Way of the Wolf
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This empty land is a fine training area for the young Wolves of the OzarkFreeTerritory. From the Yazoo Delta, they can keep an eye on Mississippi River traffic and explore outside its football-shape, 188-mile length into the burned-out shells of Memphis in the north and Jackson in the south. It is the most impenetrable and least guarded of all the empty borders of Southern Command, and the handful of Wolves in the Delta keep on the move, often going an entire season without supply or communication from the Territory.
David Valentine traveled here as a newly invoked Wolf and learned the Hunter's Arts under two unremitting teachers: Nature and a longtime Cat named Eveready. In nature, Valentine learned to apply the lessons of his winter on how to find food, water, shelter, and fire, what might be called the four primary elements of human existence. From Eveready, a man who accepted no rank in Southern Command because it would mean an end to his one-man war against the Kurians as well as his jealously guarded independence, he learned how to unify his judgment, senses, skills, and tools into a single weapon. The young Wolves under Eveready's tutelage practiced their art, improvising weapons to hunt everything from submerged alligators to treed raccoons. They took not only nourishment from their kills, but also hide, bone, and sinew for use in making clothing and tools. A few of the more atavistic-minded fashioned lucky charms from their trophies. Eveready, owner of perhaps the longest necklace of Reaper fangs in the Old South, encouraged the practice.
What Eveready taught even better was the art of concealing lifesign. His apprentices spent more time learning mental discipline than they did physical, mastering a form of self-hypnosis that cloaked their auras against the inhuman searching powers of the Reapers. Their skill at this determined whether they would hunt the enemy or be hunted like the game they brought home to camp.
The camp used a pair of ancient water oaks as its roof. The stumpier of the two oaks suffered a curious deformity; the main trunk ended twelve feet up and branched into six limbs that curved out of the trunk first sideways and then upward, resembling a cupped palm with too many fingers. The Wolves had rigged a patchwork of tents into these branches, making an area beneath that stayed dry as long as the wind kept down.
Wind would have been welcome in the humid air of the swamp, where runoff came to die. There was an air of death, decay, and corruption to the flooded Yazoo Delta that no graveyard could match. Mists and fogs haunted the neophyte Wolves, and mysterious wildlife voices croaked and hooted and gibbered from the bulrushes. Even their camp resembled an abattoir, with their packs and water bottles hung from the low branches like trophies on a gamekeeper's gibbet.
Valentine sweltered in his cocoon of mosquito netting in a shallow sleep brought on by heat exhaustion. His usually pleasant hammock had been transformed into a torture chamber by the temperature and humidity. Naturally he preferred to keep himself, like his clothing and his pack, off the ground and out of reach of the various multilegged crawlies and snakes that might be attracted to a warm, motionless body on the damp earth. Only the earliest hours of the morning brought a lessening of the heat. He would give anything he owned for a swim in one of Minnesota's clear cool lakes in this Delta summer. But even if he had been physically comfortable, he would still have passed a fitful night. The old dream about his family home had come back.
Eveready's predawn return cut off his old nightmare. The Cat had walked off into the east within an hour of picking the spot for their camp days ago, leaving orders to wait and not to use guns while hunting. Eveready declined to explain whether this was because of nearby danger or just the parsimony brought on by visiting a supply station twice a year.
"Everybody up," Eveready announced, laboring into camp with a heavy sack across his shoulder. His ancient M-l carbine was slung across his chest, stock glowing with its usual loving polish of well-oiled wood. Burton, who had the third watch, started to pour water into the coffeepot. "Forget that for now, Burt," the Cat rasped. "You boys aren't going to want breakfast when you see what I've brung home. Hand me that water, boy."
Valentine tried to rub the gum from his eyes as he watched Eveready drink. Though the black-skinned man was a Cat, one of the caste whose members operated alone deep in Kurian-conquered territory, there was nothing catlike about him. Eveready was a grizzled old warthog: all tough-minded determination on a thick body beneath a thicker hide. Barefoot, with ragged black trousers that ended at calves as wide as horse hooves, the rest of his body resembled a barrel with arms added as an afterthought. Chest muscles strained from an equally ragged vest cut from the heavy ablative cloth that the Reapers wore, and his neck was festooned with dangling teeth pulled from the Hoods he'd exterminated. The Wolves had never seen him eat anything but oversalted game stews and apples-Valentine believed Eveready knew the location of every single apple tree and grove within a three-hundred-mile arc of the Yazoo Delta-and this eccentric diet had left him with ageless vitality and shining white teeth. He was bald as the man in the moon but hid the fact with a battered baseball cap with a Saints logo. Eveready could climb like an ape, float like an alligator, and leap like a deer, all without making enough noise to cause a mouse to startle.
Easing himself out of the hammock, Valentine shook his head and took a pull from the water bottle he bedded down with to save a trip out of the mosquito netting. He pulled on his moccasins after eyeing the insides. Though they had hung from his hammock, the ingenuity of the Yazoo wildlife at curling up for a nap where least expected had been brought home to Valentine by a painful centipede bite earlier in the summer.
"What did you bring us, Santa?" Alistar, one of the Wolves, asked.
The Wolves gathered, and Eveready dumped the stained sack in the center of the campground. At first Valentine thought it was a trick of the rapidly growing light, but the sack seemed to writhe as it hit ground.
"Valentine, get your chopper," Eveready ordered. Valentine retrieved his parang, a fourteen-inch broad hunting knife swelled at the center like a pregnant machete. It had a heavy wood handle with the tang capped at the end, combining the sharpness of a skinning knife with the utility of a hatchet.
Eveready used his own smaller clasp knife to cut open the bag, which Valentine saw with a kind of cold horror really was squirming on its own in the center of the ring of five men. The big Cat dumped the sack's contents.
"Fuck me!" Burton said, and pulled at the beard he had been growing all summer.
Flopping in the dawn was a pale humanoid torso. Where arms and legs should have been, only tarry stumps remained. A second sack fixed by cording circled around the neck and hid the thing's face. Burton half laughed, half retched at the sweet corruptive odor that made the Wolves take a step back. Sixteen-year-old Hernandez, the youngest of the new Wolves, crossed himself.
"Never seen one this close, boys?" Eveready asked. The four shook their heads, disgusted and fascinated at the same time.
"There are these big hunting cats in a place on the other side of the world, boys. India, it was called. Big stripy orange things called tigers. You wouldn't think they could sneak up on anything, unless you saw them moving through tall grass on our televisions, that is. But a momma tiger would teach her baby to kill by swatting something so it was half-dead; then the cub would kill it. Now that ain't exactly what I'm doing with you cubs, but I want you to get a good look at a Hood up close, minus his robes, in such a way that you'll live through the seeing of it. Sort of a National Geographic, courtesy of old Eveready."
The thing rolled on its back and made an inarticulate glubbing sound.
"Bastard can't talk too good," Eveready continued, reaching into his forage pouch. "I yanked this out." The Cat handed over the Reaper's limp, sixteen-inch-long tongue, and the Wolves passed it around dubiously. It reminded Valentine of a snake, scaly with a beaklike point at the end. "That's the straw it sticks into you. See the scales? They come up in you like barbs, keep you from pulling away. Not that you have much chance if this honey's got you in his arms."
"How... how did you bag it?" Valentine asked.
"I was scouting a little railroad town southeast of Big M's ruins. HollySprings. Sources told me this fella came into town about midnight, doing the usual checkup with a company of Quislings out of Corinth. Any time a Reaper comes through, a few folks try to leave town real quick, and this thing goes after them when it was getting on toward dawn. The Quislings were too busy in the henhouses and pigpens to notice much. A hungry Reaper is hard enough to keep up with and maybe they didn't want to be around when he fed. So these refugees are heading for tall timber on horseback, and the yellow eye here is after them. He got one jifst as the sun came up, fed, and I caught up with him when he got all dopey from the drinking. It was a pretty bright morning for a change, so his eyes weren't working too well, either. I emptied old Trudy into him from about ten feet," he said, patting his carbine affectionately. "Shot a leg more or less off where it was showing under the robe, and took the rest off with my cavalry saber before he knew what hit him. I hacked around at his throat and pulled his tongue out from beneath the jaw, Colombian-necktie style. Sacked him up, then caught up with the horse belonging to the poor bastard he caught. Then I about broke my ass getting west."
Eveready chuckled. "I wouldn't care to be that Quisling commander in HollySprings. The Big Boss in Corinth will send some Hoods out to settle things, with me and them both."
"You covered some miles," Alistar said. "Where's the horse, rode to death? We could've traded it, at least."
Eveready shook his head. "There was some border trash camped out by a crick a few miles northeast of here. I gave the horse her head, just took the saddle and bridle off, and she scented the other horses and wandered off. I carried the saddle aways, but it was too much lugging the ghoul and all that leather, too. I didn't want to be too slow; this guy's friends might home in on him."
"Hard on the group by the crick, if the Reapers catch up with that horse," Valentine suggested.
"They ain't no friends of yours, son. That's why I've been warning you boys about these borderlands. No law and order. There's the bad order of the Kurian spaces, and the law of the FreeTerritory. In fact, you'd be surprised at how orderly some of those Kurian towns are. Everybody with identity cards and permission slips and papers just to go to the outhouse. But between 'em where we are is up for grabs, and these bastards will rob you and leave you for dead as soon as they'd say 'Good morning." I figure any Hood pursuit is welcome to 'em.
"Now let's get down to business. Gimme your slaying blade, Valentine. Now watch this," Eveready lectured as if he were in a classroom with glossy black experiment tables instead of a patch of soggy ground forty miles from nowhere. He opened a vertical cut along the thing's stomach. "See how that black goo comes up when the air hits it? It's something in these things' blood that makes an instant suture. If you ever get any on your hands, get it off quick, and whatever you do, don't get it in your mouth. Put some of this stuff on a dog's tongue, and it'll kill the man holding the leash. It's not so bad though; even when you're hacking one up, the goo doesn't fly around that much. It's too sticky. Make sure you pull your blade out quickly, though; if you leave it in for a few seconds even, this stuff will sometimes glue it right in place. Take my word for it, you don't want that to happen."
The Reaper thrashed around in pain, and Valentine stuck his foot on its chest to hold it in place. The smell sickened him. He felt thankful for his empty stomach.
"The sumbitch is moving around too much," Eveready decided. "Let's finish him. But I want to look him in the eyes for a second," he stated, cutting the cords around the thing's neck with the sharp edge at the tip of Valentine's parang.
The Reaper's face was a mess. Two gummed-over bullet holes in the cheek and forehead stood out against the deathly pale skin. Black fangs snarled at them from above the butchered neck. Its eyes were not the pink of a true albino's but rather black, with slit pupils and yellowish reptilian irises. It hissed, glaring hatefully at the five humans around it. Valentine felt hard pressure against his foot as it tried to wiggle loose despite its injuries. Valentine looked into "its eyes and felt lost in the black depths. Was there such a thing as blacker than black? He felt himself compelled to lift his foot off the thing's chest.
"Steady there, David. You look like you might keel over," a voice said from somewhere near the GulfCoast.
Valentine tried to raise his eyes from the black slits, failed.
Don't give in to the darkness, a part of his consciousness urged. It's only the black eyes of the crow, picking at your father's brains. He raised his eyes up to the lightening sky and planted his foot even more firmly on the mutilated torso.
"That's better, David," Eveready said, patting Valentine's shoulder. "You got to watch those eyes. For a second there, you looked like a bird staring at a snake. You weren't seeing the Hood, it was the Kurian behind it."
Eveready leaned over its face, taking a small cylinder from his pocket with his left hand. It was a crusty old battery, of a type invented just before 2022 that had a very prolonged shelf life. A symbol of a black cat leaping through an electric hoop could be seen on the casing.
"Here I am again, hungry Prince," Eveready taunted at the snapping face. "Old Eveready got another of your drones, you murdering pig. I know it feels good when your little bloodsucker here takes a life. How do you like it when I do this?" He waved the battery label as close to the snarling face as he dared and brought the curved blade down on the thing's neck with a grunt of effort.
The body quit moving under Valentine's foot. He glanced down, afraid to meet those baleful eyes a second time. A fresh wave of moldy-crypt odor wafted from the corpse of the Reaper, causing Burton to empty the remains of last night's dinner from his stomach. Alistar sank to his knees, trying not to join him.
Eveready thrust the parang into the dirt and picked up the head, cautiously draining the black syrup from the neck. Holding it by the scraggly black hair, he displayed the trophy up for the Wolves to get a good look. "See how the teeth are black? We call that stuff carbonite. It's not a scientific name or anything; I think it's out of a movie. Stronger than steel, and Kur builds the Hoods so they use the stuff for their skeletons, teeth, and nails. Stops bullets pretty good. I saw one take a faceful of double-ought from about two feet one time. The eye and nose holes are baffled, not open like in a human skull, so the sumbitch was just blinded, and mebbe couldn't smell too good either. But it kept coming for us. And while I left this bastard's fingers behind, they have these pointed black car-bonite fingernails that can claw through a safe door, peeling it back layer by layer."
The Cat wedged the old battery into the Reaper's mouth and stuck the head in the crotch of a nearby tree. Its eyes rolled around in their sockets. "It's dead, don't let that unsettle you. Just nerve impulses or something."
Returning to the body, Eveready continued the autopsy. He began to peel back layers of skin with parang and skinning knife, sticking small broken branches through the skin to keep the wounds open. The black tar had stopped flowing with the creature's death, but an abundance of oily clear liquid seeped out of the cadaver. Alistar was still on his knees and looked about to go to all fours, and Hernandez was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. None of them would eat that day, Valentine suspected.
"Okay, a whole bunch of a human being is taken up by equipment to process different kinds of food into our blood. These monsters don't need all that; they have as simple a digestive system as can be. But they have this big bladder inside; see that thing that looks kind of like a honeycomb?" He opened up the spongelike organ, bigger than a bovine liver. "Those little sacks fill up with blood like a camel's hump, and pass through this thing, which is kind of like a big placenta, to its bloodstream. And see those two thick cables going down its sides? Those are nerve trunks; it's got more than one. Yours goes up the backbone; if that gets snapped, you're dead. You can break its back and maybe it'll just walk funny, "cause it's got these other nerve trunks. All wired to a couple of balancing organs in the head, gives them ungodly reflexes and agility. Little clusters of nerve cells at pressure points help that. Their spines are much more flexible than yours, like a cat's, and their knees are hinged so they can bend backward, coiling just about every major muscle in their bodies for a jump.
"Everything's heavier than ours: bone, skin, muscle. Makes them crappy swimmers. They can move through water, but they really have to thrash, so you can hear them coming with all the splashing. I keep telling the jokers in the FreeTerritory to dig wide moats around everything they build, something they can't jump over, but they don't want to make the effort. If you ask me, if a hundred Kurians got organized, they could go through Southern Command like a bullet through a paper target."
Valentine raised his hand. Since Eveready was showing this unsuspected schoolmarm side, it seemed the appropriate thing to do.
"Why don't they?"
"Overrun us, you mean? One of the things we don't know. We do know that each Kurian boss or Prince or Master or whatever has grown his thirteen Reapers to feed him and run his show. We think it hurts them when one of their puppets gets killed. There's some kind of special link that allows the vital auras absorbed by the Reapers to feed the Kurian that controls them. Over the years, the stories about Kur got confused, that is if our ancestors ever had them right to begin with. We combined the two creatures, the Reaper and its Master, into one vampire legend. But 'that's got nuthin' to do with nuthin'' as my old man used to say. The Masters don't like to have all their Reapers together in one spot. We think if all of 'em buy it, so does the Kurian. Those Kurians are selfish pricks, too. They don't risk their Hoods helping out other Kurians. You see it in the different ways their little principal-ities are organized. Maybe they even fight among themselves, like Mafia gangs-if you know what those were. We can only hope. They're not too creative. They don't seem to invent anything. The Lifeweavers got a philosophical answer to that; they say that the Kurians have degenerated over the millennia, becoming like addicts who can't see beyond the next fix. Nothing matters to them but keeping the vital auras flowing. Even when they invaded, they laid the groundwork well, but once it started, it was like the Oklahoma land rush: they all grabbed a spot and started harvesting... well, us.
"But all that is for the thinkers and strategists and leaders. You boys have got to be the killers, so just remember this one thing: the only damage that puts a Hood permanently out of commission is a central nervous system disconnect. That means severing the head or blowing it to bits. And since they duck faster than most folks can swing, let alone pull a trigger, it ain't easy. You got to get them when they're dopey, after they've fed or in good daylight. You get them out in the sun without their robes, they get so sick you can slice them up easy as pie. Sometimes they get laid up in a trance, either daytime or nighttime, and that's a good time to hit 'em, too. My theory is that a Kurian Lord can't really control more than one Reaper at the same time, and the others either go on pure instinct, feeding off whatever's around until they're gorged and pass out, or they fall into this trance while the Kuriali is controlling a different Hood."
"Sir," Hernandez piped up. "You said there would be others on this one's trail. Are we gonna jump 'em?"
A small smile broke out across Eveready's ebony features. "Son, you got more balls than brains. You ain't even blooded Wolves yet. For the last time, save the sir stuff for the ones that have to hear it to believe in themselves. I'm here to teach you how to keep hid so the Reapers don't find you. Fighting a Reaper's a job for a team of Wolves. Yassuh, about ten-to-one odds is what you need. And that's ten well-armed, experienced Wolves. Even I don't take on an up-and-running Reaper if I can avoid it. I got all these teeth by being patient," he said, fingering the rope of polished fangs across his hairy chest. "You need to hit the enemy when he ain't looking for you, not when he is. A stand-up fight is work for the Bears, and even they die faster than the Lifeweavers can replace 'em sometimes.
"Nope, it's been a fun summer, but I want to get you all back across the Saint Francis alive and well. Hopefully a little bit wiser, too. School's just about out, boys."
Getting to the Saint Francis meant they first had to cross the Mississippi. Wide, muddy, and sandbar-choked at this time of year, the Father of Waters was no easy obstacle to overcome. Quisling traders and river patrols frequented it in battered boats and bulky barges, pulled by diesel tugs.
The afternoon after the grim session with the Reaper's body, the party started a leisurely journey westward. The Cat encouraged them to concentrate on keeping lifesign down, but Valentine's doubts prodded and pulled him out of his sublimation with hard staves. What if he failed to keep himself centered, as the Cat liked to call it, and drew the hunting Reapers to his comrades like sharks to a blood trail? The others seemed so confident, talking about how they would take their first Hood, discussing ambushes and cross fires and carefully planned traps. Valentine had barely survived his first encounter with a Hood, and heard again and again in his mind the terrible screaming of the steady, stolid DelVecchio as the Reaper's needle-tongue found his beating heart.
The plentiful wild rice and bullheads of the Delta fed the five men on their bayou-bridging journey to the river. The Wolves had grown so experienced in navigating the trackless morass that they hardly thought twice about wading or swimming a bayou in pairs and trios, one group always covering the other as they moved southwest. They reached the great river on a hazy afternoon two days later. Upon sighting it, Valentine forgot his doubts in the breadth and majesty of the current. Or perhaps it was just the change in the air after the miasma of the backwaters.
"Two choices, boys," Eveready announced from a team-huddle squat. "We build us a raft, or we go find the one we sunk after crossing over back in the spring. Might take a day or two to find the spot; we're just a little south of it now. If we build a raft, it means chopping wood, and that can be heard a long way off. Also, we won't stand a chance if we run into a patrol except to swim for it. If we go to the old boat and raise it, we'll have something a little more navigable. But I've got my doubts it'll even be there after all these months. The river men and patrols spend all their time along the banks, and chances are one of them already thumped it with a pole or a paddle even if it is still underwater."
The Wolves decided to vote, with Eveready as tiebreaker. Valentine was the lone vote for building a raft, as he saw little reward and a good deal of risk in blundering along the bank in search of the old aluminum fishing boat that had brought them across the first time. The others remembered a little too well the want-of-a-nail lecture they'd received before departing for the Delta. It concerned coming home with weapons and gear issued, under pain of having to spend the next year on stable and livestock duty.
So they turned north.
Traveling the banks of the Mississippi made even the bayous seem like afternoon picnicking. The flooded and unattended banks turned the great river into a twisting mass of horseshoe loops and tadpole floods. Eveready took what shortcuts he knew and always kept an eye to the river. Although they could spot a patrol boat long before the Quislings had a chance at seeing the Wolves, every appearance of one of the noisy, fiberglass cabin cruisers made them get under cover while it plodded back and forth across the river. The first day there were two such sightings, each one wasting over an hour.
Valentine was jumpy the whole march. The others noticed it and put his mood down to bitterness over the vote on how to get across the river.
"Ain't nothing here worth the bogeymen keeping an eye on," Hernandez asserted.
"C'mon, Val," Alistar added. "With that old gumbo stirrer up on point, we've never even been spotted, let alone walked into an ambush." The gumbo stirrer in question waved from the crest of a small hillock ahead. Eveready had spotted something, and the Wolves obediently waited as the Cat went in for a closer look at whatever it was.
The sun was at the final landing in its descent of the staircase at the horizon. Valentine wondered at the simplicity of the age Eveready and his own father had been born into, when a red sunset meant only a beautiful end to another day rather than the beginning of eight hours of shadowed threat.
Valentine tried listening with "hard" ears as Eveready moved up the crest of the little hill at a level so just the Cat's head could be seen from the reverse slope of the hill where the object of his attention lay. Eveready's sure footfalls snapped no branch or twig detectable to Valentine's senses, raised to atavistic acuity. Eveready stopped, having found the best vantage, and stood for a full quarter-hour, staring motionless into the lengthening shadows.
Burton, who had already acquired the veteran's knack of sleeping at any opportunity, was softly snoring by the time Eveready returned. Alistar jostled him into wakefulness with a push of his moccasined foot.
"Is it that dogleg pond where we sunk the boat?"
"It's a boat, all right," Eveready said. "But not ours. Big wooden canoe, pulled up and overturned. There weren't any leaves or twigs or anything on it, so I bet it's just been there a day or two. And I'd just about bet Trudy against one of your FreeTerritory buckchits there's oars sitting under it."
The Wolves exchanged grins, but Valentine's was forced, almost more of a grimace. Good boats didn't just get left on their own, even if they were wooden canoes. A canoe would be an impractical boat for a long patrol, and a tiring one for a trip upriver. And he knew, without knowing how he knew, that his uneasiness came from something having to do with the canoe in the same way that a plague-sheet hanging on the door of a house meant death inside. Something cold and fearful tickled at his mind.
"I say we move quick, before the owners come back," Alistar said, rubbing his palms against each other.
"It's a risk, but I'd like to be across tonight," Burton agreed. Hernandez just nodded, and the three turned to Valentine.
Eveready's eyes met his. "It's a gamble, David, but I think it's okay. You feeling all right? You look like something you ate doesn't agree with you."
Trust the Cat, who lived by and for his stomach, to chalk up Valentine's unease to indigestion.
"Just a feeling. Old Padre, the guy who raised me, used to call it a vibe. There were good ones and bad ones. I guess I'm getting a bad one. This place doesn't feel right."
Alistar made a sound that might be interpreted as clucking.
Eveready ignored it. "Son, when I used to have hair on my head, if it went up, I backed off. I wouldn't be alive today if I didn't pay attention to the part of me that was quivering like a bowl of Jell-O. Which reminds me. When the four of us are back at Newpost Arkansas, I'm going to do some trading at the butchers and make you all some apple Jell-O. My momma's own recipe, with custard creme on top."
"We'll hold you to it," Valentine said, steadiness returning to his voice. "Let's have a look at this boat of ours."
From Eveready's little hillock, it looked easy enough. The canoe was pulled up, well out of the river's reach, on a little backwater of the river. A long peninsula of land, probably an islet at some times of the year, pointed westward beyond the boat: rising and then falling away rapidly like the profile of a wooded sphinx.
Valentine, after a quick look at the overturned boat, gazed at the spur of land pointing into the river. Something about that ominous shape troubled him. But if Eveready, veteran of thirty years' guerrilla fighting against the Reapers, thought it was safe, why shouldn't he trust the wisdom that had not yet put them into danger?
Later, he castigated himself for his silence. The Wolves spaced themselves out and readied their weapons. Eveready unslung his carbine.
"I'm going to take a little look-see. You four relax, stay centered, keep your lifesign down, breathe deep. We got lucky. It'll be dark as we're trying to cross, and the moon won't be up for a while. But I want to make sure, just in case Val's radar is working better than my own."
Valentine nodded, struggling with an encouraging smile as he tried to put into practice what Eveready preached. He envisioned his body glowing with a warm red aura. As he centered himself, he envisioned that aura changing color to blue. Then he began to contract the blue, drawing it inward with each breath. As he inhaled, the blue glow shrank to a small, softly glowing ball in the center of his body. The world around him seemed to fade.
Eveready approached the boat in two great loops, moving to the low edge of the sphinx-peninsula and then back to the base of their own hill before scouting the boat more closely. He even pointed his rifle under it as he approached, but as the last of the daylight faded into twilight's gloaming, he waved the Wolves down.
The canoe was wider than most, well fashioned out of overlapping planks. Someone had put a great deal of time and effort into making it; the wood shone with a polished luster. Two men could sit abreast on its two fore-and-aft seats, and there was room for their packs under the thwarts. The canoe would have held twice their number. Four oars, matching the wood, lay underneath. They decided that the four young Wolves would row two to a side, and Eveready would sit in the center with rifle ready. Darkness grew as they inspected their prize.
"Let's get out into the current quick," Eveready ordered. "If someone starts shooting, the wood is thick enough to stop a bullet fired from anything but point-blank, so just dive into the bottom and let the river take us away. I'll row by myself if I have to. This old Reaper vest stopped a bullet in my back before. Southern Command, in its wisdom, saves this stuff for the Bears, when they can get our guys to turn in the spoils of war, that is. Many's the old Wolf that has one of these under his leathers where the officers don't see it. Not that I'm advising you young men to break regulations, now."
While Eveready stood guard, the four Wolves overturned the heavy canoe and slid it down the gentle gravelly slope. Hernandez pushed a driftwood log out of the way and hooked his hand on to the bow of the canoe as the team heaved then-transportation into the Mississippi.
"Hey, did you see this?" Hernandez asked.
Valentine peered through the blue-black night at the bow of the canoe. An insigne had been branded into the wood, scarring the delicate grain with four black bent bars. Something about the spiderish design tickled Valentine's capacious memory...
"That's a swash-sticker, I think. Only it's backwards," Al-istar said, in a hushed tone.
"The Germans and Japanese had them on their planes and stuff in World War Two, right?" Burton added, uncertainty in his voice. His schooling, like that of his comrades with the exception of Valentine, had been sporadic.
"Just the Nazi Germans," Valentine said. "But Alistar is right, it's the wrong way around."
Eveready came down from his post. "Into the boat, boys. Try not to splash around when you row. I don't like being this close to the bank."
"Eveready, this mean anything?" Valentine asked, pointing at the palm-size design on the bow.
Eveready squinted his aging eyes at the swastika. Good as his distance vision was, he struggled with his "reading eyes." For the first time in the entire summer, the big Cat looked afraid. "It means trouble. Let's not waste time; we don't want the owners to find us." He clicked the safety off on his ancient gun. Another first, and far more unsettling.
They clambered into their allotted places and took up the oars. A few lusty strokes took them away from the bank. The canoe seemed to glide on a sea of oil.
"Breathe and row, breathe and row," Eveready half chanted, kneeling in the center of the canoe. Valentine glanced at him from the right forward seat. He and Burton, the most muscular of the Wolves, provided the power for Al-istar and Hernandez at the back. Eveready searched the sphinx-shape to their right, rifle at his shoulder.
Valentine relaxed into his breathing and rowing. Reducing lifesign was a matter of falling into yourself, concentrating on a single tiny point in the center of your being, like a candle glimmering in the middle of an enormous lake.
The candle flickered.
He felt his hackles rise, a curious corkscrew electricity running up his backbone, as if Death had run a playful forefinger up his vertebrae. A cold, hard spot appeared in his mind, coming from the head of the sphinx. Unable to say what it was, he knew only that he feared it.
"Eveready," he said, voice low in his concentration. "The very top of the hill. Maybe by that big windfall trunk... I think something's up there."
The matchless night vision of the Cat searched the hilltop peak as the boat shot toward open river. Valentine dug his oar blade into the water as if trying to dig a hole for the boat to hide in.
"Val, I think you're right. It's up there, but not moving. A Reaper. Hard ears, boys. This is a sound you need to know."
Fingernails on the blackboard. The cry of a stricken hawk. Sheet metal squeezed in a compactor. Each would remember the banshee wail differently, loud and fresh and terrifying, to their dying day.
"Madre de Dios," Hernandez gasped, missing a stroke. "Shit!" he added, "I'm sorry, I dropped my oar."
"Use your rifle butt!" barked Valentine.
Other, distant wails answered the ghostly cry.
"Five," counted Eveready. "One for each of us. Hope that's luck, not planning."
The clouds thickened and dropped, bringing the horizon to a few feet from their faces. Aghast, Valentine brought his palm to the sky, barely able to see its outline.
"How the hell... do they do that?" Burton asked, puffing between strokes.
"I'd rather know how they knew we were going to hit this stretch of the river," Valentine said as he paddled.
Even in their current perilous situation, Eveready had lessons to teach. "They're disrupting your minds, not the weather. This could even mean a Kurian himself is around or working us from his Seat of Power. I've heard they can make a city seem to go up in flames, or a building catch real fire, just by willing it.
"They're reading us somehow. One or more of you might be giving off lifesign. While the swamp is full of it, if one of them were close to us, they might have picked up on ours, kept their distance, and just plotted where we were going. We'll never know for sure. The good news is that while they can swim the river, it'll take 'em a while. We can be across and separate, and head for the New Arkansas Post like hell. They'll go after whoever they can pick up on, and with luck the rest of us will make it back."
"Jesus, that's cold," Burton gasped.
"Makes sense to me," Alistar said.
Valentine swallowed his fear. "Can't do it, Eveready. We're Wolves-"
"I was a Wolf before you were born, son, and-"
"Then you should know," Valentine interrupted right back. "We stay as a team, whether it's two or two hundred. Only the dead get left behind."
"Whoever's giving off lifesign is dead already, Val," Eveready argued, trying to pierce the black curtain behind them. "Maybe not tonight, but some other trip in the future."
"We don't know they're reading lifesign. Maybe they tracked us the old-fashioned way. There are sniffer-Grogs, I'm told."
"Sorry, kid. I've got experience, and you don't. Gotta be lifesign."
Valentine broke the glum silence. "I say we put it to a vote. Every man for himself, yea or nay. If we decide to stick together, we put you off on the west shore. Alone, the way you like it." Valentine feared he might have pushed the old Cat too far. Maybe the vote would go four to one against him again, but he needed to try.
"No, no votes. Not with five Reapers on your tail," rasped Eveready.
"This isn't about you anymore," said Burton. "It's for us to say."
"Have it your way. Idiots. You know, if one Reaper catches up with you four, just one, you'll all be dead in twenty seconds. Five seconds each."
"Okay, lets take a breather," Valentine ordered, turning himself around in the boat to face his fellow Wolves. "Tradition. Youngest first. Hernandez? Every man for himself: yea or nay."
Valentine expected the sixteen-year-old to glance around at the others, or at least Alistar, for approval. But he looked squarely into Eveready's eyes. His hero. The man he called sir despite Eveready's repeated commands to knock it-off.
Valentine's heart leaped. He could have hugged the skinny youth. "Alistar?"
The tawny youth, who thought himself the leader of the Wolves through this summer, shook his head at Valentine, a half-sneer on his face. "Yea."
"Fuck you, Al," Burton spat. "Nay. And fuck you again, in case you didn't hear me the first time."
"Nay," added Valentine, trying not to grin in triumph. "Al-istar, you can get off with Eveready, if you like."
"You bet your ass I like."
"Can we get moving, Valentine?" Eveready asked.
The four rowed with renewed vigor. Valentine, feeling the energy of vindication in his limbs, dug his paddle deep into the water. Burton poured out his fury on the other side, and the canoe sped through the night.
Within five minutes, the western shore loomed out of the darkness. Alistar buckled on his pack, and Eveready jumped out and held the canoe steady. Hernandez started to put on his pack.
"Wait, Hernandez. We're staying in the boat," Valentine ordered.
"What's that?" Eveready asked.
Valentine put his oar behind his back and stretched. "Burton, let's switch places so I can use some different muscles. Eveready, you said they don't swim too fast, right? We head downriver, with the current. We'll hear any patrol boat. Go all night if we have to, then start moving overland at dawn."
"Hell, kid, if you had a plan, you should have said so. You're still taking a risk that the Reapers don't have another boat."
"You said five. This boat fits five easy. Can you still draw one off?"
Eveready smiled, apple-whitened teeth the brightest thing Valentine had seen all night, like a beacon of hope. "If one is still following me by sunrise, it won't live to see another nightfall."
"Alistar, last chance," Valentine called to the receding figure.
"You'll be bled out before dawn, Valentine," Alistar said. He turned. "Hernandez, this is your last chance, too."
The teen shook his head. "Sorry, Al. The pack stays together."
Alistar tightened his straps, managing to put contempt in the gesture. "Hope you make it anyway. I'll wait for you at Arkansas Post."
Eveready stepped closer to Valentine. "David, give me your gun."
Valentine reached into the bottom of the boat and brought up the single-shot breechloader. "Why's that?"
"We're gonna swap. I don't know if you have more guts than brains, or more brains than guts, but Trudy can pump five shots into a Reaper faster than you can count. You shot her pretty good this summer. You may need her tonight."
"Aren't you worried you'll never see her again?"
"Just don't let some Quisling mother take her off your body. Bury her at sea when she's empty. You know what I mean?"
The men exchanged rifles and ammunition. "I know what you mean. See you in hell, Cat."
"I'll be waiting, Wolf." Eveready shook his hand, then gripped his fingers in a curious gesture. "David, if you make it, tell your CO about how you sensed that Hood. That's unique. They'll want to know more about it, and you."
"I'll worry about getting home first. Take care!"
Eveready, still standing in the water, turned the canoe and pushed them southward.
"Get running, Alistar, it's every man for himself," Eveready said. "You heading north or south?"
Valentine listened with hard ears.
"I thought we could make the run together," Alistar said, deflated.
"Not a chance. I have to move fast and alone if I'm gonna draw one of these off. Take off, boy. I hope you make it, but I can't have you around me."
As they drew away, Valentine heard a shout from the Cat's muscular throat, perhaps strong enough to be heard across the river by the Hoods' ears:
"Halloo! Hoods, come on over. Eveready's in the house, and he wants to par-tay. Bring it on, you balless bastards. I got forty-five sets of teeth around my neck, motherfuckers. I wanna make it an even fifty!"
The canoe glided southward, propelled by current and oars. Valentine realized he was achingly tired; they had marched all day on light food. Water was not a problem; the center of the big muddy gave them all they could desire, clear and cool.
"Hernandez, turn in. Just relax for a couple hours in the bottom of the boat. Burt, you'll be after him. Take the stern for now. I'll take the third shift."
Hernandez almost collapsed into the center of the boat, asleep in a few seconds with his head pillowed on his pack.
"Jeez, he didn't even put his blanket down," Burton observed, after gaining the stern.
Valentine paddled on. "Anyway, you give off less lifesign when you're asleep. Just in case it was him."
"I thought it was me," Burton said.
"Funny, I thought the same thing," Valentine admitted. Both men chuckled. The canoe shot southward.
Splashing... an overactive imagination at work?
"Did you hear that, Burt?" Valentine whispered.
"Hard ears, Wolf. To the left. Didn't he say they made a lot of noise swimming?"
Burton quit rowing as both men concentrated their ears to the left. Over the wind and noise of the river, a vigorous splashing could be heard.
"Oh, hell. Sorry, Burt. Looks like I guessed wrong."
"Let's pump it, Val. We still got a chance. The fucker's a ways off, still. Hernandez," he said, knocking the sleeper with his foot. "Nap time's over, you got to do some rowing."
Hernandez yawned, pushing one arm into the sky and rubbing his eyes with the other. "Jeez, that felt great. How many hours did I sleep?"
"About two minutes. Get up here and row," Valentine ordered.
Burton tossed the oar toward him. "Reaper is swimming for us. Don't drop your oar this time."
Propelled by terror, the three men pushed themselves to a stroke every two seconds. Valentine used his hard ears to locate the splashing, which began to fade first to the left, and then astern.
"We're leaving him behind. I think," Valentine said through gritted teeth.
A few minutes would tell the tale. Valentine counted strokes. At 214, he realized the ominous splashing was getting louder.
"Hell, a Hood," Burton swore, puffing. "How fast is it going?"
"Faster than us," Hernandez said.
Valentine could not resist looking over his left shoulder every few seconds. The moon was up, but high, thin clouds muted its three-quarter face. Their strokes began to slow as exhaustion set in. Valentine saw a pale figure, arms whirling like paddle wheels, splashing along behind them.
"I can see it now," Burton said, resigned.
A horrible image of the Reaper closing remorselessly on them flickered through Valentine's mind. It would swim underwater the last few feet, push up and turn over the boat, then tear each of them to bits in the water. He looked back at the steadily gaining swimmer, moving through the water at a speed no Olympian could match, pale back visible in the moonlight.
It had removed its robes to go faster through the water.
"Take a rest," Valentine ordered, picking up Trudy. The magazine held thirty rounds. Another magazine rested in a leather pouch on the offside of the stock.
"What do you mean, take a rest? We gonna shoot ourselves?" Hernandez asked.
"I'm going to take a crack at him with Trudy," Valentine explained. "It took off its robes to go faster through the water."
"Jesus help you shoot straight," Hernandez babbled.
Valentine carefully tucked himself against the stern. He sat down, bracing his back against Burton's seat. He brought the rifle to his cheek and set the sights for a hundred yards. The two other Wolves panted as Valentine tried to quiet his own respiration and steady his trembling muscles. Exhaustion or fear? he wondered.
Breathing out, he fired three times, pausing for a second between each shot. The thirty-caliber carbine shell had a fair kick, but braced as he was, knee against the side of the canoe and back braced by the bench mounted behind him, the recoil was negligible.
Machinelike, the Reaper swam on. At this distance, Valentine couldn't make out splashes to see if he was hitting. He let the distance close another twenty yards, then fired three more times.
The Reaper dived.
Valentine scanned the surface of the water. How far could it go without air?
The wooden stock felt comforting against his cheek. He lowered the barrel slightly.
The thing breached twenty yards closer, and Valentine shot five times, missing in his panic. It disappeared underwater again.
Calm, calm, his mind told his body, but the body refused to cooperate. He quivered, unable to control the nervous tremors.
Jesus, it's close. The fierce, pale face surfaced twenty yards away, gulping air. Valentine shot, splashes erupting within inches of the head. One shot tore a black gash in its cheek. The head disappeared.
"Now, row, row for your lives!" Valentine shouted. He braced himself for the expected upheaval, as the thing tried to make it under the boat.
The canoe gained speed. Barely an arm's length away, the Reaper breached, coming halfway out of the water like a porpoise. Its mouth was open. Black teeth gleamed in its hellish fury.
Trudy spat as fast as Valentine could pull the trigger. Black holes appeared in the Reaper's chest as the spent cartridges bounced off the wooden sides of the canoe and into the water. The thing fell backward, thrashing more feebly. It rolled over and floated, facedown.
Valentine looked wonderingly at the smoking weapon and said a silent prayer for Eveready's safety. Trudy had saved their lives.
Valentine angled the canoe toward the western shore with the earliest light. There was always the chance that a river patrol would stop them. From here on, getting back into the Ozark Free Territory was just a matter of bearing northwest for a couple of days.
Burton looked back into the river. "I don't believe it. He's still coming."
The Reaper swam on, using a sidestroke motion. So bullets were useless, after all. Valentine suppressed an urge to press the barrel of the rifle under his chin and blow his own brains out in defiance.
"Let's get ashore," he said, defeated.
The others carried their packs in one hand, rifles in the other. Valentine pushed the canoe off into the current and climbed up a short ledge to the riverbank proper. Burton was already heading toward a fallen tree.
The Wolves knelt down behind the log, too tired to run. Two single-shot breechloaders and a full magazine in Trudy, Valentine thought. Plus our parangs. Enough?
The Reaper paddled toward shore, leaving a wake that aimed at their tree like an arrow.
The haze dissipated into a cloudless morning. The sun shone yellow and bright, inching above the horizon.
Valentine looked at the sky in wonder. Only rarely, outside of winter, was it this clear overhead.
"We're saved. Saved by the sun," Valentine breathed.
The Reaper reached shallower water. It, too, raised its head to the sun, but in pain rather than praise. Thin black hair lay plastered over its chest and shoulders. Bullet holes formed a reverse question mark shape on its chest, and one arm hung askew.
Valentine stood up, copying Eveready's taunt. The Reaper cocked its head, shutting its eyes to squeeze out the daylight.
"Are you coming for us?" Valentine shouted.
The Reaper straightened. Its ears were working better than its eyes. It staggered, hammered by naked sunlight.
not today, it seems, but some night, in a lonely place, you'll be taken, it hissed.
"But not by you," Valentine said, raising his rifle.
The thing dived backwards, disappearing beneath the water.
In some ways, Valentine thought, it's almost better than killing it. It ran. It was afraid.
They made New Arkansas Post in four days. The little wooden fort on a bare hill overlooking the Black River was built like something out of an old-time western, right down to the sharpened logs serving as crenellated walls. More supply depot and stable than actual fort, it still contained the welcome sight of a cantina.
Eveready was waiting for them on the cantina's porch in a rocking chair, happily munching an apple, finishing everything but the stem. Two new fangs hung from his necklace. He chided Valentine about not finding the time to properly oil Trudy's stock after exposing her delicate wood to water.
Lewand Alistar was posted as missing a week later. His family received notification the following spring, during the recruiting swing through the Council Bluffs area of Iowa.