At Grave's End (Night Huntress #3)

5,859
05.03.2019

IN OLDER MOVIES, ZOMBIES LOOKED ALMOST comical. The newer films pegged them better-the insanity of eyes bulging out and flesh hanging in rancid layers over a frame hunched from hunger. Some were more decomposed than others, bones visible in places as they staggered forward. But all of them had one thing in common; they were ravenous, and we were food.

When the first one was visible, Mencheres appeared as stunned as the rest of us were. After his cryptic statement, however, he began to curse in a manner so unlike him that it broke my attention from the oncoming horde.

"Never in all my foulest imaginings did I believe she would do such a thing," he finished with. "There will be payback for this, perhaps not by me or anyone here, but one day she will account for such a deed."

That didn't sound good. In fact, it sounded like an epitaph.

Bones shook Mencheres's shoulder with a hard tug. "We don't have time to ponder Patra's capacity for evil. These things"-a short nod to the ones only about two dozen yards away. "Can they be killed?"

Mencheres lost his glazed expression and his features hardened. He placed his hand over Bones's.

"No."

The single word was delivered without emotion. Mencheres seemed to steel himself even as he squeezed Bones's hand before dropping his own.

"They cannot be killed," he continued, unsheathing his sword with a slicing noise. "Nor do they feel any pain or even need eyes to see us. They are drawn to us by her will alone."

He strode forward with a command for everyone else to stay back. The things were only a few feet from him, moving at a loping run now. They seemed to grow more crazed by his nearness. Horrible grunts came from them.

"They have been pulled from the ground," Mencheres continued, sidestepping one with a speed it didn't have, "and they will not return to it until the spell is broken. We cannot run. Every grave within a hundred miles would empty as the dead came after us, and they would kill anything in their path."

His sword moved so fast I couldn't follow it with my gaze. In disbelief I saw the things leap at him with almost equal speed. Where the fuck did their shuffling go? Oh,shit!

Mencheres hacked in that same blur. Pieces of them started to fly in all directions as his blade outraced their sudden, incredible tempo. "We must hold them off and find what object she used for this spell," he went on in that same level tone. "It would have to be something of hers, perhaps carried by one of the prisoners, or planted by Rattler. If we find it and destroy it, they will die. Until then, no matter how much damage they sustain, they cannot rest."

What he meant was sickeningly illustrated as he spoke. Mother of God, even the limbs he'd severed crawled in our direction. A headless body stumbled closer, and the unattached cranium chewed with demonic intentness at Mencheres's foot until he kicked it away. Now that was scary. Still, when they were dismembered, the creatures were certainly less dangerous. Maybe there was a chance.

"Send three people back in the house to search," Mencheres called out, whirling to intercept more of the forms as they approached. "It will probably be something small, easy to disregard. Destroy it with any means possible.

"Tick Tock, Annette, Zero, go," Bones ordered with a jerk of his head, pulling out his own sword.

They darted back into the house without pause, except for Annette. I saw her stop and stare at Bones before she disappeared into the house. I stared at him as well, for the same reason. Thinking this was the last time I'd see him.

"If I thought for a moment you'd listen, it would be you going inside," he almost sighed. "Yet I know better. I love you, Kitten. There's nothing on this earth or under it that can change that."

I didn't have time to reply, but it wasn't necessary. Every fiber of me shouted it back at him even as he raised his voice and addressed the four dozen people also drawing out their swords.

"Patra unleashed death on us, mates. Let us return the gesture with our compliments!"

Bones strode forward with measured, lethal steps to meet the new wave of ghastly invaders. Four dozen against untold hundreds? I knew the odds of our survival. So did everyone who gripped a blade and advanced with him, myself included.

"We are not helpless." Bones's voice was never more controlled. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was chipper. "Many times in our lives we've been powerless, but not this night. Right now we have the power to choose the manner in which we die. If you have been a master of nothing else in all your days, you are now a master of this moment. And I for one am going to give such an answer to this insult that others will dearly regret not being by my side to see it!"

Bones finished with a roar that was taken up by every throat. We trembled in the pre-midnight air with the rage of retaliation, and suddenly I didn't feel cold. Or afraid. I'd faced death before, hell, even sought it. Now by Bones's side, I had the chance to rewrite every bad decision, each instance of cowardice, and all the years of regret. Nothing else mattered but right now. This instant, I'd become the person I'd always wanted to be. Strong. Fearless. Loyal. Someone even I could be proud of.

The first creature leapt at me and my sword flashed out to answer, my hair flying as I dodged and hacked. A green glow landed on its malformed face and I laughed, bright and savagely happy.

"See that? It's the light in my eyes, and I'm going to show you what else I've got…"

My first fight to the death was when I was sixteen. All I'd had was a silver cross with a thin dagger attachment, and I didn't even know if it would kill a vampire. It did, obviously, and I've been killing ever since. I'd been in hundreds of battles since that initial one, but none of them, none of them, had ever been like this.

Thank God it was dark out. The glowing green of a vampire's eyes made them distinguishable from the zombies, who continued to pour out of the woods in all directions. Ghouls were a little tougher to filter, but then there were only about ten of them here. You just didn't realize how interchangeable one figure could appear from the next when your gaze was continually splattered with blood, flesh, or flying pieces of rotted limbs. And the limbs were everywhere; disgusting parts crawling on the ground, unattached fingers squirming like leeches on your body, or whole and still adorning the monsters that kept coming from the woods.

I was in the mindless frenzy of killing, slashing out at anything that came near me. A mental numbness had set in, making me oblivious to my own injuries. My arms, shoulders, legs-every part of me had been chewed on. I wasn't even sure if I was still clothed; all I saw was red from both the rage and the blood in my eyes. That's why the matching emerald lights from my comrades was so helpful. At least when I saw them, I knew I wasn't alone. I certainly felt alone, with nothing but maddened zombies surrounding me, screams blending into a continuous white noise, and the ceaseless cleaving of my sword into the inviolable force of walking dead.

Vlad had an advantage. With enough time, he could grab hold of a zombie and burn them to pieces. They ran around like macabre torches, what was left of them, anyway. Still, it seemed he needed a solid minute of holding them to burn them into a less harmful state, which meant it wasn't the most productive method of dealing with them.

Every now and then, though, I'd catch an orange glow from the corner of my eye, hear indescribable screams, and know Vlad was still alive. Even more important was that periodically, I'd hear an English accent cresting over the sounds of death and pain, urging everyone on, taunting the creatures with gleeful scorn. Bones was still alive, too. Aside from that, I had no idea who was around me.

"Fall back, fall back!" the shout came. The thing in front of me was suddenly cleaved straight down the center into two halves. Between the falling forms there was Bones, almost unrecognizable in appearance, and I stopped my sword in midarc to avoid slashing his head off.

"Come with me," he growled. He tugged on my arm and then dropped it with a savage curse.

"Bloody fucking hell, why didn't you call for help?"

I didn't know what he meant, and arguing wasn't an option, since he yanked me to his chest with one arm and began a deranged hacking at anything near us with the other. My feet barely brushed the ground, swinging with his gait while I began to feel nauseous. Some of the haze lifted from my vision and when we entered the house and went at once down the stairs, I could see with clarity again.

Every item in the house had been smashed. I was confused, because the main fight was outside, but then it made sense. Not knowing what the mysterious object was, Annette, Tick Tock and Zero had been obliterating anything they could. There wasn't even a solid stick of furniture left, and the remaining vampires and ghouls streaked through the wreckage while holding off the hideous intruders that kept coming. This house had three underground levels and just two entrances to them. That was on the plus side. In the negative column, it also meant we had no way out.

Bones deposited me into the arms of Tate, who appeared out of the spattered forms. "Take her to the lowest level," he barked and turned away. "I have to cover our retreat."

"Bones, no!" I protested, ignored by both of them as Tate whirled and ran down the stairs. He shoved past people, muttering something that sounded like, "Your arm, your arm," as he went.

We went through a door where inside, several frightened faces stared at us.The kids, I realized.They're scared. Maybe this wasn't outlined in the Be a Vampire Snack brochure.

"Clear some space," he snapped to them, and fear from either his appearance or his tone made them quick to respond. They huddled together as Tate lowered me to the floor and withdrew a knife.

"Get off me, I have to get back out there-" I started, and then shut up.Oh. No wonder the two of them had given me such a look.

"Give me a little blood by mouth, if you can spare it," was what I said instead as I considered my arm. Well, what was left of it.Always the left arm, the dispassionate part of me mused darkly.First burned by Max, now this. If it could talk, it would never stop bitching at me.

It was hanging by a few stubborn ligaments, but most of it was chewed off to the bone.Now I resemble the zombies, it occurred to me. Some of their limbs were a dead ringer for this one.

"It'll hurt when it heals," Tate rasped, pressing a knife and my mouth to his throat. "Drink deep. I'll refill."

Normally I wouldn't have drunk from him, deeply or not, but these weren't normal circumstances. Bottom line was, I'd have to be back in fighting condition and fast, because the things outside weren't calling a time-out. With that in mind, I clamped my teeth over the puncture Tate made in his neck and sucked hard, biting to keep the wound open.

He made a noise I refused to diagnose, because I knew better. Cool blood filled my mouth and I swallowed, pulling harder, feeling shards of shooting pain erupt in my arm. His grip tightened until my upper body was glued to him, tilting his head back as I applied stronger suction. By the fourth pull my arm was in agony, but by the sixth, it had settled into a harsh tingling. At the ninth I was able to shove him back using two hands, panting as cravings for more awoke in me.

Tate's eyes were green when I looked at him, and it made me scramble back further, because his expression said they weren't lit up from battle.

I jumped to my feet, watching in amazement as the skin regrew on my limb, knitting back together like a scene from a science fiction movie.

The new blood coursing in me made me feel wilder, less human. Considering the amounts I'd no doubt lost, I was probably running on a sixty-forty mixture favoring the undead cells.

"Come on, soldier," I said. "We have things to kill."

Without a backward glance I ran up the stairs and back toward the fierce sounds of battle.

The vampires were clustered around the hall in front of the landing like an undead gauntlet. Every shrieking, unholy thing that tried to gnaw their way through them was set upon by all sides. It was holding so far, but one look told me the grim truth. This barricade wouldn't last long enough. More and more creatures kept coming.

I sprinted forward to join the fray when I collided with Annette. She was wide-eyed and frantic, almost not seeing me as she rushed to smash a figurine against the wall. When nothing happened but broken glass, she gave a raw cry of despair and turned to seek out more objects.

"Annette!" I had to shake her to get her to focus on me. "Where are Tick Tock and Zero?"

She gestured in no general direction. "Tick Tock is on the other side of the house, Zero went to Anubus to attempt to beat the answer out of him, but I saw six of those…things follow after him, they've broken in! I heard Zero scream, and then I went this way. Oh, Cat, I can't find it, I can't find it!"

Whatit was didn't require asking. This place was coming apart at the seams.

"Just keep at it, Annette, we'll find whatever it is. We'll hold them off-"

She shoved me. "You don't understand. It's on the news! Graves emptying, rumors of things crawling from them…all headed in this direction. We're in an isolated area, but not that isolated. Don't you see? Patra doesn't need all of them to kill us; very soon she'll know exactly where we are, because all the zombies are a sign pointing the way!"

Shit! Didn't it ever stop? So our situation had upgraded from awful to doomed. Surprisingly, I was more angry than anything else. That bitch didn't deserve to win. We might not be innocents, but she was far worse on many levels.

There was noise behind me, coming from the basement. Screams, God, more screams. And the sounds of crumbling structure.This is it, the realization came to me.The end. No, I couldn't stop it, but I could choose how to meet it.

With renewed determination, I held out my sword. "You keep looking, Annette, no matter what. I'll keep killing. If that bitch wants us, she can come and get us."

"To the lower rooms, mates, move!" a shout ordered. Two dozen members of what was left of our forces began to fall back. I fought my way forward, seeing Bones and Mencheres at the end of the retreating line covering the exit. Both of them spun and slashed in a dizzying display of violence that made them seem like they'd been transformed into machines. I'd always guessed that Mencheres, once stripped of his polite manners, would be frighteningly lethal. I wasn't wrong. He looked like a living nightmare.

Vlad grabbed me, forcing me backward. His hands felt hot, not cold like they should have from the freezing outside temperatures.

"Come along, they'll join us soon," he barked, propelling me with his body.

"No, I'm going up there!" I yelled, trying to wrest away.

"He's the co-leader of his line so he's where he should be," was his reply. "But you're coming with me."

His fist landed a solid whack to the top of my head. Amid the wash of sudden stars, I ducked under his arm and lurched forward, brought up short by his hold on my hair.

All at once, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Vlad pulled me back, my feet slid out from under me, and faintly, above all the other noise, I heard a vindictive, satisfied laugh.

I saw six of those things follow after him, they've broken in!Annette had said.And I heard him scream…

She'd been talking about Zero, who was on his way to Anubus's cell. But while no one had seen or heard from Zero since, it was Anubus who was chuckling maliciously now. Anubus. Unharmed though he was chained to a wall with half a dozen ravenous creatures within chomping distance. How was that possible? Only one way I could think of.

"Vlad, do you have to be touching someone to burn them?"

The question startled him so much he quit manhandling me. "I have to have touched them before, and it takes longer, since it's difficult to burn someone I'm not holding."

"Difficult," I breathed. "But not impossible?"

"No, not impossible, why?"

"It's Anubus." I raised my voice because the adrenaline began to surge. "Patra's object isn't an object at all. Don't you get it? He's the ultimate Trojan horse, and Bones nearly got killed delivering him! She meant to finish Bones off in the ambush-and then the rest of us later, since we carted Anubus back home with us. Patra knew we wouldn't kill him, who offs their most valuable hostage?"

Vlad started to smile. He released me and spread out his hands, holding them over his head. All around us chaos reigned.

"He's too far away for me to reach him before I'd be cut down, but let's see if I can save the day."

"Go on," I replied, whirling to clear the area around him. "Impress me."

His hands began to glow, not red, but blue. They lit the hall with an eerie navy-violet light. Sparks flew off his hands, showering my hair as I continued to slash at the oncoming zombies.

Someone screamed, high-pitched and agonizing. I threw a heartless grin at Vlad as I recognized the voice.

"You've got his attention, Drac."

"He's strong," Vlad replied in a strained tone. His hands were now completely engulfed in flames. "And must I remind you once more what my name is?"

"You arrogant…" thrust though the stomach of a snapping zombie, twisting and using all my strength to cleave him in half "…overpublicized…" wasn't going to work, it clawed at the blade, and my God, these things were tough, "…showy old bat…" Crack! There went my head into the wall. If I didn't have a split skull, I'd be amazed. "What are you waiting for? Aren't you the king of all bogeymen? The legend children fear will devour them if they don't behave?"

Two more zombies slipped past Bones and Mencheres, who were now almost back-to-back trying to stave them off.

"Come on, Vlad, live up to your reputation! If you can't burn to deathone Egyptian vampire chained to a wall, how did you ever drive the Turks from Romania?"

There was a loud reverberating snap, like an electric transformer had blown, and then in midleap, the charging zombies fell to the floor. Out of the suddenly still forms, dirt began to appear, covering them, eroding over the creature's bodies, until nothing but piles of earth remained.Out of the ground they were called, I thought,and back they went.

"You did it," I panted, dropping my sword and running not in his direction, but the opposite one.

"Of course," I heard him reply as strong arms lifted me up and crushed me against a chest covered with gore. "I'm Vlad Tepesh, what did you expect?"