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CHAPTER 40 – Call Me Raven

The horror of the day struck Matti again as soon as they stepped outside the main entrance. It was bad enough inside with bodies littering blood-spattered rooms, hallways, and stairwells. But outside, the sheer number of bodies scattered about the grounds and the ghastly ways they had died was even more evident.

“Hey, there they are! Where the hell have you been?” Charlie called out from the bottom of the steps, which he then ascended three at a time.

Vonnie went past Matti, who had stopped at the top of the steps, and greeted him with hugs and kisses and assurances that she was okay. Charlie grasped his wife in a fierce hug and spun her about in joy and relief that he had found her. She came to rest with her feet back on the terrace floor facing back toward the building. After a few moments of peering into Charlie’s eyes, her eyes were drawn to movement beyond his shoulder. She stiffened and gasped. “Oh, God,” she moaned.

Charlie pulled back from her and looked into her face. Then he turned with Matti and their gathered friends to follow her gaze toward the main entrance.

There was no mistaking Billy Ray, huge, blood splattered and lumbering as he strode toward them. Jason and Nate walked slowly a few steps behind him, in company with The Judge, Leroy Abernathy, and half a dozen other bloodied Victorian fighters and their allies. There was also no mistaking the limp form cradled in Billy Ray’s arms like a small child. Lying across Jared’s blood-soaked breast was the sword he had carried into his final battle.

Vonnie was the first to reach him. “Is he … is he gone?”

The huge man nodded slowly, making no effort to wipe the tears streaming down his cheeks. “It took a lot of ’em, but they finally cut him down. All I could do by then was make ’em pay.”

When Charlie went to take the burden from him, Billy Ray growled, “I’ll carry ’im wherever he needs to go,” and kept going until he stood before wide-eyed Lila and Rachel kneeling beside her with her arm around the girl’s shoulders and tears streaming down both cheeks. However, before he could lay the gore-smeared body at the feet of the keening girl, Nate intercepted him.

“Why don’t we take him down there beneath that oak with the others?” Nate pointed toward a growing row of fallen Victorians laid in the shade of a huge tree. Uncle Joe and another man carried two more into the shade and laid them down.

Matti grieved for the girl’s loss, and she was glad Rachel had taken Lila into her arms. But Matti, too, reeled beneath the weight of events that had engulfed her. An overwhelming flood of information swamped her mind and memories with things she could only try to understand over time – great, unsuspected, and monumental happenings over many centuries, both on the earth she knew and … elsewhere. Combined with her own recent personal losses, they all bore down on her, threatening to drive her to her knees.

She stared down at the abstract shape of the crimson pool at her feet, still tacky even in the heat of the summer day. She could see where Jamal’s head had lain. Shoes had left streaks and prints in it. Tracks of the stuff went in several different directions left by distracted fighters too occupied to notice or avoid it.

Through a blur of tears, she caught the approach of someone coming to a stop just a couple of steps below her. She blinked a couple of times and recognized Uncle Joe. She still managed to keep it in, holding it restrained under tight bonds of sheer willpower, because she knew she would collapse in on herself if she didn’t – until he held his arms out to her. Suddenly, she was six years old again. She wanted to be held and made safe. She felt his powerful arms sweep her up in a gentle embrace and carry her down the steps like a small child, with soft pats on her back and murmured words of love to soothe her wracking sobs.

A time later, after Jason and Charlie and Billy Ray and several others went back inside to retrieve any Victorians still alive but not aware of their victory, the grim task of retrieving the fallen began. They brought out Claire and Doreen and laid them near Jamal and Jared. Adding to their ranks were Vito and Cristina Scarpello, a long-haul truck driving team that were caught in Petaluma by the invasion and wound up at The Judge’s house. Jack Bradley was a forty-three-year-old man that was homeless even before the kryls came. With head bowed, LeRoy Abernathy knelt beside Evan Holm, the last of the Victorians, who lay at the end. There were many that Matti didn’t know who had joined the group on their cross-town trek, and then joined them in opposing Morgan and his murderous crusade. In all, they had twenty-nine slain heroes to honor.

But, first, Vonnie, assisted by Erin and some of the others, had several injuries to tend to, some rather serious. Since none were critical, it was decided to give Lila a little time to grieve Jared before confronting her with the task of healing the survivors. Emmie was even able to take the edge off the issue by closing up a few gaping wounds enough to stop the bleeding. No one seemed to mind that Rachel joined Lila at Jared’s side. It had been clear to all that the two teenage orphans had developed a bond.

The Judge pointed out that digging so many graves by hand, or even a mass grave, would be too much for their small group, so mass cremation would be best. No one argued.

When Jason mentioned doing the same with the bodies of Morgan’s forces, several of the Victorian survivors and their new allies spoke out against it. “Let the rats and the crows feast on them,” was a frequently stated preference. But, as Vonnie pointed out, it wouldn’t only be the rats and the crows devouring them; their putrefying bodies would also provide an ideal breeding medium for disease. There had already been so much since that first day of hell, but there was no point in adding to it.

They laid massive, communal pyres inside two of the wooden, “temporary” classrooms that had been set up sixty years before behind the two main buildings to accommodate the growing student body. After the fallen Victorians were placed inside one with those that had fallen while fighting beside them laid along side, and the more numerous foe filled the other, the silent bearers returned to the grieving survivors gathered nearby.

Nate laid Jared’s cleaned sword on the ground before Lila, whom Billy Ray held in his arms like a baby. Standing beside the big man, Rachel supported herself with one arm hooked around his huge arm with her head tilted over to rest against the muscle. In her other hand, she held one of Lila’s. The bond with the brother, so recently engendered and then so cruelly severed, appeared have been revived with the sister and her self-appointed guardian. Turning then to address the gathering, the old man began, “When Jared asked to carry a sword today, I might have thought him a boy wanting to play. He had selected what some may say was merely the prettiest from among my finds, but that it would be safe in his hand from the abuse of battle. And, so, I armed a boy with a replica of the great sword, Durendal, the legendary Sword of Roland, a heroic knight in the service of Charlemagne. But, let there be no doubt that today it was a man who infused this steel with a greatness of its own. Although forged as a replica, this blade now merits honor in its own right, worthy to be copied by master sword-smiths as they ply their craft in centuries yet to come. Let it be known, henceforth, as Lilaspride, the Sword of Jared.”

“And now,” Nate said, stepping back and turning to address the gathering, “to other matters. I’ve been tossing something around in my head, but I was kinda reluctant to do it. But, after putting my thoughts so much into matters of memory and honor, it’s easier to see, now, that it’s the right thing to do.” He fingered the green satin scarf about his neck for a moment before continuing. “All those years I spent carrying the mail and buying cars and houses and suits and bread and bacon … they’re gone. That life was a relic of another world. But what I am inside, the me that’s still going to go on in this world, is largely due to my life with Patty. The creation of Dagar was as much her doing as mine, just as we both created her character, Helga. So, in a way that is pretty important to me, Patty is still with me. She’s going to be a major part of me in whatever future I have. And so, in honor of Helga, who, will live always in my heart as Patty, from this hour on, I ask you, my friends, to know me as Dagar.”

Picking up the prepared torch at his feet, Dagar held it out to ignite from Charlie’s already blazing brand. “Okay,” he said with a slow nod. “Let’s get it done.”

Thirty minutes later, surrounded by people she had known for only a short time but had come to love dearly, Matti stood wrapped from behind in Uncle Joe’s strong arms and, in silence, watched the flames curl into the sky. On her left, Satan sat beside Emmie, with Jason and Erin standing behind. Charlie and Vonnie were on her right side, with Dagar, who, in her heart, would always be Nate, a dear, little old man who fights like a demon, and Billy Ray next to them. Lila still sobbed softly, no longer cradled in both of Billy Ray’s arms, but supported by only one as she held herself upright with her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, and her head resting on his shoulder. Rachel had dropped Lila’s hand and stood enfolded in Billy Ray’s other arm. The Judge had said a few words of honor and compassion and memories, but she couldn’t say, now, what they had been. They had sounded and felt right as he said them, but they were as transitory as the smoke curling into the breeze above the flames. Everything was going. Nothing of her past was left, only Uncle Joe, but he was Mamma’s older brother, a McDaniel. And, of course, the same went for his son, Jerry, who was six years older than her. Even if he was alive, Joe had no idea where he might be. He had gotten away when Mickey’s troops caught Uncle Joe. They all knew the odds that he lay dead among the ashes of the town, felled by nothing more than a dispute over a sip of water or scrap of bread, but they avoided putting it into words. They hoped he had fled town. And so, with Jamal’s death, she could no longer pretend otherwise. She was the last Raven.

“You about ready to go, Matti?”

She shook herself out of her reverie and looked around into Erin’s face as she untangled herself from Uncle Joe’s embrace. She turned her head and glanced at those about her, her new family. They would grow closer, all of them, and they would be a family. But she couldn’t stand the thought of her real family being forgotten. Erin and Vonnie might become as close as mothers, but how could she forget Momma Raven? Jason and Uncle Joe, even Nate/Dagar would be like new fathers, but she could never forget Daddy Raven. Jamal Raven would reside in her memories no matter how high the smoke rose or how far it spread.

Then it occurred to her.

“Call me Raven,” she responded.

She turned and looked up at Uncle Joe and asked, “Do you think it’d be okay? I mean if I just use my last name from now on? Sorta like so Momma and Dad and Jamal are still here, like they’re not forgotten.”

“Oh, honey, I’m not about to forget any of ’em. But if you want to be just Raven, I think it’s a pretty good name that your dad gave to my sister.”

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