Chapter Thirty: Sweethearts

"Stacey Lynn? Darling? I've scavenged some food for us."

The little girl was extraordinarily small – no older than six or seven – but she was lanky and leggy and she squirmed tenaciously as Ricky dragged her into the alleyway where Stacey slumbered. A small length of rope would have been useful, but no matter. He clutched her ankles and wrists together and carried her struggling little body like a freshly-caught piglet.

He'd found the little bitch hiding in a dumpster, dressed in bloody rags and nibbling on an apple bruised and rotted beyond recognition. She wailed as soon as he exposed her to the sunlight, but a quick snarl quieted her. He stared at her and she stared at him and there was a brief window of desperate humanity between them. He held out a pasty clawed hand, and she cringed at the sight of it.

"Don't worry, kid. It's okay. It'll all be okay."

She spent a few minutes whimpering, but eventually warmed up to him and held out her arms. Ricky plucked her up out of the garbage and set her on the ground. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

A quiet little thing, but she couldn't stop shaking. Her hands were all over the place, and she scratched herself constantly. The smell of her was overwhelming – raw and ripe and dripping with putrid fear. "Your… your voice is real pretty, mister."

"Thank you, sweetheart. So is yours," he said, kneeling down to her level. Cute kid with huge hazel eyes and buck teeth. "What is your name?"

"…Megan. Are you gonna kill me, mister?"

"Yes, Megan. I'm going to kill you."

"Where's your black wormy thing?" Megan whispered, scratching an open sore on her cheek.

"I don't like to use my tentacle, dear. It's too messy sometimes. Sometimes a man just needs to eat."

"Is it gonna hurt when you kill me?"

"Yes, Megan."

And with that, he grabbed her and carried her squirming body for almost two miles until he reached his snoring queen.

"Wake up, Stacey Lynn. Num nums."

He tossed Megan to the asphalt and stared into the alleyway's shadows as Stacey wheezed in her sleep. He could just barely make out a silhouette of a tentacle in the little nook – unmistakably her. A guttural, feral moan escaped her lips, and a golden pair of glaring eyes slowly materialized in the darkness.

"That's right, my lovely. Can you smell it?"

Megan couldn't speak without croaking deeply. "Is that your dog, mister? Are you gonna feed me to your dog? I don't wanna…"

Ricky sighed and patted the little girl's shoulder. "You are seriously fucking bold for a seven-year old, you know that? Any other kid would be crying their lungs out right now. That's actually pretty admirable, Megan."

She cringed as if his hand were acid. "I turn seven in July. Are you gonna let me go cause I'm brave? Please?"

"Stacey Lynn is not a dog, my dear," he said after staring into the pulsing darkness for a minute. "She is my girlfriend."

Stacey's tentacle slowly meandered out of the shadows and wormed its way across the ground, prodding anything it came in contact with. A fragment of old newspaper; an empty water bottle; Ricky's ankle. He chuckled and caressed the slimy black thing, held it in his hand and gave it a smooch. "She is my Queen."

Megan was more frightened than she'd ever been, but she didn't say a word.

The thing arched up and seemed to sniff the air, guiding itself towards the quivering morsel of flesh behind Ricky. His glare was constant. Even as Megan's whimpering was cut short, his glare was constant. Even as the not-yet-seven-year-old's insides splattered against his eyes, his glare was constant. He watched with delight as the tentacle snapped little Megan's body into countless gore-slick pieces, neatly piled them together and dragged the stinking mess back into the shadows so that Stacey may feed.

He waited thirty seconds, listening to the slurping noises, grinning. "Come out here, Stacey Lynn. My eyes and my heart are longing for your beautiful face."

Obediently, Stacey clambered out of her dark nook, carefully balancing on her frail legs and her massive tentacle. She was covered in vibrant chunks of Megan from head to toe. Ricky was incredulous. "My goodness! Look at you! Did you at least think to save me a bite or two, darling?"

Stacey shook her head, snarling at him. Mine.

"Tsk, tsk. Still the same selfish little whore. But no matter," he said, pacing about her blood-drenched, brooding form. "That selfishness will eventually take you quite far, I'm sure."

He grabbed her waist and angrily pressed himself against her, giving her a deep and painful kiss. Their teeth razed against each other, clicking and cutting. Ricky slid his ivory knife from his coat pocket. "But as for here and now," he said, jabbing the blade into her stomach, "You belong to me. Do you understand?"

She shook her empty head.

"Of course you don't," he said. He ran the blade along her face, slicing little symbols into her flesh. "Of course you don't."

Ricky slid the blade back and forth, butchering Stacey's face until it resembled a raw steak more than a teenage girl. She snarled and snapped at him, but she never struggled. The tentacle lay dormant at her side.

"Do you love me, Stacey Lynn?"

She gurgled gently. Yes, very much.

"Well then. You shall live and love forever."

Mia awoke to the sound of angels screaming. It was a beautifully horrific noise, and horrifically beautiful. It was only after a few hours did she realize that the noise was all in her mind.

She lay on her back in agonizing pain, with nothing but her thoughts to keep her company. Her vision shifted from pulsing darkness to blurred redness, shimmering and warping constantly. Random shapes and colors began to materialize in front of her. Bright yellow tentacles, blackened eyeballs glaring at her. She dreamed and she died and she dreamed, over and over again; she dreamed about Jack's face, all soft and warm and pink and beautiful; she dreamed about slow and painstaking murder, about beautiful things being slaughtered. She saw a god that she didn't believe in, towering over her with a terrible majesty and raging destructiveness that she only thought existed deep within herself. It told her that the universe was coming to a violent end, and she believed it. She saw herself rise to the zenith of the behemoth, spreading her arms as wide as they would go; a barrage of spindly black tentacles burst from her womb, and she tore the mighty deity into countless shreds. I am the harbinger of genocide. I am the epilogue of humanity. Omega. Pandora. There is no other power beyond me. I am death incarnate.

The unbearable, unthinkable pain became much, much worse as Mia's bones and muscles began to thread themselves back together. The puzzle pieces of a demigod. She winced slightly as her flesh burned and her soul was born anew.

Her reputation had been 'Mia the Marauder' in a past life, and it had preceded her constantly. Awkward glares from anxious teenagers, harsh one-night stands, and no real friends at all. There had been flatterers and pretenders, sure – but they were just kids eager to wreak havoc because they had nothing better to do. Kids without discipline or morals. Kids like Ricky. They'd sweet-talk her and lull her into a false sense of camaraderie, but nobody ever really wanted to know her. They wanted to know Mia the Marauder, not Mia the Human Fucking Being. Even Stacey and Jamie and Jack… they all hated her, and she knew it. Everyone had ended up disappointing her.

Everyone but me.

But she didn't mind, really. Two days into the apocalypse, and her entire life had been flipped on its head. It was only when the end began did Mia Smithson realize her true purpose, her true name, her true power. She knew what she was doing, now. She knew what she had to do. No longer would she trudge through the lies and hatred of her enemies; no longer would she be held back by the shortcomings of others. Mia the Marauder had been fading away since the moment Ricky dug his fangs into her… but now… now that the world was ending, pure unlimited power finally rested at her fingertips.

Blackness consumed her yet again as her body gnawed at itself.

Time stood still as she walked among the clouds. Her body was air; her mind, an airship. A mass of twisting gears and billowing wings, driven by steamy memories and coals of malice. The sky bled hatred as Mia whimsically strode along, her feet dangling miles above the earth, her arms outstretched like a child leaping from a swing. She saw a group of crows flying near her, infected with something putrid. Their feathers had been replaced by paper-thin tentacles, and their beaks resembled rusted knives. She grinned, impressed by what the world had finally come to. Reddened skies and corpse-strewn meadows, vicious bunny rabbits and hellish birds. It was indescribably beautiful to her.

Hatred had become her power. Revenge had become her soul. In her final seconds of life, Mia the Marauder forsook her humanity, damning all who had ever betrayed her, promising that she would use her power in the name of chaos and fear.

Black became brown, became red, became yellowish gold. Small snippets of burning wreckage began to fade into sight. The pain had subsided entirely, and the world suddenly became a very, very dangerous place to be.

Mia the Slaughterer rose from her shallow grave, cold, alone and indescribably livid. Her eyes shot open, burning red with infection, frustration and desperation. She screamed a horrifically beautiful angel's scream, thrashing around as she got used to her new body. Fresh ashes and crackling fire surrounded her on all sides; harsh black smoke entered her lungs with every gasping breath. She coughed and screamed and roared, getting her bearings back and hastily crawling out of the wreckage. Her bare feet touched something warm and sticky as she stumbled into a nearby street, collapsing. The sun was terribly bright, and Mia shielded her eyes with a pale, veiny hand.

It was covered in ashes, but it was indescribably snow-white underneath. The realization came to her slowly… she wasn't broken anymore. Shattered bones were suddenly made of steel; bruised and bloodied flesh was now beautifully pristine. Fingernails were bladed and lethal, the teeth in her mouth had become razor-sharp tools of murder. But… she didn't feel too different psychologically. There was no Mother Being gently stroking her brain stem… which meant that Ricky had been right all along. She really was powerful beyond her wildest nightmares. The virus would bow to her every whim. The virus… was her plaything.

After a few minutes in the sun, her eyes finally adjusted. A long-abandoned cul-de-sac, ravaged and damn-near burned to the ground; houses lay in pitiful shambles, accented by the nearby corpses of their owners. Mia soon realized that she was lying in an inch-deep lake of blood, undoubtedly spilled by the nearby centipede carcasses. Their massive bodies lay baking in the sun, rotting, torn to shit. So that's how I got out of there… she thought, vaguely remembering the little green car she was swallowed in. Only two people could have torn a centipede apart like that. Only one of them actually would.

Jack's face flittered through her head. Go back to sleep, bitch.

She squinted, more from heartbreak than from the sun. But no matter. She would make things right, no matter what she had to do.

"Jaaack," she croaked desperately, testing out her newly-formed throat. "I'm coming to make you miiiine, Jack Strap. I'm coming to make us whole again."

Mia slowly rose from the puddle of gore, realizing that the fire had burned every shred of clothing from her body. She actually felt quite comfortable in her glistening skin, like a feral creature fresh from a demonic womb. The centipedes' blood glowed a brilliant maroon against her paper-white flesh… and she grinned.

She would kill anything she touched.

Ricky leapt onto the two-story roof of a small arcade so that he may see the Santa Despora Mall from a safe distance. With the vast, ravaged city sprawled out in front of him, he scanned the area until he spotted the mall – it was pretty tough to miss. Like a beacon in the heart of the downtown area, the mall was dotted with colored smoke, croaking sirens and dozens of military vehicles. Mesmerized, he watched the helicopters buzz about like anxious dragonflies, diligently keeping watch over the 'last safe place in the city'.

Utter, laughable bullshit. Nothing was safe anymore. Not while he was alive, not while Stacey was by his side, and especially not when thousands upon thousands of rabid infected ghouls were walking the Earth. For Pete's sake, he could see massive, distant crowds of them from where he was standing. There was no hope… and if Jack hadn't been lying through his pointy yellow teeth, a particularly pissed-off Mia Smithson was somewhere out there too, perfectly healthy and eager to murder everyone in sight. Santa Despora was quite unsafe indeed.

He grinned at the thought, and turned to see Stacey shambling towards him like an injured puppy. He wrapped his arm around her, and they watched the dying city together.

"Look at them, darling. They do not deserve the lives they have been given. They are pitiful. They think they are protected by their helicopters and heavy weaponry, their sticks and their stones. But underneath it all… they are frightened. We scare them more than any silly nightmare ever could. We make them question all the evil that they have done in their lives. We force them to examine their very own souls."

Stacey mumbled something, her face gently coagulating. Ricky continued.

"We shall show them what suffering truly is, Stacey Lynn. We shall show them, and we shall watch as they crumple in terror, crying out to a God that refuses to listen to them. I promise."

He stretched his arms a bit, cracked his knuckles and jumped off of the building, landing like a bloodstained feather. He called back to Stacey, "And do you know how we'll make them suffer, darling?"

She shook her head, leaping after him and landing crooked on her heel, snapping it. After a few moments of watching her squirm on the pavement, Ricky chuckled and scooped her up, kissing her deeply. "It's simple. We will drown them in our blood. Our anger. Our screams. Let… let me show you something, dear."

He tossed Stacey to the ground and took a deep, heaving breath. His flesh seemed to fade into a deep yellowish-purple for a moment as he sucked in as much air as his lungs would allow. Eyes shimmered gold, limbs shook uncontrollably. Stacey watched eagerly, black tendrils of idle drool dangling from her lips.

Ricky flung his head back and roared as deeply as he could muster – it wasn't a particularly loud roar, Stacey noticed, but it was rather guttural and croaking, a whispery gurgling wail that perhaps an enormous dying animal would make. It was an absurdly drawn-out, droning demon's groan, and it made Stacey's brain vibrate. Come to me.

Come to me.

Come to me, and be fed like privileged hogs.

Come to me, and instill fear like never before.

Come to me, my cousins. Come to me.

And they came. Slowly, they clambered from the rubble and the flora, from beneath piles of burning corpses, from the insides of shops and the basements of houses. From a nearby treehouse, from a crumpled car. Dusty crawlspaces, ancient sheds. A crowd thirty or forty creatures thick began to gather around Ricky, but he wasn't done growling quite yet. After a few minutes of inactivity, Stacey sensed something approaching them.

Come to me.

A flood of rotting flesh and golden eyes came shambling down the road. Tentacles and teeth, broken bones and open sores. Occasional heads split apart by massive black tendrils; random limbs long-since torn off and forgotten. At least one hundred zombies pushed and bit and growled at one another as they marched towards the gurgling beacon that Ricky had become. A signal tree, a wailing siren. They gathered around he and Stacey, an ocean of moaning infected, an army of slithering death.

Ricky's gurgling puttered to a stop, and he turned to his mistress. "This is only the beginning, darling. The final threads of humanity are ready to be snipped out of existence. Come. We'll be storming the gates soon."

"I dunno how much longer I can do this, Buddy," a man whispered to his best friend. He coughed a few times into his handkerchief, watching as it quickly became soaked with burgundy. "I just don't know, Bud."

The puppy stared up at him quizzically, scratching at a collar that wasn't there. Mocha-colored, short-haired little pup with harsh patches of white strewn here and there, although a few days of wandering the infected streets had made his fur a homogenous brownish-black. The man wished he knew about dog breeds, but it didn't matter. Puppies were puppies. Curious. Affectionate. And that's all he really needed right now – an affectionate companion, one who wouldn't leave or betray him. One who wouldn't trip him when the zombies came; one who needed him as much as he needed them. Buddy. He'd found Buddy in a cardboard box yesterday, like a shoddily-wrapped gift from God.

The man and his Buddy were hiding in the attic of a stranger's house, living off of a small crate of homemade raspberry preserves and beef jerky. The preserves were quite tasty; the jerky was too soft and tasted like sour carcass, but Buddy ate it anyway. The man supposed that was a good thing, but prayed that Buddy would not get sick. Oh Jesus in Heaven, don't let my Buddy die. He is all I have.

The man didn't have many possessions left, only a small pocket dictionary, a cheap glow-in-the-dark rosary, a useless car key, a dead cell phone and a wallet that contained nothing but a folded photo of his wife. He didn't like to look at the photo, for it reminded him of what happened yesterday. I'm leaving this place whether you're coming or not, asshole. I'm not going to wait here to die. Goodbye forever.

The dinky little trinket shop had been their home for twenty-four mind-wracking hours, and he could understand where she was coming from… but he still didn't understand why she'd abandoned him. He didn't want to be in the outside world, but he'd had no choice after she ran off. There was no food left, and she took all the bottled water with her. So without much but the knickknacks in his pockets and the clothes on his back, he'd fled from the tiny trinket shop, running as far as his legs and his lungs would take him, only looking forward. It was a long eight hours of running and hiding from those dreadful, Godless creatures until he finally found his new best friend, whimpering and lost. He scooped the poor fella up, wandered around for a few more hours and stumbled across a semi-abandoned house.

One of those creatures had been wandering around the kitchen – it was weakened and bleeding to death, but that damn tentacle… it had jabbed the man in the lung faster than he could say 'blueberry pie'. A sudden burst of rage and a well-placed knife to the forehead made short work of the zombielike creature, but the man could already taste blood in the back of his throat. Not good. Need doctor now. But there was nowhere to go but up. The attic was the only place where he couldn't smell the dead bodies.

Buddy licked the preserves from the man's grubby fingers, occasionally pausing to look at him with sad puppy dog eyes.

"I just don't know what to do, Bud."

Something shattered downstairs, something fragile and ceramic. The man and his Buddy froze in their places, staring at the nearby attic door, desperately hoping that they wouldn't make a sound. Something else clattered to the floor, perhaps silverware. Some glass shattered, some pots and pans fell, and then something that sounded like a coffee table was flipped on its side. And then it hit him… they're not hunting… they're just making noise. Clever bastards…

But he could beat them – he had to beat them. For Buddy. He held the shivering puppy close to his bleeding chest, breathed deeply and tried his hardest not to move an inch. He wasn't ready to die, not here.

More idle noise. As the minutes passed, the clattering noises became closer and more intense, more anger-driven, more powerful. The man couldn't help jolting every time something broke; his nerves couldn't take it. Crash. Shatter. Crash.

Whatever it was, it was making its way upstairs, rapping its knuckles against the wooden banister. The thing was heavy, for every step it made seemed to reverberate throughout the house. Menacing, super-controlled explosions. Once it reached the top, the man could hear thick wood cracking and splitting, and huge broken shards hitting the floor below. Sounded like a tree trunk collapsing, and he half expected somebody to yell "timber!"

Upstairs now. Right below them. Don't. Make. A. Sound. He was shivering so badly he thought he might puke. Buddy started to whimper and struggled in his hands, and he gently shushed the poor fella.

From directly beneath them, something croaked, "I can smell you, fucker. You and that dog."

The man nearly shit himself inside-out, and he squeezed Buddy tighter than ever before. The little puppy started to pee in his lap. "It's okay, Buddy," he whimpered to himself. "It's all gonna be okay for you."

The locked attic door rattled violently as the creature tugged at it. A tiny cloud of dust billowed upwards into sparse streams of sunlight. Over and over again, relentless pounding against the little door. The creature screeched for a moment, and finally stopped.

It was quiet, finally. "Thank the Lord," the man whispered.

A clawed white hand burst through the dusty floorboards, not two feet from where the man was sitting; he leapt out of his skin, nearly dropping Buddy as he scrambled as far back against the wall as he could. Almost by instinct, he fumbled through his back pocket and retrieved his plastic rosary beads.

The hand flailed around like a rabid piranha, grasping empty air and tiny splinters, digging its blackened claws into the aging woodwork. Eventually, it worked its entire arm through the hole, pushing angrily until it shattered. Soon, two arms were waving around, followed by a snarling face and a slender, infected body. It was a stark-naked teenage girl, very tall and lanky and shockingly pale. Her hair was a crispy black mess, and about half of her body was stained with old blood. Her eyes glowed yellow and her fangs dripped with sticky blackness.

She slowly pulled herself from the new hole, shrouded in dust and growling gently. Her eyes wandered around the attic for a moment… and finally rested on the man, his fingers still sticky with raspberry preserves.

"Oh Jesus, oh… Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," the man said, clutching Buddy and the rosary close to his chest.

"You actually believe in all that shit? That's cute," said the woman, knocking over boxes and wooden crates as she approached the sniveling man and his Buddy. "For there is no higher power than me."

"…blessed art thou among women…"

The creature laughed a demon's laugh, clutching her breast. "And blessed is the fruit of my womb, chaos."

The man began to cry deeply, and bloody snot dripped from his face. "…Holy Mary, mother of God…"

"Gah, shut up! You make me sick," the thing hissed. She approached him at last, pressing her icy fingers against his face. "There is no help coming."

They stared at one another for a while, the man resisting the urge to vomit all over himself and Buddy. The creature's breath smelled of rotting… something. He couldn't quite tell, but it was putrid. He sobbed near-uncontrollably, coughing and sputtering, spraying the girl's paper-white face with a fine mist of his own blood. She licked it up.

"Not bad. Not great, but not bad. You could do much better, though…"

"Who… who are you?" The man said, sniffling. "What are you? You look like the others… but they don't talk. You're different…"

The girl stared at him as if he'd said something foul. She bared her teeth for a moment, then thought otherwise and slapped him across the cheek, sending him flying. Her bladed fingernails dug deep into his flesh, and blood splattered across the dusty attic floor. "I am something much, much worse than them," she said, towering over him. "I am the dark lord of chaos, dontcha know! I will slaughter anything that challenges me! I slither around in the darkest corners of your fucking nightmares, and comparing me to one of those brainless puppets will be the last mistake you'll ever make."

Buddy finally tore himself away from the man's grip, scampering off into a shadowy corner, wailing. "Buddy… Buddy, no! Come back… come back…"

"No more friends, eh? I know how that feels," the creature said as she dug her claws into his spine. "I know how that feels."

She sent the man to a place where his fears and insecurities became irrelevant. A place where darkness gnawed at his brain wrinkles; a place where suffering was the only therapy to madness; a place where affection and companionship were merely obscure, abstract pipedreams.

And Jamie Davis was next.