Home > Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(4)

Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(4)
Author: Jonathan Maberry

“Now what, Tom?” he demanded, but there was only silence from the shadows in his mind. “Really? Now you’re going to shut up?”

Nothing.

Benny glanced down at the girl. Could he lift her high enough so that she could grab one of the roots and climb up? It would be her only chance, but doing it would use up the last seconds he had and give him no chance at all. Even so, he thought, he had to try. Better to die trying to save a life than share a hideous death down here in the fetid darkness. He listened for some trace of Tom’s voice, but there was still nothing.

The first of the zombies rounded the previous bend. Five of them, with more behind. One of them broke from the pack and started running along the ravine.

Oh no, thought Benny, a fast one. Oh God!

It was horribly true. Lately some of the zoms they encountered were different. Faster, able to run. Maybe even smarter.

Benny set the girl down and pushed her behind him; then he drew his knife. It was hopeless, but he had to try. For the child, he had to try.

The zom raced toward him almost as fast as a healthy human could run. Its teeth were bared and its hands were outstretched to grab. Thirty feet, twenty.

Ten. Benny gripped his knife with all his strength.

Tom . . . I need you now, man.

And then a voice cried, “BENNY!”

Everyone turned and looked. Benny, the girl, the zoms; even the fast zombie slowed to a confused walk as it cast around for the source of the shout.

Suddenly something pale and lithe dropped into the ravine. There was a fierce war cry and a flash of silver at the end of a long pole, and then the head of the fast zombie leaped into the air and bounced off the wall.

“Lilah!” cried Benny.

The Lost Girl had found him.

A moment later another form dropped from the edge of the ravine above. Smaller, rounder, with masses of curly red hair and freckled hands that clutched the handle of a well-worn wooden sword with deadly competence. A long jagged scar ran from her hairline down her cheek almost to her jaw, but it did not mar the beauty of her face. Instead it made her look like a warrior princess out of an old legend. She looked at the zoms and then at Benny, and she grinned.

“I can’t leave you alone for a minute without you doing something stupid, can I?” asked Nix Riley.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Ever since Tom died Benny seems to think that he has to BE Tom.

Is that normal grief? Or should I be worried?

I asked Chong, but for once he didn’t have any answers. I think he’s worried too.

8

“TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH,” SAID BENNY, WIPING SWEAT FROM HIS EYES.“I was getting bored down here.”

He tried to make it sound cool and casual. It didn’t.

Nix snorted and started to say something else, but then she caught sight of the tiny figure cowering in the shadows behind Benny.

“What—? Oh my God! Where—where—where—?” Her words disintegrated into a baffled stammer.

“Long story,” said Benny.

Nix bent over the girl, who was sniffling at the edge of full-blown tears. She touched the girl’s cheek and smoothed her hair. “Hello, sweetie. Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be okay now.”

A few yards away, Lilah looked over her shoulder to see what was going on, and her eyes bulged.

“Annie?” she murmured.

Even with everything else going on around them, hearing Lilah say that name came close to breaking Benny’s heart. Annie was the name of Lilah’s little sister. Annie had died years ago trying to escape from the zombie pits at Gameland, and Lilah had been forced to quiet her when she reanimated. Benny could only imagine what was going on in Lilah’s head—seeing another little blond-haired girl, here in a pit filled with zombies. It was weird enough to Benny; to Lilah it must be totally surreal.

Another fast zom dashed along the ravine—a huge woman with wild black hair and a line of bullet holes stitched across her enormous bosom.

“Zom!” barked Benny, and Lilah blinked once. The shock on her face was gone in an instant as she turned back to deal with the running zom. The black-pipe spear she carried flashed out, and the bayonet blade cut through dry flesh and tough muscle. Lilah’s face was stone, but Benny wasn’t fooled; her mind had to be churning on this mystery, and it was evident in the renewed force with which she smashed and hacked.

Nix looked over the little girl’s head at Benny’s empty hands. “Where’s your sword?”

“It’s stuck in a zom.”

“Stuck in a—?”

Benny pointed at the soldier zom far back in the crowd.

“God. We’ll never get it!” she gasped.

“We have to,” Benny snapped.

The wall of zoms pressed forward even as Lilah cut away at it.

“We can’t,” growled Lilah. “There are too many.”

Nix cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled upward. “Chong!”

Instead of an answer, a coil of rope fell from above and landed heavily on Benny’s head, nearly knocking him to his knees.

“Heads up!” came the yell a half second later.

9

BENNY PULLED THE ROPE OFF HIS HEAD AND LOOKED UP TO SEE CHONG’S head and shoulders leaning over the edge of the ravine, his long black hair hanging straight down.

“Hey, Benny,” he yelled. “Lilah said you were out here practicing your brooding, and—”

“Chong!” Benny barked. “Shut up and tie that rope to a tree.”

The smile vanished from Chong’s face. “Already done. But c’mon, man, hurry up down there. It’s getting weird up here. There have to be fifty zoms on the other side of the ravine.”

“Yeah, well, there are one or two down here, too,” Benny grumbled.

“Then why’d you go down there?” asked Chong.

Benny ignored the comment and turned toward Lilah. The bayonet blade at the end of her spear was smeared with black goo. “Let me have your spear and I’ll hold them off while you and Nix—”

Lilah’s snort of derision was eloquent. “Go away,” she said in her ghostly whisper of a voice.

“Nix,” Benny said, turning to her, “give me your bokken. I’ll guard your back while you take the kid up.”

“Oh, please. She’s too little to climb, and I’m not big enough to carry her while I climb. You take her up, Benny. Lilah and I will guard your back.”

“No freaking way. This is my job.”

“Your job?” Nix rolled her eyes. “If you’d stop trying to be the samurai hero for a moment, you’d realize that we’re trying to save your life!”

“No, I have to get my sword and save—”

Nix got right up in his face. “I’m not asking you, Benjamin Imura.”

Benny very nearly snapped to attention. Nix never called him Benjamin except when she was very mad at him, and she never used his first and last name unless she was going to kick his butt about something.

He flicked a look at the wave of zombies and back at Nix, who stood five feet tall in shoes and had to lean back to look up at him. Even the little girl seemed to glower at Benny, and she had no reason to, since he’d just saved her life. Maybe it was a girl thing. He was dimly aware that there was some important message about female power to be learned here, but now wasn’t the time to philosophize. Even Nix’s freckles seemed to glow with anger, and her scar turned from pale white to livid red.

He wanted to yell at her, to push her out of the way, to take her bokken and return to the fight—but instead he swallowed his frustration and backed off.

Benny pulled on the rope, which was indeed securely tied. The best and safest way to do this would be to rig a sling around the kid and haul her up; and though they were all good with knots, there simply wasn’t time. However, Benny could see that the collapsed end of the ravine was not sheer. Much of the debris had tumbled down to form a slope, but that slope was far too steep to walk up. With the rope, though, he might be able to do it. He cut a look at the little girl.

That’s your job, spoke that inner voice. Stop trying to be a hero, and get her out of here.

“Right,” said Benny under his breath. He knelt by the girl. “Hey, sweetie, I need you to listen to me and do exactly what I say, okay?”

The child gave him an owl-eyed stare but said nothing.

“I’m going to climb out of here with this rope, and I need you to hold on to me. Like playing piggyback. Do you know that game?”

She paused for a moment as she looked up the dark dirt wall. In the gloom it seemed to stretch on forever.

“It’s okay. I’ll keep you safe.”

Behind him he heard a dull thud that he recognized as the impact of a wooden sword on dried flesh and bone. Sharp and hard, accompanied by a soft grunt of effort. Nix had joined the fight. It was not a comforting sound. It did not mean that they were winning. It meant that there was too much for Lilah to handle alone. It meant that the dead were coming. More and more of them.

Benny squatted and turned his back to the girl. “Wrap your arms around my neck and hold on, okay?”

The little girl suddenly wrapped her arms tight. “Benny!” cried Nix. “Hurry!”

He snatched up the rope and began to climb.

At first it was easy. Tough, but not beyond his strength. Seven months of training with Tom had given him muscle and tone; another month of living wild in the Rot and Ruin had built his endurance. He was stronger than he’d ever been, and even with the fear that swirled around him like polluted water, he felt powerful. It was how he imagined Tom had felt all the time. Strong enough to do whatever he needed or wanted to do.

Those thoughts brought him about halfway up the wall.

Then, within the next three labored steps, the light-as-a-feather child suddenly felt like she weighed more than Morgie Mitchell after the harvest feast. Benny’s foot slipped on the moss-slick wall, and the little girl screeched in his ear like a frightened starling. Her tiny arms locked tighter around his throat, and suddenly Benny could barely breathe.

“Not . . . so . . . tight . . . !”

But she was too terrified to understand. She was halfway up a wall, hanging on for her life. It was going to take a crowbar to pry her off.

Benny took another step and winced as his muscles began to ache. His thighs burned, and grasping the rope felt like holding red-hot coals.

“Come on!” yelled Chong, and Benny looked up to see his friend stretch a bony arm down to him. Chong had a lot of wiry strength, but at the moment his proffered arm looked like it belonged to a stick figure. And it was still too far away.

Chong gaped. “Wait . . . what’s that on your back?”

“What . . . does it . . . look like . . . you brain-dead . . . monkey-banger?” gasped Benny.

Chong didn’t even try to answer that. Instead he leaned farther out, straining to reach down for Benny.

“No!” Benny yelled. “The edge is—”

There was a soft whuck of a sound, and then Chong was tumbling head over heels toward them, and he and a hundred pounds of loose dirt tried to smash Benny and the girl back down into the zombie pit. The little girl deafened him with a shrill wail that was loud enough to crack glass. Benny threw his weight sideways, running across the wall as Chong tumbled past, yowling like a kicked cat. Below him, Chong landed with a thump and a sharp exhalation of pain. Curses floated up through the shadows. Lilah’s and Nix’s were louder than Chong’s.

Benny’s feet slipped on the loose soil that now covered the wall like a coat of oil. The rope tried to slither through his fists, but Benny knew that if he fell, the impact would probably cripple or kill the little girl.

Hold on! cried his inner voice.

He held on, gritting his teeth against the strain and the pain.

With a grunt he took a step upward, slamming his foot into the soil to find solid ground. Using legs and back and arms, he pulled upward. The little girl was still throttling him, but Benny lowered his chin to help open his airway. He took as deep a breath as he could and hauled again, taking another step. And another.

It felt like all he was doing was inching his way up. The wall seemed impossibly high.

And then he rose from shadows into bright sunlight. Benny blinked, his eyes stinging, but he’d never been happier to see a bright, sunny sky than he was at that moment. He pulled, and pulled, and climbed and collapsed onto the grass of the torn ravine edge. He crawled forward along the rope, landing chest first on the ground with a gasp like a drowning man taking his first gulp of air.

“Climb off,” he wheezed, and the girl scrambled like a monkey over his back and shoulders and head.

“Benny!”

The cry came echoing up from the darkness, and instantly Benny staggered to his feet. His limbs trembled and his hands were puffed and red, but he was safe. Across the black gash of the gorge a hundred zombies stared at him with eternal hunger and endless patience. No more of them fell into the gorge, and Benny thanked God for that.

“Nix! Climb out. I’ll pull. Hurry!”

As soon as he felt her take up the slack, Benny began pulling hand over hand. The rope burned his palms and his muscles screamed, but he planted his feet wide and put everything he had into it. Nix’s wild red hair appeared at the edge of the ravine, and then her beautiful face, tight with effort and fear.

Nix climbed out and wiped sweat from her eyes.

“Is Chong hurt?” asked Benny.

“Not as hurt as he’s going to be when Lilah gets out of there. She’s furious with him for going down into the ravine.”

“He fell in. It wasn’t intentional,” Benny said, coming immediately to his friend’s defense.

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