5:31 pm, August in New York City. The sun comes down 5th Avenue turning the water in the street golden. Little fish flash around the canoe like stars catching light in the heavens. I love the water, even in the winter when it freezes around the buildings and you can hear them creak in the wind.
The bright days, the sun overhead, the sunlight striking down into the depths of Washington Square highlighting some circular design, some great spider’s web, something fantastic made by the builders of the old city. An ancient arch rises out of the water and my sister steers around it, her arms working the oars with easy strokes.
“Hannah!” she says. “Imagine if they could make these towers!”
“What else could they make?” I ask.
Meridian’s my mirror image in every detail. Her hair, her eyes, her figure. I’m the older sister by two minutes. Dark hair, copper-colored eyes blazing in the reflected light of the water, her sword at her hip. My kusarigama at mine.
“Towers to the Gods!” she says. “Stairways to the clouds! The power of mankind must have challenged the Gods themselves! The ability to rope the moon! The power to move the continents!”
“Maybe that’s why the gods struck them down,” I say.
“Tower of Babel,” she says. “Genesis 11. Nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.”
“So let’s confound their speech, or something like that,” I say. “Lookit that fish. It’s huge.”
“That’s a shark,” she says.
I look from the fish up to our destination, a tan building covered with ivy. There’s a church across from it, but the water is high enough only a bit of its elegant stone sticks out of the water.
“I thought this area was cleared,” I say. “It’s marked as safe.”
“Marked as safe by grandpa Jen,” my sister says. “Fifty years ago.”
“How many people are trapped?” I ask.
“How many enemies?”
“Three,” she says. “Two zombies, one vampire.”
“A vampire?” I ask. “A challenge, then?”
“Hannah,” she says. “I’m worried about this one. The Enemy hasn’t been seen south of Carnegie in decades. How did they get there?”
“By boat,” I say, shrugging. “Who cares. I know how they’re going to die. Again.”
I pat the sickle at my side. The kusarigama consists of a sickle and a ball and chain. It was a present for my sixteenth birthday from Grandpa Jen. For generations, the Mott Street clan had defended the city from the Enemy. Our project is nearly complete. My sisters, my cousin, and I could be the last warriors needed. It’s an exciting thought.
“It’s strange. Where would they be coming from?”
“Jersey,” I say. “I heard that it was once popular to say every bad thing comes from Jersey.”
“And what is Jersey?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You’re the one with the history lessons. You have the apotropaic?”
She tosses me a small jewel]. I examine it. A holly blue agate set into a silver frame. It has a mystic symbol carved into it; an eye with a seven pointed star in it.
“You want it?” she asks.
“No,” I say, handing it back. “I’ll need both hands. I just wanted to look at it.”
“Uhg,” she says. “You’d be perfect as one of those princesses in the old books. I know where Tiffany’s is. You want to do some diving?”
“Later. Two zombies,” I say. “Let’s murder them.”
We’ve passed Washington Square by this point and are approaching the building. The lower floors are flooded. We anchor the canoe and enter through one of the lower windows.
The building is rotted out. Anything not metal or brick is gone. There are no walls between rooms, just the frame of the building. There is very little floating trash. Sometimes you have to watch out for plastic, but the current through this section of the city is very strong between tides so most garbage has been swept away a long time ago.
We swim up to a flight of stairs and enter the better preserved part of the building above the waterline.
“Wonder what this used to be,” I say as we walk up the stairs. There’s some sort of slime mold growing on the steps. We have to be careful not to slip.
“Fancy,” Meridian says. “I hear something.”
She draws her sword, I unsling my kusarigama and give myself a good amount of slack in case I have to throw the ball and chain.
There’s a nasty scraping sound from up ahead. There’s a metal door at the top of the stairs. Something is scratching the otherside.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Always,” she says.
We kick in the door together. The rotting corpse on the other side isn’t surprised, but it is knocked back by the door. It stumbles and falls. The thing is missing its left foot and can’t keep standing.
My sister cuts it down as it falls.
“Where are the scavengers?” I ask.
The room we’ve enter is empty. It looks like it used to be an office. There’s a rotting reception desk, with a large but faded logo above it. The words are unreadable. Too much damage.
“I don’t know,” Meridian says. “Hannah, do you feel it?”
“Yes,” I say. The Enemy’s not dangerous because its fighters are skilled. It is dangerous because if too many get together, they sap their victims’ ability to resist. Even as many as ten can wear out a group of people. In the end, the people give up and walk out to them.
“There’s more than three here,” Meridian says. “I can feel them.”
“I think the scavengers are dead,” I say. This will alter everything. The mission will be to destroy what the scavengers have become and retrieve their radio. Their supplies, if they collected anything of value, are secondary. The radio is more important than anything else.
“Above us,” Meridian says.
We re-enter the stairwell and continue up. Two floors up we find a horrifically rotten child on the landing. Meridian cuts it down. We continue up.
After two more flights, we find that the stairs have collapsed. There’s another metal door, one which looks forced open. I can sense them beyond the door. It’s like a psychic pressure, the very beginning of a headache, but with a well-defined location.
I enter first, sickle at the ready. Meridian comes in behind me. As my shadow, she is frighteningly silent. I know how this maneuver goes, I’ll never lose track of her.
The room is an open office of some sort. The entire floor is empty of any furnishings except rotten carpet and shattered husks of long dead computers. The desks they used to sit on have evaporated with time.
The undead round on us as we enter. There are at least twenty of them in various stages of decomposition.I notice that none of them are part of the scavenger team; their clothes are ancient and falling to pieces. If I had to guess, the team is likely on the roof, because the zombies were trying to get out onto the building’s window ledge before we entered.
They attack in silence. Spreading out like a crescent, they have some basic strategy. This won’t help them.
I charge left, my sister right. We cut through them like grass. The slaughter is entirely silent. Their putrid vocal cords can’t form words much less scream.
“That all of them?” Meridian asks after I cut down the last creature.
“That’s all of them,” I say. “I can’t sense the vampire.”
“It’s like it’s clouded,” Meridian says. “We’ll have to be extra careful.”
“Up?” I ask.
“Up,” she says.
The windows have been blown out. I get out onto the ledge and try to look up. There’s another ledge directly above. The kusarigama’s chain is more than just a weapon. I throw the sickle up in an arc. It catches almost immediately.
I glance at Meridian. She nods. I’ll be covered in case anything attacks from behind.
The building isn’t very high. New York’s skyscrapers have this flyspeck of a building beat in terms of sheer scale, but I still feel a bit nervous climbing up to the next floor. I hoist myself up as fast as I can.
The next floor has the scavenger team. All of them, it looks like. They’re a ragged bunch, dressed in Kelsper Street clothes. The leader is a man with a branded face. The Kelspers mark their boys with a sign of bravery when they reach ten years old.
“Are you from Mott?” he asks.
“I am,” I say. “Is your radio safe?”
“I got it,” one of the others says. A short woman with patchy hair.
I do the math. Twelve people to protect, and one vampire to slay. If we don’t get the vampire fast, we’re likely to lose at least five people.
“You said there was a vampire?” I ask.
“We think so,” the man says. “It sticks to the shadows, so it is hard to tell.”
“With the power off, we couldn’t get down safely,” the radio operator says. “There’s no path that has constant sunlight.”
“My sister has a talisman,” I say. “She’s below us. Is there another way down other than the window?”
“We came up through a hole,” the man says.
“We can jump down it, right?” I ask.
“I go first,” I say.
They unblock the room’s only door. The Kelspar guides me with occasional lefts and rights. We only have to face one zombie, and this one is just a torso. I smash its head in with a casual flick of the kusarigama’s ball.
The hole leads directly down to where Meridian is waiting. I jump first and find myself in the empty floor with zombie corpses everywhere. No Meridian.
“Meridian?” I yell to the room.
“Meridian!” I yell again. There’s still nothing. It isn’t like her to go off on her own. It isn’t like me either. Neither of us would--
“MERIDIAN!” I scream.
“Here,” she says.
I nearly jump. She’d been in a dark corner.
“I found the vampire,” she says, laughing.
I see the remains behind her. Vampires tend to crumble when they die. All that is left is a few bits of dry bone and a ruined dress.
“It attacked as soon as you were gone,” Meridian said. “I think it thought it could win if we separated.”
“Dumb,” I say.
“Kelspar Street?” she asks the leader of the scavengers.
“Michael,” he says. “You are the Mott twins.”
“We can do more detailed introductions later,” I say. “We need to get you to your boat and then we need to clear the building.”
Backtracking is easy. There don’t appear to be anymore enemies anywhere. The Kelspars have anchored their boat above the building’s foyer. We see them safely in and watch them row away.
“They’re lucky to be alive,” I say, watching their little boat head toward Washington Square.
“Very lucky,” Meridian says. “Hannah…”
“Yeah?” I say. Her tone worries me a bit. She only uses this tone when she’s going to scold me.
“I have something to show you.”
I turn and she pulls down a corner of her shirt. There’s a jagged mark, a bite, on her shoulder. It’s like my feet have been kicked out from under me. I nearly fall.
“How?” It’s all I can say.
“The vampire,” she says. “It snuck up behind me. I was so stupid.”
She grins ruefully, but I know her too well to be fooled. She’s terrified.
“We can fix this,” I say. A stupid thing to say. I know we can’t.
“You know we can’t,” she says repeating my thoughts. “I’m a dead girl walking.”
She laughs a bit and shakes her head.
“You have to do it,” she says.
“Please,” I say. “I can’t do that.”
“We’re guardians,” she says. “We have a duty, and, and… and I’m too afraid to do it myself.”
“Afraid?” I say. How horrible. I flash to a million memories. I can’t imagine being without her. There’s a chain of events and they all have her in it. She’s afraid. Afraid of death.
“We both knew that this might happen,” she says, laughing. The laugh is horrible because it is only there to make things okay for me. She’s shaking. Her hands won’t stop moving. “I wouldn’t hesitate if it were you.”
“Liar,” I whisper.
“Please,” she says. “By tonight I’ll be dead anyway. It’ll be harder to kill me then and you’ll have to do it.”
“No,” I say. We’re not supposed to cry, that’s one of Grandpa Jen’s rules, but she’s starting to become blurry and there’s moisture on my cheek. “Please.”
“You have to before I chicken out,” she says.
“I don’t know if I can,” I say. “Are you sure we can’t do anything? Haven’t you read anything that could help us?”
“Nothing I believe,” she says. “I once read that some people used to believe that if you killed the head vampire, all the other vampires would die or revert back to human or something.”
“It was a myth,” she says. “Whatever these things are is not what the original New Yorkers thought they were.”
“Do you think if you swallow the apotropaic it’ll do something?” I ask.
“No,” she replies, and then laughing says: “I’d be an unhappy zombie.” She holds her belly to mimic a stomach ache. I feel sick to my stomach myself.
She hands the jewel over to me. The thing is only good if you hold it up in front of you. If Meridian had seen the vampire, she could have used it. I pocket it.
“I’ll stay with you until the very end,” I say.
“You have to kill me now,” she says. “I want it to be quick.”
“I can’t kill my own sister!” I say. It’s a stupid thing to do. I know it, but she’s my mirror image, my younger sister by two minutes. “Something in me would break if I did. I don’t know what would happen, but Meridian, I can’t do it.”
“I know,” she says. Her eyes dart up to the ceiling for a second, then back to me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It was like I could hear something,” she says. “Voices above us.”
“Voices,” I say. I hadn’t heard anything. Standing, I unsling the sickle and wait. There’s nothing. The sunlight has shifted slightly, but nothing else appears different.
“My imagination,” my sister replies.
But over the course of a few hours, it doesn’t appear to be her imagination. She can no longer stand and she’s started to sweat and her eyes are darting wildly around the room.
“They’re there,” she says. “Hannah, it’s like they’re whispering from behind the walls.”
“The undead,” she says. “I can hear them.”
“You have to fight it,” I say.
“Fight it? How?” she asks. “I don’t know what I’m listening to.”
“I’m here,” I say clasping her hand. It’s clammy.
As the sun begins to set, I start to hear something as well. There’s a scuffling from above. We had to have missed something critical. If the undead can move into the building somehow, our understanding could not be complete.
“They’re here,” Meridian said. She sounds near delirious.
Shadows close in and the first of the eyes appear near the stairwell. Recessed into the darkness, they are two glittering points of silver light. The undead’s eyes glitter red and silver in sharp light and the sun casts just enough light to illuminate a pair of inhuman diamond shards.
As the shadows lengthen, the eyes multiply until they surround us in a full circle. I hold the apotropaic as high as I could and its protective blue light offered some measure of security, but they begin to test it. Inching forward and then backing away, never daring to touch the azure circle.
“Hannah,” a voice said from the darkness. I gasp. I’ve never heard one of them speak before. “Hannah, you’re being stupid staying here. You cannot protect both your sister and yourself.”
“I can, and I will,” I say to the darkness. “Show yourself.”
It comes forward. It looks like a beautiful woman in a black dress. The creature has the aire of one of the original New York’s decadence. She’s an Imperial American, one of those who lived during its final stages before the collapse. Her accent is old, she carries herself with haughty grace.
“You’ve killed so many of us, Hannah, and now you’ve lost your sister. Kill her. It is the only way to save her. Kill her and we’ll leave.”
“No,” I say. “You think you won’t be next?”
“I may or may not be next, but as I have been dead for a hundred years, I cannot care either way. You are living however. Give yourself to us and we’ll spare your sister.”
“I think that would give you both of us,” I say.
“We have no use of lies,” she says. “Give us yourself and your sister lives.”
“Lies? Why wouldn’t you lie?” Meridian says. She sounds weak and feverish. “It’d give you every advantage.”
“Soon you will see for yourself, Meridian of Mott Street. Hannah, you know you can’t win. We’ll keep our promise. Save your sister. She can’t kill herself and you won’t do it, but I bet you can make the trade.”
“Get out of my head!” Meridian screams.
Her scream is so sudden I nearly drop the apotropaic. The undead woman takes a step forward, her minions follow. Her teeth are not vampire fangs, instead they appear to be huge like a bear’s canines. They are obscene.
“Send your minions away,” I say. I’m torn between helping Meridian as she writhes on the floor, and attacking the crowd by myself, “and I’ll consider it.”
“I’ll do one better,” the woman says.
She snaps her fingers and the ring of figures around us collapses as if their strings have been cut. A few instantly turn into dust, the remaining zombies fall apart and become simple meat.
“You can’t trust her,” Meridian says. I go to her.
She’s feeling feverish. Her eyes have silver rings in them. As I take her in my arms I can feel her breath rattle in her chest. The end is coming fast now.
“I can’t lose you,” I say.
“You can,” she says. “You can. Please. Don’t do it.”
I set her gently down. The lady is standing closer now.
“Do you absolutely promise?” I say.
“We swear on the power of the Clockwork Goddess,” she says.
“Okay,” I say.
I unsling my weapon and toss it aside. From behind me I can hear my sister screaming and crying. I try to drown it out as I take my first step toward the lady. She looks at me with red ringed eyes of fire. Her teeth look very bright.
I toss the apotropaic away. I take another step. The eyes expand in my vision.
I ignore her. The eyes are as large as the moon, as the planet. I feel the bite, but not its conclusion.
Nothing now. The building is massive in its emptiness.
Meridian cries silently into her hands. She hears nothing. The undead have kept their promise, but she can’t get up yet. She hasn’t the energy.
A reQuested node.