Way of the Wolf
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The erratic war is blessedly far from the men and women quartered in this valley. They concentrate on making and repairing equipment, cutting and sewing new uniforms, eating, drinking, gambling, and trading. And most important, training. This winter, like every other for the past twenty-odd years, recruits get paired up with seasoned veterans, until the green soldiers can do what the vets do and know what the vets know. Specialists and artisans travel through, giving lessons and once in a while taking on permanent apprentices if a recruit shows unusual ability at veterinary work, perhaps, or in making quality leather goods.
The officers in charge of FortCandela make decisions and act on them. One recruit has hopelessly bad vision, another drinks too much, and another cannot keep up on practice marches. The culls are offered support jobs-honorable service in paid labor outfits-or are returned to civilian life. Those who do not try for home are absorbed by the labor-hungry farms and towns of the OzarkFreeTerritory, but a few malcontents become "bummers" and inevitably a matter for the law.
For the rest, the question becomes Guards or Hunters. Seven out often go to the Guards, the military regiments that provide a defensive core for the OzarkFreeTerritory. Guard service is rewarding: The soldiers get the finest uniforms Southern Command can produce, ample ammunition for marksmanship training, and frequent parties and barbecues, games and riding contests. Many of them are mounted, adding to their dash and swagger. They also get plenty of opportunities to mix with civilians. No New Year's dance is complete without a handsome contingent of young Guards in polished boots and crisp charcoal-gray uniforms, kepis with regimental-colored neckerchiefs hanging to precisely the base of their tunic collars. The Guards are the well-ordered, well-disciplined, reassuring face of Southern Command, who can and do fight, giving their lives in defense of wives, children, and sweethearts.
The others-the men and women who will become cold-eyed Hunters ranging outside the friendly reaches of the Ozark Free Territory to slay the minions and Quislings of the Kurians-are brought before the Lifeweavers.
A glossy black house cat named Sailor Tom ruled the cabin with an iron paw. Six men shared the bunkhouse nestled in a hollow between two spurs of FourcheMountain, but none disputed the feline's claim to the warmest chair by the stone fireplace or the best tidbit from the steer quarter hung in the cool room. The heavy cat looked like a witch's familiar with a lynx somewhere in the family tree. He strutted around the cabin on muscular rear legs, half-wild and all attitude. Sailor Tom asserted his authority with a rising corkscrew growl that blossomed into a biting, clawing fury aimed at anyone foolish enough to ignore that first and only warning. He gained his nickname when one Wolf declared, "If that torn spoke English, you just know he'd be cussing like a sailor." The men tolerated the bad-tempered cat and pointed him out to recruits as an example of tenacity to be imitated. The men depended on stored food to get them through the winter, and Sailor Tom exterminated trespassing mice, rats, squirrels, and even rabbits with samurai spirit.
The cat's realm encompassed a two-room, sooty kingdom full of beds and furniture as roughly finished as the men who occupied them. A fireplace of watercourse stones dominated one entire wall at the "sitting" part of the bunkhouse, and a two-hundred-years-old-and-still-going-strong potbellied stove warmed the "sleeping" part, a musky warren of bunk beds and old blankets hung for gloomy privacy.
Four veteran Wolves and two recruits shared the cabin. Pankow, Gavineau, Big Seth, and Imai saw to it that neither David Valentine nor Marquez, the other Wolf Aspirant, enjoyed a moment's peace. Anytime they were not actually in the field or attending a lesson as part of their caste training, the four Senior Wolves dedicated themselves to seeing mat the would-be Hunters idled as little as possible. Not just with training. Marquez found himself held responsible for the firewood supply and general cabin maintenance. The firewood might seem an easy task for a man in the middle of a forest, but the Wolves insisted he fell, and consequently haul, the timber from two miles away. If he so much as looked at one of the bushy pines surrounding the cabin, the trainers accused him of wanting to expose their temporary home to the enemy.
The Wolves assigned everything else to Valentine. "Everything else" included cooking, washing up, laundry, stocking the pantry, mending, disposing of Sailor Tom's half-eaten corpus rodentia, and the morning ersatz coffee. The men accepted a certain amount of slackness and inefficiency in all his responsibilities excepting the last. No matter that Valentine may have returned from a night orientation march exhausted at the first pink of dawn, if the coffee was not steaming and ready to be poured at the customary rising hour of 6 a.m., he was thoroughly cursed and punished. This required a fell run up Bald Knob, a forty-degree-grade hill bare of trees, under the disapproving eyes of the four coffeeless Wolves.
Valentine learned from all four, but his principal mentor was Evan Pankow. The child of a representative from Ohio, the then seven-year-old congressman's son had watched his privileged world disappear in a few insane weeks when the Raving Madness virus swept the United States. Young Evan was one of the few people immune to the virus. While this protected him from a death that claimed better than three quarters of the United States population, his genes were useless against the war and chaos that followed. He followed a stream of refugees into the tidewater of Virginia, where he got his first taste of the Kurian Order. He witnessed an albino man with yellowish eyes and a soft voice claiming to be a "crisis governor" kill an entire family in a hotel room. The boy, forever after avoiding the Reapers, was flown southwest by a woman who had also witnessed the "crisis governor" in action. Pankow had lost his parents, and she had lost a son, leading the two to form an increasingly real mother-son bond.
The pilot's name was Jamie Kostos, a former journalist who wrote some of the first pamphlets examining the Kurian Order. Her early writings, accurate in fact but mistaken in analysis, brought her to the attention of the Lifeweavers. Through her, Evan became a student of the Lifeweavers and a Wolf.
In his twenties, Pankow helped found Southern Command. Now fifty, with a seamed face and world-weary eyes that reminded Valentine of a Karsh portrait of Ernest Hemingway he had seen in one of the Padre's books, Pankow devoted himself to training a new generation of Wolves to carry on the struggle.
One late-February afternoon, with snow camouflaging the mud surrounding the little cabin, Pankow lectured his Aspirant about, of all things, tea.
"It's way too easy, when you're outdoors and on the move, to just eat rabbits and such," Pankow said, running his ungloved hand across the soft needles of a mountain spruce. "Especially in cold weather, you get hungry for meat and fat, and forget about everything else. But you've got to get your greens. You know what vitamins are?"
"Yes, I do, sir. It's those letters, A, B, C, and so on," David responded.
"Yeah, well, when I was a squirt we got them in stuff like breakfast cereal, little candy pills: damn near everything said 'vitamin fortified." Now it's not so easy, it being winter. Take these spruce needles. In the spring, the little buds taste pretty good; you can just chew them. But if we pull some of these needles and boil them up into tea, you get as much vitamin C as from an orange, even. Ever had an orange?"
Valentine shook his head.
"Too bad. Sweet and juicy like a watermelon, but tart, too. Anyway, your greens aren't a problem in summer; any fool can pull up a dandelion, chew its leaves, and roast the root, but winter's a different story. You don't get your vitamins, you end up losing teeth, getting fevers. You'll catch some virus and die even if the scurvy doesn't take you. Trappers in Canada used to die of it; rabbit fever, it was called. They were starving their bodies to death while stuffing themselves with fresh meat every night. So never just eat meat, on the trail or at home. Add a lot of greens if you value your eyesight and your teeth."
"We should just raid more food off the Kurians," Valentine suggested.
Pankow scowled. "That's not so easy. But before you can fight, you have to be healthy in mind and body. I know it seems hard, what we've been having you do, but soon your body's going to be like a whole new machine. We're trying to get you as strong as possible so nothing quits on you once you start keeping the Way of the Wolf."
"When will that be?"
"Not for me to say. Not for you to say, not for the captain to say. It's up to the old Wizard. He might be watching you now, he might be advising the governor in Mountain Home. One thing is for sure, no one who meets him comes away the same as he was before."
Back at the cabin, like a demon invoked by mention of his name, word from the Lifeweaver waited in the form of a small printed list. The cabin was empty save for Seth and Sailor Tom, both napping in front of the Franklin stove.
"Amu's called an Invocation," Big Seth explained from his modified bunk. Reinforced wooden wings accommodated his six-foot-six-inch frame and supported an elongated mattress of his own making. "Starting Saturday and running for a week. One hundred fifteen fresh Wolves in this batch, thank God."
"Nice to see the roster growing this year. Many's the sum-mer we had less than the year before. Let's see the list," Pankow said, reaching for the typed sheet of paper.
"Marquez made it. Bad news, Valentine," he said, watching Valentine's face fall. "You made it, Valentine. In fact, you're last on the list."
Valentine felt ambivalent at Pankow's joke, but a little pride still crept into his voice. "At least I made it, even if I'm dead last."
"Don't take it that way, son," Big Seth interjected. "It isn't good or bad, being last. Just means they may want to take more time."
"Doing what? Tattoos, a Vulcan mind-meld, what?"
Pankow laughed. "Hell, Valentine, where did you come up with that? Little before your time, and they haven't done reruns in over forty years."
"My dad liked to read science fiction. The man who brought me up after he died taught me to read my dad's books. But what is this transformation you all keep hinting about?"
Big Seth and Pankow exchanged a look. Pankow shook Valentine's hand.
"You'll just have to meet Father Wolf and see for yourself. Magic, son, is a little hard to explain."
The week dragged on, and Valentine made it pass more quickly by devouring the few books in the cabin. A heavy snowstorm came, and the Wolves relaxed the tough schedule shared by the two Aspirants. Valentine gratefully retreated to his bunk. Pankow gave him a pamphlet written by his foster mother. Printed in heavy, slightly smeared type and cumber-somely titled Fallen Gods: The History, Theory, and Practice of the Kurian Order, it was fifty pages relating the history of the Lifeweavers, their schism over the use of vital auras to attain immortality, and the Kurian takeover of Earth.
The Kurians failed in their first effort to take Earth because it was chaotic, badly planned, and they had not even consolidated their victory on Kur itself, where knots of Lifeweaver resistance slowed them. Humanity owes these brave lost souls a four-thousand-year debt of gratitude. Mankind in its primitive, isolated state was less vulnerable to the spread of the Ravies plague and quicker to accept the word and help of the Lifeweavers.
We hunted the horrors that came over from Kur, closed the doors, and having eradicated the threat promptly forgot about it two hundred years before Stonehenge was built. Vampires became rumor, then legend, and the Caste of the Bear trickled down into human legend as the berserkers of the Norse sagas.
Certainly a Kurian or two remained on Earth, lurking in untraveled corners of the globe. And Kurian-de-signed spawn, now known generically as Grogs and individually through slang and names out of mythology, no doubt survived to trouble humanity now and again as it pushed back the borders of the unknown.
But though the Gates of the Interworld Tree were closed, the Kurians in their red-clouded underground world learned in the long years of their exile how to open new ones. When and where the first of the new portals were opened is a matter of some dispute. Even the Lifeweavers are unable to say. It could have been as early as the Dark Ages in the Balkans, or as late as the eighteenth century. Opening the portals requires enormous sacrifices of vital auras to achieve, but after the first Kur came through the new Gate or Gates, humanity aided the Kurians in this all too frequently.
Humanity took the first step toward its own overthrow. Over the years, the Kurians recruited human allies, perhaps by striking Faustian bargains. The Kurian moles gained positions of trust and authority in society.
With the new millennium, the dragon's teeth sown in the last hundred or so years of man's history were ready to grow. In the first week of June 2022, they sprang the trapdoor on the vital auras of Earth's seven billion inhabitants.
The door to the cool room opened noisily, and Gavineau entered the cabin. He walked over to the hearth, apparently not seeing Valentine, and took the jug of busthead down from its place on the shelf. Gavineau collapsed in the leather-webbed camp chair by the empty fireplace, took a long pull, and stared at the cold ashes. Sailor Tom took advantage of the warm lap, and Gavineau scratched the cat between the ears without looking at it. Valentine considered greeting him, but didn't wish to be given something to do. He returned to his booklet.
The world was already a miserable place in the spring of that cursed year. The New Depression was at its height. Stocks fell, jobs were lost, and consumer consumption fell in a corporate death spiral as the aging technoczars were revealed to have feet of clay. Financial institutions underreacted, the government overreacted, and a society living on borrowed time paid for with borrowed dollars failed. Hard times and hunger came to the Western world, which was all the more of a shock because the generation that survived the last financial collapse had virtually died out.
Ancient hatreds smoldered and burst into flame. Europe saw its first real war in generations over food tariffs; China used America's preoccupation with its economy to overrun Taiwan. Russia and Japan, both backing different factions in Europe and the Pacific Rim, started a naval war that the United States, in its last great overseas commitment, stopped by cordoning off the two powers.
Civil unrest over the use of American wealth and resources abroad with so many suffering at home erupted into violence. Paramilitary groups took a hodgepodge of economic, political, and even racial grievances to the ultimate court of violence. A few polarizing and charismatic leaders further unraveled the tattered American social fabric.
The Earth itself added its cataclysmic voice to the dissonant chorus of human suffering. A worldwide string of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions leveled cities and made ash-covered wastelands of regions near the volcanoes. Particles in the atmosphere changed the climate more to the Kurians' liking. As if the tectonic damage was not enough, a plague added to the chaos. People called it rabies, but its twenty-four-to seventy-two-hour incubation cycle and mind-altering effects made the cure seem more like a job for exorcists than doctors. Wild mobs tore through the cities in a biting and clawing frenzy that shattered civic order.
Not even suspected at the time was that both events were long planned. Kurian technology allowed the fallen Lifeweavers to use the Earth itself as a weapon, and the disease, which we know today as Raving Mad-ness, had appeared on Earth in the first Kurian invasion. The pale, robed Reapers began to walk the night.
The Reapers strode into the maelstrom, alternately cowing and killing. They commanded legions of Grogs, genetically altered creatures designed to break up opposition. As fearless in battle as army ants, but far more cunning, the Grogs come in many shapes and sizes. The most common form is a large rhino-hided ape, with hands and brains capable of using weaponry from assault rifles to armored personnel carriers.
The military and civil forces of the United States, already unable to deal with the plague and widespread destruction, succumbed as spare parts, ammunition, and especially morale ran out. A few Kurian agents and collaborators in the command structure helped orchestrate defeat on a grand scale. In the final extreme, a scorched-earth policy destroyed military bases and their equipment to keep them out of the hands of the Kurians. A few nuclear and chemical weapons were used in the last gasp of the war, but this added to the suffering rather than slowing the Kurian takeover. The end came with a bang and a whimper. The president shot himself when he learned his family had caught the Raving Madness virus at a riot in Quantico, and the vice president fled with a few leading members of congress to Mount Omega after she read the president's final executive order. In it, the despairing president declared, like the captain of a sinking ship, that the situation was "every man for himself."
The United States, and as far as we can tell the rest of the world, belonged to the Kurians within a year.
Valentine could understand why Kostos ended her life a hard-drinking woman. The facts of life of the New World Order came more easily to Valentine, who had been born well after the Kurian takeover. No memories of the vanished security and assorted technological delights of the past haunted him, just a wistful curiosity. He sometimes felt a schism between himself and Pankow's generation, including even the Padre. They cherished and fought for the past, a flag with stars and stripes, a way of living that would probably never return. Valentine wanted to win back his future.
A creaking from the sitting part of the room and a disgruntled miaow from Sailor Tom made Valentine glance up from the old red pamphlet and look at Gavineau. The Wolf set the jug on the floor and shuffled over to his bed, a sad and sick look visiting his face with every intention of staying the night.
"You okay, Don?"
"Hey, Val," he slurred. "Didn't see you there. Pankow giving you some slack?"
"He rode up the Happy Trail today," Valentine explained. The Happy Trail Getaway was a saloon where the bartender was friendly to the Wolves and the girls were even friendlier, if the words were kind and the price was right, the price being anything from a new pair of shoes to an old song, depending on the charm of the man. "I think he's letting up on me with the Invocation a day away. All I had to do was draw him a hot bath and put an edge on the razor. He told me I couldn't eat anything, and just to take it easy. Wouldn't tell me why I couldn't eat, though."
"Valentine, Marquez is dead. Can't think of any other way to say it."
The Aspirant's thoughts about-faced and came to attention in a hurry. "What?"
Gavineau sat on his bed, a bunk away from Valentine's. A sheet of laundry hung between them.
"It just happens sometimes, boy," said Gavineau.
"He made it through the Invocation fine. It's not like you run an Indian gantlet or something," slurred Gavineau. "He got out of the cave and just lost it. It can affect you funny. I remember I got out of mine and all I could smell was wood smoke on everything. He looked around like he didn't know where he was and took off at a run. Jumped right off the damn cliff. I remember two years ago one kid quit eating after it. Wouldn't touch any food, always saying it was diseased or filthy or something. He starved himself to death, just threw up when we force-fed him. Usually the guys who come over funny are just jumpy for a couple of days, then they come round. Bad business with Marquez. A couple others volunteered to go down and get the body. I only saw it from three hundred feet up."
"My God, what made-?"
"Hey, David, don't let it get to you," he said. "He just wasn't wired right, and sometimes not even the Wizard can spot that. You'll be fine."
Gavineau's drunken prediction was something Valentine reminded himself of again and again as he climbed the mountainside with ten other Aspirants, the last set supposed to meet with the Lifeweaver known variously as Amu, the Wizard, and Father Wolf.
Named WinterhomeMountain, the 2,200-foot cap of rock and snow looked like a shark's tooth from some angles and a sagging tepee from others. The cave was a little more than halfway up, set back from Marquez's fatal cliff by a sloping meadow. Five goats grazed there, some stripping bark from the stunted mountain pine and others pawing at the lingering snow fo expose dead bracken underneath.
Two totem poles flanked the crescent-shaped entrance to the cave. Carved wolf heads, ears erect and eyes alert, crowned the poles. Carved names covered the rest of the pole, some with dates written afterwards. Valentine decided these must be the tollpoles, mobile gravestones for Wolves who died in battle. Not so bad, Valentine thought, a few hundred names for twenty years of fighting.
Just inside the cave eleven more poles, filled with tightly packed names, formed an arch the recruits filed under like a wedding party passing under crossed swords. Valentine paused and ran a finger over the carved names on one of the poles. Would his name join the long list?
The tunnel widened into a teardrop-shaped cave with a curtain at one end. What might have been a tapestry decorated the curtain; Valentine couldn't make out much in the dim light trickling in from the entrance even after his eyes adjusted. The two Wolves guiding them motioned for them to sit.
"Just keep quiet, and let him work you one at a time," one of them warned. "After the ceremony, they'll be kinda twitchy, so keep still and quiet when they come out."
The curtain moved as a wet black nose appeared. A canine head the size of a champion pumpkin lifted the curtain, revealing blazing blue eyes that reminded Valentine of a husky from the Boundary Waters. A wolf that could be mistaken for a pony by its size strode into the ring of Aspirants sitting around the edges of a cave. It had striking white fur, with black tips visible only up close. It sniffed each man, stepping sideways on paws" the size of horseshoes.
"Thank you all for earning your places in this cave," a rich, cultivated voice came from the wolf's mouth, which did not seem to be forming any words. The wolf quivered and blurred, to be replaced by a smiling old man. "Forgive the dramatic entrance; it's an illusion that impressed your ancestors. I continue it out of love of tradition. Ahem. I hope you all know who I am."
"Amu," said some of those present. "The Wizard," said a few others. Valentine just nodded. There was something noble and strong about the man, Valentine thought, but with just a hint of tired lunacy in his frosty blue eyes. Valentine for some reason thought of Cervantes's Don Quixote.
"My name is not as important as who I am, a matter entirely different from a simple name. For I am going to be your Father. You all have a biological father who started your life, and most of you believe in a spiritual father who will take you unto him after death. I am here to be a third Father. I will give you rebirth."
Eleven separate faces digested this.
"Yes, I am speaking in riddles. Riddles are simple, usually after you hear the answer. But I am a busy man and would prefer to deal with each of you individually. Michael Jeremy Wohlers," the Wizard said, standing in front of a husky, curly-haired youth. "I'll see you first."
The prospective Wolf shot to his feet, narrowly missing crashing his head against the ceiling. "How did-?"
"I didn't," interrupted the Wizard, opening the curtain and gracefully pointing with his chin to the inner cavefti. "You did."
Valentine spent four increasingly sore hours waiting his turn. Hungry, anxious, cold, and confused seemed a strange way to go through this invocation ceremony. He watched each of the ten other recruits emerge one at a time from behind the tapestry and stare about at those remaining as if they had never seen them before. Pete, the Viking giant who came down from northern Minnesota with Valentine, looked around at the remaining Aspirants suspiciously, as if fifteen minutes ago he had not been shifting from one aching buttock to the other with the rest of them.
"Pete, how'd it go?" Valentine asked. The blond jumped away from Valentine like a horse startled by a firecracker. His head connected with the cavern roof with the audible thump of a dropped melon, and he crashed to the ground, unconscious.
"Told you to keep quiet. If he ain't up by the time you're done, you're carrying him out," one of the Wolves said.
Pete began to groan and rolled onto all fours. He retched, vomiting clear liquid across the floor of the cave.
"Oh, that's just fine," the second Wolf said. "Now the other three are sure to puke."
Pete staggered to his feet and lurched out of the cave, rubbing the back of his head.
And puke they did. As the last two returned to the cave, they each added their own puddles of bile to the floor of the cave before fleeing to the open air outside. Valentine wondered if this was the reason for the orders not to eat anything.
"You're up, kid," one said.
"Through the looking glass you go, Alice," added the other.
He pulled the tapestry aside and stepped through. Behind him, he heard one Wolf say to the other, "Glad this happens only twice a year."
The tunnel wound downward, illuminated by nearly guttered candles set into the irregular sides of the cave. Valentine counted twenty paces before a second heavy piece of cloth blocked his progress. He didn't know whether to just open it, say his name, or tap on the material. He cleared his throat.
"Come in, come in, Valentine the Younger."
He entered, bending beneath the low rock arch.
The cave was warm and well lit, with a clean, inviting smell, which Valentine identified as balsam. The warmth and light came from an apple-size glowing ball that floated a few inches below the cave's eight-foot ceiling. It was bright but somehow did not pain Valentine's eyes, even when he looked directly at it. The room reminded Valentine of the inside of an igloo, were the igloo constructed out of grayish ice.
Father Wolf sat cross-legged in the center of the room on a woven rug. The floor of the cave was a mass of pine needles and small branches, with more patterned rugs thrown over the boughs. Five four-legged wolves snored in a companionable heap near the door.
"My bodyguard, you might say," said Amu. "Long ago, in another part of your world, I traveled with twenty of them. It made more of an impression on those simple folk: they lived in fear of wolves. I have grown rather fond of them, and should our enemies discover me here, I would remask myself and slip out with them. Sit down, please."
Valentine sat, grateful for the cushioning needles and rug after the hard floor of the outer cave.
"What do you want me to do?" Valentine asked.
"The question would be better put as what do you want to do. Why did you leave Minnesota? You did not come south just for a change of geography."
"I want to do my part."
The Wizard smiled at this. "Simply put. I hear something a little different from each young man or woman. They want to defend hearth and home, liberate their enslaved fellow men, and kick the invaders back into their kennels.
"What is needed from you, and what you can give me if you are true to yourself, is an outlet for your hatred. Hatred makes for good killers. The word is anathema; your religions rightly discourage it because it makes poor mortar for a society. But, young Valentine, your race is being eaten. You should be consumed by hate; your every breath should be drawn to curse your enemies. It gives you energy and a purpose and a determination that only love matches. The more you love your fellow men, the more you should be aflame with hatred for your foe. Your culture is so full of the image of the reluctant warrior that it is an archetype. The man who kills regretfully, who goes into battle terrified but gets the job done and then shows mercy to his enemy afterwards. That kind of man will keep the FreeTerritory upright for a while. But he will not win the war. Not against this enemy.
"There is a beast in you that I'm going to help you release. If you agree, that is. I give fair warning, though. It means a vicious life and perhaps a hard end. You will live only to kill our enemies until you yourself are slain. Few of my warriors retire to marry as your father did. So if you want a role inside the human family, I'm giving you a chance to walk out of this cave and down the hill with your humanity intact. You can serve with honor in the Guards, living up to the image of noble crusader, or go back into hiding. There are many ways to do the right thing. Stay with us, though, and you will become the thing the enemy fears in the night. The prey will become the predator."
Valentine wondered how many refused the offer. How many men wanted to be killers? He had expected physical or mental tests, not a moral one. He thought of his father but could not make the connection between the Wizard's animalistic killers and the quiet man who was shot to death in his own backyard.
"Why don't the Lifeweavers fight? I would think that with your technology, magic I've heard it called, you'd be able to beat the Kurians."
The Wizard seemed a little surprised. "Usually I ask the questions, but I will do my best to answer yours: We are not any good at it. It would be like you defecating in your pants. You could do it if you put your mind to it, but you would not enjoy the experience, and until you had a chance to clean yourself, you would probably be preoccupied. We toilet-trained ourselves far too long ago, we are not numerous, and my ability to change into a wolf does not mean I could bite like one.
"You Homo sapiens, on the other hand, are almost perfect killing machines. You are flexible, aggressive, intelligent, and inventive. We examined life-forms on twelve worlds, and you half-savages revert to your terrible earlier selves with greater alacrity than any other. So we help you fight your battles, and in doing so you fight our war for us. Or am I speaking in riddles again?"
"No, I understand. It's your method I question. Instead of arming us with some kind of advanced technology, you turn us feral. That seems a strange way to help us win a war."
The Wizard abruptly disappeared, only to emerge from the dome-shaped cave's other exit, carrying what looked like a small mirror on a stand. "I am sorry," he said to the startled young man. "I had to get this, and I didn't want to interrupt, so I left you talking to an image. You said you understood, David. It is clear that you do not. I'm giving you the most powerful weapon on the planet: yourself at your full potential."
"I thought I was supposed to make up my mind."
"You did, David, you did," he said, sitting again opposite the young man. "The moment you thought of your father, and his death, and wondered if he was the kind of man I want you to become. You may not have felt it, but to me your fury was white hot. You can hide your rage from yourself, but not from me. It is so big, I wonder where you put it so you can sleep at night."
The item the Wizard placed between them looked like a plate-sized round mirror. It hovered at face level between them, held up by the same mysterious force that kept the light globe near the ceiling. Valentine saw in it only his own reflection, but fuzzy and out of focus, conforming to his general outline.
"What is this?" he asked.
Amu's face appeared in the mirror. The Lifeweaver's visage melted and shifted as though his skin were made of clouds boiling in the wind. "You could say it's the surgeon's scalpel, David. I will use it to operate on you. There is a cup in front of you. Drink up."
Valentine looked at the woven rug. A wooden cup, round like a hollowed-out coconut, sat before him. Had it been sitting there all the time? Valentine sniffed at it suspiciously.
"Just a little something to facilitate the ceremony. It is tasteless."
Valentine drank. Just before consciousness faded, he looked into the mirror-thing. First he saw his face, then the Wizard's, then a wolf's. The images flickered together: Wizard-Wolf-Self-Wizard-Wolf-Self-Wizard-Wolf-Self. Only the eyes were all the same. But they were not his. Not Amu's. The Wolf's. Valentine found himself fixing on the eyes of the three faces as they morphed from one manifestation to the next, all sharing the same ice-blue stare.
The young Wolf awoke to an overwhelming farrago of sounds and smells. The pine needles, musty rugs, dried lichen on the walls, and living wolves all vied to overthrow his brain. He could hear their heartbeats as with a stethoscope. Their breathing sounded like a gale. Too much! Too much! his brain shrieked at him. He leaped up and hurled himself away from the sleeping pack as if flung by a catapult, bruising himself with the force of the impact against the wall.
David, stay calm. Your senses are just sharpened up a little, that is all, Amu's voice in his head whispered in a soothing monotone. I will help you through your first days; then you will learn on your own. You must learn to switch your senses between two levels, "hard" and "soft." You have to learn how to hear with soft ears and smell with soft nose first. You will use the hard ears and hard nose later, to sense over distance.
"Where are you?" Valentine asked, hearing the echo of his voice in the outer cavern where he had waited before being called.
I have linked us. I cannot understand you very well. I am not as gifted as some in this type of communication with human thought-shapes. I just get impressions about your emotions. You need to take a deep breath, fill your lungs with air, and relax. Draw everything back into your center. Soften your eyes, let them go out of focus; soften your ears, let them relax and listen to the sound of the empty air in front of you; soften your nose and smell the heat of the light cube. -
Valentine tried to relax, but the smell and sound of the slumbering wolves kept beating down the barriers. He felt dazed.
You are doing very well. I think you are a natural. Try to walk out of the cave the way you came in.
The musty old tapestry at the door reeked abominably, and he hurried past it. His legs were suddenly working too fast and he crashed into the cavern wall like a mechanized toy bouncing off an obstacle in its path. He steadied himself, but the flickering candles sounded like whip cracks in his ears.
Center! Center! the voice implored. No, you still don't have it. Let me help you.
Valentine felt himself steady, the cacophony of sensations fading into the background. He made it to the other curtain, but as he pushed through it, the acidic vomit smell overthrew him. His gorge rose and joined the slick mess on the floor.
"Serves you right," one of the Wolves thundered. Valentine leaped forward in alarm, but could not keep control of his spastic body and missed the exit. He ricocheted off the unforgiving stone and came away bleeding at the forehead. The coppery-smelling fluid infiltrated his nostrils, took over his sense of smell.
Breathe, breathe, bring it back to your center. Try crawling outside. You are fine.
The young Wolf did not feel fine.
"Hell, I think Father Wolf turned him all the way up," he heard one man whisper behind cupped palm.
On hands and knees, Valentine crawled through the cave, toward the light outside. He could smell the blood trail behind.
"The Wizard thought that Marquez was something special, too. Sent him right off the cliff," the other muttered back.
Valentine, remembering what had happened yesterday, brought himself back down with a determined effort. The world seemed almost normal. He climbed to his feet.
Good, good. Outdoors can be a little much; just keep breathing into your center and drawing everything back to that place inside you. You will learn in time. A good bloodhound controls his nose without even realizing it, the way you focus your eyes. You will be able to do the same soon.
Valentine made it into the daylight. Clear blue filled the sky overhead, a rarity on Kurian Earth. The snow seemed to gleam, and even across the valley, Valentine's visual acuity was such mat he literally could not see the forest for the individual bees. It smelled as if he were standing in the center of the world's largest goat farm, despite the fact that the three goats stood a hundred yards away. Downwind.
He centered on his own. David, try to find some goat droppings. The voice in his head still made him uncomfortable. Although his nose told him he was in a sea of goat shit, he localized it with an effort and walked toward the still-warm source, pausing less and less frequently as he drew nearer. He found he could play with his ears as easily as his eyes. He located a creaking branch, and listened to one of the goats pull up fodder from beneath the snow.
There you are, he thought at the end of his pungent treasure hunt, standing over the rounded mass.
Now, David, you are doing excellently. Follow the trail the goats left. Not by using the tracks in the snow, but with your nose. Shut your eyes as much as possible. Hear and smell your way down the mountainside.
It occurred to him that none of the other Wolves had explored the field in this way. He would have known, since most of them had left within the last few hours and there were only a few irregular, staggering footprints in the field. He took a deep bream, closed his eyes, and began to smell for the bail left by the odiferous goats.
And fell flat on his face. A tree root hidden in the snow snagged his foot. Usually he was agile enough to catch himself if bipped, but his usual reflexes had gone AWOL. He had the disquieting sensation of being in a different body. The only memory he could compare it to was his rare all-day fishing expeditions in Minnesota: taking a small boat into a lake and then feeling a little unsteady on his feet when he returned to dry land.
He got up, closed his eyes again with an effort, and began walking with an unsteady tread like a drunk doing a Frankenstein's monster imitation. He found he could hear the location of trees by the sound of wind in the pine needles. He sensed a branch ahead and leaned back to avoid it, and fell flat on his back.
The goats showed a penchant for investigating clumps of thorny bramble. After a painful rake across his lips, he cursed and opened his eyes.
No peeking, Amu admonished.
Valentine sucked the blood from his punctured lip, took a deep breath, and tried again. He leaned forward and found the going easier with his hands placed ahead and his nose closer to the trail. Even when he bashed his head straight into a tree trunk, coming away with sticky pine bark tangled in his hair, he managed to keep his eyes closed. He found himself able to concentrate on the trail, letting the other senses fade into the background, like a reader absorbed in a book using just her eyes and her brain.
The odor became stronger, and he let out a yip like a foxhound. He began to lope, ignoring the bruises and scrapes as he bounced down the slope. He heard a panicked bleat from something ripe and warm, and he leaped. The goat collapsed under him, kicking.
The animal's struggles brought him out of his trance. He found himself with a mouthful of goat hair, feeling as if he had just woken from a vivid dream. He released the unfortunate herbivore.
"Sorry, Billy. I got carried away."
Terrible! the Wizard shouted into his brain. Had you been following someone with a gun, they would have shot you like a frothing dog. You mustn't go feral. Do it again, but this time see if you can find one of your fellow Wolves as they disperse. Just follow him, don't let him see you. Open your eyes now and then if you must, but try to work with your former semi-dormant senses as much as possible. Practice, because when it's for real, there are no second chances, David.
David Valentine, Wolf of the Southern Command, got his new, awkward, battered body to its feet, closed his eyes, and stalked on.