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2.

Bad memories. Naya bitterly pointing to her legs and saying, “They took my body, they even took my mind. What am I going to do? Let you carry me forever?”

Meridian shook them off just as she shook off the voices. They’d been bad in Niagara, now they were a mistuned chorus. They were small, but still chirpy and bitey and gave the worst advice. Mostly they told her how she’d fail or to kill anybody she met. Sometimes they’d be her sister, other times strangers. It got tiring trying to fight them all off, but as soon as she crossed the river, the noise dropped down into a distant murmur.

She trekked through the woods for a few days, wondering if she’d ever be able to get the other girl’s end out of her head. No, probably not. It didn’t do to reflect on such things. Meridian thought that if she did, she’d feel guilty and she already felt guilty enough after the data center fiasco and the messy way she left Manhattan, leaving poor Delacarte at Yonkers alone.

You think about not think about things, she grumbled to herself, and that’s the same as thinking about them.

Well, I mean, Meridian, maybe if you weren’t such an awful person, you wouldn’t have to feel guilt. But never mind that, dear sister, let me tell you about the guilt I feel for having torn the throats out of children. Many, many children. You sink your teeth in because the hunger demands it, and it is oh so good. But later, when you’re able to think again, you try to cry, and you can’t because your tear ducts don’t work.

The response was so vicious and mean that Meridian stopped in her tracks gagging to clear the vile taste of it out of her mind. That had been a perfect imitation of her sister, except for the cruelty.

Dear artificer, Meridian though. How am I supposed to focus with that sort of scramble in my head?

The voice had dropped to a background mummer, and there was barely anything to distract her from the hum of the forest; a brook nearby, a bird setting boundaries, and the restless wind teasing leaves. Meridian took a deep breath and started walking again.

She smelled it before she saw it. A crisp smell of burned wood. Stepping out into a clearing, she came to what might have been fifty or more acres of blackened, denude trees. Whatever the cause of the fire had been, it had been awhile ago. Meridian estimated about nine months judging by the undergrowth.

It spread from the west, she thought. From somewhere beyond that ridge. Right in my path.

“Damn,” she said out loud.

Nothing responded, but that didn’t mean they weren’t listening. She suspected they were always listening. Her sister had a direct line into her head, and so did most of them. Still, she didn’t sense any here and so she walked on toward the dusty black ridge with that background chorus following her, but distantly.

The ridge itself turned out to be a bit more trouble than she thought it would. There were traps, the sort of things people put to slow the process of the Enemy. Bear traps, caltrops, ditches, pits and deadfalls, nasty improvised mines, and Czech hedgehogs strung with barbed wire between them.

The defenses hadn’t held. She saw where the fire had chewed at them and where the following push had broken the line. They hadn’t been able to get in, so they burned the forest, probably when there had been a easterly wind.

Meridian carefully picked her way up the ridge to find a little town in the dale beyond. It too had been burned and the few buildings that stood were brick. Several chimneys dotted the landscape.

She didn’t sense any undead, but you could never be too sure, so she drew her sword and laid the flat across her shoulder as she walked as if to show she hadn’t a care in the world.

The fire had picked the town clean and they had taken the rest. She didn’t even see any signs to tell her what the town was called. She found a few street signs melted beyond legibility, and a few twisted stop signs, only recognizable by their color, but everything else had been destroyed.

She’d given up finding any people, when she found her way down the street blocked by fresh barbed wire. Somebody had strung up a crude barricade between a burned out factory and what could have been the south half of a hotel.

Seeing no way around, she cleared the wire in front of her with her sword. The blade made a clean figure-eight in front of her and the wire snapped apart. The sword itself was a gift on her fourteenth birthday. Each member of her clan had wielded it against the enemy in defense of Manhattan reaching back to the old days. It was an “Ames” patterned saber with something called Q-carbon coating the blade’s cutting edge. This made it sharp enough to cut most metals in half, and it stayed sharp too. It was a weapon only the old technology could make. No barbed wire made could stop such a weapon, nor could bone or most armor either.

Cutting the wire seemed so standard, she didn’t think she’d made a mistake until she heard a snapping sound.

Meridian rolled to her right and narrowly missed being killed by an improvised dart trap. The darts were six inch spring-powered flechettes. When the wire was cut, the springs released.

“At least they’re prepared,” she said, eyeing her surroundings.

None of the buildings looked complete enough to house people, but she was more careful as she went up the street.

The next obstacle was a mess of furniture and broken pieces of burned buildings, tied together with wire. It hardly seemed like enough to stop a hoard of ravenous monsters, but when she inspected it, she saw the wires led to mines and grenades. If they were disturbed, they would bring the already unstable buildings on either side of the road down crushing the entire street.

Clever, she thought. I don’t dare try to pass that.

Turning, she looked for an alley she could use to bypass the blockade. As it happened, there was an alley nearby, but it too was blocked with barbwire and while she didn’t see what it connected to, she could see the tension in the wires.

Backtrack and go around? she asked herself. Meridian was still weighing her options when she noticed the man.

He’d come out of the building and was pointing what looked to be some sort of archaic rifle at her. Despite its age, and his (he was partially bald, and what hair he did have was shock white), he held the rifle steady. Meridian was fairly confident in her sword skills, but was nowhere near confident enough to try to block a bullet.

He’ll kill you first change he gets, said her sister’s voice. Charge him and take him out.

This unsolicited advice was followed by a low chant from a thousand voices repeating Kill, kill, kill over and over again.

Meridian tried to visibly relax. She sheathed her sword and put her hands up, not exactly disarming herself, but to signal she meant no harm.

“Is there a way around?” she asked.

“Who’re you?” he asked. Rough voice. Gravelly. Not used to talking.

“Meridian d’Mott,” she said. “I’m passing through.”

“And you’re not with them?” he asked.

“No, and you can tell I’m not.”

“Not all of them have fangs,” the man said, keeping his gun trained on her. “Some are very good at hiding themselves.”

“A bullet isn’t going to stop any that are powerful enough to hide their nature,” Meridian said. “I’m traveling west to the Great Slave Lake.”

“What’s out there?” he asked. The rifle had dipped a little. Meridian calculated that she was a good twenty feet from him. She could cross it in about five hundred milliseconds, but she estimated he could raise the gun faster.

“My sister,” she said. “She’s one of them, and I owe it to her to kill her. What’s your name?”

“Alexandre,” he said. “Not that it matters.”

“Are there other people here?”

“Dead,” he said, “or worse.”

“There are undead here?” Meridian asked. “I can’t sense any.”

He laughed. “Wait until dark, then. They come out of the tower west of here. There’s a-- powerful one out there. Some sort of witch, I think. She’s smarter than the rest. Different too.”

“Different? How?”

“Her mouth. Looks like they ripped her teeth out and replaced them with all these jagged metal fangs.”

“A Licentiate of Churel,” Meridian said.

“Doesn’t matter what you call it,” he said. “You can’t get near it.”

“I’ll destroy it,” Meridian said, “and whatever lesser monsters it possesses.”

The rifle dipped more. One or two more inches…

He laughed and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “You’ll bring more trouble. They burned the entire town just so they could kill everybody in it. If you go stirring trouble, they’ll do something worse.”

The rifle dipped and went to the left.

Meridian crossed the distance and drew her sword as she moved. She cleaved the rifle in half, just in front of his fingers. She had too much momentum to stop, so she turned the blade toward the ground and used her shoulder to knock him down.

“Fuck,” he said, as she stood over him. “Well?”

Her blade now pointed at his throat. She hadn’t planned on doing that, but as she stood over him, she realized she’d moved it there by instinct.

She looked down at him.

“I’m not going to kill you,” she said. The voices told her to do different, but she ignored them.

“Without my gun it comes to the same thing,” he said. “Hold off, Susan!”

Meridian glanced up. A girl of twelve stood in one of the ruined doorways, a small pistol shaking in her hands.

She’s likely to shoot me by accident, trembling like that, Meridian thought.

She stepped away from the man and put her sword back in its scabbard.

“You’ll both do fine,” she said, not really believing it, “but I am clearing out that tower.”

“Fine,” the man said. “Sue, let the stranger go. Left down that alley. Left, not right.” Meridian nodded curtly.

An hour later, she stood looking up at a small, squat building. The man had called it a tower, but it was more like a five story stone yurt. She drew her sword and entered.

Inside there were stone steps leading up to the top of floor. She followed it up to a landing, upon which was one chair and a dark haired woman with metal fangs instead of teeth.

“You’re here,” the woman said.

“Yes,” Meridian said.

“The man give you any trouble?”

“About as much as I expect you will.”

“He’s dead then? And the girl?”

“No both are alive,” Meridian said.

“Thank you for small favors,” the woman said. “I loved him once, you know. He’s taken to shooting at me at night, and he swears the fire is my fault.”

“The zombies got in after the fire,” Meridian said. “How could it not be your fault?”

“We’re monolithic,” the woman said. “Our mistress does all our thinking for us. Yet-- yet, she is very cruel and she’s left some of us with just enough independence enough to think and feel.”

“And she keeps you here watching your-- grandfather? Daughter?”

Lover, and daughter,” she said. “I do not wish to see them anymore. One day, my comrades will catch them and bring them to me and my lady will force me to kill them.”

“This will be a mercy then.”

“I hope so.”

Meridian raised her sword.

“Wait,” the woman said. “She has a message for you.”

“Quickly then,” Meridian said.

“She says,” the woman said, and as she said it, her voice changed to a hideous whine of some animal, a thousand different voices, “we’re all in here waiting for you.”

Meridian struck for all she was worth and the woman crumbled into ash. Despite this, the voices continued to thunder around the landing, and Meridian sank to her knees cradling her head.

Meridian, I can’t lose you.You can’t trust her. Do you absolutely promise? You think you won’t be next? I know what you plan to do! COME TO THE LAKE! You’re not the first, you won’t be the last! We'll be waiting. I am always waiting. Come, little girl. Come broken thing. I AM EVERYONE. I am your sister. Meridian, I can’t lose you.

Then there was silence, for a little while.


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