It should have been raining. That thought kept repeating in my mind over and over. It should have been raining on the day of her funeral. The sky was clear and it was starting to grow hot, spring breaking towards summer. A lifetime ago we would have been heading to the beach for bonfires and roasting hotdogs, or maybe gathering for a movie or heading down to the pub for a cold one. A life time ago none of us would have been dead, and those who had died would be no threat to the living. A near lifetime ago I woke up in Terry Fox, my hangover gone to see a solemn looking Malkoris with a handwritten message. Hand-written when we have the CVC and many methods to contact me likely meant one thing: It was a message meant to be kept private.

I opened the envelope gently, afraid of what I would find. At first there was a wild thrill that leapt into my throat, a thrill that perhaps someone had found a clue towards the Cult’s leader. I had been home less than a day and already I was itching to leave again to track down this killer, despite having agreed to remain at my home base until someone contacted me with information. Inside was a single white piece of paper with the date, time, and place for where to meet. Rite Aid was calling me out to represent my house for a funeral being held that eve. Those invited were to meet in the central plaza of their territory to be taken to the funeral’s secret location. I read the words over repeatedly, my mind seeking information that was not contained on paper. Who had died and how had they released this mortal coil? The black writing on white paper frustrated me as there was not enough written to really read between the lines.  No grey to toy with in my mind, or was there?

The message was simple but the meeting place suggested that Rite Aid expected to have to smuggle us out of view. This shouldn’t be necessary with the zees. Sure there may be many about, but it was unbelievable to my eyes that so many undead hordes would be about that the Raiders couldn’t clear them out and away from a gathering. So if the threat was not zee oriented, who would they be taking precautions against? It could only be the living. But which among the living was the threat, and who were they threatening, Rite Aid or their invited guests? Were there even any guests beyond me? I sat cross-legged on the bed with my rumpled blanket about me staring at the card, puzzling this out in my mind. My stomach lurched at the idea that some safe house had gone to war against Rite Aid. I had heard the rumors of wars being threaten, and campaigns actively held, against Rite Aid in the past. With how fragile the world was and how delicate our lives balanced now, could we afford such a conflict now?

Malkoris sat down beside me and brought his hands out to gingerly take the card from my hands. My green eyes blinked and I raised my chin to look up to his face. His hands enveloped mine and gently he asked me, “Don’t you think you’re making more out of this than you should? We live in a violent world, fighting monsters every day. Maybe it’s just as simple as a fighter lost in a battle with the zees.”

I shook my head, “Rite Aid doesn’t lose to the dead. They walk among them and don’t cause a stir. It’s their strength and part of what makes them unique among us. Besides, even if it was such a death they wouldn’t be calling for a funeral like this unless-” My hands jerked from his and came to my mouth to cover it; unless it was one of my personal friends that had fallen? While I was not a Rite Aid raider the fondness I had for them was well-known among their members. I could see their faces, twisted and demented in their slowly decaying state. I could see the grins and the bright shining eyes. Who among them had been lost and the question still echoed, how?

It should have been raining. So often we had buried the dead, ensuring a final rest for our loved ones so that they wouldn’t rise back up to threaten the living. This one had been different, a death far more brutal than the torn-apart attacks of the dead. The zees approach the living like beasts, tearing into flesh and chewing on the remains; beasts limited to an appetite and a desire for simple needs. Only a man can kill as this death showed with its cruelty and its advanced planning.

I reached the arranged meeting place and stood there awkwardly, my eyes flickering to the others in attendance. None of Rite Aid had yet to make an appearance and briefly I felt a panic of worry. Had we been lured out here for an ambush? I could see Tenda Foot had similar concerns, having taken partial cover beneath a ruined wall, leaning against it in a casual manner as if seeking merely to escape the sun and rest in the shade. My own eyes weren’t fooled by his act as I could see in the battered armor of the mercenary that his hand never went far from the pistol at his hip. His eyes flickered a greeting to mine but didn’t stay long, scanning the roof tops and broken windows about us in the plaza, looking for snipers.

Drachen was also there, likely to represent ATCO. A constant diplomat, it didn’t surprise me to see him on the list. While few have questioned his loyalties to ATCO (and none should have to begin with), Drachen’s often appeared in other safe houses to lend support and encouragement. Single-handedly, he had worked to build the ties between ATCO and other safe house alliances, strengthening ATCO’s walls. He approached me and asked in a soft tone, as if the ground was as sacred as a church and he felt wrong to speak above reverent tones, “Do you know who was lost?” I silently shook my head and he crinkled his nose in response, going back to silence.

When the white-robed figure of Algiers Point arrived, none of us relaxed until he pushed back his hood and revealed his face. Shado Rei’s sad smile greeted all of us with obvious questions of his own. The intellect, the monk, could see that we held no answers for him. He pursed his lips and remained silent, standing among us waiting. In the bright sunlight, his white robe gleamed. I felt this need to push him towards Tenda Foot, as if Shado Rei was making himself a bigger target than any of us. Perhaps he was, as I reflect back on my words, as the man always stood out the most from us, keeping himself between me and the open windows about us. It’s as if he expected to take the first shot in his “open target” approach. The self-sacrifice would have angered me at the time, had I realized it, but mentally and emotionally, I was too shaken to really pay attention to his actions. Perhaps all three men sensed that I was more vulnerable than normal, as among us I was closest to Rite Aid.

The last of the outsiders approached from the south, a direction I had not expected to see. Alexis Asgard came in on a bike, the sound breaking the silence of the plaza with a rumble that echoed and bounced off the walls of the buildings. It magnified the sound and made it appear at first as if not one bike but a hundred barreled down upon us. Visibly, we all tensed up until we saw Alexis arrive alone. Alexis and I did share a few coffees in my time with The Colony, and when I packed up to leave she assisted. Her dark hair spider-webbed out behind her as she rode up, the helmet on her head coming off the moment she pulled to a stop. With her soft accent, I had grown used to her humor and her laughter in the short time I had come to know her. To see that the laughter had died in her eyes made me look away and stare at my feet. She was the story teller of The Colony, their record keeper of their history. While Pinkersnitch took the present, Alexis weaved a story of the past so that they would never forget their origins. Right now she was a dark reminder that something, someone, had passed from present to history and she was here to immortalize them within the pages of her records.

The sun fell behind the buildings and the gathering gloom made it harder to see possible threats. All about in the buildings, shadows grew and took on the form of faces and bodies. Tenda Foot was becoming increasingly jumpy, his eyes tracking shadow to shadow. I overheard Shado Rei giving soft reassurances to him that Rite Aid’s intentions were honorable, and was comforted to hear that Algiers Point had verified that the message had been sent by Rite Aid before allowing him to attend. It seemed that Algiers Point was taking extra care since the incident involving me. Drachen and I were quietly speaking when Alexis gave a low whistle to warn us all of the approaching people. They shuffled from the doorways and looked upon us with grim expressions. A gathering of friends, faces I knew from Rite Aid and knew well. The girls I went shopping with, the men who often came with supplies or advice for Terry Fox. All were dressed in what looked to be formal garb from another day and age. Much like Algiers Point they too wore robes, only theirs appeared to have been dipped in red dye – or perhaps blood – which streaked and stained the cloth. It lent to their hostile expressions, each face holding a grieving anger upon it. It was the women who approached from the crowd and gestured us forward. Upon their faces was a special sort of anger that, rather than threatening us, embraced us. This hate in their eyes was not for those they welcomed, but rather they invited us to join in their thirst for vengeance.

I came forward to see them, the women who had come to be sisters to me in many ways. I knew their names, so many among them and I looked at each, silently counting them off as I did so. Among Rite Aid were many rituals kept private to them. Once I had overheard a discussion I was not meant to be privileged to, a hint of a phrase “Book of the Dead”. On seeing the robes, there was a sense of outer-worldly, ethereal appearance, that reminder that Rite Aid had transferred over to be alien within our world. Yet for all their breaking from humankind, their humanity remained in their eyes, as did their all-too real human emotions. My time among them had given me intimate knowledge of many things, including the fact that different members belonged to specific factions. They were ranked and favored as such, broken apart into various tasks and warrior groups. The women who had adopted me within their ranks were referred to as the Banshees and they numbered an even twenty. Quickly, my eyes did a head count and stopped at nineteen.

We were led off among the fighters of Rite Aid. I took my place with the women while the others were placed in groupings that represented their status within the general community. All of us walked single file, a long trail that led through buildings, giving us secret knowledge of Rite Aid’s ways. They had dug tunnels and broken down walls between buildings, creating a network of passages that took cover from place to place. It explained their rumored ability to appear like ghosts, from an empty courtyard one moment to surrounding foes that invaded their territory. When we broke cover, it was to a field on which sat a high school at the far end. There was no speaking as we walked.

The grass trampled beneath our feet as we approached a half-collapsed gym for the school. One wall was missing, as was half the roof, and it formed a crescent shaped ruin of a room in which were gathered the rest of Rite Aid’s membership. Some sat on bleachers while others lined the walls or stood in small groups about. In the center, there was a table with stone for its surface and dark wood leggings. It looked expensive to my eyes, the sort of table I would covet in the past while looking in furniture stores before moving on to something cheaper and affordable. Upon its surface she laid, her long blonde hair having been washed and brushed to stretch out above her and spill over its side. As my eyes filled with unshed tears, looking upon the face of one I once knew, I saw past the ruins of her face to the youth that had been there. Briefly, it was if I gazed upon Ophelia, her eyes not clouded with her new state, but dark with inquiry, asking why this fate had fallen upon her, that she drowned in the tide of war and madness engulfing us. Then I blinked and was looking again at the young woman who became a warrior for Rite Aid, her flesh marked with the signs of her transition.

About us, the younger members of Rite Aid, those new to the fold, brought forward bundles of wood. I saw Trainwreck among them, leading the way as they stacked the wood, first beneath the table and then around it, building her funeral pyre higher and higher until the wood surrounded all but her body. Others started to move and take up a formation around the body. I was brought to stand between Tenda Foot and Drachen, all of the guests placed to one side. It was a reminder – perhaps harsh but direct – that while we were allowed to attend and even allowed to grieve with Rite Aid, we were not Rite Aid and this was very much a private affair among them.

The sound of the hurdy gurdy startled me from my own thoughts. An instrument, with sounds not unlike the bag pipe, was not common in North America. In other funerals, traditional North American rock might be played to note the passing of a member, but here the sound took us away from what was traditional to what we knew. It started with a low moan and picked up pitch. The Banshees stood together and from a single torch lit their own. As they approached, the sun set over the horizon and the air took on a spring chill, cooling my heated skin. Each of the Banshees lowered their torches to the wood and stood still while a voice broke out in song. The song turned mournful taking on a life of its own. It was a dirge, a passing tribute to the fallen, and specifically for a woman. How I knew this was written for this woman I could not say, only that I had a sense of such in listening.

stutesy’s voice broke the silence, a harsh guttural tone that etched in angst and hurt. The words spoken were extinct to the living, a dead language and a language of warriors from a time when the world clashed with sword and axe. I knew not then what was being spoken, only to learn at a later time that Rite Aid sang and spoke in rituals in Gaulish. How the near dead knew this language is a mystery to me, though Shado Rei once voiced the possibility of ancestral memory being unlocked in the changed states of their minds. I’m not sure I can believe it, but the wild wisdom of the words moved me when I heard stutesy sing. Though the language was a mystery the emotions were familiar.

It only took a few verses before a second voice joined, mixing in harmony with the first. heinrich stepped from the crowd and brought his strength to the song. I saw anger on his face, which seemed foreign to me as I was used to an easy-going smirk upon his torn face. Where stutesy’s tone was dark and deep, heinrich is more jagged and lay just beneath stutesy in a near-perfect blend. Just as the mind settled into the pattern the two men weaved, a third voice joined in as hoju’s broke to the surface and shattered the harmony with its harshness. As the third singer, hoju’s voice slowly bled into the tone until the first two fell silent and gave him a verse. When hoju stopped to take in a breath, heinrich moved forward another step and took over the song. He led all the men into song as they followed through in the dirge. Soon the voices came from all directions along with the song. The sound bounced off the walls of the gym and seemed to be amplified sending them out into the city. It was no longer just a dirge but a warning, an answer to the message they had received. And only the men among them sang for the passing of this woman.

Three days ago it rained, on the day they found her body placed for display to warn Rite Aid of what would occur if they defied the invitation. Approached by the Cult, they were given the choice to join and become disciples or suffer the consequences of their heresy. Rite Aid drove off the ambassadors to the death god, allowing them to keep their lives but very little else. The next day she went missing while on patrol, only to be found later. Her body was held tied at the feet, upside down from a lamp post, her head removed and left on the ground. The body showed signs of a beating, likely in the struggle for her life, but the image of having removed her head to let her bleed out like an animal was a very vivid message to Rite Aid. Join us, or be treated like the beasts you are.

And now she lay upon a slab of stone, fire engulfing her. Her head placed upon her body with a red silk scarf that hid the disconnect between the two. Her eyes were not closed as the living give habit to our dead. Instead, they stared open and at the sky, defying her state. As the men sang, the Banshees lay the wooden stakes of their torches into the funeral pyre. They stood back as a group and made not a sound among them. To the music, there was a hint of swaying, but not a single weeping note.

I struggled with my own sounds to keep them silent and felt Drachen’s hand squeeze my shoulder. While I knew that this death was not my fault directly, I had played a role in it by stirring up trouble. How long would it have taken before the cult approached Rite Aid, I could not say, but surely my actions had pushed their Prophet into stepping up his schedule? Would they have responded differently had I not been feeding Rite Aid the information about this threat as I had? The thought of having to face these men and women on top of the cult was distressing to me.

The song became filled with hate and with a threat of vengeance, grief melting from the expressions of those we looked at. Briefly, I saw the warriors of Rite Aid change to be truly inhuman, more than who we were and whom they had been to start. Avenging angels, they stared out into the night looking past the group of us as ambassadors, and in their dead language promises of death were given. Something had stirred up within them, and for the first time since I had come to know them, I was truly afraid of my friends. I felt Drachen’s hand be joined by Tenda Foot’s on the other shoulder. Flanking me on either side, they kept me steady when everything in my mind warned me to go running into the night to hide. Dread shook me, and I understood why Rite Aid kept their rituals private. This was not meant for minds untouched by death as intimately as theirs were. Their only redeeming feature was that they kept the angel of death within their hearts, locked by their human memories. I felt tears in my eyes, but again did not let them fall. These were my friends, inhuman or not, and they hurt so I hurt for them.

The song ended, and we all stood in silence watching the fire take her body from us. The sounds were limited to the hints of insects outside and the cracking of the wood about her body. When dawn broke, they approached one at a time, each Raider stopping before me. Their dead eyes looked into mine and they nodded their heads a single time. It was a contract, a pledge to give their arms to my cause and my war against a threat which had strictly been for the living before this night.

Rite Aid’s Dirge:

Comments
  1. I just have to say that that was a very moving piece, good job 🙂

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