Home > Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(17)

Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(17)
Author: Jonathan Maberry

“You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“The offer stands,” said Andrew, “but the clock’s ticking on my patience.”

Carter studied him, and Chong could see doubt in the man’s face, but there was anger, too. Much more of that.

“Go to hell,” said Carter.

Brother Andrew sighed. “So be it,” he said. “Such is the mercy of Thanatos that even with blasphemy on your lips the darkness welcomes you.”

There was a sudden flash of silver from the woods, and Carter cried out and staggered forward. His finger jerked the trigger of the shotgun, and the hollow click told the story the reaper had already guessed. The weapon fell from Carter’s hands as he thumped down hard on his knees.

That was when Chong saw what had struck the man.

An arrow.

It had flown out of the woods behind where Chong crouched and buried itself between Carter’s shoulders.

“No . . . ,” Carter gasped.

But the answer was a dreadful “yes” as a second arrow punched into Carter’s back not a finger’s breadth from the first.

The last word Carter managed to say was, “Eve.”

Then he fell forward.

Despite everything Tom had taught him, Chong cried, “No!”

The reaper with the scythe turned his head sharply toward the spot where Chong crouched.

And smiled.

32

BENNY AND NIX REACTED IN THE SAME MOMENT: SHE PULLED HER pistol and Benny drew his sword. The reaper took a small step toward them. He did not appear to be armed, but Benny was taking no chances.

“Stay back, mister,” warned Benny.

The man stopped and studied them with cold, penetrating eyes. “Nyx,” he said.

Nix started. “What? How do you know my name?”

“Are you her?” asked the man. The smallest of smiles painted his face.

“Um . . .”

“Have you come to share with us?” asked the reaper. “Have you come to help your children share the darkness with the heretics?”

“Uhhh . . . ,” Benny said, “what?”

“Have you given your gift to many?”

“What . . . gift?” asked Benny, though he was pretty sure he did not want an answer to the question.

The man frowned. “The gift of darkness. What other gift is there?”

“Benny . . . ,” Nix warned. “Let’s get out of here.”

The man took another step toward them. He was still well out of attack range, but Benny kept his sword in a solid guard, ready to defend—or attack. “What beautiful children you are,” said the man in a voice that was as soft as sand slithering through an hourglass. It made Benny’s skin crawl. “You come bravely into the woods, bearing weapons from the old world, spreading the gift of darkness with the heretics.”

“No . . . ,” Nix said under her breath. Her face had gone white, and even her freckles were pale. The only color was the pink line of the scar that ran from hairline to jaw.

“Why are you people hunting Eve’s family?” Benny asked.

“Eve?” asked the reaper, smiling faintly. “Eve died in the morning of the world, wrapped in the withered arms of Adam. Cain the betrayer buried them in the dust beyond the gates of Eden. Or so says the false bible.”

“Ooo-kay,” said Benny softly. “That’s great. Exactly what we need while we’re running for our lives. Big help. Thanks, man.”

The man laid his palm flat over the angel wings on his chest. “Do you not know me, holy one? I am Saint John of the Knife, first of your reapers, guide and guardian of your flock. It was through me that you opened the first red mouth in the flesh of the infidel. It was with my hand, my blades, that you let the darkness flow from this world of pain and into the infinite peace of nothingness.”

He turned and gestured toward the northern stretch of the woods, where the sound of the quads could still be heard faintly.

“We are abroad in this blighted land to offer priceless gifts to all the scattered children of a false and fallen god,” said Saint John. “We have been faithful and dutiful in our ministry. We have given the gift of darkness to so many . . . ah, so many. Soon we will sweep these lands clear of the last blasphemers. The physical world belongs to the gray wanderers. The children of flesh are called to join with the eternal darkness. Such is the will of the one true god, Thanatos—all praise to his darkness.”

Benny and Nix just stared at him. Benny had no idea how to respond.

“How do you know my name?” Nix asked again.

Saint John continued, “Together we will watch the silence and the darkness wrap the world in the garments of purity and eternal peace. Tell me, holy one, is . . . that why you are here? Is that why you have taken physical form and come here with your knight? Are you here to walk among your sacred reapers?”

“Are . . . you crazy?” asked Benny reasonably. “Is that it? I just want to know so I can find some useful place to stand in this conversation.”

“Look,” said Nix, “I don’t know how you know my name or who you think we are, but we are not a part of this. None of it. We’re just a couple of kids traveling through. We only met Carter for a minute and—”

The man ignored her words. He took one more step closer, peering at them, looking into their eyes. “You are not with Carter, I can see that much. You say that you are children, and yet when I look into your eyes I see that darkness has already taken hold of you. You are angels of the darkness, even if you are still dressed like children of the heretics. You are reapers of the scattered fields. I can see it in your eyes. You have given the gift of darkness to others. Many others.”

Benny felt something twist inside his heart. The gift of darkness. He had no idea what religion this man was supposed to belong to, but it was pretty clear what the ‘darkness’ was.

Death.

But how was death a gift? How did that make any sense, especially in a world where life was rare and so very precious?

At the same time, it unnerved him that this maniac could somehow tell that he and Nix had killed people. Since that terrible night when Mrs. Riley was murdered, Nix and Benny had been in several bloody confrontations, first with Charlie Pink-eye’s gang and then with Preacher Jack’s killers at Gameland. They had plenty of blood on their hands; and the fact that the men they’d killed were absolutely evil did very little to help either of them sleep at night. The fact remained that they had both taken human lives. That fact had gouged marks into each of their souls that no amount of justification could remove.

And this man could see that.

How? Who was he?

Run, warned Tom again, get away from him. Go—now!

“Have you come to let the darkness take you?” The man wore a strange little smile as he spoke those words, and he seemed oblivious to Nix’s pistol and Benny’s sword. “The darkness wants to take you. The darkness wants to take us all. Do you not agree?”

“Um . . . no?” replied Benny uncertainly. “Not today, thanks.”

Saint John’s eyes were filled with a strange light, as if he could read Benny’s thoughts. Benny thought it might have been ordinary madness, but there was something else, too. Something he had never seen before, and it chilled him to the bone. It was a light of absolute fanatical belief. Not a simple faith, like Benny had seen in the eyes of way-station monks like Brother David, nor the desperate hope that was always present in the eyes of Pastor Kellogg back home. No, this was something else. This was a kind of insanity. And this man seemed to be engaged in his own inner conversation with things only he could see. Gods? Monsters?

Chong had quoted a passage to Benny after the Gameland affair was over. It was something a German philosopher named Nietzsche had written more than a century ago. “‘He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,’” Chong recited as the four of them walked away from Tom’s grave and the column of smoke that rose above the dust and fire and ash of Gameland. “‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’”

The very thought of that had chilled Benny back then, and it returned now as a cold breath on the nape of his neck, because he was absolutely positive that it explained what he was seeing right now. This man—this complete stranger and utter wacko—was someone who had looked far too long into the abyss. Benny knew this with an intuitive flash, because looking into his eyes was like looking into the very same abyss. Into a bottomless well of horror and death. These thoughts, complex as they were, tumbled through his mind in less than a second.

Behind them, somewhere in the woods, Benny could hear more shouts. Riot’s voice, and Sarah’s. Then the roars of the quads as the reapers hunted them.

Saint John nodded gravely to Nix.

“Nyx,” he said, his eyes taking on a dreamy quality, “daughter of Chaos, mother of Darkness and Light. Mother of the Fates, Sleep, Death, Strife, and Pain. Sweet mother of all shadows.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Benny could see the gun trembling in Nix’s hand.

Saint John said, “Please . . . forgive me my weakness, but I beg you to tell me—are you her? Did Mother Rose call you from the darkness in our hour of need?”

“Look, just back off,” warned Nix, taking her pistol in two hands. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but we don’t want trouble.”

“Trouble?” The man looked mystified. “You, of all that walk this earth, have nothing to fear from me—or any of our kindred.” He suddenly smiled, and for a moment that smile seemed genuinely happy.

Nix cleared her throat. “Mister, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Whoever you think we are—we’re not. We’re not part of whatever you’re doing, and we don’t want to be. We just want to leave, okay? Don’t try anything and don’t try to follow us or I swear to God that I’ll shoot you.”

The man who called himself Saint John of the Knife nodded, as if Nix had said something he both understood and liked. “Yes, yes, Goddess, I understand that the darkness is yours to give, and I welcome it with all my heart. I am a reaper, and I am yours body and soul until the darkness closes around us all!” His words, strange as they were, had the cadence of a church litany, and that made Benny’s skin crawl. “Kill me now, or come with me to spread darkness to the heathens out there.” He pointed to the field. “And then I would be so honored to kneel before you and accept your gift. A bullet, a knife . . . each is a path to glory.”

“Nix,” Benny said cautiously, “let’s go.”

They began backing away from Saint John. At first he smiled, apparently thinking that they were going to lead him in some kind of insane charge out onto the field, but when he saw that Nix and Benny were merely increasing the distance to go around him, his expression changed. At first it was lit by an expectant hopefulness, his smile lingering; and then his face grew confused.

“Holy one,” called Saint John, “where are you going?”

“Far, far away from here,” said Nix, “you incredible freak.”

Even as she said it, Benny knew that it was a mistake.

A terrible mistake.

The reaper’s expression changed once more; the confusion melted away to reveal harsh lines of an ice-cold rage.

“You are not her,” growled Saint John in a low, feral voice. His pale face grew flushed, and his dark eyes filled with a dreadful light. “You steal the name of my goddess and you profane everything that is holy.”

He spat onto the ground between them.

“I never said that I was.”

Benny pulled her arm. “Nix, come on.”

“And you, boy,” growled Saint John, “you damn yourself by speaking her holy name, and you do it in the presence of a saint of her son’s sacred Night Church. No fire exists in hell to burn that blasphemy from your soul.”

“Hey, look, pal,” snapped Benny, “we’re not blaspheming anyone or anything. And if that’s what it sounds like, then we’re sorry. Like she said, we’re not who you think we are, so we’re just going to leave. Pretend you never saw us. You go ahead and do whatever it is you were doing, and we’ll be out of your life and—”

Saint John spat again and took a threatening step forward, his fists balled. “Where are you from? Are you scouts from Sanctuary?” His eyes flared, and he bared his teeth. “That’s it, isn’t it? You think you can spy on the holy children of my god in order to lay a trap for us?”

“Still don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” said Benny, “and we’re still leaving. Adios.”

“You pathetic maggots,” sneered Saint John. “Do you think Sanctuary can hide from us? Do you think it can withstand us? We are the fists of God on earth.”

“Whatever,” said Benny.

“Sanctuary will fall, as every other town has fallen, as all evil must fall. The reapers will open every red door and wash its streets in blood. You cannot hope to defy the will of the only true god. Thanatos—all praise to the darkness.”

Saint John reached into the billowy folds of his shirt and drew out two knives, and he did it so quickly and smoothly that they seemed to appear magically in his hands. Benny had seen enough skilled knife fighters—Tom, Solomon Jones, Sally Two-Knives, and others—to recognize that this man was a master of these blades.

Nix saw it too, and she stopped backing away and settled into a wide-legged shooter’s stance. “Don’t be stupid,” she warned. Her voice did not sound like that of a fifteen-year-old girl. Benny knew that she was deadly serious.

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