The outbreak began in springtime rumours.
Then, the airways and cables of the world charted the outbreak and panic, as the disease overwhelmed every population. Bombs and walls of fire tried to contain it. Chemical purges charred cities indiscriminately. In all, Rise counted barely five months from the beginning of the outbreak until everything was stilled, from late spring to mid-autumn. A lone SOS in Morse code was the last they heard from the human race, before Rise and his coven packed away their broadcast equipment, their radio, computers, and TV, putting it all into the depths of the root cellar. He waited a further full month, October. Then, and only then, did Rise leave the house.
An earlier shower of hail had studded the courtyard’s cobblestones. Crimson leaves brightened the hedges that Rise had planted long ago to shade the kitchen windows. Once, Rise heard birdsong and the hum of the countryside the moment he stepped from the kitchen into the yard. But today, like so many days that came before, no sound. The rest of his coven were still on the roof, just finished with the dawn incantation. While the disease had overwhelmed all beyond Owl Court, every dawn, Rise and the two other vampires, Ogrim and Salter, spoke an incantation to conceal their little farmstead from the world. Even smoke from the nearest village of Dunsinann, or the hazy curtain on the horizon from Larnde City, never reached inside their walls. The coven always used the oldest names for such places; Ogrim joked that if they were to rename cities and towns as often as humans did, the coven would never get anything done.
Rise wanted to slip away into the world and hoped to return with good news, to return with someone still human. The coven needed a fresh pulse. If he could achieve this, Rise reasoned as he stood on the back doorstep, the residents of Owl Court would surely forgive him for leaving. Hiding indoors, they saw footage of how the human dead now rose and walked. Rise had trawled the internet, when they still had it, watching feeds from around the world of corpses alive, of terrifying creatures that knew only brute and base destruction.
“Where’re you going?” Ogrim spoke from the kitchen’s shade, so as not to let the weak sun touch his old body.
“To find survivors,” Rise answered, as plainly as possible. He tried to appear unruffled at being followed down through the house. Usually, Rise had more time to himself after leading the incantation. Ogrim must be faster on his walking cane, he thought. Rise attached the crowbar to his backpack and tucked the cuffs of his leather gloves beneath the sleeves of his overcoat.
“Old man, there are always survivors after the collapse of big things,” Rise said, preparing for the fight to come. Not against any zombie brutes, but against the arguments opposed to his leaving. “We need people. Cypriot will. One day, we’ll look for survivors and there won’t be any, only those base brutes we saw on TV. Then, what will we do for food?”
Ogrim shifted the weight on his cane and winced. The autumn weather always bothered his right knee. The centuries-old vampire glanced to the sky, as if it might finally fall around their ears. “The type of people who survive, they are not the type of people we want at Owl Court.”
“Blood is blood, Ogrim. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, as long as its owner still draws breath to flush it red.” Rise kept his voice light and shouldered his backpack. Chocolate bars and cans of fizz rattled between his shoulders. Rise was not much for human company, save for one, but people as a whole seemed to him like any other injured animal: easily lured along by food and sweet vice.
Ogrim frowned. It seemed he might lift his clenched fist and finally, after so long, actually strike Rise. But he only smote the jam of the kitchen door and rattled its hinges. Behind Ogrim, the kettle on the hob whistled. “There are others, you know,” Ogrim said over the sound of the kettle. “Also human. Who watch this place across the ages. Who would like nothing more than to crack open our chests and let the sunlight at our hearts.”
“I put on the kettle for you,” Rise said, hoping the promise of tea would be enough to soften him. A palate cleanser with a drop of milk from their cow. A warm, civilized drink which they, as a coven, had grown accustomed to. Chocolate and soda for one lot, a cup of tea for ours, and we are all equally and easily placated, Rise told himself as he waited for Ogrim to let him leave.
“Bring back strays, then, inside these walls, when there has only been one human amongst us,” Ogrim growled and waved his cane about. “But it’s more likely I’ll see your head on a pole outside of Dunsinann first. What’ll we do if you don’t return? You, Rise, are most knowledgeable about roots and boundaries. You lead our incantation every dawn. That’s what protects these walls.”
“I don’t think people put heads on poles anymore,” Rise said, as kindly as he could. But the day marched on and he chafed to leave. “I’ll bring back survivors. If they come. If they listen. We need to secure our food for the long term, Ogrim. For Cypriot’s sake, if nothing else. The people out there will listen to me. If they’ve lived this long, they’ll see sense in what I propose.”
“And what’ll I tell our people here?” Ogrim still wore pajamas beneath his oversized wax coat, draped like a cloak around his shoulders. Ogrim always rolled out of bed and threw on the nearest thing to hand before he made his way to the roof. But now, as he stood in the kitchen, it seemed to Rise that Ogrim’s clothes just made him look old and in decline.
“Will I tell them what you’re doing?” Ogrim added and lifted his bushy eyebrows, rage trembling in his voice.
Rise paused. He cursed Ogrim for asking the one question he didn’t want to face. He took his time. Cast about for the best answer. “Tell Salter whatever you want. But, please, don’t tell Cypriot that I’m leaving.” The wide step outside the back door had long been scrubbed and bleached bare. A bleak fitting for their threshold. Rise’s hiking boots looked comically modern upon the old concrete.
Ogrim turned away from Rise and took the whistling kettle off the range. He paused when he noticed that Rise had also left out a teabag and spoon in his favourite mug, a deck of well-worn tarot cards alongside. Ogrim twitched his whiskery chin, as if to hide a smile, and made his tea. “Don’t tell Cypriot? Well, I suppose, if you return soon enough, Rise,” Ogrim offered in kindness at last. “Then Cypriot will never know that you left at all.”
Rise hesitated at Ogrim’s softening. He then spoke lightly, hoping he could pull Ogrim more over to his point of view. Rise’s smile didn’t fade. “You may never see me again. You want these to be our last words, Ogrim? Why not wish me luck? It’s for the good of us all.”
Ogrim grunted as he dunked the teabag in hot water with his bare fingertips. He sucked his gums and took his time. He let Rise continue standing there expectantly on the doorstep until, crossing the kitchen with surprising speed, he kicked the back door shut in his face. “Beware the rotting herds.”
Long accustomed to Ogrim’s dramatics, Rise only rolled his eyes. He lifted his scarf. Dead cattle in the surrounding fields—he could smell them now, a sick-sweet scent like clammy marbles held too long in your hand. Rise’s stomach squeezed with nausea. This smell would haunt their home for several weeks more, if not months. Cypriot, the coven’s lone human— he’d surely complain about the smell for just as long. The weak sun tingled across Rise’s skin, as if he had been slapped by a bunch of nettles. He covered his face, swallowed down his nausea, as he rattled one of their mountain bikes from the shed. He let himself out at the little side gate. No need to bother opening the double-doored gate alongside.
“Best to find survivors before they’re turned into those wandering brutes,” Rise muttered as he set off down the steep lane on Holly Hill, at the top of which Owl Court was perched. His bike wobbled with every turn of the pedal. The countryside had never been truly silent before. But now stillness across the land. Hedgerows once filled with chattering birds were silent. Even when Rise concentrated, he couldn’t hear a badger in its den, not earthworms in the soil. Flies—oh yes, Rise could hear them. But it was one thing for cattle to die in their pastures after over a year with no one left to tend to them. It was quite another for bees to still and stoats and weasels to silence on the riverbanks. Leaving only masses of flies to feed on the carrion.
Rise walked his bike around a fallen tree. Its thick trunk had toppled through a low stone wall and blocked most of the road. The ripped-up roots created quite the hole and upturned rich, dark soil. Flowers grew by the trunk, the dull plum petals blending into clumps of unmelted hailstones. “Helleborus, winter’s rose,” he named the flower. “A cure for madness that summons demons,” Rise recounted from one of Cypriot’s gardening books. He placed several flowers in a pouch beneath his coat and checked the small hand pistol stored alongside, kept well hidden from Ogrim. Rise pressed on.
As he passed through the quieted world, prickly horse chestnuts hung from branches. Some, their green outer shells cracked open, lay dark and glossy on the ground. Rise longed for spring, even if a bleak winter lay ahead first. Even his kind were of the earth and must obey its cycles. He dismounted and pushed his bike as the clutter on the road—leaves, fallen branches, abandoned things—grew denser. A countryside taking back its realm. Soon, he could walk the bike no further. Rise plunged it into a nearby ditch and made sure it was completely covered before he continued.
Trees parted in the distance where the lane from Owl Court met the main road to Dunsinann. As he approached the village, rooftops appeared like jagged black teeth out of the gloom. Bare rafters and cold chimney pots poked against the clouds. Ash from the burnt-out village still crept about in the air. Rise could smell it all, even through his scarf.
In Dunsinann stood the River Blythe, with a bridge to cross, then the village.
Low sludge lay beneath the once-pleasing arch of the bridge, between banks of exposed mud. Rise weighed his crowbar in his hands as he approached. All manner of tangled, disordered things lay between him and the bridge, as if someone had shaken Dunsinann and scattered its contents back onto its streets. What looked like jumbled grey wreckage was actually the charred remains of people amid timbers and burned-out cars. Senses pricked, the only sound he heard was his footsteps.
Rise knelt to inspect the nearest corpse. It was hard to tell whether this person had turned into one of the brutish dead before dying, but agony all the same twisted those burnt sinews and limbs. Rise tried to recall the last time he’d watched the news and what the living dead had looked like, exactly. But that felt like a lifetime ago. However this person had died, Rise noted that we all must smile like skulls in the end. He gently touched the corpse’s cheek with the curve of his crowbar, until the whole side of its face flaked away to nothing.
“Are you real?”
Rise spun around.
A lone girl stood on the other side of the bridge, so soot-covered that the whites of her eyes stood out from the rest of Dunsinann. He judged her to be no more than a teenager and, as Rise stared, she hiccupped from crying. Her dirty thumbs twisted the hem of a too-big t-shirt, worn over men’s work trousers.
“Yes, I’m real,” Rise called back and stood slowly, his arms open wide. He loosened the grip on his crowbar to show her that he meant no harm. They watched each other. “Here, I have food.” Rise did not look away from her as he fumbled with his backpack. He held out the first thing he found. “I have chocolate. Are you hungry?”
She sprinted across the bridge, barefoot, undeterred by all of the bones and gore and wasteland that she trampled. She flung herself across the final few feet, and Rise caught her. She tugged at him, wailing, until he realized that she wanted the rest of the food in his backpack.
“Wait, wait.” Rise tried to shush her and glanced around. “Are you alone? Are there others?” He handed over several chocolate bars before he could lure her back from the bridge, into the shade of charred trees lining the road.
She ate everything Rise gave her and downed a can of fizz. She drank so quickly that most of it spilled down her sooty chin. The soda cleaned lines of white across her filthy skin. The thought flashed through his mind: A new pulse to drink from that is not Cypriot. Rise glanced away to compose himself.
“Oh, my god,” she finally whimpered and breathlessly stopped eating. She leaned against the nearest tree, eyes closed, quiet except for an occasional cough that rattled her lungs.
“I am Rise.” He offered her some water. “What’s your name?”
She shook her head at the water, but did take another can of cola. After a few more gulps, she ran her tongue around her mouth. She watched him with open suspicion now, after reacting so impulsively at first. “Elaine.”
“Elaine, is it?” Rise knew he must look crazy, wearing massive ski goggles with his face all covered. The sun was not yet too high, not yet too strong. The day was dampened by fog anyhow, along with the dull haze of soot and smoke that haunted Dunsinann. Hailstones still clung to the ground and streets and rooftops, adding to the monochrome. And, he reasoned, they were under what was left of the trees. Rise took a chance and slowly lifted his goggles onto his forehead.
“Are you alone?” He drew away his scarf a little, so that she could see his whole face. “I’m as human as you are. Are there—”
“How ... are you here? How did you survive?”
Rise smiled that she was strong enough to interrupt. As he answered, he removed some cleansing wipes from his backpack, took her nearest hand and cleaned it, turning her wrist so the underside faced up. A sinuous blue vein revealed itself to the world as he wiped.
“Elaine, I have a house a few miles away, Owl Court, on top of Holly Hill,” he told her, speaking softly down at her wrist vein. “There are others there. We’re all safe.” His efforts revealed more of her pale skin. It was scarred and cut and bruised in places, but considering what she must’ve gone through out here .... Rise only grew hungrier. He saw what might one day heal into suppleness. But he did not dwell too long on the aesthetics of veins. At the barest flicker of panic or unwillingness to come back with him, Rise would kill her. He held faith that there would be other survivors, not just this girl. There are always others after the fall of great things.
“Everyone in Dunsinann knows everyone else,” Elaine said in a low, hoarse tone as she watched him clean her hands. Her accent was thick, local. “I’ve never seen you before. I’ve lived here my whole life. There’s no house on that hill, only a ring of holly trees. Everybody knew to stay away from them.”
Rise smiled, thought of the grey-green trunks that played their part in shielding his home. The sunlight was not too harsh on his face, but any more exposure would soon raise the Blaschko lines normally dormant on human skin, but activated by the sun upon a vampire’s. “That’s not true,” Rise countered lightly. “My home is well hidden, is all. You never wondered why there's no house with the number one in Dunsinann? That the house numbers only start at two once you get over that bridge? Well, I suppose I’ve always kept to myself. But I have room for others at my home.” Rise ignored her suspicion and kept everything about himself upbeat and easy. “That’s why I’m out searching. For people. Come back to my home. It’s up the lane on that big hill, behind the holly trees, like you said.”
“You have such blue eyes,” Elaine murmured as she studied his face. She idly crushed the chocolate in her fist, as if to relearn the feel of food.
Rise smiled. “Many have told me that, Elaine.”
“And a young face,” she went on. “There are ... stripes on your skin. They weren’t there before.”
“We must get going.” He stood and covered up again. Rise exhaled with relief when his goggles and scarf shielded his skin again. “Follow me.”
“My mother!” Elaine leaped to her feet and stared over the bridge, her eyes huge and hungry. A half-melted chocolate bar still in her fist.
Rise stood with Elaine and carefully took hold of her bony elbow as he regained his grip on the crowbar. “Your mother? She is alive, Elaine? Where is she?”
“I told her to stay inside. But she never listens. She just does what she wants, always has. I think her brain is dead already.”
At those words, he shivered. Rise followed Elaine’s gaze across the bridge. An old woman stood there, a slight, wan figure, all grey and dusted in soot. A long nightdress worn beneath a padded overcoat, an embroidered hem tucked into men’s gumboots.
“Mammy?” Elaine whispered and held out her chocolate as she carefully crossed the bridge. Her mother watched Rise, not her daughter, as Elaine picked a path across the rubble and carcasses, this time with care. “Mammy? Don’t run. Come to me, okay?”
Rise hung back. Two people to return with. That would be all right, not too many. Especially if one of them was old and frail. Eventual company for Ogrim or, if these women didn’t fall into line, someone who could be easily gotten rid of within his walls. Owl Court was such a big house, after all, mostly banisters and staircases. Even his coven had to be careful of their step. He let Elaine reach her mother and watched as they chatted softly. But after a few moments, Mammy tugged at Elaine and whispered hoarse things into her ear.
Rise stepped onto the bridge again.
This startled Elaine’s mother, and she stiffened. “She says not to trust anyone, let alone a man,” Elaine called back.
He uncovered his face again and kept that light tone in his voice. “Look, I have a safe place that you both—”
Mammy screamed. A fox’s wail—a sound that birthed the myth of banshees—would have sounded kinder in the burned-out village.
Rise ducked, clutched his ears, and shouted back until her scream stopped.
“What was that for?” He raced across the bridge, ready to lift his crowbar and dash in their heads. Maybe this ‘Mammy’ was indeed braindead.
The mother spoke. “They are beneath the bridge.”
Rise knew words of command. Rise knew words that woke.
Slippery masses and stenches, foul and grappling things, poured into the river from beneath the arches of the bridge, like a dollop of bees dropping from the belly of a hive. The dead brutes squirmed in the river mud. Their flesh, pale and bloated, dropped in lumps from their limbs as they moved. The horde swarmed rapidly, terrifying, across the brickwork, like bees surrounding and boiling an enemy hornet, until the bridge began to crumble. Rise grabbed Elaine and her mother and hauled them back toward the line of trees just before the bridge collapsed with a tremendous crash, crushing any brute still pressed against its arches.
Destroyers of supports. The thought flashed in Rise’s mind as the trio ran. He didn’t know if the brutes possessed the intelligence to do such a thing, whether this was a conscious decision by them or some kind of herd behaviour. He didn’t bother with his bike, just ran full tilt towards home, pushing the two women before him. The surviving brutes weren’t quick to rise out of the squelching river, but they did follow. The trio made their way through deepening woods until they came against a stone wall, which they helped haul one another over. Elaine’s mother was surprisingly nimble. They tumbled into a wide field where rotting cows were heaped in a far corner, under a clump of bare trees.
“Rest a second,” Rise whispered as Elaine and her mother collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath and gagging at the stench as they huddled against the back side of the wall. For the moment, they were hidden from the brutes.
“Those monsters held that bridge for days, then wandered away. I didn’t realize they were still underneath it,” Elaine stammered.
Rise shushed her. He could hear brutes coming toward them, snapping through the first, thin trees, then pushing deeper into thick forest. Rise peeped over the wall, where he could see wandering shadows approaching. He couldn’t quite tell if the brutes were merely following in their direction or could actually smell them out. From where they were crouching, Rise looked across the field to judge how far they were from Owl Court. In the distance, resembling a faroff river flowing through picturesque fields along gentle curves of land, Rise saw a great herd of brutes—thousands of them, moving in silence. They produced, even to his acute hearing, only a faint, low hum. He swallowed hard, in terror that so many zombie brutes could move so sinuously through the countryside and make only the most barely discernible noise.
Then Rise saw the two hooded figures: two Warwolves, a human order of vampire hunters old as all the races of the world. They sat astride horses on a far-off ridge, swathed in heavy robes, watching the hordes too. Each carried the weapon they used across the centuries—a scythe, held with the blade curling over each one’s uncovered head, as if for protection. Squirming brutes Rise could handle. But to have Warwolves this close to his home was a whole other matter.
“I don’t think they see us,” Rise muttered, gesturing to the women that they needed to stand.
“The brutes don’t see us, you mean?” Elaine asked, confused. “Those riders? Who are they?”
The brutes following them, though, were coming too close for comfort. Without answering Elaine’s questions, Rise turned and fired his pistol into the approaching brutes. The screech of their rotting leader stilled them. They stared as he writhed frantically until he was half dug into the cold earth. Rise did not let Elaine or her mother watch. The moment he distracted the brutes, he urged them to run. A steep and familiar hill rose from a tiny laneway. His spirits soared at seeing the way home before him. Rise urged Elaine and her mother on, through the ring of holly trees, to the walls of his compound, to the double gates. A slap of his hand on the doorframe momentarily broke the protection long enough for them to slip inside, to safety.
A great splat was heard behind them as dozens of pursuing brutes slapped full force against the just-shut gates.