My Sister still Speaks

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7.

“You don’t know everything,” Meridian said, as she altered her path, slightly correcting it from north-north-west to due west.

“Who are you talking to?” Alaska asked. The other girl lagged behind somewhat. She could keep up with Meridian’s strides, but only barely.

“Just to myself,” Meridian said. “The next town is Hornepayne. We’ll have to be careful. The data center said something about a confluence.”

“What’s a confluence?” Alaska asked.

“A junction between two rivers,” Meridian said, “but the context in what I read suggested something more like an energy beam.”

“All I see is the watchtower,” Alaska said, pointing to the squat building now a few miles distant.

“We need to find more binoculars,” Meridian said, squinting “I lost mine with my kit.”

They debated whether or not to approach and finally decided to go around. The design was ugly and simple and Meridian upon climbing a tree to get a better look didn’t like how the ground was blighted around it.

This detour took them closer to the town than she would like. Its deserted streets yawned at them as they past as if it too wanted to swallow them up. Meridian told the other girl to double-time it. The muttering in her head was picking up as some ex-animate gaze shifted out from the town trying to run them down. Alaska wasn’t able to double-time exactly and Meridian had to hide her irritation at the other’s clumsiness over rough ground.

After crossing a small river, they came to overgrown farmlands. Meridian stopped and held up a hand. Alaska stopped, and looked around, almost sniffed the air like a prairie dog or meerkat.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Shhhh,” Meridian said.

The silence of open country and the sound of her own beating heart gnawed. Meridian took a quick check. No birds. The undead-- as far as she knew (and it was unsafe to make assumptions)-- only attacked mammals. She’d never seen a bird zombie. The birds usually sang freely and here it was quiet.

“We’re about to be attacked,” Meridian said, drawing her sword.

“Where are they?” Alaska asked, spinning around, straining her eyes at the empty fields.

“I don’t know,” Meridian said. “Wait-- the forest.”

It came out of the forest at a slow trot. In life, it must have been the largest bear in the forest. Easily twelve foot at the shoulder with a head as wide as a mountain, the beast was a rotting, putrid mess of fur and mangled flesh so foul that not even flies would touch it. Half its face was missing and the fermented brain hung out of the hole like a dangling, overripe tomato. It only had one eye, and it was cloudy white. How such an eye could see was a mystery, but it clearly could because it fixated on the women with a hatred clear even in its bestial face.

“Oh,” Alaska said, her feet backpedaling.

“Stand your ground,” Meridian said. “We can’t outrun it.”

“What do we do?” Alaska asked, her voice trembling as if in a breeze.

“I’ll take care of it,” Meridian said, leveling her sword at the bear.

It never charged. Instead it came in slow and silent. It never roared, it never made any sound except when its paws hit the ground hard. Throughout the fight, the only sound was Meridian’s heavy breathing.

First, it tried to muscle in. Walk right into Meridian and bite, ignoring the sword slashes. Meridian moved out of the way in a Bagua step; rotating around the head as it snapped on air.

Despite its moldering, the shaggy fur on the bear’s neck was too thick to cut through, and all she could do was give it a deep slash. It was almost a draw cut, and not very effective.

The bear turned, still very slow and swiped at her with paws the size of dinner plates. She ducked under these, both in quick succession, and managed to sever one paw off its arm. The bear came down on all fours and slipped on its own stub.

Meridian quickly divided the second paw, and began to carve the thing up as best she could. It lunged forward off its back legs and she lopped off the other side of its face. Now, truly blind, it began to swing around wildly with its stumps and jaws.

She cut its legs off, then bifurcated it into two pieces, then four, then eight, and so on until she had 1600 pounds of cubed bear meat in front of her.

“That was incredible!” Alaska said. “You move like a goddess. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Eh,” Meridian said, shrugging. “That was a hard fight.”

“It didn’t look hard.”

Meridian shook her head. She didn’t have a good idea about how long it took her to chop up the bear, but it was likely shorter than she perceived it. The human sense of time was wonky and she didn’t trust it.

“Trust me,” Meridian said. “We’ll have to get you up to speed. I think we’re going to start seeing harder monsters from this point on. The next town is Hillsport. Come on.”

“You’re not going to rest?” Alaska said. Meridian didn’t like the concern in her voice.

“We have to make it past a lake before dark,” Meridian said, trying to remember the name of the lake. Maybe she was tired. She’d memorized the entire path and not being able to remember probably meant… “Before dark,” she concluded.

“Why?”

“There’s a powerful vampire here,” Meridian said, “and we want to be out of its territory before sundown.”

“How do know that? Google again?”

“You can’t sense it?” Meridian asked leveling her blade back toward the town.

Alaska followed the blade’s point with her gaze, until she stood with her back to Meridian. She stood with her back ramrod straight until she shivered.

“Artificers protect us,” Alaska said. “Yeah, lets hoof it.”

The overgrown farms had ruined hedgerows and fences. The roads had been overgrown enough to be invisible until you were right on top of them and they were little more than broken tessellating mudcracks. Treacherous, with dangerous footfalls, they eschewed these for the rough, but passable farmland.

Meridian grimaced. The farmland seemed endless. The sky wasn’t dark yet, but over rough ground how could they hope to avoid twilight at this place? On good ground a human might be able to cover ten miles in about an hour, but on bad terrain with one of the people unused to a steady jog?

Alaska began to pant almost as soon as Meridian finished this thought. Soon she made noises like a dying bellows. Huge gasps, and her speed dropped and dropped until she stood hands on her knees, nearly keeling over.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “Are you able to,” gasp, “defeat a vampire?”

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” Meridian said.

Dead weight. Leave her.

Shut up, you! Meridian thought at the not-quite-Meridian thought.

“I don’t think we have time to escape,” Alaska said. “I’m just not as fit as you.”

Practice,” Meridian said. The field again became quiet, and even though the sun was still high up in the sky, a sense of darkness came over the land like a passing cloud. She was going to elaborate on a routine to help Alaska get to be physically fit, but then she didn’t. The idea didn’t seem important to communicate, and the other woman would become more fit as they traveled anyway. They could find weapons and Meridian could showcase some ideas about working with them.

They traveled for awhile and a town came into view. Like most towns, it had a wall around it: this one made out of jagged stones rising in a confusing maze, trapping zombies for easy dispatch.

Alaska pointed to it, and Meridian nodded. Meridian did some simple math and estimated that it was about twenty minutes distant. They’d make it before sundown, but barely.

Walking toward it, Meridian noticed that the town did not maintain a guard. There was nobody along the walls, and nobody in the watchtower on the northern end. Yet, the town couldn’t be abandoned as the fields they were passing through now were well-tended. It took a lot of people to work fields of this size and the town wall was large enough to suggest a sizable population.

She was going to point this out to Alaska, but decided against it. An unmanned wall was weird, but maybe they had cameras that still worked, or perhaps the zombie concentration was light enough here that they didn’t bother with guards during the night. That would likely be a fatal mistake one day.

Meridian nodded to herself. Yes, it would be better if Alaska learned to pick out these details herself rather than being hand-fed this sort of information. And a town without a guard didn’t seem like much of a threat. They might be able to get some supplies-- possibly more out of charity than trading, though Meridian was more than ready to work either the fields or do odd jobs for supplies. They'd have to stop for the night, in either case.

She pointed to the closed gate on their side of the town, and getting a firm nod from Alaska, they continued on.

The town gate was a crude portcullis made out of some sort of rough, dark metal. Possibly wrought iron of an incredibly awful impurity. They weren’t met at the gate by anybody, but the portcullis was up, and they-- more cautious now-- entered and found themselves on a broken asphalt street in what might have been a suburb right out of a picture book from the old American Empire.

Lawns were neatly mowed. The houses looked freshly painted. Picket fences were freshly whitewashed. Even the trees that lined the street looked new. Young saplings, possibly oak, interrupted the sidewalk at intervals.

The only things that didn’t fit with this idea of suburban America were the sidewalks and the street itself. Jagged cracks and holes broke up both. Meridian thought that they looked as if they’d been left to go back to nature.

Several people on the street, dressed in archaic t-shirts and jeans, carrying purses and cellphones, turned to look at the strangers. Alaska raised her hand to wave, but apparently thought better of it, because she dropped it as soon as the people’s gaze settled on her.

Meridian thought she’d go insane. There was something utterly oppressive in the way the people were looking at them. The entire town felt as if it were under some sort of thick blanket.

Magic, maybe. Meridian started to look for the seams. Magic always showed itself somehow. If she could find the thread, she could figure out the spell and unravel it.

Nothing presented itself, however, and she exchanged a glance with Alaska.

Clearly unnerved, Alaska pointed back toward the gate as if asking to leave. Meridian shook her head. She didn’t want to go around. The town was large enough that circumnavigating the wall would take too long.

Ignoring the icy stares, Meridian marched over to the closest person. This man, a fellow in a tweed jacket, took a step back and held up his arms as if to ward off an attack.

Meridian showed him her palms in an open gesture meant to show she meant no harm. She then pointed at the houses and then down the street.

He shook violently and after gathering himself, jerked his head in strong negation before pointing toward the gate.

Meridian smiled widely as if to a cat that didn’t quite trust her yet. She waved a hand to disavow that idea before jabbing it down the road again.

The man took several steps back before fleeing. Meridian looked after him with a puzzled expression. Alaska put a hand on her shoulder, almost making Meridian jump out of her skin.

Alaska pointed urgently at the sky. The sun was still up, but the washed-out sky had gone from a slate gray to a dimming cadet gray.

Meridian, never one to give up, approach a couple near her own age. They had their cellphones out, and cowered behind them. Meridian had seen cellphones, of course. They were ubiquitous pieces of junk found everywhere in New York City. Almost all the victims from the original attack had carried phones in their pockets, and those phones had fallen out when the clothes rotted off the shamblers. However, the cellphones the couple held were the first that looked like they actually worked.

Unable to resist, Meridian grabbed at the phone in the guy half of the couples’ hand. She moved so fast, she had the phone before he even started to react. Meridian was fated to be disappointed however. The screen was as dead as any she’d ever seen in New York.

The boy shuddered, and holding his hands over his eyes, ran blindly away. The girl portion of the couple, sank to her knees, desperately reaching after him with her arms, tears rolling down her cheeks in gray streaks.

Alaska pulled a confused Meridian away from the girl. She slapped the phone out of Meridian’s hand. Meridian held up her hands in confusion. Alaska held her eyes for a few seconds, before seizing her and dragging her down the street.

Nobody followed, but as night fell and the people retreated into their homes, the travelers found all doors shut to them. At first, it was hardly a concern. The people disappeared one by one into their too perfect homes, but it was hard to notice at first. There were a lot of people on the street, all with trappings from the late Imperial period, and neither Meridian or Alaska thought to mention their thinning numbers until twilight was a white line on the horizon and shadows had come out to play along the leaves of the trees and the eaves of the houses.

Meridian didn’t think they’d set a watch at the gate, and though it was far away and in shadow now, a quick glance showed a point of light, meaning the portcullis was still up. A sudden thrill ran up and down her back, and turning found Alaska in similar gobsmacked ensorcellment.

They ran door to door, but at each one their nerves failed and they could not knock. So singularly was this inability, that Meridian tried to force several doors open. They were firmly locked.

And darkness came anon. The sky, so oppressive in the day, appeared to lower by degrees as if with the sun, and soon the tops of the houses were shrouded in mist. There were no street lamps, but each house produced a well-lit cone of light onto the street. Concatenated up the street house-by-house, these white and dismal patches of light created an effect much like serrated teeth along the road.

Walking was difficult on the broken sidewalk. In the dark, the pitfalls and tree-ruptured lanes made them stumble. Meridian decided to haul Alaska into the lawns where the footing was at least even.

They were out of time. Each house had shrubs under their eaves, and this was were Meridian decided to hide. It was good that she did, for the Enemy arrived almost as soon as she did. She had a dim view from their hedge; through the leaves, and across the lawn, and through the evenly spaced picket fence.

There wasn’t one or two, or even twenty, that came through. Nor were they zombies. The Licentiates of Churel came by in a river of bodies. There were so many that they moved as liquid down the street, their mutilated faces crammed with metal teeth that flashed in and out of existence as they passed between house lights.

Meridian could feel Alaska shake. The other shivered as if deeply cold. The horror of the things rolling over the street as a great herd, and occasionally stopping to pull people out of their homes and practice anthropophagous rituals on them. They tore off limbs and ate them, they replaced the limbs with rude mechanical devices as their victim thrashed in their lawns, and when the victims bled out they universally got back up and joined the river of undead.

Alaska wept, her tears rolling down her cheeks and onto Meridian’s arm. And just as Meridian thought she couldn’t stand watching that flagitious, vicious, cruor-orectic parade, she saw the thread.

Among that sea of faces, teeth, and claws, came a palanquin carried by undead constructs-- things once human and then fused together to make a many-armed, mouthed beast too cumbersome to do anything but carry their load. The palanquin held a ghastly figure of a man in a burnished cloak, with teeth so sharp and white they looked as if they made their own light. He bore a cup full of blood and he splashed it about him in a parody of a water ceremony held dear by so many religions.

Meridian saw this, and saw the thread, and saw the spell. She broke through the shrub and charged, crossing the lawn in less than a second. Alaska vainly grasped after her, but she could not find her voice and could not call Meridian back.

One leap over the fence, and she crossed the trees. The river of bodies rolled toward her and hundreds of clawed hands surged out of the mass to grab her. She jumped for all she was worth, using shoulders and heads as stepping stones. Even as she jumped body to body, just ahead of the lethal waves of claws and teeth, she drew her sword.

The vampire lord shifted in his palanquin as lithe as silk turning in the wind. His eyes expanded in her vision, as if they held all the color this little town was missing, but she’d started her swing and even as his eyes drowned out all thought, her sword struck home.

A lesser sword, something with a lower ductility might have shattered on his diamond-clad skin, but her sword was Grandpa Jen’s sword, and Great Grandmother Essika’s, and before her the great Mott Street Clan’s founder’s sword. The one who made it out of a secret with the blessing of his greatest love. It could not break.

The vampire screamed and the vicious look went out of his eyes as his nightmare broke, and he said, “Thank G--” as a humble man-- his original self-- before the wind took him and blew him as ash to the sky.

The Licentiates roared and scattered. One or two tried to grab her as they ran, but she cut wildly left and right as the palanquin toppled and flipped and in the confusion she struck her head on the asphalt as the palanquin came down on top of her.

Later, but how much later, she couldn’t say, the great weight lifted and Alaska’s face met hers as the townsfolk lifted the palanquin off of her.

“You’re alive!” Alaska said.

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Meridian said. Her head hurt, she had a million cuts from the asphalt, and it felt as if she had been beaten all over. The sun was bright and overhead. It burned her eyes.

She stood, and found it easy, and laughed. It was so good to hear something.

“Your sword,” Alaska said, offering it to her.

“Thank you,” Meridian said, taking it, “and thank you all for lifting that thing off me.”

But the townsfolk had not spoken in so long, they couldn’t speak at all; so used to disuse were their tongues. Silent thank yous would have to do.


Tender Lumplings Everywhere: The 2018 Halloween Horrorquest


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prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

My Sister still Speaks