Author's Note: Starting Monday I will be away from my computer for two weeks. Regular updates will continue but I won't be able to post comments. Please continue to let us know what you think of the story. I hope you will all enjoy what's to come.
"You... you can't be serious," Gary said. Mael kept moving deeper into the dark museum, through a sculpture garden lit only indirectly by windows on the outside. "You honestly expect me to believe that you're going to walk out there into the city and start killing survivors?" As the Druid hobbled along the mummies began to emerge from the Egyptian wing, clutching Canopic jars and heart scarabs to themselves. A supremely frustrated Gary called for Noseless and Faceless to come as well - he didn't necessarily want to get outnumbered just then. "Anyway, this isn't where you would do it. There are maybe a handful of people left in this city - "
There were over a thousand of them, when last I took a peek.
Mael pushed open a door and they stepped through into a spray of colored light. Stained glass windows high overhead showered the radiance down upon them, while massive Gothic arches invited them to press on. Mael stopped and turned to face Gary. The lot of them are in poor shape, lad. Starving - holed up so tight they can't get out again, or just too terrified to go out scavenging for food.
"So just let them starve to death!"
That'd be cruel. I'm all about mercy, lad. The human race is done for, nobody can question that. It's taking its time on the way out, though. Imagine how much suffering I'll save. Here!
Mael had found a glass display case exactly like the hundreds of others Gary had seen. With the help of two mummies he opened it and lifted out a sword. It had been beautifully wrought, once, though over the centuries it had corroded to a dull green patina and the blade had fused with its scabbard. The hilt was worked in the shape of a howling Celtic warrior. Mael twisted it through the air in a wide cutting motion.
She's not the Answerer, but she'll do.
"You're going to kill people with that?"
Mael's head sagged forward. Try not to be so literal. I just want to be kitted out properly. You won't help me, then. It's not 'your thing'. Very well. Will you be playing at being my enemy, then? Will I need to go through you to complete the great work? Or will you stand aside and leave me to it?
Gary entertained the notion for a moment but it was pointless. He was no fighter - and he had seen how strong Mael was despite appearances. Mael's dark energy was enormous and powerful, too. It looked like a sunless planet, vast and round and self-contained, something so big and deadly it had its own gravitational field. "I... I don't suppose I could stop you. I can try to talk you out of it."
There's no debate, Gary. This is what we are. Uamhas. There's good in this world and there's evil, and we're evil. Now either come with me or leave me be, lad. There's work to do.
Using the sword like a cane Mael lurched forward through the Medieval exhibit and passed into the museum's great hall. Not knowing what else to do Gary followed, his mind reeling.
Saying no had been his immediate reaction and he knew he should stick with it but Mael's conviction was a powerful argument on its own. Gary had come to the Druid with his questions, after all. Did he have a right to pick and choose among the answers, discarding the ones he didn't like?
It wasn't as if Gary felt any particular allegiance to the living. They'd treated him shabbily enough. He remembered the moment of recognition he'd had when he first saw Noseless on Fourteenth street, when they had seemed like reflections of one another. Gary had called himself a monster, then, and meant it.
He'd spent so much time trying just to survive. He'd made himself a dead freak because it seemed like the only way forward. He'd tried to befriend Dekalb to get himself out of a bad situation. Yet what was he existing for? Simply keeping on had seemed like a good enough motivation before but now - if he did nothing with this second chance he'd been given, had he deserved it in the first place?
He didn't believe any of this crap about judgment and retribution. But maybe there were other reasons for signing on. Revenge, for one. Destroying all humans included killing Ayaan, and Dekalb too. The fuckers hadn't listened to him - they'd just shot him like a dog, not even giving him a chance.
Then there was the hunger in Gary's belly, a wild animal in there kicking at the walls in thwarted need.
Working for Mael he'd get plenty of fresh meat.
"How are you going to start?" Gary asked, timidly.
Mael stood framed by the open doors of the Met, the sunlight streaming around his leathery flesh. I've begun already, he said, and stepped out into the day. Gary followed and found uncountable eyes staring right at him.
The entirety of Fifth Avenue was clogged with the dead. Their bodies filled the space like a forest of human limbs. In clothes dulled of color by dirt and time, with hair torn or matted or falling out they became a single entity, a featureless mass. White, black, Latino, male, female, decrepit skeletons and freshly slaughtered corpses. Thousands of them. Slaver dripped from their sagging jaws. Their yellow eyes turned in terrifying concert to look upon the Druid. They awaited his command. Mael had assembled an army - he must have been calling them the whole time Gary was asking his questions and miring himself in moral dilemmas.
Gary had never imagined so many of them together in one place - it seemed impossible, as if the world couldn't support so much weight. Their silence made them sphinxes, unknowable, implacable. No force could stand against them.
For the first time Gary wondered if Mael could actually pull it off. There were so many more dead people than living ones. The few survivors had stayed alive by out-thinking their opponents but if the undead were organized - if one person could lead them, well...
Mael raised the sword and pointed and the dead surged as a mob up and down the street, splitting as they streamed around the sides of the museum and into Central Park. The sound of their feet pounding the flagstones was like a war drum beating out a savage tattoo. Mael and the mummies fell in behind the throng and Gary caught up with them as they passed a statuary group of three bears modelled in bronze. Gary had seen the sculpture before but had always thought it had something to do with a children's story. It looked like a totem now, an emblem of a conquering force.
For good or for evil, Gary, I do what I am meant for. It doesn't matter what we choose. It simply matters what we are.
Though Mael stood only a few feet away Gary was surprised by the sudden entrance of the thoughts into his mind. In the rhythm of the marching dead he expected all words to be swallowed up.
Instead they seemed to echo. For good or for evil: two sides of the same duty. I used to fight to save lives, Gary had told the survivor Paul. Now I take them away.
The mud of the park boiled under the tramping feet of the dead, jumping up in great clods that Gary had to stumble through. They came to a great open space devoid of trees - it must have been the Great Lawn, once - and the dead spread out, forming a wide circular clearing in their midst, an open patch where Mael stood with the mummies. The Druid turned around a few times and finally scratched a mark in the soil with his sword. He gestured at the dead all around him and they went into action. From a distance Gary heard a great rumbling crash and a column of dust rose above the branches of the denuded trees to the south. A bomb must have gone off or a gas main exploded or - Gary had no idea what it was.
"What's happening?" Gary asked.
The construction has begun. I must have a broch from whence to issue my orders.
Which wasn't exactly helpful, but Gary soon understood. The crowd rippled at its edges and then the movement drew closer. The dead were passing bricks forward, hand to hand. Clumps of mortar stuck to the bricks, some of which were ornamented with fragments of graffiti. The dead must have pulled down a building - that was the crash - and now they intended to use the liberated building materials for Mael's headquarters. One by one the bricks were laid down, the dead pushing them deep into the mud with clumsy hands. They swarmed around the spot where Mael stood like a hive of ants, totally focused on their task. This was far beyond what the dead were capable of in Gary's experience, not without an intelligence organizing them from afar. Could Mael actually be controlling them all at the same time? The Druid's power must be enormous.
Give me a chance, Gary. Work with me for one day. Maybe you'll like it. Maybe you'll feel at home being who you really are.
He had felt so much guilt over eating Ifiyah, because he had tried to live up to the standards of living men - in spite of what he had become. The euphoria that had followed his devouring of Kev had been the most natural thing he'd ever experienced.
Gary started to refuse but he couldn't. In the face of so much concerted effort, not to mention Mael's certainty, it seemed impossible to deny what was happening. "One day," he said, the most defiant thing he could force out of his mouth.
Mael nodded, careful not to put too much strain on his broken neck.