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Lori Handeland is the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of the Nightcreature Novels, The Phoenix Chronicles and Shakespeare Undead. She is the recipient of many industry awards, including two RITA awards, a Romantic Times Award for Best Harlequin Superromance, and the Prism Award from Romance Writers of America. She lives in Wisconsin with her family and a yellow lab named Ellwood.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”
Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)
What was left of the man shambled into the dark alley, and I followed. I had little choice.
I am a chasseur, a hunter. What I hunt are those whose souls are controlled by another. I call them the tibonage.
You’d call them zombies.
Yes, they exist. All over the damn place.
Tonight they existed in Southwark, and it was my job to make sure they didn’t crack open someone’s head and make a feast of their brains. The only way to do that was to kill them first.
The tibonage dragged his feet through the muck, intent on something in the distance. This is the nature of the zombie. They are raised for a reason; they have a mission. Nothing will stop them from completing it.
“Halt!” I shouted. The tibonage didn’t even glance my way.
Definitely on a mission. Weren’t we all?
I hurried after, careful to remain far enough away that the zombie couldn’t spin and grab me. Considering they’re the walking dead, the tibonage are faster than one might think, and if prevented from completing their assignment they fight like baited bears.
As soon as I came within a sword’s length, I planted my feet and drew my weapon, wincing when the slick, slide sliced through the still air. The tibonage froze; then slowly he turned.
I should have cut off his head right then. If I had, I never would have seen his face in the silvery glow of the moon.
Instead, I whispered, “Chalmers?”
One of our servants. He’d died only last week.
Hair still well groomed, nails too, skin a wee bit gray but not terribly so. There wasn’t a hole in him anywhere there shouldn’t be. I’d have thought him alive, if it weren’t for the smell. I wrinkled my nose.
He was dead all right.
The zombie yanked me close, his teeth clacking together inches from my nose. I dropped the sword and shoved against his chest. Beneath my palms, his skin squirmed. A maggot peeked past the collar of his dusty doublet and winked.
“Erk!” I shrieked, and jerked my hands away. This only allowed the tibonage to pull me ever closer.
“Br-br-br,” he chanted, in between the clicking of teeth. “Mmmm,” he growled low. “Mmmm.”
He obviously hadn’t had his daily supply of br-br-br--
“Brains,” I snapped, annoyed at both myself for not killing him and him for being unable to articulate a simple word. “If you could say brains, you might actually possess enough of them to get some.”
Talking to a zombie was almost as foolish as wrestling one. I was strong, but zombies are stronger. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps there was something in the way they were raised that gave them certain powers. For instance, remaining unharmed through everything but decapitation and fire. That, combined with superior strength, meant the only advantage I had was that my brains could be used for something other than stuffing between my ears.
I lifted my knee, fast and hard. If his choked shriek was any indication, his balls now had an intimate acquaintance with his throat.
He let me go. He didn’t have much choice. He was on the ground, clutching his privates and keening. I rescued my sword, and then I returned Chalmers to God.
The man had always been overly tall, so even on his knees his head was nearly level with mine. As a result, when he burst into ashes I got a face full. Then I couldn’t see.
Which was the only excuse for what happened next. When the shuffle that sounded behind me was followed by a touch on my shoulder, I reacted. Two hands on the hilt of my sword I swung, and I connected.
Blood washed the ashes from my face.
“Oh,” I whispered. “N-n-n-no.”
I sounded like a zombie. But I wasn’t, and neither was the man who tumbled to the muck-strewn cobblestones. If he had been he’d be ashes, and I’d be on my way to dispatch the next murderous fiend.
Instead, I was the murderous fiend.
I fell to my knees as my victim’s eyes fluttered closed, and I sat there until the blood from the slice in his neck stopped flowing. Then I laid my palm against his chest, but the heart beneath no longer beat; his skin had already cooled.
Should I search out the authorities and attempt to explain?
A half laugh, half sob escaped my throat. “Excuse me, there is a dead man in the alley. But I didn’t mean to slit his throat, sirrah. Oh no, I meant to cut off his head.”
I lifted trembling fingers, meaning to rub at the pain in the center of my forehead, but when I saw the blood I let my arm drop back to my side.
“Who would have thought he could have so much blood in him?” I whispered. “Will I ever be able to wash my hands clean?”
The stranger was dead. The only way to bring him back would be to ferret out someone who could raise him. But then he would be a zombie—his soul in thrall to another. I doubted this man, whoever he was, would thank me for that.
No, better to leave him where he lay. At least his soul was already with God.