EXCERPT: Blood Country by Jonathan Janz

The Raven #2: Blood Country

Genre: Horror, Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Publication Date: 10.18.2022
Pages: 316

Three years ago the world ended when a group of rogue scientists unleashed a virus that awakened long-dormant strands of human DNA. They awakened the bestial side of humankind: werewolves, satyrs, and all manner of bloodthirsty creatures. Within months, nearly every man, woman, or child was transformed into a monster…or slaughtered by one.

A rare survivor without special powers, Dez McClane has been fighting for his life since mankind fell, including a tense barfight that ended in a cataclysmic inferno. Dez would never have survived the battle without Iris, a woman he’s falling for but can never be with because of the monster inside her. Now Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter have been taken hostage by an even greater evil, the dominant species in this hellish new world:

Vampires.

The bloodthirsty creatures have transformed a four-story school building into their fortress, and they’re holding Dez’s ex-girlfriend and Iris’s young daughter captive. To save them, Dez and his friends must risk everything. They must infiltrate the vampires’ stronghold and face unspeakable terrors.

Because death awaits them in the fortress. Or something far worse.

CHAPTER TWO

The bikes were a godsend. Every time Dez had ridden as an adult, he wondered why he didn’t do it more often. Aside from being more expedient than slogging the eight miles on foot, biking brought with it the subtler pleasures he’d forgotten about, the breeze ghosting over his face, the edifying sensation of the handlebars in his grip, the gratifying blaze in his quadriceps as he worked the pedals. Even though the roads were gravel and somewhat of a grind, he resolved to travel on bike whenever he could, exposure to predators be damned.

Iris evidently disagreed.

She pedaled in grim silence, her eyes constantly strafing the woods and fields. In several places the gravel was shot through with weeds; even the blacktop was cracked by sprouted plants. Without people around to spoil it, nature had reclaimed the earth. Squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, foxes, even the occasional cat or dog darted across the road ahead of them. The birds that hadn’t flown south swooped and congregated on the roadsides, in the trees, on the disused telephone poles lining the roads. Many of these birds – crows, sparrows, finches, and a large onyx-feathered creature that might have been a raven – showed no fear at all as Dez and Iris rattled past on their ten-speeds, perhaps sensing on an instinctive level that the pair meant them no harm. Or maybe it was the bikes themselves that put the birds at ease. Dez had certainly never seen a monster riding one. Motorcycles, cars, and ATVs, sure, but not bicycles. Apparently, monsters considered themselves too cool for regular bikes.

They pedaled on, the countryside eerily silent. Twice they passed abandoned vehicles. The first was a pickup truck. It had once been white, but two years of dust, weather, and copious splats of bird shit had rendered its exterior a seedy farrago of colors. Since there were no dents or signs of trauma to the pickup, Dez’s guess was that its driver had simply run out of gas and had to hoof it.

The second vehicle was an overturned SUV, and this one did bear marks of a struggle. It lay diagonally across the road, its rear end crumpled. The dusty black paint was scarred by what might have been claws, and within the SUV he glimpsed wine-colored stains. Dez caught a flickering mental image of a family being dragged out of the shattered windows, and he was gripped with a bone-deep chill.

Dez and Iris pedaled past the macabre scene without comment.

They arrived at Buck Creek by two that afternoon, but rather than entering town, per Levi’s instructions they took County Road 1050. It was a shitty road, potholed and weedy, and the farther they advanced, the more primitive it became. When they reached the grain elevator, the gravel lane was so crowded by evergreens that Dez felt relatively safe. Iris not so much.

“I don’t like this,” she said, hunkering down beside him, their bikes resting just within the tree line.

“The town or the vampires?” he asked.

“Any of it,” she said. “Feels like we’re being watched. Kind of like when I get dressed with you in the room.”

At his open-mouthed stare, she chuckled softly and gave him a shove. “Come on,” she said. “Keep your bow ready.”

He slid it out of its holder. Toting the crossbow all the way through town would be cumbersome, but being beset by vampires would be worse. If one came charging toward him, he figured he could nail it, and the silent weapon wouldn’t draw others. If a horde of them attacked, they were screwed anyway, and he’d use the Ruger. At the thought of being eviscerated in this small town, he shuddered and moved a smidge closer to Iris. At least he wouldn’t die alone. They hurried past the grain elevator, paused at the edge of the road, then darted across it and took refuge in a stand of woods that bordered a residential area. As they sprinted, hunched over like soldiers attacking a beachhead, all manner of wildlife scattered before them.

Iris crouched beside a towering oak. “You see anything?” she whispered.

“It’s like a nature preserve,” he answered. “Even if there were vampires around, we wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the animals.”

Iris scanned the houses ahead. “The vampires are the ones with glowing orange eyes and fangs as long as your pinkies.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Let’s move. The sooner we find medicine, the sooner we can get the hell out this mausoleum.”

God, he thought. The town did feel like a mausoleum. They bolted out of the forest. There was a paved residential street followed by houses, most of them two stories, a few of them ranches. To Dez it looked like every small town he’d ever driven through or, when he was younger, horsed around in with his buddies. They crossed the road, hustled through a yard, the knee-high grass swishing against their legs, then ducked close to the first house they encountered, a stately white-siding-and-black-shutter affair where someone smalltown-famous probably once lived, an elementary school principal or the owner of a used car dealership. As they passed, Dez made sure not to look too closely. He learned long ago that details could humanize a house and remind him of both the world that was forever lost and the lives that had been taken. A swing set, a skateboard. Even something as innocuous as a muddy mitten or a candy wrapper had, for the first year after the world unraveled, snowed him under a blizzard of despair. It reminded him of Will, his little boy, who perished in the first massive wave of deaths.

Perished without Dez there to protect him.

Jesus.

He shook his head. Best to avoid dwelling on it. At least, as much as his traitorous mind would allow.

They crept past the first house, then hastened across a short expanse of yard. Moving this way was slower, but it was a hell of a lot more prudent than strutting around in the open the way people did in postapocalyptic movies. What those films missed was that it only took one. One glimpse from a cannibal. One noise detected by a vampire. One sniff from the Children, a race of subterranean creatures ten feet tall that Dez had never encountered but whose ferocity was legendary….

One mistake was enough. No matter how hardscrabble this existence might be, Dez had no desire to die. He glanced at Iris, a knife gripped at her hip. He studied the firm line of her jaw, her comprehensive blue-eyed gaze, and was damned glad to be by her side. They advanced to the next house. According to Levi’s diagram, there were four residential blocks before they reached the diminutive business district.

“Hey,” Iris said, and when Dez looked up he realized he’d been drifting. The look on her face was enough to center him.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“Traveling with you is like walking my dog, Harry. The slightest thing, a butterfly, a bird, even a dandelion spore, and he’d be mesmerized by it.”

“I bet he was a good-looking dog though.”

“Golden Lab,” she said. “Much handsomer than you.”

Dez hesitated. “Did he…um—”

“Died of old age six months before the bombs flew.” “Good,” he said.

“Pay attention.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gave him a smirk, then hauled ass across the street.

As they moved deeper and deeper into the tiny hamlet, a restive feeling grew in Dez, and not just because it was so damnably quiet. He’d heard that vampires seldom left their victims out in the open. They didn’t hassle with burial, but they did take the time to drag the bodies into ditches or hide the remains in forests. The reason for this had nothing to do with fastidiousness. According to Levi, who’d spent more time on the borders of Blood Country than any of them, it was because vampires had no desire to advertise their whereabouts. They wanted travelers to venture near their enclaves. Dez supposed when you were an alpha species, your reputation was enough to frighten off most visitors. No need to display a field of desiccated corpses to discourage them.

They progressed through more overgrown yards, the thistles and pokeweed waist-high in several places. The toe of Dez’s boot knocked something aside, and when he glanced down and discovered the object shrouded in a clutch of crabgrass, his chest tightened. It was a splintery wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toy, its blue paint all but flaked away. Dez’s son had loved to play with those trains, the two of them spending hours in the basement fitting the wooden tracks together and concocting stories about late deliveries and petty squabbles. God, what he wouldn’t give to play with Will one more time….

“Dez?” Iris said.

He looked up at her, expecting to find judgment in her gaze, but there was none.

Softly, she said, “Let’s keep moving.”

He snatched up the tank engine and followed her.

With Iris leading the way, they reached the business district. What there was of it. The first snatch of storefronts consisted of a pizza place, aptly named Buck Creek Pizza King; a real estate company; and an establishment that simply called itself The Rock Shop. Whether they specialized in ordinary rocks, rare gems, or were a money-laundering front for the mob, he didn’t know.

“See anything?” Iris asked from the side of her mouth.

“The Rock Shop looks intriguing.”

“Probably a guitar store.”

He hadn’t considered that. Maybe the new world was turning him into a literalist.

“The real estate agent,” she said, “they’ve got a recessed door.

Like, really recessed.”

He peered across the street and realized it was as she’d said. With the sun gliding west and not particularly brilliant to begin with, there was plenty of gloom there to conceal them. He started forward, but she threw out an arm to bar his way. She nodded ahead, and following her gaze, he detected nothing but a barren street. They remained that way, hunkered down in the bushes of a sea-blue saltbox house that looked like it’d been falling into disrepair well before the Four Winds. Dez shook his head at the ill-fitting name someone had given to the apocalyptic event. He supposed the virus contained in the bombs had been spread by the wind, but still. Four Winds was too poetic, too gentle for the madness and carnage the scientists had unleashed.

Iris relaxed a little. “Thought I saw a shadow up there in the window. Maybe just my imagination.” “Ready?” he asked.

They sprinted across the road and soon they were pressed against the windowless real estate office door.

“You’re sort of fast,” she said.

“You didn’t know that yet? After seeing me in action at the

Four Winds?”

“You look faster with clothes on.”

“Ah.” He’d forgotten that, with the exception of his tighty-whities, he’d been naked during their cataclysmic battle with Bill Keaton and his followers at the Four Winds Bar. The one that concluded with the place a smoldering ruin and God knew how many people dead.

“Where to next, Captain?” he asked.

“Captain,” she repeated thoughtfully. “I like that. One block over, the recessed door at a diagonal.” “China Moon?” he read.

“Doubt the buffet is open.”

He lowered his voice dramatically. “Unless it’s a human buffet.”

She looked at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Sleep deprivation?”

“You tossed and turned all night.”

Because you talk in your sleep, he thought but didn’t say. And because I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.

“Sure you wanna cross the road?” he asked. “We could just—” “The restaurant—” she pointed, “—is across from the pharmacy. From there we can see the storefront and make sure there’s nothing leering out at us.”

“Nice verb.”

“Traveling with an English teacher, I figure I better exercise vivid word choice.”

Former English teacher,” he said. “Nowadays, I feel lucky to string together a pair of coherent sentences.”

She nodded. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but….”

“Smart-ass,” he said, and they set off, Dez acutely aware of how vulnerable they were, how easy it would be not only to see them, but to surround them.

If the vampires came out before dark. Unfortunately, he’d seen it happen.

Could you maybe not think of that now? he wondered. Picturing a gory vivisection wasn’t going to scoot them across the road any faster, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to help Michael.

Oh yeah, he thought. Michael.

Finally, they ducked under the green canopy of China Moon and took a knee as close to the glass front door as they could.

BILL’S DRUG STORE, the yellow sign across the street said, though the B had been shattered, so that the pharmacy now read ILL’S.

She gave him a look. “Go ahead.”

“Too easy,” he said. “My jokes are more sophisticated and work on multiple levels.”

She smiled wanly and returned her gaze to the store’s façade.

The windows were intact, which could either mean the place hadn’t been pillaged or it had been converted into a stronghold. But with so many windows….

“Levi claims the front door’s unlocked?” he asked.

She nodded. “He went in there once, near the beginning.”

Dez nodded, the story coming back to him. Levi’s sister had been an asthmatic, so when her inhaler ran out, Levi had been dispatched to find a replacement. Buck Creek was the fourth small town to which he’d ventured, and it was here he’d found a cache of inhalers. Feeling guilty, he’d only taken half of them, but when he returned home it hadn’t mattered because his family had been murdered by cannibals. Dez hadn’t had the heart to ask if they’d also been eaten, and he supposed it didn’t matter. The point was, Bill’s Drug Store had been a viable source of medicine. But that was more than twenty months ago. To believe it hadn’t been raided since was naive.

“Three-story building,” Iris said, “so there might be apartments above it.” What remained unacknowledged was what might dwell in those apartments. Dez was grateful for the omission. “Guess we better go,” she said. “I don’t think we’re being— Holy shit.” She spun and stumbled backward, and when Dez whirled toward the glass door of China Moon, his crossbow was already out. He was a hair’s breadth from firing a bolt through the glass when he realized what he was looking at.

A cardboard cutout of Han Solo, his blaster drawn, his intense gaze fixed directly on Dez and Iris.

“Fuckers,” she said, hand on chest.

“We don’t know it was the vampires,” he said, lowering the crossbow. “Could’ve been anyone.”

“I mean whoever did it,” she snapped. “And why are you defending the vampires?” “Sorry.”

Fuck,” she said.

“Let’s head over there,” he said. Iris nodded, heaved a breath, and then they were rushing toward the pharmacy entrance, no sign of life around them, nothing except the increasingly brooding November afternoon. They reached the door and Dez muttered, “I’ll cover you,” and as Iris grasped the handle, Dez trained the crossbow over her shoulder.

She yanked the door open and slipped inside. Dez strafed the dimness with the crosshairs of the bow. As the door wheezed shut behind them, Dez became aware of a cloying medley of smells. There was the astringent tang of medicine he associated with pharmacies, but it was buried under less-pleasant odors. Rancid meat. Yeasty armpits. Animal spoor – were there rats in here? – and something worse. Something he associated with a hog farm at which he and a buddy had worked one summer. His buddy’s dad, who owned the farm, wouldn’t allow them near the slaughterhouse. But there was an old well in back. One into which something once fell…the stench growing more noxious each day…until they finally peered down into it with a flashlight to see what was causing the repulsive odor and stared straight into the maggot-infested eyes of an enormous bloated possum.

He fancied he could smell that possum now as he whispered, “Can you see?”

Iris didn’t answer. When she advanced past the registers toward an aisle of greeting cards, he added, “Darker than a woodchuck’s asshole in here.”

She brought a forefinger to her lips, so he shut up, but if he couldn’t see anything he certainly couldn’t shoot anything. Iris, evidently, was in favor of conserving their flashlights. For what he had no idea.

They progressed down the row, magazines on their left, greeting cards on their right. The scavenger in him wondered why Iris would’ve chosen the least utilitarian aisle through which to venture, but as they continued he realized that the days of lucking upon soup cans or boxes of ramen noodles were long past, that the only tactical move was to make their way around the store’s perimeter, keeping any potential threat on one side of them.

Good thing Iris had taken the lead.

They continued on, and as they did, Dez noticed a bizarre thing. The end of the world had been even messier than movies had depicted. Just about every store he’d encountered in the past two years had looked like bombs had been detonated in them. Shredded paper everywhere, blood splattered on the walls, in many cases body parts strewn about. But not here. Here the magazines lay neatly in their displays and even the greeting card envelopes, which in the old world had been frequently untidy, were symmetrically aligned with their cards. Iris glanced back at him, in her face the same disquiet worming its way through his guts. They moved toward the end of the aisle, the store growing duskier.

As they crept to the edge of a display, this one for gift bags and garish pinatas, Dez realized something else was bothering him too. In the mélange of smells burrowing up his nostrils, one was missing: dust. You entered any building these days, including the farmhouse in which they were currently hiding out, and the thick, chalky odor of dust was ubiquitous. To not smell it meant—

He heard a click, tensed, then realized Iris had switched on her flashlight. She shone it toward the wall they were approaching, where a paltry array of wine and spirits resided. They rounded the corner, and Iris aimed her beam down the long rear walkway of the store. A liquor display to his left. The section had been humble to begin with, but now there were only four bottles remaining: a pair of off-brand vodkas, a bottle of dirt-cheap wine, and a fifth of Wild Turkey. After a moment’s debate, Dez snagged the neck of the whiskey bottle and stowed it in his pack. Iris stared at him, and he offered her a crooked grin. Shaking her head, she started down the back walkway.

According to Levi, the pharmacy was inset in the rear of the store, and as they inched forward, Dez saw a yawning black opening appear. To their right were the main aisles, hair products dominating one, analgesics and sleep-aids in another; it pained him to discover the sleep-aids had been totally plundered. They passed a potato chip and soda aisle, another with mouthwashes and toothpastes. An end cap advertised FAMILY PLANNING, and Dez was unsurprised to find every box of condoms missing. The new world was a godawful place for a pregnant woman and even worse for a newborn. Pushing away the thought, he huddled closer to Iris, his finger off the trigger of the crossbow but ever ready to twitch in that direction. If a vampire struck, it would be instantaneous.

A few feet ahead, the back wall disappeared and the pharmacy began. Edging around the last few display items, he realized that there were no windows back here, no light at all save what filtered in from the front of the store. Iris crept around the corner, Dez close on her heels. She shone the light on the far wall, where they found three help windows, a waiting area, a machine that took your blood pressure, and to the far left, a single door.

“Stay ready,” she whispered.

Dez didn’t like the fact that this was an old-fashioned layout rather than the newer open-concept pharmacies. This one adhered to the style he’d encountered in his childhood, the undersized windows reminding him of the gatekeeper in The Wizard of Oz. As they approached, he feared a face would appear, only instead of a bushymustached guard informing them the Great and Powerful Oz was too busy to be bothered today, they’d encounter the alabaster leer of a vampire, its lambent eyes aglow and its fangs dripping slaver.

Fuck. Why did his imagination insist on betraying him?

Iris was almost to the door. Levi said it had been unlocked the last time he’d come, and when Iris twisted the knob and pulled, the door creaked open. She hunched her shoulders at the noise, and strangely enough, her fear reassured him. If someone as unflappable as Iris was terrified, there was no shame in him being scared shitless either. She glanced at him, then drew the door open farther – creeeaaak – and pushed through. She swept the light about the room. Dez expected a wicked face to whirl and snarl at them. But the space appeared empty.

The inner pharmacy looked as orderly as the rest of the store.

Not right, Dez thought. Something’s not right.

Whether Iris suspected that too, he didn’t know. She was already hurrying forward, her flashlight the only illumination in the stygian gloom. Dez remained right behind her, both to keep her safe and, if he was being honest, to provide himself a measure of comfort. Iris was one of the bravest people he’d ever met, and he’d found that braveness, like nervousness, could be transmitted.

“Alphabetical order?” she whispered, and it took him a moment to realize she was alluding to the drugs populating the abundant shelves in the twenty-by-thirty space. She stopped, Dez almost crashing into her, and fished a paper out of her jeans pocket. “Clindamycin,” she murmured, then moved to the left and began scanning pill bottles and boxes. “Caelyx…Capoten…Cialis…Clonazepam…dammit, it’s not here.”

“What’s the next one?” he asked. He knew it was his imagination, but the temperature seemed to have dropped. Slightly stuffy when they entered, it now felt as cool as it was outside, no more than fortyfive degrees.

“Amoxicillin,” she read.

“I’ve heard of that.”

“It’s one of the most common antibiotics,” she murmured.

“Cassidy is allergic to it.”

She crossed to the wall rack, where she honed in on the A-drugs. She riffled through the boxes, whispering their names, and at first the sound of her voice masked it, that other sound, the one he dismissed as imagination. Then Iris broke off, her posture expectant, and he heard it again. A furtive slither.

It came from above them.

Oh God.

He looked at her, and she looked at him, and he knew she was remembering what she’d said about apartments above the pharmacy.

Apartments and their inhabitants.

“Find the amoxi-whatever,” he breathed.

She painted the bottles with light and as she grasped each one, he could see how her hand trembled, how the flashlight jittered in her grip. He’d offer to hold it but knew he’d be even jumpier than she was. Besides, she knew what she was looking for, she—

The sound above them recurred, louder this time. Like more than one individual was stirring.

“Aciphex,” she whispered. “Adderall. Aldactone….” He fumbled off his pack, unzipped it.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“Find the medicine,” he hissed. He reached inside, located his flashlight, clicked it on.

The floor above them creaked.

“Ambien,” she said, her voice a bit louder. “Amitriptyline….”

He swung the beam around the room. There had to be another exit, an opening to the alley….

“Amlodipine….”

He swung the light right and left, but everywhere there were more shelves, more boxes and pill bottles. Dammit! They’d have to exit the same way they came in, which meant they had to beat whatever was upstairs to the front door. Dez shifted his flashlight beam, which jigged wildly now, to the opposite wall. Where are the stairs? he thought. Do the apartments somehow connect to the pharmacy, or do they lead to an exterior door?

“Amoxicillin!” Iris gasped. “It’s here!”

He rushed over to her, his backpack thankfully still unzipped. “Drag it all in,” he said. “Hurry.”

Iris bulldozed three good-sized boxes off the shelf, the pills rattling mutedly as the boxes tumbled into Dez’s pack. From directly above them, the floor screaked long and loud. Dez froze, his genitals shrinking, his breath held, and stared at Iris, whose eyes were as wide as he’d ever seen them. Then the thump of footsteps pounded the ceiling, and he growled, “Go! Go!”

They surged forward, threw open the door, which cracked the outer wall, then halted in the doorway. Rushing footsteps sounded on the store’s tiled floor. Deep, chortling laughter.

Oh Jesus, Dez thought. The vampires are in here.

Boo-graphy: Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels. He is represented for Film & TV by Ryan Lewis (executive producer of Bird Box). His work has been championed by authors like Josh Malerman, Caroline Kepnes, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe R. Lansdale, and Brian Keene. His ghost story The Siren &the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novels Children of the Dark and The Dark Game were chosen by Booklist and Library Journal as Top Ten Horror Books of the Year. He also teaches high school Film Literature, Creative Writing, and English. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children. You can sign up for his newsletter, and you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.

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