(Go back to Part 9)
There was no time to argue. Alex raced up the steps and to the door. She put her shoulder into it and it gave way beneath her. Alex nearly collided with one of the sisters.
“Ahh!! ” Greta screamed before recovering. In her hands was a long bat.
“Are the kids upstairs?” asked Alex. It was the first thing to come to mind.
“Yes—yes,” Greta said.
“Go up, stay with them. I don’t know how many there are. If they try to come up the stairs, break their skulls,” she told Greta.
The woman nodded. Alex pushed past her into the next room.
She knew instantly that one man was dead on the floor. A gray shape bent over his intestines, face splattered with gore. Another man was backed into the corner, holding three of them at bay with a broken chair.
“Help! Help!” he yelled.
Alex didn’t remember moving, but the one who was feeding looked up just in time to have its skull ripped open by Alex’s blade. She yelled as she struck, a wordless yell from the depths of her chest. This got the monsters’ attention; a moment later, three pairs of blank white eyes were staring at her.
The man in the corner took advantage of this distraction to club one of the monsters with the chair. Its neck snapped with the sound of shattering vertebrae as its head whipped around to an impossible angle. The creature collapsed, shivering, like a puppet cut from its strings. Alex shattered another skull; she stabbed the third monster through the eye socket. Her blade erupted from the back of the creature’s skull, pinning the twitching gray shape to the wall behind it. Alex wrenched her sword free and the creature crumpled to the floor. Everything was happening faster than she could think, like her brain was three or four steps behind her body.
The man pointed to the door.
It hung at a crazy angle from a single hinge. Alex shoved it open, but the only thing to be seen was one last dead attacker, a woodcutter’s axe buried in its frontal lobe. She scanned the darkness once and went back inside.
The man inside was one of the husbands; she recognized him now. He stood, looking at the corpses on the floor and holding a splintered chair leg. His chest was heaving.
“Is that all of them?” The man’s voice was dull and flat. Alex remembered his name—Jelling.
“I think so—I don’t—”
McCann came in, sword dripping brownish gore. He paused at the sight. “No more in the courtyard. Are there any left on this side?”
Alex shook her head. “No.”
“Good.” He pointed at the dead man’s body. “Who’s this?”
“Rickers,” answered Jelling. “One of the hands.”
“His skull’s intact. He’ll return unless—”
“I know.” Jelling nodded. “I’ll take him outside first, though.”
“But if he comes back while you’re carrying him?”
Jelling shook his head. He pulled aside the ragged cloth on his shoulder, torn in two places, to show McCann something. The sergeant’s eyes hardened. “Aye.”
“I’ll only be a moment. And then, Sergeant . . .”
McCann nodded. “Say what you need to. I’ll be behind the barn, so that they don’t have to see.”
Jelling picked up what was left of Rickers’s body under the armpits and dragged him outside, trailing intestines across the wooden floor. McCann turned to Alex.
“Acolyte, I need you to check the rest. Once the skulls are broken, clean your sword and gather them in the courtyard. We’ll check them for identification and then burn them.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” she replied.
Alex pulled the last body into the center, laying it next to the others. There were more than a dozen corpses in all. As she dropped the legs, McCann approached her.
“Come with me. I need you to see something.”
The others were gathered on the porch, looking at the pile. “Stay away,” warned McCann, “the Plague can still infect you if you touch them. We’ll be back soon.”
He led Alex around the barn. Jelling’s body was there, kneeling over a tree stump. His severed head lay in the grass nearby. The ground was soaked with blood.
Alex had seen the man alive less than an hour ago, but she didn’t feel anything. It bothered her. She expected to feel grief, maybe, or at least revulsion, but there was nothing but a soaring emptiness. It was like being in Joseph’s hut again—she supposed the feelings would come later.
“He was bitten?” she asked McCann.
Alex shivered. “But the brain?” she asked.
“You’ll see.” McCann leaned against the barn, cleaning his sword. “How did it start?”
Alex shook her head to clear her memory. “I . . . I got up to use the outhouse. The first attacked me while I was inside. I smashed it with the door and stabbed through the eye with my knife.”
“There was no room to draw.”
McCann nodded. Alex told him the rest—it didn’t take long. McCann didn’t say anything; he was staring at Jelling’s head. Alex trailed off eventually, and followed his gaze.
After a few minutes there was a twitch. The exposed vertebrae at the base of the skull shivered once. Then the jaw clamped shut. It opened and shut again and again, clicking its teeth together. Alex watched in horror as the head slowly spun itself in the dirt until it was facing them. Jelling’s face twitched uncontrollably.
“The body must be living when bitten if the infection is going to spread,” began McCann. “The flow of blood takes it to the brain. The body fights, and loses—it usually takes about a day.”
“But if the body is killed after the infection reaches the brain, it will show much sooner. That’s what happened to Jelling. That’s what I wanted to show you.” He stabbed down through the skull with his blade; its face twisted into one horrible grimace before falling still. “The facial expressions stop after a few days. The ones making faces are the most dangerous; they’re the freshest. Keep that in mind.”
He wrapped the head in a bit of canvas before nodding to the body. “Grab him, will you? He needs to burn with the rest.”