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She regained her balance and came on, screaming all the while. What looked like a scrawny ten-year-old boy stepped on one of the flaring candles without a glance. He knew the Ravies served as a distraction for something else lurking in the night. He felt the Reaper stalking his mind, approaching from the darkness, even if he could not see its body. The Reaper came, full of awful speed and power. A cloaked figure charged into the light, seeming to fly over the ground in a blur of motion. The caped and cowled figure, still twenty feet from the barn, made a leap and crashed bodily through the old planks and beams as if they were papier-mache.

The Reaper landed on all fours, arms and legs splayed like a spider. Before a gun could be turned in its direction, it sprang at the nearest Wolf, a shovel-bearded wedge of a man named Selbey. It was upon him before he could bring up his gun. Chaos reigned as the refugees began running. Wolves at the exits had to restrain them, taking up precious seconds when they should have been employing their guns. One Wolf pumped shot after shot, working the lever-action rifle from his hip, into the Reaper pressing Selbey to the detritus-covered floor. The Reaper fed, immune to the bullets hitting its heavy robes.

He thrust the candle into the lantern, waiting for it to sputter into life. It caught after an eternity, and he ran toward the Hood. The thing raised its blood-smeared face from its twitching victim to receive the burning end in its eye. The flaming wand fell to the ground as the thing rose. Death reached for Valentine, who struggled to draw his blade from its sheath in time. A bullet caught the Reaper in the armpit, staggering it. The blade bit deep into flesh and bone, but failed to sever the head. Oily, ink-black ichor poured from the wound, but still the thing rose, rolling Patel off with a heave.

The sergeant fought on and bore down on one arm, ignoring the deadly teeth opening for him. Valentine lashed out again with his machete, catching it under the jaw. A few Ravies, ghoulishly white in the glare of the candle, clambered through the gap in the wall created by the decapitated Reaper.

Valentine shifted his parang to his left hand and reached for his pistol. The empty holster turned the movement into comic mime as he realized he had dropped the gun while getting the candle. But other Wolves drew their pistols, snapping off a shot at the shrieking forms. The screaming grew into a chorus: a Ravie plunged in among the families.

The Ravie had both hands on the haft of the weapon, trying to wrench the tines out of her belly, when Valentine came in, swinging his parang to strike and strike and strike again until she sank lifeless to the floor, at long last silent. The screaming outside had ceased.

The Wolves opened ammunition pouches and took bullets from belts and bandoliers. A final bullet or two ended the spasms of the few crawling, crippled targets still living and therefore still dangerous. The men in the loft called downstairs, in anxiety over their comrades. Valentine ignored the chatter and saw with a kind of weary grief that one of the wives had been bitten by the impaled Ravie. He went to check on Patel. Patel handed the pistol back to the lieutenant. He held his hurt arm closer to his body, grimacing. Are you okay, sir? He saw another of his men bandaging the Ravie bite on the woman as her anxious family crowded around.

They had been taken by the Raving Madness five years ago. The lieutenant walked through his shaken command, checking on his men, and came into the corner sheltering the escapees. He shot a significant glance at his Wolf attending to the woman; the man caught the hint and nodded. Valentine walked over to the ladder, intending to check with Gonzalez upstairs… … when the floor suddenly tilted beneath his feet.

Thrown to the floor, he saw an albinowhite arm open a heavy trapdoor in an explosion of dirt, dried leaves, and twigs. The barn had a cellar. His Wolves, still keyed up from the fight, aimed their guns with lethal accuracy and pumped bullet after bullet into the yellow-eyed creature. Under the point-blank cross fire from five directions, the black-robed shape jerked wildly and fell back into the basement. Three of his men gathered at the trapdoor, now shooting down with pistols. Striking matches or using the lanterns, two Wolves lit fuses on the bombs and hurled them down the square hole.

Valentine grabbed the trapdoor and flung it shut. The rusty hinges squealed their complaints. The first explosion threw the door forever off its aged fastenings, and the second boomed with an earsplitting roar. Smoke mushroomed from the square hole. A Reaper sprang from the gap like something a magician had conjured from the smoke, arms nothing but two tarry stumps, and head a bony mask of horror. Even with its face blown off, the Reaper was on its feet and running, seeming to favor them with a splaytoothed grin. The guns rang out again, but the creature fled through the exit, knocking Patel aside like a bowling pin in the path of a cannonball as the sergeant attempted another body blow.

A tattered and smoldering cape streaming out behind it as it ran, the Reaper disappeared into the darkness. Some of the children had hands over their ears, screaming in pain. Valentine tried to shake the drunken sensation that had come over him, but it was no use. The acrid air of the barn was too thick to breathe. He staggered to the doorjamb and vomited. An hour later, with the barn cleared of bodies except for the unfortunate Selbey, who lay in his poncho in the empty blackness of the blasted cellar, Gonzalez again shared his discovery with Valentine.

His scout, after asking for permission to speak privately in the loft, presented him with a filthy strip of cloth. Valentine examined the excrement-stained yellow rag with tired eyes. He told me to check the area where we heard the bloodhounds real careful after everyone pulled out. That explains a thing or two. Valentine wondered. He remembered a couple of: the farmhands had hurried to the bushes as they assembled for I the flight to the barn. He gathered three Wolves from downstairs and explained j what he wanted to do when the sun came up. Mallow and his reserve platoon trotted up to the barn, just beating the sun.

He suppressed the urge to hug the panting Lugger, who looked as tired as Valentine felt. You had some bad luck, rookie. But it could have been worse. Good thing the was too thick to breathe. He remembered a couple o the farmhands had hurried to the bushes as they assembled for the flight to the barn. He gathered three Wolves from downstairs and explained what he wanted to do when the sun came up. Mallow and his reserve platoon trotted up to the bam, jus beating the sun.

Good thing. A couple of others swore. The boy broke down, alternating threats and curses in between sobs. His ashen-faced father held his distraught wife. She already trembled with the weakness of the first stage of the disease that would claim her life within two or three more days, when she would have to be shot like a rabid dog. Mallow and Patel ignored the grieving parents and questioned the boy in time-honored good cop-bad cop fashion. They make the laws.

They run the show. As the yellow-orange sun burned through the morning haze, he wondered what doom of fate had selected him to be born into such a fucked-up time. Two Northern Minnesota, the thirty-ninth year of the Kurian Order: He grew up in a pastoral setting among the lakes of upper Minnesota. David Stuart Valentine was born during one of the interminable winters in a sturdy brick house on Lake Carver.

The scattered settlements of that area owed their survival not so much to resistance as to inaccessibility. The Kurians dislike cold weather, leaving the periodic sweeps and patrols of this area to their Quislings. The Reapers come only in the summer in a macabre imitation of the fishermen and campers who once visited the lakes between May and September. In the first few years after the Overthrow, myriad refugees supported themselves amid the abundant lakes and woods of what had been known as the Boundary Waters.

They exterminated the remaining disease-infested Ravies hotzones, but the settlers refused aid to would-be guerrilla bands, as most of them had already tasted Reaper reprisals elsewhere. They wished nothing more than to be left alone. The Boundary Waters people were ruled only by the weather. A frantic period of food storage marked each fall, and when snow came, the families settled in for winter, ice-fishing for survival, not sport.

In summer they retreated into the deep woods far from the roads, returning to their houses after the Reapers were again driven south by the cold. He had a collection of Scandinavian, American Indian, and even Asian ancestors in a family tree whose roots stretched from Quebec to San Francisco. His mother was a beautiful and athletic Sioux from Manitoba, his father a former navy pilot. He dreamed of flying across the Pacific Ocean the way some boys dream of being a pirate or building a raft and drifting down the Mississippi. His early life came to an abrupt stop at the age of eleven, on a cool September day that saw the first frost of the northern fall.

The family had just returned from summer retreat to their home, but a Quisling patrol or two still lingered. Judging from the tire tracks that David found later, two trucks— probably the slow, alcohol-burning kind favored by rural patrols—had pulled up to the house. Perhaps the occupants were also liquor fueled. Attracted by the sound of the vehicles, his father had died in a hail of gunfire as he came up from the lakeshore. David heard the shots while gathering wild corn. He hurried home, accompanied by a growing fear that the shots had come from his house. David explored the too-silent house.

The smell of tomatoes, which his mother had been stewing, filled the four-room cabin. He found his mother first, her body violated, her throat slit. Out of spite or habit, the intruders had also killed his little brother, who had just learned to write his own name, and then his baby sister. He circled the house to find his father lying dead in the backyard. Putting one foot in front of the other came hard; for some reason he just wanted to lie down and sleep. David appeared out of the chilly night air and told the cleric what he had heard and seen, and then offered to walk with the Padre all the way back to his house.

The saddened priest put the boy to bed in his basement. A common grave received the four victims of old sins loosed by the New Order. David threw the first soil onto the burial shrouds that masked the violence of their deaths. David looked up at the priest and decided to ask the question that had been troubling him.

Often there was a lot of writing down and not much memorizing. The quotation prescribed for the rainy last day of classes had an extra significance to the older students who stayed on for a week after the grade-schoolers escaped the humid classroom for the summer. The material was too grim for some of the younger students, and the parents of others objected, so this final week of class was sparsely attended. Father Maximillian Argent was made to point, with his long graceful arms and still-muscular shoulders.

He was the sort of pillar a community could rest on, and when he spoke at meetings, the residents listened to his rich, melodious, and impeccably enunciated voice as attentively as his students did. The classroom blackboard that day had fourteen words written on it. Normally Valentine would have been interested in the lecture, as he liked history.

But his eye was drawn out the window, where the rain still showed no sign of letting up. Valentine searched the sky for a lessening of the drizzle. Today was the final day of the Field Games, and that meant the Crosscountry Run. If the Councilmen canceled the games because of weather, he would finish where he now stood in the ranking: third.

The youths came from all over the Central Boundary Waters to compete against others in their age group each spring as part of the general festivities that ended the winter and began the great Hideout. This year Valentine had a shot at winning first prize. Second and third place got you a hearty handshake and an up-close look at the trophy as whoever came in first received it.

The prize for boys aged sixteen to eighteen was a real over-under shotgun, not a hunting musket, and fifty bird-shot shells. A good gun meant a bountiful hunting season. The Padre and David needed all the help they could get. If Valentine won, he and Father Max would be dining on goose, duck, and pheasant until well after the snow flew. The Padre cracked his knuckles in a callused fist; profane jokes out of Doyle were as natural as water dripping into the classroom when it rained.

He evidently chose to ignore both, keeping his eyes fixed on David. The roof and I are grateful. Your summary, Mr. Valentine could hear Doyle slump in his seat. They made the Gates, those doorways that connect different planets. The Interworld Tree. The thumb was missing from his right hand, and his remaining fingers were misshapen. They always reminded Valentine of tree roots that could not decide which way to grow. Just by sixty-five million years or so.

The classroom should have contained forty or so, had all the teenagers within a long walk attended. But education, like survival, depended on initiative in the disorganized Boundary Waters. Valentine settled in for a good listen, as he always did when the Padre parked himself on the desk in that fashion. The rest of the class, not having the qualified joys of living with the Padre, did not know as he did that when the Padre perched there, he was imitating another teacher from his own youth, a determined San Jose nun who had woken a hunger for learning in the ganja-smoking teen he still had trouble imagining the Padre had been.

His mind insisted on wandering off to the games. No, Mr. Doyle, not the Old World rock-and-roll band. I know we think of these Doors as a terrible curse, the cause of our trouble. Everything we know would be different if they had never been opened. But long ago they were marvelous things, connecting planet after planet in the Milky Way as easily as that door over there connects us with the library. We call the builders of this Interworld Tree the Pre-entities, because we are not even sure if they had bodies—in the sense that you and I have bodies, that is.

But if they did have bodies, they were big. Some of the Doors are said to be as big as a barn. A Touchstone is like a book that you can readjust by laying your hand on it. But a person with the right kind of mind who touches one has what we might call a revelation. Valentine knew the Padre had a love—hate relationship with the past; when he was in his cups, he would sometimes rave about the injustices in the Old World, which had the ability to feed and clothe all of its children but had chosen not to.

Plants make it at a very low level. All animals, us included, possess it to a greater extent. The latter predominates. A cow, despite its size, gives off a smaller vital aura than a monkey. Is it, I mean? The Padre smiled at her. I wish I had an absolute answer. My gut feeling is that a vital aura is not your soul. I think your soul is something that belongs to you and God, and no one else can interfere with it. I know some people say it is your soul that gets fed on, but there is no way we can ever know that.

I think of the vital aura as being another special kind of energy you give off, just as you give off heat and an electromagnetic field. She was also an orphan; the Reapers had taken her parents five years ago in Wisconsin. She now lived with an aunt who scratched out a living weaving blankets and repairing coats. The others sat in; silence. Whenever the Padre discussed the Facts of Death with the older students, their normal restlessness vanished. I thought that energy stuff was what made the Kurians immortal? When they started to die, we think it caused a terrible panic.

I wonder if beings who are nearly immortal are more afraid of death, or less? They needed more and more vital aura to keep going, and they cleaned out whole planets in their final years, trying to stave off the inevitable. They probably absorbed all the dinosaurs; the two events seem to have happened at the same time. In their last extremity, they ate each other, but it was all for nothing. They still died. With no one to maintain their portals, the doorways began to shut down over the thousands and thousands of years that followed.

But pieces of their knowledge, and the Interworld Tree itself, survived for a new intelligence to find later on. The Kurians come from a race called the Lifeweavers. They found the remnants of the Pre-entity civilization. They pieced some of their history and technology back together and made use of what they could understand, like the barbarians who moved into Rome.

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We get the word Lifeweaver from their own language; it refers to those of the race who visit other worlds and interpopulate them. Just as man takes his livestock, crops, and orchards with him when he migrates, but is willing to adapt if something better is found, so did the Lifeweavers in their colonization of the Interworld Tree.

Northlanders part 1

Lifeweavers live a long, long time… many thousands of years. Some believe they were created by the Pre-entities as builders, but it seems strange that beings with a vital aura as strong as theirs would have survived the extinction throes of the Pre-entities. Our ancestors worshiped them. Most of them were content to be teachers, but it seems a few wanted to be more. A Lifeweaver can appear to us as a man or woman, or an elephant or a turtle if it wants, so they must have seemed as gods to our poor forefathers.

They can put on a new shape as easily as we can change clothes. Maybe they threw thunderbolts for good measure. I think they inspired many of our oldest myths and legends. As we grew more and more advanced, they took a few of us to other worlds. If so, I pray their fortune has been better than ours. The Lifeweavers could do anything they wanted with DNA.

They could make useful creatures to suit themselves, or modify a species as they required. We know they liked making beautiful birds and fish to decorate their homes; some of these still live on our planet today. I think they tinkered with them a little bit. Valentine had seen pictures of parrots. Right now the only birds in his mind were pheasants, tender young pheasants rising in a flutter of wings. He could see them in his newly won shotgun sight. The Padre droned on. Doyle held up his hand, serious for once.

Okay, maybe some of the hows and whys were wrong. What difference does it make how any of it got started? He looked ten years older to Valentine. I wish everyday of my life something could make a difference. But I remember a different world. People complained a lot about it, but in hindsight it was something like Eden. Why talk about this now? Look at the quotation on the board. Churchill was right.

By looking back, we may often see the future. I tell you this because nothing lasts forever, not even those who will do anything to become immortal. The Kurians will eventually die, just like the Pre-entities. Once an old king paid to have a piece of knowledge carved deep in the side of a monument, something that would always be true.

If nothing else, I want you to take that certain knowledge from me and carry it with you wherever you go. He hurried to empty the various bowls, basins, and pails brimming with rainwater from the leaky roof, then headed for the kitchen. Father Max sat at the battered table, staring at the bottom of an empty glass. He was already recorking the jug. But the drink I have always wants another to keep it company, and I should not do that. At least not too often. Might be muddy going up the big hill.

It always makes you soft. I wish he— they— could see you today. We used to call the last day of school graduation, you know that?

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A funny hat and a piece of paper that says you know stuff. That would be great, but I want to get us that gun. Good luck, David. They were strangers to him. They looked as though they had spent every moment of their adult years in the elements. They wore buckskin top to bottom, except for battered, broad-brimmed felt hats on their heads.

They bore rifles in leather sheaths, but they did not have the shifty, bullying air that the soldiers of the patrols did. Unlike the soldiers charged by the Kurians with keeping order in the Boundary Waters, these men moved with a cautious, quiet manner. There was something to their eyes that suggested wary wild animals.

I know your people. Who is this with you? Valentine saw memories lurking in the brown pools beneath his wrinkled brow. I saw you after the funeral. Valentine caught the looks exchanged between the men and suddenly lost interest in the race and the shotgun. The Padre patted his shoulder. Get going! But give my regrets to the Council at the public tent, and get back here as soon as you can.

He still had time to look over the two-mile course if he hurried. Behind him, the three men watched him go, then turned and walked into the house. The smell of cooking food greeted him at the campgrounds. The public tent, a behemoth, six-pole structure that saw weddings, baptisms, auctions, and meetings at the start of every summer, was hidden in a little glade surrounded by lakes and hills, miles from the nearest road and out of sight from any patrol in vehicles. The Hideout Festival featured sports and contests for the children and teenagers. A wedding or two always added to the celebratory atmosphere.

The adults learned crafts; held riding, shooting, and archery competitions; and then feasted on barbecue each evening. Families brought their special dishes for all to share, for in a region of dreadful, cold winters and summers spent in hiding, there were few chances for large gatherings. The race felt less a sport and more of a chore to Valentine by the time he reached the crowd. His desire for a ribbon and a shotgun in front of an applauding crowd seemed meaningless when compared with meeting a man who had known his father. He resigned himself to running the race anyway.

The course looped out in a horseshoe shape around Birch Lake. Usually a mud-rimmed half-swamp by mid-May, Birch Lake had swollen with the heavy rains until its fingers reached up almost to the public tent. Valentine greeted Doyle and a few other acquaintances from school. He had many acquaintances but no close friends. He wandered off into the woods along the two-mile trail. He wanted time to be alone and to think. He had guessed right; the ground on the big hill to the west of Birch Lake was slick with clay-colored mud. He stood on the hill and looked out across the rippled surface of the lake toward the public tent.

A thought sprang from the mysterious garden in his mind where his best ideas grew. Fifteen boys participated in the race, though only a handful had enough points from the other Field Game events to have a chance at the prize. They were dressed in everything from overalls to leather loincloths, all tan and thin, tangle haired and wire muscled. He sprinted out onto a long spit of land and thrashed his way into the water.

Valentine swam with lusty, powerful strokes, sighting on a tall oak on the other side. This neck of the lake was yards or so across, and he figured he would be back on the trail about the time the rest of the boys skidded down the muddy hill. And he was right, lunging dripping wet from the lake and pounding up the trail before the lead boy, Bobby Royce, could be seen emerging from the woods. David broke the string at the finish line with a muddy chest to a mixture of cheers and boos. Most of the boos came from families who had their boys in the race.

A frowning Councilman grabbed it off him as if it were a sacred icon being defiled and not a piece of ratty twine. The other boys hit the finish line two minutes later, and the debate began. The majority argued that the purpose of the race was a two-mile run cross-country, not a swim, which would be a different sport altogether. Each side increased its volume under the assumption that whoever made the most noise would win the argument. The barbecue smell made him hungry all over again.

He grabbed a tin tray and loaded it from the ample spread outside. The homemade beer tasted vile.

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Had beer been this bad in the Old World? But somehow it complemented the smoky-tasting meat. He found a dry patch of ground under a nearby tree and went to work on the food. One of the backslapping oldsters approached him holding a varnished wooden case and dangling two more bottles of beer from experienced fingers. Mind if I sit with you a bit? Almost seventy years of creaky bones eased themselves up against the trunk of the tree. When I was your age, give or take, I could put away half that steer.

We were neighbors, once. You were a squirt then. Your ma used to visit, especially when my Dawn was in her last illness. You had that bicycle.

Way Of The Wolf (Northlanders, #1) by Shelby Morgen

You used to let me ride it. I gave it away with everything else when she passed on. Moved in with my son-in-law. But I remember your mother; she used to sit with her. Talk with her. Tell jokes. Get her to eat up. Ever seen a real bridge, boy? Inside, nestled on formed blue velvet, rested a gleaming pistol. Valentine gasped.

Are you kidding? That gun would be worth something at the wagons. Your daddy probably had one just like it at some time or other. All at once I wanted to give it to you, where maybe it would do the most good. But I got old by being able to read people. Your dad was that way, too. You know he used to be in what we called the navy, and they went all over the world, which just suited him.

After that, after all the shit came down, he did other things. He fought for the Cause just like the Padre. You are a rolling stone, too, and all you need is a little push. He wanted to talk to Paul Samuels, wanted to talk to him alone. Seemed better to hide, not rock the boat. Living with the Padre, you probably know that more than most. Us meaning human beings. Getting rid of them is work for the Cause. Could he just take off? Odd that this old neighbor spoke as though he were privy to secret, half-formed thoughts.

It happens every year. Folks are quiet about it. I was thinking of going up to Lake of the Woods, building a boat… I love fishing, and they say next to no one lives there. Just this spring, out by Grand Rapids.

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  • Eight people, that one. The Padre had faced the problem, took responsibility, because that is what decent people do. The faces and animals at the public tent, the shores, hills, and trees—all pulled at him with promises of safety and security. The woods are lovely, dark and deep… He went into the backyard, checked on the animals, and began to chop wood. Turning cordwood into kindling always cleared his mind, even if it left his body wet and rubbery. He had been doing this chore for the Padre, and for a number of the neighbors in trade for sugar or flour, since his arrival five years ago.

    The solid feel of the ax in his hands, the thwock as the blade sank into the dried wood, absorbed the things that bubbled up from the dark corners of his mind. He stacked the splintered results of his labor and went inside the house. He found the three men sprawled in the smoke-filled library around an empty bottle and a mostly empty jug. When he got to the part about being disqualified, Firmer blew a raspberry. When I was a kid about your age, give or take, your dad and I used to come up together from down south, just like me and Jess do now.

    We liked to keep in touch with the folks up here, and this old fraud. Well-lubricated philosophy sessions, you might say. The men dug in with the enthusiasm of days spent on the road eating only what the wilderness provided. The Kurians, the Reapers, the things they make? And the patrols, right? Ever drunk water out of a hoof print to wash down a couple handfuls of ground-up ants? Slept outside in the rain without even a tent? Worn the same shirt for a month straight?

    It really stinks, son. He gave David an old musty-smelling hammock. It had uses other than rest; the Padre showed him how to roll his spare clothing up in it, then tie it across his back. By the time that was finished, other recruits who had collected over the past days began to shoulder their own burdens. Most carried backpacks bulging with preserved food. Valentine found that there were mouthfuls of words to be said, and no time or privacy to say them.

    How the men looked so alert was beyond Valentine; they seemed to be up every night drinking and talking, then visiting the trading wagons and surrounding homes in the day. David guided them, leading them on backwoods paths to the households that matched the names on the mail. That night there had been more drinking and less laughter in the library. Valentine began to learn on the first day of the journey south. He learned just how sore his legs could get. Though he had walked all day many times in his life, he had never done so with better than forty pounds of food, water, and possessions on his back at a pace set by a demanding sergeant.

    Other volunteers joined the group as they walked, one whom he knew. Necessities at home kept her out of school past the age of fifteen. She had blossomed into a woman since Valentine had last seen her two years ago. She looked at him once, twice. Father Max had to start asking the rest of us the tough questions. When she replied to further questions with one-word answers and downcast eyes, Valentine ended the conversation.

    They made camp and spent the next day talking, waiting, and nursing sore muscles. Another soldier showed up, escorting four more recruits. Two of the men were twin brothers, six-foot-six-inch blond giants. Valentine was surprised to learn their names were Kyle and Pete rather than Thor and Odin. They repeated the process as they hiked south and west in easy stages—easy, that was, in the estimation of the men who bore the title Wolves.

    To Valentine, each day proved more exhausting than the last. By the time they reached the outskirts of Minneapolis, the group had swelled to thirty soldiers and over a hundred young men and women. Lieutenant Skellen met them at a boat they used to cross the Mississippi. The lieutenant wore an eye patch so wide, it could have just as well been labeled an eye scarf, which mostly covered a crescent-shaped scar on the left side of his face. He had a dozens more recruits with him. The travelers made a wide loop west around the Twin Cities, into empty lands teeming with prairie plants.

    One day they skirted a hundred-head herd of mountains of hair and hide, and the Wolves informed Valentine he was looking at his first buffalo. He learned he could make a compass by stropping an old double-edged razor blade against the back of his hand. Charged with static electricity, he suspended it from a string in a preserve jar to shield it from the wind.

    The little piece of metal found north after wavering indecisively like a bird dog sniffing the breeze. The recruits learned how and where to build a fire, using reflectors made of piled logs to hide the flame and direct the heat back toward the camper. He was taught about trench fires in high wind, and to always roast game skewered on a spit beside a fire, not over it, with a pan underneath to catch every drop of valuable fat.

    They learned how to make flour not only from wheat, but also with the flowerheads at the end of cattails and even with bark. Valentine pounded masses of bark in a pan of water, removed the fibers, and allowed it to settle, then poured off the water and toasted the pulpy starch on a stick. Even with salt it did not taste like much, but he found himself able to eat just about anything as the long weeks of walking wore on.

    Even more incredibly, he gained weight— though he was hungry from dawn to dusk. They stopped at isolated farmhouses and tiny, hidden enclaves where the residents fed them. He practiced with his pistol. The Wolves passed a hat around and collected two dozen bullets from the men with handguns that used the same ammunition as his. Some of the Wolves carried up to three sidearms in order to have a better chance at using bullets acquired from scavenging the deceased after a fight.

    He plinked away at old paint cans and weathered, paint-stripped road signs. It was during one of these marksmanship sessions in an old barn near camp that Valentine made an effort to talk to Sergeant Samuels. He had just knocked down a row of three aluminum cans, their colored labels illegible with the passage of years, and he was feeling pretty full of himself. What if someone just blew your hand off? Feeling awkward, he raised the gun to eye level, feet shoulder-width apart.

    He sent the can flying with the second shot. Valentine passed him the gun. The sergeant examined it professionally. He must have thought a lot of you. He paused for a moment, not sure how to phrase the question. I never knew about his life before he met my mother. He just said he traveled. The campsite was nearly empty; a heavy patrol was out under the lieutenant, and most of the recruits were taking advantage of the afternoon off to wash clothes and bathe in the nearby river.

    I knew him. Not from way back, from before the skies filled with ash, that is. We met in Michigan, soon after all this shit started. I was younger than you then, maybe fifteen. Your dad and I were in this outfit; we called ourselves the Band. Fighting sometimes, hiding mostly. Cops, army guys; we had some coast guard sailors from Lake Michigan, even. The uniform was a hat with a piece of camouflage material sewn on it somewhere.

    God, what a hungry, sorry-looking bunch we were. It was like something out of a sci-fi movie.

    No one knew shit about what was going on. I used to cry every damn night, it seemed to me. My parents were in Detroit when the nuke went off, you see. Still be lonely. Samuels nodded to a couple of the Wolves carrying out camp duties, and sat down on the corpse of an old green tractor. The space where the engine once sat gaped, an open wound with wires dangling.

    The rumors we heard. Stuff about government experiments. That the Apocalypse was here and Satan walked the earth. People getting rounded up into camps like in the Nazi movies. Creatures from outer space. Turned out the truth was even weirder than the rumors, of course. Only problem with it was no one knew where Mount Omega was. And then we came across the Padre. He said this Rho was very special and was advising us on how to fight these things.

    None of us were interested in that, either. Then the Padre said this Rho knew what was going on. That got us. Especially your father. He looked like a doctor from TV, really distinguished and everything. Guess you know who the Lifeweavers are, living with the Padre as you did. He gave us this speech about doors to other planets and vampires and vital auras and how the Grogs were things cooked up in a lab. He said something to the Padre, and then, I swear to Jesus, he turns into this big gold eagle, with flames for wings.

    Circled over us like the Hindenburg going up. None of us knew whether to shit or shoot, I can tell you. Your dad told us to quiet down, and it turned back into a man again, or the image of one. He told us about a group of Lifeweavers on a planet called Kur. To beings with a life span of thousands of years, the chance to have a life span of millions must have been temptation, too much temptation.

    They violated the Lifeweaver law, their moral code, and started absorbing aura. They were trying to become immortal. In the interest of science, of progress. According to Rho, what they accomplished instead was to turn their world into a nightmare. They became what we call vampires, beings that are, to us, immortal. They do this through taking the lives of others. These rogue Lifeweavers, the Kurians, became the mortal enemies of the rest of their race. They used their skills to destroy all opposition. Overwhelmed, all the Lifeweavers could do was shut the portals to Kur.

    I guess it was in an attempt to keep the infection from spreading. But it was too late. A few Kurians had already escaped and were using the Interworld Tree to attack the whole Lifeweaver order. More doors were shut, but that only cut the Lifeweavers off, stopping them from organizing an effective resistance. It was like a houseful of people each hiding from a pack of killers in separate locked rooms instead of banding together to fight.

    A rider on one of the three horses in the group pulled up in the yard. Mounted on legworms. Four legworms, twenty Grogs altogether. Not coming right for us, but definitely looking. Now ride on down to the river and get the kids in gear. Maybe someone saw us outside Des Moines. Lot of Quislings live in this area nowadays. He motioned Valentine over. Make sure everyone keeps up. Can you handle that? Already a few recruits were returning to the area around the old barn, some with wet clothes plastered to their bodies.

    They broke camp. Usually the shouts and curses of the Wolves trying to get their green levy to move faster came from simple habit, but this time the words were in earnest. They moved off into the deepening night. Before, they had done only night marches when arcing around Des Moines. The Grogs out of eastern Nebraska patrolled this area. They could follow a trail in day or night by sight, by ear, or by smell. They moved at a forced march with Valentine bringing up the rear. They walked, and walked fast, for fifty minutes, then rested for ten.

    The sergeant kept up a punishing pace. Complaints started after the fourth rest. By the sixth, there was trouble. The sarge warned you. Gabby Cho, who had been keeping Valentine company at the rear, looked at him won-deringly. Valentine waved her off. He tried to stretch one leg, but she moaned and cried something unintelligible into the dirt.

    Insects chirped and buzzed all around in the night air. It was now or never. They thought the situation humorous: a cramp-stricken recruit and would-be noncom trying to get her up by issuing orders with a voice that kept cracking. Laboriously, she got to all fours. She ran and he followed, leaving the three Wolves chuckling in the darkness. Samuels met them at the rear of the column. The sergeant planted a boot in her scrawny behind. The two men waited while the file drew away. You get me? Only thing I could think of to get her moving.

    Her legs were cramped up, she said. Get back in line. Samuels doubled the column, returning to the front. He added a few comments about my mother, too. The tired recruits and tireless Wolves rested for four hours. At dawn, the sergeant sent Vought on his horse with three Wolves to scout the other side of the two-lane metal bridge spanning the Missouri. The land sloped upward as the wooded hills began beyond. One of the rear guard, at a copse of trees half a mile up the highway, waved a yellow bandanna.

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