.  So just as I had helped your father I helped you.  And just like the geezer, you were a complete and utter failure.  He couldn’t kill Gary though he was given years to pull it off.  You couldn’t do anything right.  If I ever wanted for proof that humanity is too far gone for saving, well, you’ve provided it in full, lass.”

Sarah’s cheeks burned with her blood.  She had failed everyone.  She had failed so many times over.  And now… and now… the enormity of what was about to happen was impossible.  She started to faint.  She could feel herself spontaneously losing consciousness in the face of such a horrible ending to her life, to her rescue attempt.

“And you, Ayaan.  I actually held out some hope for you,” he said.  His voice was tinny and small in Sarah’s ears.  She was losing it.  “We’re the monsters,” he said to Ayaan.  She could barely make out the words.  “Why couldn’t we please just start acting like it?”

Sarah’s eyes fluttered closed and when they opened she was looking at a rocky landscape that belonged to another planet entirely.  Maybe Mars.  Or Pluto. She saw the mountains around her and the blue sky and the white puffy clouds. She saw the valley stripped of its carpet of bones.  The mountains were naked, totally devoid of trees, of underbrush, even of the patchy lichens that mottled the highest peaks.  There were no birds in the air.  No fish in the sea.  No bacteria.  Not even a virus.  The air itself had become poison to her—with no plants there could be no oxygen.  She started to choke, to asphyxiate, and then she opened her eyes again.

Nothing had changed.  She had just become so painfully aware of what was about to transpire that she had seen it.  Call it pre-traumatic stress disorder.  She had literally seen the lifeless world to come.  And it was all her fault.

“Good night, ladies,” Mael Mag Och said.  Sarah expected him to throw himself down on the spikes, much as the Tsarevich had done.  He didn’t, though.  The vacuum tubes lit up of their own accord.  The air hummed with power.  Mael Mag Och screamed so violently the noise must have shredded his borrowed throat.  Then he threw his head back and his spine went rigid.  Power, raw energy, neither dark nor light, just powerful, crackled across his skin and leaked from his eyes, his mouth, the center of his chest.  Laughing as his nervous system lit up with the clear fire of it he turned—and walked right past the event horizon of the Source.  Flames whooshed to life on his shoulders and his back but he was not consumed, not as he should have been.  He simply walked off, toward the center of the Source.  Nilla, Sarah realized, must be protecting him somehow.  Sheltering him at least partially from the dreadful energy at the center of the world.

Sarah turned to Ayaan.  What could they do?  There was nothing they could do.  The scaffolding was out of machine gun range.  If they tried to rush the scaffolding on foot the remaining handless ghouls would slaughter them before they could cover half the distance.  Even if they could get to Mael Mag Och what would they do then?  Shoot him, when he could just flit from body to body as often as he liked?  It was over.  In a moment the life force would be released, dispersed, whatever.  It would be gone.  That life force was the only thing that kept any human body together.  It held the pattern of evolution that told her cells how to grow, and kept all the pieces working with each other.  When it was gone Sarah’s cells would turn against themselves, cannibalizing each other for what little golden energy remained stored inside them.  In a matter of minutes they would fade out of existence altogether, depleted of the raw mainstay of life.  Ayaan would merely collapse.  She would fall forward on her face and be truly, finally dead.  Sarah would have just enough time to watch that before her the cells that made up her eyes devoured each other and she went blind.  Before the cells of her brain ate their own memories and thoughts and feelings.

Ayaan leaned forward and kissed Sarah on the cheek.  “I’ve missed you,” she said.  She had a trembling smile on her lips.

“I’ve missed you too,” Sarah said.  She wasn’t crying.  She thought she should be crying but the tears wouldn’t come.  Maybe she was just too scared.

Ayaan reached into a pocket of her jacket and took something out.  Something small and silvery.  It looked half melted.  “Here,” she said, and put it in Sarah’s outstretched hand.  “I don’t suppose it makes much difference now, but I was supposed to give this to you.”  Sarah closed her fingers around its sharp edges, its smooth curves.

Why, hello, someone said inside of her head.  Someone pleasant and female.  I’ve been waiting for you.

Chapter Seventeen

Friday, September 30th, 2005

The Tsarevich’s body burnt like a log soaked in gasoline.  His dry tissues, overloaded by the energy of the Source, hissed and spat and started to break down.  A chunk of jagged bone flew from one spasming leg.  Patience was standing just below him—it fell on her and cut open her cheek.  She reeled back in horror and pain, a scream pushing out of her lungs even as she dropped to her knees to retrieve the bone fragment.  She clutched it to her breast like a holy relic.

Above her the Tsarevich’s head slumped to one side and fell off.  It hit the ground in a splatter of sparks and flame.  A lot of people screamed then, and almost all of them moved backward, away from the scaffolding.

At the back of the crowd a male cultist in a blue paper shirt screamed bloody murder, much louder than any of the spectators at the Tsarevich’s grisly demise.  Ayaan grabbed Sarah’s arm and yanked the girl along behind her as she rushed to see what was going on.

Through a gap in the crowd she could see the screaming cultist, his face a mask of agony.  Four spikes of filed bone burst from his chest as a ghoul sank its exposed teeth deep into the back of the cultist’s neck.

The dead were attacking the living.

Ayaan shook her head.  No, that wasn’t acceptable.  The ghouls couldn’t disobey their orders.  Their minds were too simple—they couldn’t overcome the Tsarevich’s command.  The Tsarevich was keeping them under control.

The Tsarevich was dead.

A new ghoul, one of Gary’s victims, came stumbling through the crowd, her face and hands bright red.  She grabbed at Sarah but the girl twisted away.  Ayaan swiveled around on one boot heel and blasted the ghoul’s face with dark energy.  The undead features cracked and peeled away from smoking bone.  Ayaan didn’t bother to watch her die a second time.  “Are you alright?” she demanded.

Sarah nodded unhappily.

Enni Langstrom, the green phantom, appeared at Ayaan’s elbow.  “Enough of the concern for her well-being,” he shouted over the screams.  “Just kill her already!”

“No,” Ayaan said, “no, that’s unnecessary.  she’s harmless.”

Enni shook his head.  “She came here to kill him.  Now he’s dead.  You can call it a coincidence if you want but I want her dead.  Jesus Christ, look at this!  This is Armageddon.  We can sort out who did what later.  Just kill her.  Where’s Erasmus?”

Ayaan frowned.  “Didn’t you see?  Gary ate half of him.  He’s dead.  I’m sorry, I know you two were friends.”

The skull-like face turned even paler than usual.  “Then it’s just you and me.  We have to save as many of the believers as possible.  They served him well, they don’t deserve to die like this, not in this place.”  He stared deep into Sarah’s eyes and grabbed her face in one thin hand.  “Anyone we can’t trust dies, now.  I’ll let you do it, but kill her!  She’s an unknown factor.  She could ruin everything.”  He knocked Sarah into the dust with a backhand slap.  Then he stomped away, his femur staff clicking on the rocky ground.  As he moved through the crowd he touched each ghoul he passed and they slumped to the earth, the life force drained out of them.

Ayaan wasn’t sure what to do.  She had turned on Sarah and all of her past.  She had found a new cause to believe in.  Yet if the Tsarevich was dead, who would rebuild the world?  What was she giving her allegiance to?  If Enni could remake the world and save the human race, if she truly believed he had it in him, then she had no choice but to obey and kill Sarah.

Langstrom didn’t have the ability.  She knew it.

She grabbed Sarah’s bound hands and helped her stand up.  There were ghouls everywhere, their eyes dead, their lipless mouths open wide.  “He’s not a good man,” she shouted into Sarah’s face.  “But I saw him show compassion once, for some people who were barely even human.  I don’t like betraying him, but that’s what it’s come to.”  She tore at the knots that held Sarah’s hands.  Her fingers were too dead and clumsy.  She gasped in frustration—then realized that the rope was made of organic fibers.  Careful not to damage Sarah in the process she fed a little of her energy into the rope and it withered in place until it was so thin and insubstantial Sarah could just pull her hands apart.

Sarah rubbed at her wrists for a moment—they had chafed so much she had bled a little—then threw her arms around Ayaan and held her tight.

“I didn’t expect a hug from the girl who crossed half a continent just to put a bullet in my head,” Ayaan said, laughing a little.

“When I do it, when I sanitize you, it will be an act of love,” Sarah muttered.  “Can we not talk about it now?  We have a mini-apocalypse to worry about.”

It was true.  There were hundreds of ghouls in the valley and perhaps half as many living cultists.  The ratio was getting steeper with every second.  Enni was cutting swaths of destruction through the undead forces but he was just one lich.  The cultists were fighting back and their firearms filled the air with noise but they were disorganized and as much danger to one another as they were to the ghouls—especially since the latter were all wearing bulletproof helmets.

It had all happened so quickly—the instant the Tsarevich had perished the ghouls had become their own creatures again.  They had reverted to their violent, mindless selves and once again succumbed to their terrible hunger.

If someone didn’t get the situation under control it was going to be a massacre.  Ayaan lead Sarah over to the flatbed and crawled up on top of it.  “This way,” she shouted, and at least a few of those still alive in the valley heard her and looked up.  “Come on, retreat, out the way we came.  Come on!” she shouted it again and again, as loud as her undead lungs would let her.

A teenage boy broke from the crowd and ran toward the flatbed.  Ghouls chased after him but they were slow and clumsy without Enni’s power behind them.  The boy ran right past the flatbed and into the pass beyond, back the way they’d come.  The road was down there.  If he could find it maybe he would survive long enough to find some shelter.

It was the best solution Ayaan had.  “Come on,” she shouted again.  “Fall back!”

One by one the living broke away from the dead, their legs pumping, their eyes wet with horror and shock.  They had been promised so much.  Now they had to start over again, from scratch, in a country few of them had ever seen before.  “This way,” Ayaan screamed.  It was better than being eaten alive.

A band of ghouls came at the flatbed but Sarah was ready.  She brought the heavy machine gun around and cut them to pieces before they could climb aboard.

Ayaan kept shouting even when the flow of living cultists had all but stopped.  When she realized she was just wasting her breath she looked and saw that the valley was full of nothing but ghouls.  They faced her like a ragged army, their helmets shading their eyes, their wicked arms held at their sides.  She had stolen their prey.  And yet it wasn’t her they wanted.  Enni stood in the midst of them.  He had lost his staff somewhere.  His hands lifted and swung at the air as he tried to dampen the ghouls’ energy but he was clearly exhausted.  He had used up everything he had, and even while the Source was radiating life energy from no more than a thousand yards away he was about to collapse.

One of the ghouls came up behind him and swiped at his back.  The sharpened bone of its arm tore off a strip of green cloth.  Two more ghouls flanked him, coming at him from the sides.  He couldn’t seem to resist them in even the most basic way.  They tore his robe from him in rags.

Exposed to the air his emaciated body was as white as bleached bone.  He looked like something carved out of soap.  He had big ears that had always been hidden before by his cowl, at least in Ayaan’s experience.  He had a few long strands of hair plastered to his otherwise bald head.

He turned, his body swooning backwards, to look at Ayaan.  She couldn’t read his eyes.  Then the ghouls fell on him and tore him to pieces.  Sarah fired wildly into the seething mass of bodies but there were just too many of them.

“Why are they attacking him?”  Ayaan demanded.  “He’s already dead!”

When it was over the ghouls fell back out of Sarah’s range and stood in an orderly formation like soldiers in a parade.  It didn’t make any sense.  There was no one around to control them, no lich who could command them.  Their attack on the living had been predicated on that simple fact.  Now the living were gone they had nothing to command their attention.  Yet there was no reason for them to line up like that, either, just as there had been no possible explanation why they should attack Enni.

A voice sounded from atop the scaffolding.  “The stench up here,” it intoned, its timbre watery and barely recognizable as human speech, “is bloody awful.”

A single ghoul stood there above the twin spikes.  It was one of the most horrifying creatures Sarah had ever seen.  Its skin hung off of its chest in long, tattered strips that fell across its groin like a gruesome kilt.  Its face was a smudge of once-human features that had been battered and burnt out of all recognition.  Its legs, thick and muscular, were covered in sores and lesions.  It had no arms whatsoever, just ragged ends of flayed bone that hung down like tiny, broken wings.

Chapter Sixteen

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

“If,” the Tsarevich said, his voice loud enough to roll around the rocks and bones and echo in the still, cold air, “if there are to be no more of interruptions.  Then perhaps it is possible to do this thing.”

Some of the cultists had still been screaming.  All of them had been shouting for help or for succor.  They fell silent at their lord’s command.  Those who had been busy before with assembling the machinery around the scaffold and those who had been erecting the two sharp metal spikes at its top got back to work.  There were a lot of bodies to be removed from the battlefield, many of them already struggling to get back up, to begin the next glorious phase of their existence.

No one touched Dekalb’s headless body.  It was just so much dead meat to them.  Sarah wanted to go to it, to hold her father’s hands once last time, but she knew if she tried to do so the Tsarevich’s troops would simply shoot her.  There would be no warnings, no second chances.  They would kill her.  Without her father to protect and heal her she would just die.  And then come back.

A sort of convulsion went through her, wracking her body.  Her muscles spasmed and her eyes ached.  A sob came up out of her throat and threatened to turn into a wail.  She was surprised by the emotional reaction.  She didn’t understand it.  It was grief, and she had known she would feel grief, but this just wasn’t the time.  It wasn’t yet time for her to process everything that had happened.

It shook her and shook her until she dropped to her knees and bowed her head and hot tears fell into the dust.  It made no sense.  She was tougher than this.  She shoved her hands in her pockets to try to keep them from trembling.  She found the noose and ran it between and around her fingers as if she were making a cat’s cradle.

Lass, I feel for you, I do.  But I’m the last fellow you should be coming to for comfort.  You failed me.  You failed all of us.

Sarah shook her head, uncomprehending.  “What is so important,” she asked, staring into the brain’s jar, wanting to reach into the liquid there and shred the grey matter inside.  “What is so important that it had to bring me to my father, and then tear him away from me like this?  What is so important that Ayaan had to be turned into a monster?  Please, Mael Mag Och, help me.  Help me understand.”

The end of the world, he told her.  What could be more important than the end of the world?

She stood up, straining her legs to get up off her knees.  The mummy holding the jar stood as still as death.  A perfect statue, a thing to prop up the jar and nothing more.  The mummy didn’t react at all when Sarah stumbled forward and grabbed at the jar with her bound hands.  She had trouble grasping it so she put her chin down on its top and supported it from beneath with spread fingers.  The mummy didn’t try to stop her.  It didn’t even relax its arms—it just stood there, elbows bent, hands extended, waiting for her to put the jar back.

Instead she turned around and started walking.  Toward the Source.  Toward the event horizon.

What should have been won by strength of arms can still be won by guile, he told her.  She ignored him, though she didn’t let go of the noose either.  She stepped on a piece of pelvis and nearly fell over but managed to recover her balance.

She took another step and felt the jar grow warm in her hands.  The brain inside had no muscles and couldn’t spasm but she could feel its consciousness bashing against the walls of the jar, trying to break free.

Lass!  Don’t quit on me now.  I took a chance with your Ayaan and she quit on me too soon.  That’s why so many had to die.  I’m telling you full truth, now.  Don’t make the same mistake she did, not if you value the things I’ve given you.

Sarah took another step.  Another one.  A bubble appeared inside the jar and splattered apart against its lid.  She felt Mael Mag Och kick at her hands.  It was all in her mind, she knew that, but he was fighting her.  He didn’t want to go any farther in.

“My mother.  My father.  Ayaan.  Jack.  All of my parents, all of them dead.  Undead.  And then murdered fucking again,” she chanted.

I feel I really must protest.  Ayaan isn’t twice dead, Jack was just a false persona and your mother—

“You know nothing about my mother!  Neither do I!  That’s the goddamned point!”

She kept walking.  The liquid in the jar grew uncomfortably hot.  Her chin burned against the hot lid.  Her hands ached from his attacks.  She took another step and the heat was just too much.  She let go and the jar fell away from her.  The glass cracked as it struck the carpet of bones.  The jar broke apart and half the liquid inside sloshed out.  The brain sat in what remained of the jar—a kind of broken-edged cup, half-full of liquid.  Steam lifted from between its two hemispheres like a ghostly crest.

Do you think this will kill me? he asked.  He sounded quite calm.  There’s no point to this, whatever it is you may want, lass.  I have as many bodies as I like.  I have as many—

She shoved the noose back into her pocket.  She didn’t want to hear anymore.  She watched the brain turn white and shrink down as the liquid bubbled and hissed and frothed.  She watched the brain boil in its own juices.  That was the point.  It made her feel a little better.  That was the point.

A mountain of flesh that stank like an unwashed cultist grabbed her around the waist and hauled her up into the air.  She didn’t scream.  Bodily she was carried back to the Tsarevich’s camp, most likely to be killed.

Life had a little surprise still in store for her, though.  Ayaan was waiting near the scaffolding.  Sarah was dumped at the lich’s feet.  Ayaan helped her stand up.

“You’re extremely lucky that the Tsarevich was done with that brain.”  Ayaan shook her head fiercely.  “I hate to play at being the adult and telling you not to meddle in things you don’t understand.”

“Then don’t.  And I’ll return the favor.”  Sarah refused to meet Ayaan’s eyes.

The two women who had attended Nilla as she approached the Source returned.  Their wires lead across the valley and up the ridge on the far side.  Their faces and hands were covered in a fine powdering of white and yellow dust.  A boy with a bucket of water and a ladle ran up to them and let them drink and wash up.

The Tsarevich, still sitting in a wire shopping cart, was wheeled closer to the scaffolding.  His head dangled over the side and his knuckles twitched against the bones as he was brought bumping and rattling to the base of the construction.

“This is the master you serve,” Sarah said.  She lacked the energy to really belabor the point but she couldn’t let it go without comment, either.  “The monster’s monster.”

“He’ll be transformed in a moment.  If physical beauty is all you look for in a leader then I’ve taught you poorly.”  Ayaan sounded pissed.  Sarah wondered how far she would have to go to make the lich attack her.  If she was doomed, if she had no more chances, maybe it would be worth it.  Maybe she could anger Ayaan so much that her former mentor would destroy her so completely her body, or rather her corpse, would be of no use to the Tsarevich.

Sarah’s blood went cold at the thought.  Not the thought of becoming a ghoul.  At the thought of dying at all.  She knew it was just her biology speaking, her ingrained survival instinct, but it didn’t seem to matter.  Her body didn’t want to die, no matter what her mind might decide.  It would rebel against her if she tried to commit suicide.

The electronic boxes bolted to the scaffolding started to buzz and the exposed vacuum tubes came to life, glowing a cheerful orange.  One of them flared white and then burst into darkness, then another.  Cultists were ready for this and switched out the bulbs with remarkable speed.  They must have been training for this for months, Sarah decided.  Drilling for their one big moment, their contribution to the Tsarevich’s ascendance.

Under the power of his own unequal arms the arch-lich dragged himself up a ladder on the side of the scaffolding.  Rung by torturous rung he hauled himself upward.  The air smelled of ozone and real heat was coming off the machinery by the time he reached the top.  He waved at the crowd, who cheered in return.  Then he threw himself forward, right onto the twin giant metal spikes.

He sank downward with a gurgling scream.  The spikes transfixed him.  Impaled him.  Pure energy rushed through them like water down high-pressure hoses.  It flooded into him.  Sarah could see it crackling around him like electricity crawling over his skin.  His one visible eye went wide with it, his mouth opened in a perfectly round O.  A stench of burning hair rushed down off of him and flowed across the spectators.  Sarah raised her bound hands to her face.

“You can be part of the future, Sarah.  You can come with me and build something.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  To stop destroying, to stop killing, and build?”  Ayaan was shouting in her ear.  Sarah hadn’t realized how noisy the little valley had become with all the popping vacuum tubes and crackling skin.

Every bone in the Tsarevich’s left arm cracked with a series of pops like muffled gunshots.  The skin of his deformed hand flowed and flexed like a piece of rubber under stress.  His face was changing shape, its contours shifting, rebuilding themselves.

“You don’t have to die today.  It will be difficult,” Ayaan told her, “but I can convince them.  I know I can.  I only need you to say yes.  I need you to agree to be a part of what we are working for.”

Sarah opened her mouth to reply.  Then she closed it.

The Tsarevich’s mouth was moving, his jaw flexing.  It looked like he was trying to say something.  His right leg, the short one, flapped like a sheet on a clothesline.

The fingernails on his hand curled and bent around themselves.  They split the flesh of his fingertips.  His hand tried to close in a fist but the fingers spat out wet, dark sparks.  His body twisted and shook and pulsed with noisy explosions.  Sarah could only imagine that his internal organs were exploding one by one like potatoes left too long in the coals of a campfire.

Something was wrong.  So very, very wrong.

With a wet splash his good eye burst in its socket.  The green phantom hobbled forward and tried to smash at the vacuum tubes with his femur staff.  There was no on/off switch on the machinery.  Energy slashed out at him and he staggered back.  He tried again and got knocked back again.  It didn’t matter, after a moment.

Up on the spikes the Tsarevich’s face split open in a horrible grimace as steam built up inside of his head.  It shot out of his ears, his nose, his eyes.  With a noise of air being sucked into a vacuum his entire body caught fire.  He went up like a torch.

Chapter Fifteen

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Gary swept through the crowd, slashing cultists, disemboweling them, stabbing them in their throats.  He was vicious and completely remorseless.  He seemed to have no plan, just an insatiable need to kill.  Someone hit him with a grenade and he fell down on one knee—then rose again unharmed.  Twelve new barbed spines emerged from under the bottom of his skull.  They shot out like pistons and skewered the heads of ghouls, right through their helmets.

“He gets stronger every time you shoot him,” Sarah said.  She had told her father Gary’s secret in an attempt to break his heart.  Instead he had turned it—turned Gary—into a weapon of mass destruction.  Maybe she’d been wrong about him.  Maybe Dekalb had more strength than she thought.  “It’s all over, Ayaan.  It’s all over.”

Ayaan sucked on her lower lip.  Sarah watched the woman who had been her mentor.  If you just glanced at her she looked the same as ever—she was still Ayaan—yet if you took a closer look it was unmistakable.  She was a corpse now.  You could see the way her skin was tightening in her face.  You could see it in how much weight she’d lost—she was half the size she used to be.  Or maybe it just seemed that way.  In life Ayaan had been a towering figure to Sarah.  She supposed everyone’s parents were like that.  In death she was just one more ghoul.

“Stay here,” Ayaan told her, and started hobbling away toward the yurt.  Was she going to protect the Tsarevich?  Sarah could hardly believe it.  They’d done it.  They had broken Ayaan, broken her mind.  Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible.  Yet Ayaan herself had frequently warned Sarah that humanity was a liability.  Sarah remembered perfectly what Ayaan had said around the campfire one night when Sarah was sixteen years old.  “None of us,” she said, “is immune to death or madness.  The time may come when you have to sanitize me.  You may have to shoot me because I’ve panicked so badly I threaten the squad.  None of you may hesitate, when that moment comes.”

Now she seemed to have changed her tune.  Was she really a believer?  Did she really believe in the Tsarevich, like the two liches Sarah had already killed?  Or was she just afraid of death, like her father had been, and Gary before him?

Speaking of the devil—Sarah looked up to see Gary whirling through the Tsarevich’s army like a top.  He was under sustained gunfire and his skull had taken on a patchy and mottled appearance—he was being healed as fast as he was being injured but the process wasn’t perfect.  Sarah just didn’t know how long it could be kept up.  She knew her father was doing it.  She knew he had to be somewhere nearby.  Gary’s legs flexed and sharp fragments of bone jutted out of him, covered him in vicious spikes.  He tore through a machine gun position and the weapon’s wooden stock shivered into pieces.  The gunners were thrown away like crumpled bits of paper.

Sarah suddenly realized she’d been left alone.  Ayaan and the werewolf had both abandoned her.  Well, they had more serious problems.  Sarah’s hands were tied so securely there wasn’t much she could do, anyway.

Or maybe there was.  She turned around in place, taking in the frenetic energy of the camp, the people running in every direction, the ghouls taking up defensive formations.  She found what she wanted and headed toward it at a run.  A single mummy, standing alone at the back of the valley next to a big rock formation.  It—she—held a jar in her hands with something round and murky inside.

“I was sent by Ptolemaeus Canopus,” she said, skidding to a stop in the dirt.  “Are you alright?  We need to work together if we’re going to get out of here.”

The mummy didn’t move.  The thing in the jar didn’t move either but she could feel a haze of dark energy wafting off of it.  It was desperately trying to get her attention.  She looked down, through the glass, and saw a human brain there.  Nasty, but hardly the worst thing she’d ever seen.

Behind her she heard a prolonged scream and she turned to look.  Blood jetted high over the crowd, a fountain of it.  Gary had grown an extra joint at the end of his legs, a curved, scythe-like foot that looked perfect for evisceration.

She looked back down at the brain.  It was trying to tell her something.  She felt a strange weight in her left hand.  It felt heavy, as if it was being pushed downward.  She frowned.  What the hell did the brain want?  She could reach into the pockets of her sweatshirt, just as she had done while she watched Ptolemy’s execution.  She reached in and felt something soft and hairy.  She drew it out of her pocket.

Oh.  Okay.  They had taken the green sword away from her, as they had stripped her of all her weapons.  They had left her the noose and the withered piece of matted fur Mael Mag Och had once worn as an armband.

Sarah, he said, as she ran the fox fur between her fingers.  I didn’t really expect you to make it this far.  I suppose I didn’t expect you to fail, either.  Though some things run in families, alas.

“Hello,” Sarah said.  “You must be Mael Mag Och.  I’ve heard all about you but I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.”

The voice that roared its reply into Sarah’s head held a trace of regret.  Or maybe she was just imagining it.  If I had come to you in my own shape you would have run away from me.  I pretended to be Jack because I knew it was a name to conjure with, lass.  Does it really matter so much?  I still gave you your gift.

“Why?” she asked.  “Why did you do that?  Why did you do any of this?  Did I really need another parent who was just going to disappear on me at the worst possible moment?”

It was Nilla’s notion, to be honest.  The blonde lass you saw vanish out yonder.

“I’ve never heard of her.”

Ah, Mael Mag Och said, and yet she’s heard all about you.  The daughter of the lost hero, turned out in a foreign land to be raised by warriors, made strong and fierce.  Her heart went out to you, lass, and where Nilla’s involved, my heart goes there too.  She’s and I have much in the way of history, and I owe her a significant debt.

“I refuse to believe you did anything out of the goodness of your own heart.  You planned this—all of this.  I half believe you got Ayaan captured just so I would come chasing after her and end up right here.”

All too true, he admitted.  Yet incomplete.  The entire world does not revolve around you, Sarah.  I had plans for the others as well.  Ayaan was supposed to assassinate the Tsarevich for me.  She was the perfect candidate, I thought.  Once he was dead I could take over his empire, seeing that I was the only one capable of controlling his undead army.  That didn’t work out.  You were my backup plan, and you failed as well.  It is supposed to be me who triumphs today, not his Majesty the undying deformity.  Didn’t I tell you to bring an army?  Instead you brought a handful of mummies and one twisted freak.

“My freak seems to be doing alright for himself,” Sarah said, turning around to watch Gary plow through a line of ghouls.  His bony frame had grown considerably while she spoke with the brain until he resembled nothing so more as a giant spider with a tiny human skull perched atop its carapace.

The werewolf came at him, claws on hands and feet flashing through the air.  Gary stabbed downwards with a bony tail like a scorpion’s sting that penetrated deep into the earth.  Erasmus rolled to the side and came back up to slash at one of Gary’s tree-trunk legs.  Gary knelt forward under the pressure and Erasmus tried to scamper up onto his back, his clawed feet digging into Gary’s bony carapace to find purchase.

A toothy mouth opened in Gary’s side.  Lips studded with bony spikes grabbed at Erasmus’ left arm and the teeth sheared it clean off.  Erasmus howled in agony as his furry body pinwheeled down to the ground while the giant mouth chewed the werewolf’s limb into pulp.  A dozen thin spines lanced down from Gary’s body to impale the werewolf in as many places.  Erasmus didn’t get back up.

“See?  Look at that,” Sarah crowed, excited.

Ah, the druid said, our Gary.  He’s a scrapper, I’ll allow you that much.  Yet the only thing he believes in is the integrity of his own hide.  He’d never take on this fight if he was in any danger.  And unless I miss my guess, your Ayaan is about ready to strike.

“What are you talking about?” Sarah demanded.  The mummy holding the brain inclined her head and Sarah pivoted around to look where she indicated.  She just had time to see Ayaan crest a pile of boulders high up on the ridge wall to the south.  Sarah looked closer and saw her father on the other side of the pile.  He was sitting calmly, his eyes closed, his arms outstretched, the palms of his skeletal hands pointed at Gary.

“No,” Sarah said, the syllable meaningless in her mouth.  “No, that’s not right.”

It’s a hard world, lass, Mael Mag Och told her.  It has been for twelve years.

Ayaan grabbed Dekalb’s head in both of her hands.  He jerked and flexed and tried to escape from her but he was caught like a fish on a line.  Ayaan pressed harder and the skin on Dekalb’s head darkened and split like the skin of a rotten fruit.  Sarah’s father kicked out with his legs but he couldn’t seem to hit Ayaan.

Sarah watched in mute horror as her father’s face peeled off in long dry strips of skin.  The skull underneath glowed with dark energy.  The skull flexed and shook and a network of fine cracks appeared over its surface.  Shafts of dark energy leaked through the fissures.  Darkness burst from empty eyesockets and Dekalb’s skull cracked open in a hundred pieces.

Ayaan let the headless body fall forward.  She was done.  Down on the battlefield Gary must have felt it right away.  He must have realized instantly that he was no longer immune to the attacks of the Tsarevich’s army.  He made a quick slash at all the ghouls and cultists nearby and then ran for the hills.

Just like that his attack was over.  Just like that he was gone.  The green lich sent cultists to chase after Gary but everyone could see he was retreating.

Sarah had more important things to worry about, of course.

“Daddy,” Sarah said.  The last thing she’d said to him was that he was a bad parent.  He had begged her not to get herself into this mess.

“Daddy,” she said again.  The brain had enough tact to keep silent.

Chapter Fourteen

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

“She’s got some charm against bullets,” the green phantom said.  Enni Langstrom.  That was what he was called.  Ayaan was still trying to get used to the name.  “When we have a chance we’ll get a bathtub and see if she can breathe underwater, too.”  He was dragging Sarah along behind him, literally pulling her through the dirt.

Ayaan ran a hand over her chin.  “Enni,” she said.  “Let’s give her an opportunity.  Let’s allow her to join us, if she will.”

“She tried to kill the Tsarevich,” he told her.  Sarah’s head rolled to one side and she vomited blood all over the hem of his robe.  “Stupid bitch,” he snarled.  He kicked her in the ribs until she was coughing blood all over herself.

Ayaan rushed forward and knelt down by Sarah’s sided.  “Enni,” she said, “the first time you saw me, I was trying to kill you.  Look how that worked out.”

She had been willing to kill Sarah.  She had convinced herself that if it meant saving the Tsarevich—and humanity’s last hope—she would kill Sarah herself.  But now it wasn’t necessary.  Sarah no longer had the means to hurt anyone.  Surely—surely a little mercy was in order.  She wiped Sarah’s mouth with her hand and lifted her head a little to make it easier for the girl to breathe.

“Ayaan,” Sarah said, her eyes wide, so wide.  “Ayaan, you’re an abomination.”

Ayaan just nodded.

“If you want her so badly, take her.  If she causes trouble you’ll both be executed.”  Enni shook his skull-like head and stormed away.  “I have work to oversee,” he shouted back over his shoulder.

She lifted Sarah up to a sitting posture.  “Listen,” she said, but Sarah interrupted her.

“I was hoping I would find you were a prisoner here,” the girl said.  Her eyes were very hard.  “I assumed you wouldn’t let them turn you into a lich willingly.”

“It wasn’t my choice.”  Ayaan shook her head.  “Sarah, just listen.  They’ll kill you.  I don’t care what kind of magic you’ve found, they’ll find a way to get around it.  You only have one chance to survive.”

“Ayaan never worried so much about survival,” Sarah said.  “I don’t know who you are.  I know who you serve, though.”

Ayaan closed her eyes and said a brief prayer.  He is Sublime, she recited, the Tremendous.  “I thought as you did originally.  Now I’ve come to understand.  The world is in bad shape, Sarah.  There are fewer living people every day, and more of the walking dead.  I used to think there was one answer to that problem: shoot them all.  Now I know better.  Somebody has to rebuild this planet.”

Sarah licked her lips.  “The Tsarevich.  You really want to live in the world he wants to make?”

“Yes,” Ayaan said, without hesitation.  “Because I’ve seen the alternative.  Come on.  You have to stand up.  I can’t carry you.”  She helped Sarah up to her feet.  The girl looked pale and weak but she didn’t collapse.  Was that just the result of good training?  Had Ayaan taught Sarah how to be tough?  Or maybe the girl’s magic was just that strong.

Magic.  Ayaan’s world had always been predicated on the idea that magic was dangerous at best and a sure route to damnation.  Now she was a magical being herself.  She wouldn’t admit that Sarah’s anger had shaken her faith in the righteousness of her path, but she knew it, consciously.

“Just be quiet.  You can achieve nothing by talking now,” Ayaan said, letting Sarah lean against her.

“When they decide to kill me, will it be you who blows my brains out?” Sarah asked.  “Or will you let them cut off my hands and my lips and make me one of their soldiers?”

There were worse fates.  Ayaan said nothing.

She lead Sarah deeper into the encampment, into the throng of cultists who were busy preparing for the Tsarevich’s great moment.  The living and the dead were busy unloading several crates of equipment from the back of the flatbed.  Others labored at assembling strange contraptions Ayaan could not recognize.  A narrow scaffolding made of aluminum poles was already rising from the carpet of bones, far closer to the Source than Ayaan thought safe.  A work crew was putting together what looked like a giant metal coil as thick as her arm while others tested vacuum tubes and then fit them together in various metal cabinets.  It looked as if they were preparing for a rock concert.

The crowd parted as a long wooden crate was brought forward.  A cultist with a crowbar bent to open the crate and reveal a pair of metal spikes, each of them ten feet long and wickedly curved.  Their tips looked sharper than icepicks.

Erasmus waved at Ayaan and walked over to stand next to her.  “It won’t be much longer,” he said.  “Wow, did you ever really think we’d make it this far?”

“Yes,” Ayaan said.  “I believed.  This is Sarah, by the way.”

“Uh.  Yeah.  Hi.”  The cheerful werewolf didn’t seem to know how to talk to the girl.  He looked instead at the two metal spikes.  “Nice to meet you, I guess.”

“It isn’t mutual,” Sarah spat but Erasmus was unwilling to take the bait.

“I think I see how this works,” Ayaan said as the work crew bolted one of the long spars to either side of the scaffolding.  “The Tsarevich will climb up there and grasp either of these extrusions with one of his hands.  The energy will then flow through him like an electrical current.

“Yeah, kinda,” Erasmus said.  He scratched at his face with his inch-long fingernails.  “Look, Nilla’s ready to go.”

Ayaan looked where he pointed.  The blonde lich was moving steadily toward the Source.  Two female cultists—living women—followed behind her.  Each of them carried a spool of wire which she unwound as she walked.  The loose ends of wire connected to the scaffolding.

As Nilla approached the zone of exclusion where any undead thing would catch on fire Ayaan wanted to rush forward and drag her back.  Erasmus knew better, however.  “It’s okay.  This is why we needed her so much.  You’ll see.  Nilla is the only one who can actually go to the Source.  As far as we know she’s the only dead person ever to get close enough to touch it.”

“And she will take those wires and connect them to it?” Ayaan asked.  She’d never been very good with electronics.

“Yeah, although on their own they don’t do anything.  She needs to act as a conduit for the life force.  A transformer, I guess—she can take the power of the Source and feed it to the Tsarevich out here as healing energy.”

Nilla vanished without fanfare as she crossed the event horizon.  She just turned invisible.  The female cultists in her train looked frightened for a moment but they must have been warned what would happen because they kept walking.

“He’s coming,” someone said in Russian.  “He is ready,” someone else shouted.  Some of the cultists dropped to their knees as the flap of the yurt was drawn back.  The ghouls kept working—they didn’t even look up.

A young girl, maybe twelve years old, stepped out of the yurt.  Her head had been shaved and she had a fresh cut on her cheek.  She wore a silk dress stained with blood in a couple of places.  Ayaan barely recognized her at first but slowly her brain worked it out.  It was Patience, the girl she had taken away from the farm in Pennsylvania.  By the look of things she was the new Cicatrix.

A hand appeared out of the darkness of the yurt.  A length of twisted forearm.  The Tsarevich hauled himself forward, pushing his misshapen skull out into the light.  He couldn’t walk.  His legs were two different lengths—his left was nearly a foot longer than his right—but clearly he intended to emerge under his own power.  Inch by inch his deformed flesh hauled itself out of the yurt.

The green phantom waited at the side of the flatbed with a shiny metal shopping cart.  The Tsarevich lurched forward and slid down into it, his off-center hips jamming down into the metal basket.  His shorter arm reached forward and his fingers wove through the bars while his longer arm draped over the side of the cart and nearly dragged his knuckles in the dirt.  The green phantom pushed him forward with visible effort, toward the scaffolding.

“What’s that?” someone said, and Ayaan assumed they’d never seen the Tsarevich before.  She almost laughed.  She had been holding her breath—except that she had no breath to hold.  Her chest had locked into rigor with anticipation.  “No, seriously,” the voice called again, and she turned to see who had broken the tension.  “What is that?”

She looked—everyone looked—and saw someone walking towards them from the far side of the valley.  A dead person, clearly, because his face was a bare skull.  There were scraps of skin adhering to the bone, and a pair of prominent eyes in the sockets, and a wispy lock of hair or two.  The figure was perhaps six feet tall and extremely thin—except for the skull its entire body was wrapped up in a heavy olive drab blanket.

It didn’t really have any feet, though.  Sharp-looking ends of bone stuck out of the bottom of the blanket.  Instead of walking forward it scuttled forward, kind of like a crab.

“Dad,” Sarah breathed.  But the figure wasn’t Dekalb—it couldn’t be.

“Get a sniper over here,” Ayaan shouted but it was too late.  A female cultist in a paper smock approached the strange figure.  She had a pistol in either hand and she raised them to shoulder height.  She demanded that the creature stop at once.  “Come on, we need a fire team!” Ayaan yelled.  She half-turned to relay her instructions to Erasmus but that would mean taking her eyes off this new enemy.

The woman with the pistols opened fire, her handguns barking like angry dogs.  Bullets tore into the green blanket and spun the stranger around in a circle.  It fell over not like a human being falling to the ground but like a camera tripod being knocked over.  And then it got back up.

The blanket whirled open and away.  The creature had no body, only six enormous jointed legs of yellow bone that flashed out like the fingers of a giant hand.  Two of them snapped outward and neatly impaled the living woman.  They flicked in different directions and she came apart in pieces.

Screaming and shouting and general alarm rolled around the encampment.  Cultists and ghouls rushed to the attack.  Snipers climbed up into the rocks surrounding the valley while a team of rifles rushed forward to kneel in the dirt before the Tsarevich, protecting him.

Someone brought out a machine gun, a crew-served RPK-74, which looked like a big AK-47 with a reinforced stock.  A teenage boy fed the long curving magazines into the weapon as its operator lay prone on the ground, angling the barrel up on its tripod.  The operator tore through an entire magazine of forty-five rounds in a few seconds.

The monster took another step forward and fell on its face, three of its legs crumpling beneath it.  Chips of bone fell from its body.  One of its eyes burst and jelly dripped out of the socket like ugly tears.  Ayaan closed her mouth.  It had been gaping open.  The thing was dead.  Its skull had been punctured in a dozen places.

Somebody cheered.

Then the monster stood back up.  A new eye opened in the empty socket.  Its broken legs fused themselves back together.  If anything the beast looked bigger—it looked like it was ten feet tall.  It surged forward fast enough to impale half a dozen ghouls.  Around Ayaan the living began to panic.  They ran in every possible direction, some of them throwing away their weapons.  Disorganized and panicked they posed no threat to the monster.  It came right towards Ayaan.  It came right for her.

“Who…” she wondered out loud.  Except she already knew.  “Who is it?”

“Gary,” Sarah gloated, her face parted by a broad and exultant smile.  “It’s fucking Gary, that’s who!”

Chapter Thirteen

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Sarah and the mummies fell back to fighting positions.  They grabbed cover, braced themselves for battle. Readied their weapons, laid out their spare ammunition.  Prepared themselves for a guts-and-glory firefight.

They didn’t stand a chance.

The mummies were fast.  Faster than any living human.  The carried plenty of ammunition for their shotguns.  It didn’t matter.  The accelerated ghouls were faster.

Sarah had watched her ambush turn into a rout without really being able to identify the turning point.  She only knew she had fucked up.  With the mummies crouched behind boulders, with herself on a high crest of rock trying to snipe the enemy with an assault rifle she knew it was going to end badly.

One by one the mummies were picked off.  The younger ones, the Roman-era mummies with painted faces went first.  One of them was stupid enough to run out into the denied zone, the region too close to the Source where the undead caught fire.  He was smoldering before three of the accelerated corpses piled on top of him.  All four of them caught flame at once, a rolling, scrapping funeral pyre.  The mummy’s arms pinwheeled as he tried to throw the ghouls off of him.  He was slowing down as Sarah watched, however, and in moments he had stopped moving altogether.

The other painted mummy had a little more sense, but less luck.  He moved steadily from rock to rock, picking off ghouls and then diving back into cover.  In the end it wasn’t a ghoul that got him at all but something else, some weird magic that turned his linen yellow.  His wrappings began to tatter as if they were torn at by hurricane-level winds and then his bones just seemed to give out and he collapsed in a heap.

Rifle fire picked off one of the older mummies.  He had been smart enough to stay put and wait for the ghouls to come to him.  Hunkered down between two rocks he kept the barrel of his M1014 high, ready to take opportunistic shots.  He was severely outranged, however, by a cultist with a Dragunov sniper rifle.  Through the scope of her OICW Sarah saw the sniper line up the perfect bead.  He took his shot before she had time to even shout out a warning.  The mummy’s head popped open like a bag full of meat.

The rest of the mummies died when the Tsarevich decided to stop playing games and sent his whole force into the valley, hundreds of ghouls, at least a hundred living men and women with assault rifles and pistols and machine guns.  The enemy just tore her troops to pieces.  What had been a battle of attrition turned into a plain old-fashioned defeat as bodies living and dead flung themselves at Sarah’s positions.  Ptolemy threw away his weapon and threw himself into the melee, grabbing at ghouls and hurling them into the denied zone, turning around to kick in the faces of living zealots, moving so fast Sarah saw him as an off-white blur digging into the enemy’s ranks.  Then he disappeared.

He was just there one moment and gone the next.  “Magic,” she breathed, but no.  She would have seen magic.  He had simply been tackled by so many of the Tsarevich’s forces that she couldn’t see him any more.

There was no more time.

So this is it, she told herself.  The moment of truth.  The mummies had sacrificed themselves so she could get close enough to finish her mission.  Seven mummies had died for this.  Two liches.  Marisol’s son.  All so she could fire a single shot.  Sarah lifted the OICW to her lips and kissed it.  She needed luck.  She had the determination.

She looked down from her perch and saw Ayaan standing in the midst of the dead and the living.  She was wearing a leather jacket with skulls on it, but she didn’t have her AK-47 anymore.  Sarah lifted the scope of her weapon to her eye and centered the crosshairs on Ayaan’s forehead.  It was a duty, a sacred duty that she carried out.  The shot would give away her position.  She would have only moments after she killed Ayaan to get the barrel in her own mouth and destroy her own brain.  But then it would be over.  A cold, almost frozen calm came over her.  She slipped off the safety.  Just one shot.  She just needed… she needed something.  One shot, right, she just needed one shot.

Sarah blinked but it just made her vision blur.  She licked her lips but her tongue was dry.  Was she… was she afraid?  She just needed the one… the one shot.  Silence filled her head—she couldn’t hear anything.

The OICW clattered against the slickrock at her feet.  Somehow it had fallen out of her hands.  She shook her head and reached for the Makarov in her pocket.  It felt as heavy as a rock, as a, a boulder.  Why was she so tired, suddenly?  Sarah sat down, hard, and closed her eyes.  She couldn’t open them again no matter how determined she was.  What was going on?

Oh, she thought.  This time, yeah.  It was.  Magic.

She felt hands grab at her, rough hands.  Someone went through her pockets while someone else took the green sword away from her, tearing it off her belt.  They pinched her around the thigh, around the upper arm.  Someone was dragging her, she could feel the top of her head sliding along the rock.  She couldn’t hear anything, she was deaf.  Her hands were pulled in front of her and encircled with a length of rope.  She was being tied up.

Instantly her energy returned.  Her eyes shot open and she could hear again—every ragged breath, every beat of her own heart.  She turned her head wildly to the side to see what was behind her, what was flanking her.  She was kneeling on a pile of bones.  Somebody else’s bones were digging into her shins, her knees.  She rolled around, trying to get comfortable.  She couldn’t see Ayaan.  The green lich—the one in the monk’s robe, the one whose face looked like a skull—was standing next to her.  He pointed, his arm stretched out, one bony finger stabbing at the air and she looked.

They had Ptolemy beaten to a pulp.  His legs were splayed wide open and bent at wrong angles.  His arms were broken in a dozen places.  Men in light blue paper shirts stood around him, sledgehammers balanced on their shoulders.  A girl maybe two years younger than Sarah was bent over him with a pair of scissors.  She cut right through his painted face, cut away at the plaster at his neck.  She tore open his linen and exposed his head.

His skull was the brown color of a brazil nut.  Papery skin covered the round back of his head while bits of withered flesh clung to his cheeks and throat.  His lips had drawn so tightly over his teeth that they looked scalloped.  His eyes were closed, sewn shut, two dashes sunk deep in their sockets.

Sarah could just reach the soapstone in her pocket, just touch it with the tip of her pinky.  It was enough.

one here of mine is here mine, he told her.  her save her

Sarah shook badly, her body vibrating like a milkweed plant in the wind.

One of the blue-shirted men held Ptolemy’s head down against the rock.  The other brought up his hammer and brought it down hard, made it clang against the ground as Ptolemy’s skull burst into fragments that spun for a moment on the slickrock and then fell down and were still.

The green phantom grabbed Sarah’s collar and dragged her to her feet.  “Walk,” he told her.  No threats, no promises.  Just walk.  She stumbled forward, her legs weak.  She passed through a gauntlet of cut-down ghouls and wild-eyed cultists but none of them moved toward her, none of them spat at her or shrieked names at her.  Her own eyes were very wide and dry.  They itched.  The green lich marched her right up to the flatbed.  There had been no attempt made to repair the damage she’d done to it.  Sarah tried to gloat on that, to exult in how badly she’d hurt the Tsarevich.  The message she was being sent, however, was to the contrary.  She hadn’t even slowed him down.

She swallowed convulsively.  Acid was boiling in her throat but she refused to vomit.  She was lead up to the side of the flatbed and then she was told to stop.  She did so.  She shoved her hands in her pockets.  The Makarov was gone.

The green lich jumped up on the flatbed and leaned his face inside of the yurt.  He nodded a couple of times—he must be discussing her fate with the yurt’s occupant.  He jumped back down and gestured at a living woman.  She came over and handed him something.  A Russian pistol.  Her own pistol.

No undead creature could fire a handgun—it was an axiom of Sarah’s existence.  They just didn’t have the eye-hand coordination.  Their nervous systems didn’t work properly.  They couldn’t run, and they couldn’t shoot.  Then again, she’d seen plenty of them run.

The green lich shoved his finger through the trigger guard, then used his free hand to mold his fingers around the grip.  Then he shoved the barrel against her chest.  He smiled down at her and slid the handgun a little to the left.

“Wait,” Sarah said, “Just let me see Ayaan first.”

He fired.  At point blank range he couldn’t miss.  There was a lot of noise, though Sarah’s ears kind of blocked most of it out.  There was some light but she blinked as the gun went off—just a reflex action.  Her body tensed and curled around the impact, her muscles and skin and sinews convulsing inward as she fell backward, flat on her back and hit the ground.  Blood splashed up across her face, fell wet across her chest, her legs.  She could feel it pooling around her, soaking into her clothes and her hair.  She couldn’t breathe, which wasn’t really a problem at first but she was dully aware that it would become important in a few seconds.

She brought her knees up, her body wanted to double up.  Death was on its way, mere seconds off.  The world got darker and louder, she could hear screaming but it wasn’t her own, the screaming got louder.  And louder.  She felt something tugging in her chest.  It jerked and ripped and tore at her like a bird eating her guts but higher, kind of near her heart.  She opened her eyes and looked down.

The bullet edged backwards out of the wound as if it were being pushed out from inside.  She could see the striations on its surface, the rifling marks.  It hurt a lot more going out than it had coming in.  Pain wracked her body and suddenly it was her screaming, she could hear her own screams again.  The bullet fell out of her and rolled down onto the bloody slickrock.  She sat up and screamed and screamed.  The green lich stared at her with genuine curiosity.

Was she… dead?  Undead?  No.  She was breathing.  The dead didn’t breathe.  She was still alive.  She was still, somehow, alive.  Her chest was full of blood, her lungs congested with it but she could talk, kind of.  “Dad,” she wheezed.  “Daddy.”

New books

Pass Fail cover

Three new David Wellington eBooks are available now. These are full-length novels, and you can get all three for the price of a paperback:

Rivals: Sibling teen superheroes. Fight!

Pass/Fail: High school can be murder.

Plague Zone: Zombies!

Learn more about David's books and join in the discussion at the Hail Horrors Ning forum.

Table of Contents

Monster Planet is a novel posted in blog format, set twelve years after the events of Monster Island and Monster Nation. The novel is complete and commenting is closed (to prevent spam) but you may still contact us via email.

If this is your first visit, you may wish to start with Monster Island, the first book in the trilogy, and then read Monster Nation, the second volume, before returning here.

Monster Planet Part 1
Monster Planet Part 2
Monster Planet Part 3
Monster Planet Site News

Latest News

April 29: Zombie Night at WORD Bookstore

April 27th 2015

The Fear Project

January 14th 2015

Dave Will be at Phoenix ComicCon 2014!

April 28th 2014

See Dave at BEA, or Chat Live from the floor!

May 23rd 2013