Icy droplets pelted metal, stone, and flesh, dulling all sound but their own staccato beat. They created their own sort of silence on the outskirts of the city, a silence born of repetitive sound.
That, the cold rain and the quiet, was what Karkat Vantas woke to. For a long moment, he pondered whether the roof of his room was leaking again, until he opened his eyes. He was no where near his room—he laid face-up in an alley. The sky past the worn, dirty brick on either side of him was black. It was night.
It took a few moments for Karkat to recognize the area. He was on the edges of the city, the area called Dead Man's District that was abandoned when the zombies first attacked en masse nearly twenty years ago. That was three years before Karkat was born.
Karkat couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. After he started walking home from school, everything was a blur. He had only been to the city's edge once before, after a dare from Sollux, but he didn't stay long even then. Everyone knew that zombies still lurked there.
The thought made Karkat sit up abruptly, an action he quickly regretted. His head and neck throbbed, and his vision swam. He groaned in pain—or tried. The sound that left his mouth was nothing more than a quiet, breathy hiss, like something wasn't catching right in his throat. He instinctively clapped a hand to his throat, but instead of smooth skin, his fingers met cut flesh, exposed muscle, and dried or drying blood, all wet by rainwater. He slowly removed his hand, his brain not willing to comprehend what had happened to his neck, but the bright blood on his hand was proof enough.
Karkat noticed his surroundings for the first time. He was surrounded by a patch of what had been mostly dry blood until the rain started. Now it turned the pooling water pink. More was splattered around the narrow alley.
It was the most blood Karkat had ever seen in his life, except maybe when his father smashed the head of the zombie that had killed Karkat's mother. The amount made his head spin. No one could lose that much blood and live, but he didn't see the body.
No one could get their throat slashed to the point where it severed their voice box and live, either.
Slowly, Karkat lifted his hand to his neck again, hoping that it had all been a horrible hallucination. He only had to feel around the wound to know that wasn't the case.
Something vibrated in his pocket, and Karkat would have screamed if he'd been able to. Instead, he settled for mentally shouting obscenities as he pulled out his phone. He'd gotten a text from Terezi.
WH3R3 4R3 YOU? YOU'R3 NOT HOM3. D1D YOU F1GHT W1TH H1M?
Karkat blinked at the text. He didn't remember fighting with his dad, only getting home. He had no idea how he'd gotten here.
And he should be dead.
The thought was, again, pushed away when the sound of footsteps cut through the rain. Karkat scrambled to his feet shakily, a surge of hope giving him strength. Footsteps meant a person, and a person could help him find his way home. Or to a hospital. He definitely needed medical attention. He ignored the part of his mind that reminded him that he should be beyond any medical help.
Karkat tried to walk forward to meet whoever was coming down the street, but he stumbled, and pain shot through his right leg. A glance explained why. There was a slash in his pantleg, and underneath that was a deep cut. It didn't hurt as much as he knew it should. Maybe shock was numbing the pain.
The footsteps he heard drew closer, and before he could take a step, the person rounded the corner of the alley.
From what Karkat could see, she was a young woman about his age. Her clothes were very well kept, aside from the blood stain on her red skirt. She held a chainsaw in both hands, and that made him take a quick step back.
The sound he made caught her attention. Her gaze snapped to him, and for a moment, both of them stood still. How was he supposed to communicate with her when he couldn't speak?
Before an answer occurred to him, she moved. It was almost too quick to see, but he heard the roar of the chainsaw as it came to life in her hands. He tried to scream in panic, but ignored the pain when all he made was a breathy squeak. He stumbled back a step instead and tripped when his injured leg gave out. The chainsaw didn't pause its arc and whirred past him, biting into the concrete between his legs. Karkat scooted back farther as the woman lifted the chainsaw, looking confused. She waited, as though expecting him to do something. That was when Karkat noticed his cell phone in his hand.
As quickly as he could, Karkat flipped it open and began typing out a new text. Once he finished, he brandished the screen at her.
'WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT FOR?'
She blinked and took a step back.
"You… can think? I mean, you are capable of piecing together a coherent sentence?" In response, he nodded vigorously.
"But that can't be right, can it? You're a zombie," she went on. The last word was like a stab to the chest, a confirmation of what he'd thought in the back of his mind but had been too afraid to admit. No one could survive his wounds.
Slowly, Karkat lowered his phone and typed another message.
'I DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. I JUST WOKE UP LIKE THIS.'
The woman stared at the text for a long time, like she was thinking about something. She sighed.
"I suppose we don't have much choice," she said. "You'll have to come with me." She must have seen his confused expression. She went on. "I'm a zombie hunter. I won't kill you, but I don't entirely trust your motives. I want to find out more about you, and things would go more smoothly in a more comfortable setting." Karkat couldn't fault her for that. If he was in her situation, he wasn't sure that he'd trust himself, either. He nodded and stood. She turned.
"Stay close, please," she said. "We wouldn't want another hunter taking you out from afar." That comment was enough to get Karkat hurrying behind her.
As it turned out, their destination wasn't far. It was an old abandoned apartment building, but he stayed quiet as she led him inside. The woman's apartment was on the second floor, and the room they entered looked like a sitting room. She gestured to the futon that was there.
"Please, lie down. I'll be back in a moment." She left then, and Karkat did what she said.
Strangely, Karkat realized as he laid there that he wasn't cold, in spite of being soaked through by the rain. He wasn't in that much pain, either. Maybe it was a zombie thing? He didn't know. What else would change?
He didn't have time to think much more on the subject when Kanaya returned, holding a needle and sturdy thread.
"I'm going to stitch up your neck," she said. "That should be more comfortable, and if you wear a scarf, you'd be able to pass as a regular person." She pulled over a chair and sat down to get to work.
As she stitched, she asked him questions, which he answered as best he could on his phone. It took some time, though, mostly because she kept asking for more information that he couldn't give. Finally, after she had stitched both his neck and leg, he got fed up and threw the phone at her. She caught it easily.
"Alright," she said, "I understand you're getting frustrated." He flipped her off in response, since he couldn't speak. She frowned.
"Enough. That's uncalled for." He replied by using both hands. She shoved the phone back at him. "I think I like it better when you don't resort to using sign language." Once he had it back, he started typing again.
'SO WHO ARE YOU?'
"My name is Kanaya Maryam," she said. "You never told me yours, either."
'KARKAT VANTAS,' he typed quickly. 'WHY PICK ME UP AND PATCH ME UP LIKE THIS? WHAT'S YOUR PLAN?'
"You're dangerous, for one. I won't kill you, but should you go feral, I'm best equipped to deal with you." Karkat was curious about that, but he nodded.
"You're also strange," she said. "I want to find out how this happened." Karkat typed a quick reply.
'HOW? I DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING ELSE.' She smiled secretly.
"I have a friend who may know," she said, then stood. "And if we want to see her before dawn, we need to get ready. I'll find you some better clothes." She left, and Karkat vaguely wondered why they needed to see her before dawn.
Looking at his attire, though, Karkat acknowledged that he did need something different to wear. Kanaya came back in a moment later with clothes in one arm. She set them down next to him.
"Change quickly," she said. "We're going to be leaving the Dead Man's District. I need to change as well." And with that, she left again, practically gliding out of the room. Karkat raised an eyebrow before turning his attention to the clothes she'd left him.
The shirt was bright red and big on him, as were the black jeans with it, but it was passable. Then, last, was a lacy black scarf. Karkat looked at it in distaste. When Kanaya returned, he had the scarf on, but he wasn't happy about it.
Kanaya herself had changed into a very different outfit. Whereas the other had looked elegant but casual, this was just elegant. It was a sleeveless black dress, form fitting until it reached her waist, where the skirt billowed out just a little. She wore a white half jacket over it to cover her shoulders. In one hand was a matching green umbrella. She handed a red one to him.
"No point in getting wet," she said, then noticed his bemused expression. She pursed her lips. "It's a very close friend." Karkat just shrugged.
The two walked through the rain in an amiable silence, which Karkat didn't mind. His fingers were getting a little tired from doing so much typing.
The walk was not quite as long as Karkat had feared, from the way Kanaya talked, but it did make him realize how far they were into the Dead Man's District. He wondered how she could live there. He had never heard of even a zombie hunter doing that. It was just too dangerous. It was another thing that made him wonder who, exactly, Kanaya Maryam was.
The place they were looking for was only a few blocks within the city proper, and by the time they reached it, the rain had stopped. It was small shop with a sign that read FORTUNE TELLER. Kanaya knocked briskly on the door. It opened a moment later, to Karkat's surprise.
The young woman that opened the door was only a little older than Karkat. She certainly looked like a fortune teller, covered as she was in jewelry. She didn't quite have that misty-eyed look, though. Her black painted lips curled into a smile when she saw Kanaya.
"Hello, Miss Maryam," the woman said. "I'm a little surprised to see you. You're usually hunting now."
"Yes, but I found something interesting," Kanaya said. The woman's eyes flicked to Karkat.
"He certainly is," she said before stepping aside. "Please, both of you, come in." Karkat scowled, but he followed Kanaya inside.
The interior of the shop was much like Karkat had envisioned it being—dark, with a table and crystal ball at its center. The woman sat at a chair, and Kanaya and Karkat joined her. The woman's disconcerting gaze never left Karkat for a moment.
"You've had quite a bad day, haven't you?" She said suddenly. "You died and woke up again."
"He can't speak," Kanaya said. "His throat was slashed open." It was just as well she said so, because Karkat was sitting in shock. Kanaya turned to him.
"Karkat, Rose is a necromancer," she said. Karkat nodded numbly. He'd heard of necromancers, but they were still fairly uncommon.
Magic was an accepted part of life, mostly because of the zombies, but it was barely understood and feared for the same reason. Karkat had learned to just accept it.
"Among other things," Rose added. "I know a great deal about magic, and I can see it as well." She smiled. "I have to say, you are the most curious thing I've seen walk into this shop. A zombie with his soul still bound to his body."
"I thought that might be the case," Kanaya said. "But how?"
"I'll get to that," Rose said. "I think you're leaving Karkat behind a little." She turned to him. "Zombies are a result of unbridled magic. It animates dead bodies, giving them a sort of unthinking life. That's only because what drives them is pure magic. They don't have a soul. You do.
"Binding a soul to a dead body is difficult. It takes a lot of magic. Judging from the way you were bound, I don't think anyone did it to you, but you did it to yourself." Karkat opened his mouth to argue but realized he couldn't. Angrily, he started to pull out his phone, but Rose held up a hand.
"Hear me out," she said. "You have, had, a talent for magic. Not a strong enough one to manifest itself violently, though, which is likely why you never noticed. Many don't. But fear strengthens magic, and violent death releases the remnants of the being's life force as magic. It looks as though you instinctively used the strengthened magic from your own death to bind your soul back to your body." She sighed. "It's a sloppy, forced job. It will only last a few days before it comes undone and you die properly." Karkat had been trying to process everything she was saying, but when she said that, his mind just stopped.
For a moment, panic started to grip him, but it melted away. A few days were better than nothing. At least he'd get to say goodbye.
"You can't fix it?" Kanaya said, her voice sounding stricken. That surprised Karkat. Since when had she cared so much?
"In theory, yes," Rose said, but she didn't look very sure. "The magic to do it is there already, tied into the original working, but I'll have to undo it all, and I might lose his soul in the process."
"It's worth a try—" Kanaya began, but Karkat put a hand to her shoulder and shook his head. He typed a message on his phone and showed it to them both.
'NO. IF I'M GOING TO LIVE ON AS A ZOMBIE, I'D RATHER JUST DIE.'
Rose didn't say anything, but Kanaya's expression quickly turned to anger.
"You're going to give up?" She said. "Just like that? You have a chance to survive! Take it!" Her voice held more emotion than he'd heard since he met her, but it only made him angrier. What right did she have to tell him what to do? He typed furiously.
BETTER TO DIE THAN LIVE AS A MONSTER.
Kanaya flinched like she'd been slapped. Slowly, she stood.
"Fine. Do as you'd like." She turned and walked out the door, closing it with a slam. Karkat turned to Rose in shock. She shook her head.
"She didn't tell you, did she?" Rose asked. "Kanaya's not quite human either. She's a vampire." Suddenly, everything made sense. Where she lived, wanting to be back by dawn. It was just that he'd never believed in vampires, though anything seemed possible now.
"She's a little touchy about it," Rose went on sadly. "I don't think she's completely come to terms with it, having to drink blood and kill humans to live. That's why she kills zombies, to make up for it a little." Karkat nodded numbly. At some point, she'd been in his same position, and his choice really had been like a slap in the face to her. And maybe she had been in the right.
He stood suddenly and ran out the door, not pausing to explain things to Rose. His feet pounded the pavement as he ran, trying to catch up with her. He wasn't too far behind, thankfully. She heard him coming and turned with a scowl.
"What?" She snapped. He took out his phone.
'I CHANGED MY MIND.'
Her anger melted, but was replaced with sadness.
"She told you, didn't she?" He nodded, but typed again.
'YOU WERE RIGHT. I WAS BEING A COWARD.' Kanaya laughed bitterly.
"Were you? Or am I?" He shook his head.
NO. DEATH IS THE EASY WAY OUT. YOU DECIDED TO HELP PEOPLE INSTEAD. YOU HELPED ME, AND I WANT TO MAKE THE MOST OF IT.
Her eyes glistened with tears. She tried to wipe them away.
"You can stay with me," she said after a moment. "We'll figure things out, once you're settled. Oh, but what about your family?" He grimaced.
'MY DAD'S A DRUNK. WE DON'T GET ALONG. I'LL FIGURE SOMETHING OUT WITH MY FRIENDS.'
"If you're sure," Kanaya said. Then, unexpectedly, she reached forward and gave him a hug. Karkat stiffened at first, but slowly began to hug back. She eventually released him and smiled.
"Let's go back to Rose's and explain what happened." He nodded, and she led the way.
The future was going to be interesting, being a zombie and living with a vampire. But he'd make the most of it. They both would.