Undead Chaos, page 2
My words were useless. Whatever negotiating power I’d had before was gone. Banks was all rage—nothing short of another death would slow him down.
While he flailed on the ground, I reached behind me and yanked the sword out of its sheath. The cold silver blade hummed as it sprang free. Along each side, rune etchings of a dead language glinted brightly in the harsh floodlights. I took half a second to appreciate the sword’s simple beauty, then swung it toward Banks.
Only he wasn’t there.
Something shuffled behind me, and I instinctively dove to the right. The stock of the shotgun narrowly missed my head, but made solid contact with my left thigh. I cried out and fell to the ground, dropping the sword on impact. Leg throbbing, I rolled onto my back, only to find Banks standing over me.
I cringed and prayed that I’d be able to purge the image of his small, decomposing package from my brain.
Gripping the barrel of the shotgun like a baseball bat, Banks wobbled as he lifted the weapon over his head. I swung my right leg upward and connected with the side of his knee. There was an audible snap, and the zombie lost his balance. He twisted and collapsed again, this time on me.
I didn’t much care for a living male to be naked on top of me, but an undead one was too much. Banks’s sickly pale skin was cold, and the folds squished against me as he squirmed. He stank of mold, decay and formaldehyde. The smell would take several washings to remove from my clothes.
“Banks, get off!” I barked and shoved against his rotted torso as hard as I could. Tony rolled sideways, snarling and snapping at me, but I scrambled away before he bit me. Zombie bites might not turn you into an undead drone, but they are highly infectious and painful to treat.
I recovered into a crouch and grimaced as I spotted my sword beneath the mound of writhing, decaying meat. There was no way to extract it, especially considering where the hilt was located. Instead, I drew the Glock and leveled it, pulling the trigger as Banks struggled to his knees.
The gun thundered and the recoil jerked my hands skyward. The hollow-point slammed into Banks’s side and exited in a shower of gooey green slop. He was yanked sideways and upright, providing me with a beautiful fat target.
I fired three more times. Two bullets hit him square in the chest while the third tore through the thigh of his good leg. The impacts threw Banks backward onto the manicured lawn, and he landed with a grunt.
Like the brass from the bullets, my frustration at the zombie was spent. With Banks neutralized and my sword finally exposed, I was ready to finish the job. I holstered the pistol and limped over to my blade.
“Anthony Banks,” I said with authority as the creature struggled to sit up. I shoved the blade into the ground and made the connection to the earth. “You have returned to this world against the will of Nature, and you are no longer welcome. Your place is elsewhere and the Earth demands your restoration.”
Dirt clung to the metal as I removed the sword and it began to shimmer with hazy orange light. The glowing runes illuminated the air around them. Banks stopped moving and stared at me with wide eyes as I raised the sword over my head.
“As a duly appointed representative of these forces, I hereby send you back. May you finally be at peace.”
I swept the sword downward and neatly lopped off his head. It fell to the grass with a dull thud and the body slumped to the ground. It twitched once and went still. The sword glowed orange a moment longer before flickering back to normal. I wiped the blade on my cargo pants and returned it to the sheath.
Only after my weapon was properly stored did I allow my shoulders to slump. The fight with Banks had winded me, and tapping into my Skill to perform the banishing spell wore on me even more. Between the rapid cooldown of adrenaline and the ache in my leg, I was in desperate need of a nap. But not before I tied up some loose ends.
The first call was to the county coroner. LaDell picked up on the second ring.
“Shifter!” he boomed. “I’m sick of crosswords. Tell me you have something.”
“Beheaded zombie,” I grumbled, rubbing my right temple to ease the pain building in my skull.
“You just made my night. What’s the address?”
I provided it, hung up, and dialed the local police. The woman on the other end was less enthusiastic about my news.
“You fired a gun in a residential neighborhood?” she asked.
“He started it.”
“We Normals may not have magical powers like you special people,” she growled, “but we do have laws.”
I apologized halfheartedly and ended the call with a promise to wait around for the inbound squad car.
Carly, struggling to remain upright in her heels, staggered toward me. She stumbled to my side and gazed down at what was left of her husband.
“He done?” she slurred, waving her refilled glass at the corpse.
“He ain’t coming back, right?”
“No. Removing his head guarantees that.”
Carly stared at the body for a good minute. Losing a loved one was hard enough. To have them return from the grave only to torment you and get decapitated on your front lawn was sensory overload. She closed her eyes and burped.
I placed a hand on her shoulder. “He’s at rest now.”
“Yeeeees!” she squealed, breaking into a huge sticky grin. “You are wonderful!”
She yanked my face toward her. I tried to pull away, but the woman was surprisingly strong. She attacked my mouth with gusto, violating it in ways I hadn’t thought possible. After a long, agonizing moment, she released me and flipped open a cell phone.
“Hey baby,” she warbled in a husky voice, stumbling a few paces away. I wiped the lipstick from my face and spat several times to remove her stale, cheap flavor from my abused tongue.
“Yeah, it’s done,” she continued. “Tony’s gone for good. Uh-huh, lopped his head off with a knife or something. It made me so hot. Want to come over and cool me off?”
Sirens in the distance signaled the approach of the authorities, so I eased away from her. She never noticed. I gave her a disgusted glare, then gazed at her husband.
“What in the world possessed you to come back for her?” I asked the corpse.
I awoke the next morning to the buzzing of my phone.
“Morning, sweetie,” my mother said. “Did I wake you?”
I sat up and closed my eyes to minimize the pounding in my head. “Yeah, but it’s okay. What’s up?”
“Just calling to find out where you were.”
I glanced at the clock.
Aw hell. Breakfast.
“At the townhouse. Let me shower and I’ll head over.”
“Hot date?” she asked hopefully.
The pain behind my eyes intensified. Someday she’d learn to stop pestering me about my love life. Apparently not today.
“No, a job. Reanimated husband haunting.”
“Wow, those are rare.” She did a pretty good job of covering the disappointment in her voice.
“I know. It was a referral from another client. Nice payout too.”
“Good for you.” Her voice was filled with genuine motherly pride instead of frustrated wanna-be-grandmother. “Can’t wait to hear the details.”
We said goodbye and I eased myself out of bed and into the bathroom. My leg ached and was a gross shade of yellow. Unless I visited a Healer, I’d be on an ibuprofen and ice pack diet for at least a week. I double-checked for zombie bites and was pleased to find none.
A hot shower and a half a tube of toothpaste later, I was a new man.
I rummaged through my closet for a suitable outfit to wear to breakfast. My wardrobe leaned mor
My place wasn’t much, just a simple townhouse in the older section of Reston, Virginia. It had four walls, thick carpet and ice-cold AC. Best of all, it overlooked a golf course. The inside desperately needed remodeling when I’d bought it several years earlier, but a little elbow grease and lot of money spent at the hardware store had put the house back in shape. It wouldn’t win any interior design awards, but until a woman’s warmth was felt within the walls, it was fine enough for me.
My first stop of the morning was the local coffee shop. Say what you will about medication, but nothing beats a good mug of coffee to soothe your morning ailments.
Steaming cup of Joe in hand, I swung by the bank to deposit Carly’s payment. The attendant greeted me with a bored expression until she opened the envelope and saw the thick wad of bills inside.
I shrugged. “Hey, checks bounce.”
Traffic was light, so the drive to Great Falls was smooth and uneventful. I wound my Honda SUV—nicknamed the Gray Ghost—through the woods of Northern Virginia for at least twenty minutes before coming to a small, unmarked gravel road. The Gray Ghost bounced over the dirt path for a hundred yards before pulling up to a set of large iron gates. I rolled down my window and smiled at the man in the guard shack.
“Howdy, Frank. How’s it going?”
Frank nodded, but said nothing. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never uttered a word. Dad swears he was a Warlock of renowned Skill, but he’s always come across as a quiet, possibly odd, old man. The gates swung open and he motioned me forward with a nod.
“Thanks,” I said, and drove inside.
Until the middle of the twentieth century Great Falls was nothing more than an isolated farming town outside Washington, DC. By the end of the millennium, however, the growth of DC enveloped the surrounding rural counties. As the population boomed and neighborhoods replaced farms, my family was forced to expand their defenses to keep unwanted visitors off the property.
Part of that security was Frank, the gates and the two dozen or so Normal guards we employed to patrol the grounds. Additionally, the folks utilized a wide variety of deception spells that masked the perimeter of the grounds. Unless you were welcome, the Homestead was almost impossible to find. Even if one of our enemies was able to locate our home, the woods that enveloped the property were packed with enough spells and scary creatures to ward off unwelcome guests.
I’d spent much of my childhood happily playing in the trees, completely unaware of the threats around me. The creatures never bothered me because I was a member of the family, so I assumed the stories of their existence were fabrications from adults to keep me in line. Not long after my thirteenth birthday, however, I stumbled upon an oversized puma with stubby horns butchering a deer. The sight of meat being so easily rended from bone not only instilled me with a newly discovered sense of mortality, but also stopped my forays into the wild altogether.
As an adult, however, I appreciated the multiple layers of security.
Long before the formation of the Delwinn Council, the Shifter family was dedicated to protecting the world from monsters that liked to prey upon humanity. Over the course of thousands of years, we’d killed or imprisoned a wide selection of murderous beasts, not to mention plenty of our own kind who’d gone bonkers, so our list of formidable enemies was longer than a Meatloaf love ballad.
The Gray Ghost crunched through the gravel before finally pulling around a large fountain in front of the gargantuan house. Constructed two hundred years earlier, the Shifter Homestead was the center of power and operations for my family. It stood three stories tall and was comprised of a central node with two separate wings, one to the north and one to the south. In addition, there were two basement levels that housed a medical ward and an armory.
The latter contained some of the most powerful and notorious magical items in history. The only reason we kept them was because no one had figured out how to destroy them yet. Still, that many devices in one place made me nervous. It was a tempting target for evildoers, but the combination of family secrecy and the impressive defensive perimeter had kept seedy customers at bay for generations.
An aged footman dressed in the family colors of black and red greeted me as I exited the Ghost.
“Good morning, sir,” he said.
“Morning, Carl,” I replied cheerfully. “Good to see you again.”
I’d always liked Carl. Not only was he kind and pleasant, but he was also a vault when it came to secrets. He’d never once squealed on me when I ran amok as a kid.
You just can’t buy that kind of trust.
“And you as well, sir. Care for a saltwater taffy?” He produced several sweets from a pocket.
That was the other reason why I liked him.
I stuffed two in my mouth, waved goodbye and mounted a set of large marble stairs. As I reached the top, the huge ornately carved wooden doors swung open. Another elderly, regal man welcomed me.
“Master Marcus,” Cornelius Jones, the family butler, announced to no one in particular.
Part of me felt sorry for the old stiff. Trying to keep tabs on me as a kid must have been exhausting and was undoubtedly the cause of most of his gray hair. He was just doing his job, but I was kind of a hellion and went out of my way to get into trouble. Not that I’d disliked the guy, but young boys are full of piss and fire and any form of authority that’s not blood is a threat. I’d long since outgrown my youthful exuberance, but the wary, exhausted look he gave me whenever I came home was a clear sign that the emotional scars I’d caused still ran deep.
Then again, it might also have been because the other part of me still enjoyed needling him every once in a while. But only because the poor guy needed to loosen up a little.
“Howdy, Cornelius,” I mumbled through a mouthful of sticky candies. The butler nodded with an air of resignation.
“Your parents are waiting for you in the side-kitchen,” he said evenly.
“Can you let them know I’ll be there in a few minutes? I need to check on my girls first.”
“Of course, sir. I’m sure your parents will understand why you’ve kept them waiting.”
I ignored the sarcasm dripping from his voice, tossing him a taffy instead. “Thanks, bud.” He caught it, then held it between pinched fingers with a frown. “You’re too kind.”
The hallway leading from the central house to the South Wing was long, and my footsteps echoed off the polished marble floors. Suits of armor worn by valiant ancestors famous for defending the innocent or some crap like that stood proud and erect in countless alcoves. In addition, sculptures and ancient paintings that had been presented as gifts to our family in thanks lined the walls. Most of the items were priceless with historical significance, which annoyed me to no end. I was constantly lobbying to donate them to a museum. They deserved to be enjoyed by the public, not shoved into dark corners of a chilly old wing of our mansion.
My recommendations always fell on deaf ears. Too many relatives, most of whom had drifted to various corners of the globe over the decades, were passionate about the “classical” design. And since the Homestead was the main base for the Shifters, my folks begrudgingly obliged. Thankfully the staff took the time to change things out, so at least our beautiful and selfishly private displays never got dusty.
I picked up the pace as I passed the door to an empty, long-forgotten ballroom. My heartbeat quickened as the memories of heat and scorched marble threatened to push their way to the front of my mind. I shoved the images and feelings back into their emotional box, turned down a corridor, and escaped the effects of that room as quickly as possible.<
As I crossed the threshold into the South Wing, the personality of the building changed. The ballrooms and priceless artwork gave way to worn marble floors and walls covered with thumbtacked pictures of childhood scribbles. It was the section of the mansion where I’d grown up, and the only part of the building that didn’t feel like an exhibit.
This was also the wing where I’d learned how to become the hellion I was as a kid. In my roaming I’d discovered hidden passageways that linked various rooms together while peepholes in murals allowed me to keep tabs on house staff as they pursued me through the mansion. All of them, especially Cornelius, swore my rambunctiousness would get me killed some day.
Leaving the memories of my reckless youth behind, I exited through a thick wooden door and jogged across a gravel path to a small single-room stone hut that served as my beekeeping headquarters. Originally designed as a storage facility for food, the structure sat unused for years before I claimed it as my Honey House. One wall was filled with shelves where I stored boxes of wooden beehive parts. Organized against the opposite wall were large metal tins used to extract honey. On the back wall were more shelves with bottles of honey and a small hanging rack with a dirty, well-worn beekeeping suit.
I removed the white coveralls and zipped myself into the outfit. Then I pulled on a mesh-screen veil and picked up a bucket packed with tools. Ready to face the girls, I stepped back into the light.
The apiary, or bee yard, was located about twenty-five yards from the Honey House. On a warm day the hive’s entrance was like the air traffic pattern over JFK. Considering the activity that morning, I decided to approach the rear of the boxes rather than wade through thousands of arriving and departing bees. I dropped my bucket at the base of the left-most hive, whipped out my hive tool, then cracked the top cover open.
There are few things in this world as pleasant or calming as the smell of a warm, busy hive. In the years between my leaving the Skilled community and my return, beekeeping became one of the few activities that eased the tension that weighed on me. Only when I was surrounded by thousands of my girls did I truly feel removed from judging or expectant eyes. When my life was at its darkest, when I was struggling to contain the fury of emotions that threatened to crush me, I’d sought solace in my bees, coming to them often for the tranquility they offered.