The blade is longer than my arm, but it could be worse. It’s thin, and appears to be steel rather than iron — which means I can actually lift it.

“This looks old,” I observe, eyeing the ruins carved into the handle.

“Chinese dao,” says Levi, joining me. “From the museum.”

I know he means the Seattle Asian Art Museum, because it’s less than a hundred yards from our current location, and that’s exactly where my knife came from. Unlike my plain little dagger, this looks like it was made for royalty.

There’s another bang from below, this time followed by feet on the stairs.

I’m scared. More so than usual, because my knife, I trust. I’ll be clumsy with his blade. But I’m gonna believe he knows what he’s doing because he’s still alive, and because keeping me alive seems to be his only profession.   

Also because I got nothing better and we’re out of time.

Despite my lack of practical experience, I do at least know something about form, because I took my pre-FOM job seriously. One thing my on-the-job research taught me is real historical combatants never performed the sort of sword ballet that passes for fighting in Hollywood. True to that spirit, I wait, sword held aloft, until the flesh-eater appears at the top of the stairs. Before he even has a chance to swing his rusty Mariners bat my direction, I cut him down in a single stroke.

The thing I don’t calculate for is the force it takes to pull the sword out of the leaking mass of yellow-gray flesh, but luckily Levi does, and my knife in his hand finds the soft parts of my kill’s companion.

Mine dies clean, but this one — well, it almost makes you forget there’s nothing human about them. It grips its distended belly in talon-like hands, coughing blood. I used to take the time to finish a sloppy kill, but I don’t any more, and neither does Levi, apparently, because the next moment we’re bounding down the stairs — or at least I’m bounding, while Levi limps along behind.   

“You won’t last,” I call back to him. “We have to find another place to hide.”

 He doesn’t get to answer, because near the bottom of the stairs three more are waiting.

Don’t be confused about what they are. They don’t shuffle along with unblinking stares, and they’re not reanimated. Less Walking Dead, more Reavers — minus the stagy tendency toward rape and mutilation. No scientists are left to say for sure what made them, but the madness and bloodlust started among the cannibals, and a graduate student of my father’s — who made it exactly six months after the shit hit the fan — speculated about a connection to Mad Cow, which was spread pre-FOM by feeding infected cow parts to other cows. (Seriously?)  

At least partly because the last thing I wanna do is think about Aaron right now, I raise Levi’s sword and charge down the stairs.

But I’ve let in Aaron’s ghost, and as I clash with the first of the flesh-eaters — a sort of anti-Levi with ratty red dreads and a beard decorated with bits from his last meals — I remember how he died trying to protect me, and how I said that was never going to happen again. How I was never going to let myself need protecting, or get close enough to someone that we might find ourselves in a situation that inspired them to give their life for mine.

Anti-Levi is strong, and he’s got a homemade spear. As our weapons cross, he forces me backward with an animal snarl. I don’t know what to do now, because if I withdraw the sword his spear comes down on me, but if I don’t, it’s not going to be long before he overpowers me. Me and my knife depend on quick jabs and lateral movements, and there’s no room for either in this damn stairwell.

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