Way of the Wolf
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Independent farmers from as far away as DrewCounty come to barter with the Southern Command Commissioners. The town itself boasts eight churches, a high school, blacksmiths and boatwrights, teamsters and tailors. The Guards stable their horses at the old Livestock Showgrounds, and no less than a full regiment known as the Bluffs protects the Old Arsenal, the largest and arguably the best munitions plant in the FreeTerritory. The Old Arsenal produces everything from bullets to bombs, protected by the heaviest concentration of pre-Overthrow machine guns in Southern Command. In town, the Molever Industrial Wood Products plant has switched from making pallets to sturdy wagons and river barges, and numerous craftsmen exhibit their wares each weekend at the Sixth Avenue Street Market. On evenings each weekend, the Saenger Theater Players sing, dance, and act out famous scenes from old movies and plays. The aged theater's cool limestone and Florentine decor make an opulent break from the meanness of everyday life. Shakespeare makes an occasional appearance on the billboard, but more often a tear-streaked heroine shakes her fist at the sky against a fiery red backdrop, vowing never to be hungry again, or a pair of lovers affirm deathless devotion as they cling to wreckage behind billowing sheets meant to represent an icy sea.
There is a sense of stability, order, and permanence to the place that the settlements on the other borders lack. The tracts of relatively empty Louisiana and Mississippi wetlands protect it from quick forays, and the Guards are experienced at fighting river-borne incursions. Their clothes are a little better, the food is a little more varied, and the buckchits are more welcome here than in the remoter regions of the FreeTerritory. There is a regular newspaper and more regular mail, and even a social stratification of sorts has taken hold, for better or worse. The complacency here is a true achievement, one paid for in blood on the other borders.
David Valentine received orders to join Zulu Company at Pine Bluff shortly after making his report to the officers at New Arkansas Post. With the gift of an aged horse from the post commander, a haversack of food from the supply sergeant, and a parting bag of apples from Eveready, he rode west up the scenic, if broken-down, western highway. Once known as US Highway 65, now called the Arkansas River Trail, it is one of the better all-weather pikes of the FreeTerritory. Making easy stages out of respect for his slow-stepping mount, Valentine reached the shores of LakePine Bluff.
Valentine smelled the sentries before he saw them. The tobacco and wood-smoke odor meant there were men in the little earthen bunker even if nothing could be seen in the gloom beneath the head logs. A pair of horses stood side to side swishing flies in the morning breeze inside a little split-rail corral overlooking the broken road. Valentine sniffed again and suspected halfhearted enforcement of latrine discipline in what, to the Guards anyway, must seem wilderness.
Head bobbing and ears forward, his horse quickened its walk. The roan gelding was old and wise and knew the smell of horses on a good diet.
A slight figure in a charcoal-gray uniform, comfortably barefoot with riding boots off, appeared from the dugout and waved. Valentine turned his horse with a gentle nudge of his moccasined heel.
"Good morning, stranger," said the youth, teal blue kepi and neckerchief proclaiming his membership in the Bluff Regiment. "What's your business up in town?"
Valentine brought up his forearm, palm outward, in the old Indian greeting. Not quite a salute, but friendly enough.
"Good morning," responded Valentine, but as most of his mornings began at the first pink of dawn, it seemed a little late for the salutation. "I'm three days out of New Arkansas Post with orders to report to the Commanding Wolf. Whereabouts can I find Captain LeHavre?"
"I need to see your orders," the sentry said, holding out his hand.
"They're verbal. The Wolves don't use much paper, Bluff."
"Then I can't let you through. We can send a message to get one of your Wolves in for escort, but I don't have authority to let you through."
More like too much authority and too little brain, Valentine thought. A good empiricist, he decided to test the theory. "Is that so? What's up the road that a man with a single-shot rifle on an old horse might take out, anyway?"
The soldier patted his rifle stock.
"Maybe you're a spy, come to look at the arsenal. Count the machine-gun posts, map out the tanglefoot paths. Maybe you're going to set fire to a barge full of black powder and blow up everything on the dock-"
"Enough of that, Johnson," a stern female voice called from the bunker. "If he is a spy, he can turn around now. You just told him all he needs to know." A middle-aged, uniformed woman came out of the bunker and approached the road in the measured, confident stride of NCOs the world over. "We heard a Wolf was coming in from downriver. I figured you'd be on foot by now; any horse old Gregory would part with has got to be on its last trip. Is there news?"
"Not that I'm aware of. You're wrong about the horse, he's a nice ride, long as you don't ask more than he wants to give. Good thing, too, since I'm bareback," Valentine said.
"You'll find LeHavre up the road a few miles, just into town proper. The Wolves always camp at Old Harbor Woods, right at the north bend in the river. There's a brick entrance off the road, says it was a golf course. Still is, actually, on the sheep meadow. Don't have time for the game myself. You'll see your little tepees around the old clubhouse. Tell Captain LeHavre that Brit Manning says hi. We were at Webber's Falls together."
"You were a Wolf?" asked Valentine, not even knowing in what state to look for Webber's Falls on a map.
"No, but owing to your caste, we were ready for them when they tried to push into Fort Smith. Exactly ten years ago May. We bushwhacked them from the north while they were in the middle of ferrying across. So many Grogs ended up in the river, they say the Arkansas ran red. It didn't really, but it was still pretty hot there for a while. Two companies got caught on the wrong side of the river, and his Wolves saved our auras. You might say I thanked him personally after-wards," she reminisced, a sly smile crossing her weathered features.
"I'm sure he'll remember."
"You want some coffee, son? Just chicory, but it's hot. I'd offer you some lemonade, but my four boys here drank it all first two days we were here, and the rinds haven't soaked long enough to make another batch."
"No, thank you, Sergeant Manning. At my horse's pace, I'll be lucky to make the town by dinner." Valentine offered a true salute, crisply returned. "Thank you for the directions."
Captain LeHavre's steady green eyes evaluated Valentine from his pulled-back hair to his stained knee-high moccasins, fingers drumming against his thigh. The company commander wore the look of a busy man who accepted only efficiency.
The captain and Valentine both stood in the sole leak-free room in the old Harbor Clubhouse. Its dark paneling hinted at a previous existence as either an office or a small library. Two comfortable armchairs and a table, piled above and below with a honeycomb of plastic milk crates, almost filled the warm little room. Black-and-white photographs, most bearing the marks of poor film stock, hung in rough frames.
LeHavre flaunted the swarthy good looks and heavy mustache of a romance novel pirate or ruthless western outlaw. His athletic build, spoiled slightly by the hint of a paunch, set off his forest green buckskins, so dark they looked almost black in the dim light of the windowless office.
Offering Valentine a warm handshake in the worse-for-weather main entrance to the clubhouse, LeHavre invited his new Wolf to the "records room." Both men sank into the armchairs with the appreciation of the rarity of such comfort.
"You might call this our cave," LeHavre explained with a casual wave toward the laden table. "These papers are the closest thing we have to a headquarters. The milk crates just make moving easier. The rest I leave to the clerk. Coffee, tea, beer?"
"A beer would be very welcome, sir," Valentine responded gratefully. "It's been a long summer."
LeHavre rose from the chair without using his arms, almost a levitating trick. "I'll bring two cool ones from the basement," he said.
Valentine looked around at the pictures, wondering about a man who would treat a wet-behind-the-ears recruit like an honored guest. In less than a minute, a breathless brown-skinned girl, seven or eight years of rubber-band energy and frizzy hair, bounced into the room with a clasp-stoppered bottle. LeHavre followed the little dynamo. "Meet David, Jill. David hails all the way from the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Which state is that, tadpole?"
"Minnesota," she said, showing a proud smile as she handed over the bottled beer. "Hi, David. Did you swim in those lakes?"
"Er, some of them. Why, do you like swimming?"
"Does she like swimming!" LeHavre interjected. "I check her feet whenever I can to make sure they aren't growing flippers. Don't I, tadpole."
"Uncle Adam!" she squealed.
"David came on a horse. Can you take him to the corral? He looks like he needs a brushing."
"Can do!" Jill said. "Nice to have made your act-tense, David."
"Acquaintance," LeHavre corrected.
"Likewise, I'm sure," Valentine responded, shaking her hand.
"Acquaintance," the girl repeated, a furrow crossing her brow. She solemnly returned the handshake and stepped backwards out the door.
"That's Jill Poole. Her father was a lieutenant of mine. He died in a fight about three years ago. I look in on her mom whenever we're in the area. She runs a nice little boarding-house right by the river. Fine woman; she keeps a firm hand on the boatmen who stay. It's not quite a marriage, but I think of Jill as my daughter. She's fearless around the men. Most of them remember Poole, and they indulge her. She loves making beadwork. Most of the Wolves in Zulu Company have a bracelet or something of hers."
LeHavre opened his bottle. "To the people we're fighting for," he toasted.
"Prosit," Valentine responded, imitating a memory of his father. The cool froth flushed the dry road away.
"My apologies, Valentine. I'm sure you want to know about the outfit you've been ordered to join. Zulu Company is one of ten companies in the Arkansas Regiment, which makes up the smaller half of the Wolf Brigade. There's only three thousand or so Wolves in all of Southern Command, counting Aspirants and reserves, and we're the most numerous of the Hunters. We're in reserve now. But don't expect to spend a lot of time dancing at regimental balls. Maybe two thirds of the regiment is together when we're wintering in the Ouachitas. We don't often fight shoulder-to-shoulder; the last time was when we stopped a Grog incursion out of St. Louis. That's when Poole bought it.
"Zulu Company has four platoons of about thirty men each, as of this month. Fifteen support personnel, mostly older Wolves who aren't up to running fifty miles a day anymore, seven wives and two husbands who can keep up with the camp, and four transport teams of four men, making me responsible for a little over one hundred fifty lives. I have twelve senior NCOs, but I'm short a lieutenant out of the three I should have. You want the job?"
Valentine swallowed his mouthful of beer, which had turned into a grapefruit descending his throat. "Me, an officer? Sir, I'm not even twenty yet."
"Napoleon was a lieutenant of artillery at sixteen, David."
"And Alexander the Great was a king breaking up rebellions at twenty, sir," Valentine interjected. "But I'm not either. I've never read a book about tactics."
The captain set down his beer and crossed the room to the desk. "Valentine, I've got a folder here. In it is what we call your 'Q file." Don't ask me what the Q means, because I don't know. It's got your reports, about what happened on that barge, and it's going to contain your report on the Mississippi crossing, once the copy works its way here. There are some words from Wolves like Pankow and Paul Samuels. I also knew your father, slightly. I was younger than you are now in those days, and I'd give my right nut to be half the man he was. I heard he was murdered when you were still a boy."
LeHavre returned to the chair. "David, I know from people I trust that you've got brains and guts. You also take responsibility; most people try to hide from it. You've shown some initiative in going after the enemy, and Eveready told me that you're smart about avoiding a fight, too. Which takes a certain kind of courage."
Valentine listened to LeHavre's summation of his record as a Wolf. But LeHavre didn't know about the fear and horror inside the Harpy barge that had unmanned him into lighting his bomb without thinking it through. Or the stupid theatrics with a gun (a valuable pistol now submerged in the muddy river bottom thanks to his forgetting to hang on to it in the water) to get a cramped recruit on her feet. Or the luck of a clear sunrise that saved them on the shores of the Mississippi.
"And one more thing, David. Our very own Wizard, Amu, recommended you to me. That counts for something; he reads people like a book. Don't misunderstand me, please. Being an officer is a tough tackle. You drink last, eat last, sleep last, and usually die first. No one notices your good decisions, and you have to bury your bad ones and then write home to somebody's parents that their son stopped a bullet carrying out your orders. Getting them to fight is the least of your worries; the Wolves know their business. But getting them ready for a fight, choosing where and when, and then getting them back safely takes a special kind of person."
"Why did you become one, sir? An officer, I mean."
LeHavre sighed and pulled down the last of his beer. "Long story, David. I wasn't even a sergeant, just a vet in charge of four kids younger than you. Our platoon went into the wrong town. Quislings had a hell of a fine ambush set up. They'd killed just about everyone in what had been a friendly stop and filled it up with their people. Somehow they scared a family we knew into greeting us and making everything seem normal. Everyone was tired and hungry, so we dispersed for dinner and sleep. That's when they hit us. The lieutenant and sergeants got it first-it seemed like the lead was flying from every direction but up. I made it out and got some other survivors together, dogs at our heels and Reapers screaming from the hills. I've never been so scared before or since- been pretty damn close a few times, though-but we made it back. I carried a wounded Wolf the whole way, but she didn't weigh much over one-fifteen. So they made me an officer. Funny thing to do for a guy who spent three solid days running from the enemy.
"But that was a good number of years back. The Free Territory's changed from a backwater cluster of hard-luck farms to a real patch of civilization. The Kurians haven't had any luck stomping us. We're not as big as some of the groups out east, even. I understand there's a band of Hunters ranging the Green Mountains of New England up to Canada and down through the Smokies about twice the size of us, and the freehold in the Pacific Northwest has more square miles. But out east, they're more of a wandering guerrilla army; they don't have a spot to really call home. And in the west, well, it's only a rough confederation out there. A couple of the strongmen paying lip service to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. A few even think the Hunters and the Lifeweavers are part of the same disease as the Kurians. You'd think the days of men fighting anything but the Kurians and their Quislings are over, but I'm sad to say it just isn't so."
The captain shook his head, eyes downcast. "Curse of Babel, I guess. We just won't work on the same team sometimes. But back to the here and now. Can I count on you, Valentine?"
Has anyone ever counted on me? Valentine wondered. He thought of the gangly little girl, Jill, and her unknown mother. Can they count on me? Will I be able to prevent some black-fanged monster from making lifeless husks of them? He remembered the little Poole girl's response to LeHavre's request. Maybe LeHavre liked to be answered that way.
"Can do, sir," Valentine said, hoping the enthusiasm did not sound too forced.
The captain walked him out into the pleasant afternoon. The worst of the summer's heat had faded, and the clouds were piling on and thickening overhead. Five-pole tepees filled what was probably once a lawn and putting green.
"Zulu Company is spending time in reserve, Valentine," LeHavre repeated. "Your last winter you stayed in true winter camp. Four companies get to do that, another four are in reserve, leaving just two companies to stay in the Outlands.
They'll be spread thin, patrolling and relying on the Cats for notice of anything major outside the borders. If something happens, or a good opportunity to hurt the Hoods comes along, we go out of reserve. But that doesn't mean we'll be sitting on our rears. As of today, you're Acting-Lieutenant Valentine on my authority. The colonel will confirm after your course work gets done. We're not the Guards, the civilian government doesn't have to give its rubber stamp. I'm not giving you a platoon yet, though you'll get your bars right away. But back to your duties. You're going to be in charge of the support staff, transport teams, and the Aspirants. When you aren't doing that, you'll be running back and forth from the Officer's Training College, which holds classes at the old UA Pine Bluff Campus on the west side of the lake. If you want my advice, you'll memorize Sun-tzu and study the nineteenth-century campaigns of the Apaches and Comanches, and some Civil War histories of Bedford Forrest and Stonewall Jackson. Just read enough about the rest to pass your tests. You'll learn a lot about how to fight when you're outnumbered and outgunned. When you're reading about the Chiricahua, try not to remember that they were on the losing side. It'll be a hell of a schedule for you, but be grateful for it. We've got officers all over the place who are just jumped-up sergeants, and thought they're hell on wheels with the men, but sometimes the lack of formal training leads to problems."
"When's this going to start, sir?"
"It started the minute you accepted your commission, Lieutenant. The War College is always more or less in session. One more thing: Eveready said you got some kind of premonition that there were Reapers around. Answer me straight, was it a lucky guess, or did you really catch wind of something?"
Valentine thought for a moment before answering. "I can't account for it, sir. It wasn't based on anything I actually sensed, more of a 'by the pricking of my thumbs-'"
" 'Something wicked this way comes'?" finished LeHavre. "That's interesting. Reapers make horses and dogs nuts, too. Well, the nearest thing we have to a center for study of the Kurians, by us humans anyway, is at the college here in Pine Bluff. They'll be interested in your story. There's a half-dozen people researching the New Order; they like to come out and talk to us after we've seen them up close. They always want to know which Kurian sent which Reapers-as if we can tell. Let's get you quartered, and you can go meet them tomorrow when you enroll yourself at the OTC."
The following day, after a delicious cool night in a cot in the warmth of the junior officers' tepee, which he had to himself because his tentmate was on a training patrol, Valentine rode through the bustling little town to the college campus. It was an uninspiring collection of solid little 1950s buildings dominated by a curious stunted tower: a clock that some tinkerer had restored to its function decorated it. Uniformed Guards sitting outside one brick building revealed the location of the War College. As he had business there, Valentine decided to make the OTC his first destination. Exchanging friendly nods with the lounging Guards outside, he followed an old black-and-white plastic sign with a red arrow. A chalkboard outside the open office door read:
this week: maj. jonas brattleboro-medicine in the field
(tues, wed, pm 114)
lt. p. haynes-black powder to the steel-jacketed bullet (fri, am 106 /pm rifle range)
Valentine entered the office. A breeze came through the open windows, but it was still uncomfortably hot, and the room had the sour smell of old paper. A young female Guard in a white cotton uniform Valentine identified as a cadet's, her face as fresh as this morning's flowers, rose and smiled.
"You must be the new Wolf from Zulu Company, sir. Nice to meet you, Acting-Lieutenant Valentine," she said. "My name is Cadet Lambert, but the guys here call me Dots. Because I'm kind of a born picture-straightener. I dot all the i's and cross all the t's."
"You're well informed, Lambert. I didn't know you Guards paid that much attention to the Wolves."
"There's one other Wolf studying here right now, sir. She's from Tango Company over at Fort Smith. She stays at the Poole Boardinghouse; she's a little older than you. Her name is Carol Pollisner. Usually the Wolves mustang up and don't have to do much formal classwork. Speaking of which, I have your packet all ready."
"Thank you, Lambert. How the hell old are you, if you don't mind me asking? You look about twelve." He took a heavy pack of paper wrapped up in a tied linen folder from her hand.
"I'm fifteen. But I passed the Guard physical, and I ran the table on the written test. I'm the Colonel Commanding's staff assistant until I turn eighteen. I actually prefer Dots, sir."
Valentine whistled, knowing the number of push-ups required to pass a Guard Cadet physical. He opened the linen folio.
"The OTC is mostly self-taught," Dots explained. "There's a reading list, and written test on each book. You have to do six months' worth of lectures unless you can pass out of the subject by taking an oral exam. The classwork is easier unless you're some kind of genius. Each week's lecture schedule is on the blackboard outside. Once you do that, and have your Certificates of Diligence, Responsibility, and Sobriety, you take the final oral exam. They hold those whenever there's three captains or above around. In fact, your Captain LeHavre is going to be serving on one a little later this month. I hear he's merciless on Grog Recognition. If you don't know where to shoot a Harpy to bring it down with one bullet, you're recycled."
"What's this thesis?" Valentine asked, looking at the graduation requirements.
"That's one of Colonel Jimenez's pet projects. Hope you can write. He wants a fifty-page paper on any subject, strictly nonmilitary. History's okay, as long as you keep off the wars and battles covered in the reading list. A week after you turn it in, you get questioned about it, so you better know whatever it is you're writing about. I did mine on the great mariners, Columbus and Cook and so on. A week later he was grilling me about how Columbus enticed his men to make the voyages, and how Captain Magellan might have avoided getting killed. I think Jimenez just does it to keep himself sharp."
"Thanks, Dots. I'll read this over. I'll start on the lectures this week, if LeHavre will spare me."
"The library's on the top floor. You can check out books if we have two or more copies available, but that covers almost everything on the reading list," she said, already making notes in her desk book.
"Which building is the student union, Dots?"
She looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Going to visit the Creeps, huh? There's a campus map in your packet, but it's just across the quad. It's a good place to learn about the Grogs, but I wouldn't let them talk you into trying for any bounty money."
"For all sorts of stuff. Reaper clothes or artifacts. Written records stolen from the Kurian Zone. They offer big money for live prisoners, but if it's Quislings, they have to be officers. Their dream catch is a whole, live Reaper. They had one once, but it got out. LeHavre will look the other way if you grab a clipboard now and then, but don't ever try to throw a rope around a Reaper or he'll probably shoot you himself."
"Thanks for the tip, Dots. I have a feeling I'll be saluting you someday."
She looked pleased at the compliment. "If you need any help, I'm here every day. I live in the old dormitory."
Valentine exited past three Guards, who had quit skylarking and were talking over a broken-backed copy of War and Society. There were fewer than when he had entered; it seemed a couple of the number had duties elsewhere.
The stone on the student union read L. A. Davis Student Union and 1952, but someone had hung a carved wooden sign that read Miskatonic University over the door. Valentine entered the unlit building, which smelled of bad plumbing. A stairway leading up had a sign reading appointments only, and a second notice board, which at one time had been behind glass, read bounty inquiries, please ring over a small hand bell. Valentine climbed the stairway.
The second floor was a warren of rooms, some with doors completely missing and others with darkened windows. A faint, Poe-esque tap-tap-tapping sounded from an inner chamber. Valentine hunted the source of the sound, which he eventually realized was a typewriter. It came from a central office with three overburdened desks, festooned with pin-filled maps and drawings of Grogs.
Under a bright electric desk lamp, a rotund and hairy man typed with two fingers and an occasional thumb. The mountain-man mass of hair on his head and face made his age hard to guess, but Valentine put the man in his late thirties, as his temples and chin were just beginning to be flecked with gray. He wore large, octagonal tortoiseshell glasses that had probably been originally worn by a woman. A bare chest that would have done a grizzly proud, fur-wise, bulged out of a sleeveless jeans jacket.
Valentine knocked on the doorjamb and broke the typist's concentration.
"Hi, can I help you?" the man asked in a friendly tone.
"I think I'm supposed to help you," Valentine said. "Are you one of the people who researches the Kurians?"
"Yeah. I sometimes think research isn't the right word, though. We're more like witch doctors trying to explain why a volcano erupts and throwing in the odd virgin to see if that helps. I think we used to put 'New Order Studies Institute' on our documents, mostly because it acronymed out as NOSI. But whoever we are, we're them."
Valentine entered the office, making his way around the desks and floor-filling mounds of binders to reach the scientist. As the latter stood up to shake hands, Valentine noticed that his pants were around his ankles.
"Oh, sorry," the man said. It was difficult to tell if he was blushing behind the beard. "Warm up here, you know. I swear that lightbulb puts out more calories than candlepower." He brought his trousers up to their conventional position.
"David Valentine, Wolf. Originally out of Minnesota. Pleased to meet you," Valentine said, taking the hairy-knuckled paw.
"David Walker O'Connor. From Indianapolis, myself. Ran away at the tender age of thirteen. I was brought here just because I knew about current conditions in Indiana, more or less, and stayed on. I read you took a Reaper outside of Weening about a year ago. What have you got for us now?"
"Do I talk to you? It's about a feeling I got when a Reaper was around. A couple weeks ago. A Cat named Eveready thought it was important enough that I should tell you."
O'Connor scratched himself under his shovel beard. "Let's go into the cellar. I need a break and a drink. You like root beer?"
"Yes, thank you. In fact, it'll be a treat. I've only had it once or twice."
The researcher grabbed a notebook and led the way out of the tangle of airless offices. The two descended into the cellar. At the base of the landing, a classic pawnshop barred door and window prevented further penetration. O'Connor pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and selected one. The door opened with a squeal from the hinges.
With the flick of a switch, O'Connor turned on a single bulb. Its pathetic forty watts did little to help the darkness and nothing at all to alleviate the musty smell coming from piles of clothing, trunks, and assorted boxes and crates heaped with artifacts.
"A lot of it is junk, but it all helps put together a story," his guide explained.
Something shuffled out of the shadows: slab skinned, inhuman, peering at them with a gargoyle face. Valentine startled, reaching for his absent weapons.
O'Connor put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Valentine. This is Grishnak. As you can tell, he's a Grog. A couple of the Team found him after a battle, badly wounded. We patched him up, fed him. He's something of a mascot. He puts up with all our little experiments, don't you, Grish?" He thumped it affectionately on the arm.
The Grog cocked its head from side to side, half closing its eyes.
"Does it talk?" Valentine asked, touching its thick horn-skin.
"He gets by with a few meaningful grunts. He's a bit of a firebug; we can't let him have matches or a lantern or any-thing. Loves to watch things burn; they all do from what we can tell. He's a living table-scrap disposal. He thinks corncobs are a real treat. Potato peels, too. Would you like a root beer, Grish?"
Valentine looked at the half-dozen badly healed bullet wounds in the creature's leg and abdomen. A long knife scar also ran across its shoulder and down its armored chest. It unrolled its tongue.
"Grish loves root beer. Let's sit down."
Valentine listened to the small noises of the empty building. "There's more than just you to this Institute, I suppose?"
An icebox devoid of ice sat next to a slop sink, and a card table stood under the inadequate lightbulb. Shelves held a few dishes and cups. O'Connor drew three drafts from a scratched plastic barrel resting in the icebox. "There's one other scholarly fellow like myself around now, and he keeps even stranger hours. We have a couple of would-be students, but they have to scratch a living so they work in the day." The Grog held out both hands for its sweet drink and scuttled off into the shadows with its cup.
"Just as well. He's kind of messy when he drinks from a cup. I think Grishnak is pretty dumb even for a Grog. They have a language, but they don't use writing. They send little rune-stones in hollow bone tubes to communicate Qver distance. And the beads in their hair are kind of like military decorations, family totems, stuff like that. But back to the Institute. The rest of the team is in the field. Our elder sage is up around Mountain Home. I don't know if you heard, but five or six Reapers are on the loose up north, well within the Free Territory, and they're causing quite a problem. They're moving around faster than word of them travels, and every time it seems like they're cornered, they slip out. There's bad weather up north, and that's hurting things."
He solemnly opened his notebook and licked the end of his pencil. "Okay, Valentine, what's the story?"
Valentine relayed the events at the Mississippi crossing for the second time in as many days. O'Connor scribbled.
"And you can't link the hair-raising feeling to anything you heard, saw, or smelled. You're positive?"
"I guess I can compare it to... let me see... the feeling you get when you're next to a window on a very cold winter day. Like the heat is being pulled out of your body. I can't put it any better than that. Or a feeling I got once crossing under a high-voltage line in the dark; I knew something was above me, but I couldn't say what. How would you describe an itch to someone who has never had one?"
"I couldn't. You've smelled a Reaper, right? Since your invocation as a Wolf?"
Valentine nodded, relishing the smooth sweetness of the root beer. "Very up close. Eveready held an impromptu dissection of one before we pulled out of the Yazoo. Smelled like an offal heap."
O'Connor thought for a moment. He leaned back in the tube-steel chair, causing it to creak. "There've been a couple of incidents like yours. Not just Wolves, either. A few people have a sensitivity to Reapers. A lot of animals are the same way. We think it's because of smell, but we've seen too much weirdness in the last forty years to discount anything, including psychic powers. If it keeps happening, try to figure out at what range you sense them, if it makes a difference whether there are more than one, whether they can be distinguished as individuals, stuff like that."
"Can they tell who's who by our lifesign?"
"According to the Lifeweavers they can't, unless they're really close and it's a good read. Lifesign varies with mood, whether the person has just eaten, stuff like that. Of course you guys learn to disguise it. Distance seems to matter most of all. Like you can recognize movement from a long way away, tell a man from a woman at a certain distance, and then distinguish individuals up close. Of course it helps if you've run into the person a couple of times. But back to your question, I think they can tell who's who under certain circumstances. There've been incidents where the Reapers have gone after a specific person. I don't know if it was bullshit or not, but we had a report from New Mexico about Reapers gathering from miles off to hunt one of the Wolves out there. I guess his squad split up, and they all went after the one. Of course, lifesign reads better in the desert, there's less interference from plants and animals, and they might have just been chasing the best signal. Odd coincidence that it was someone who had done them a lot of damage, though."
"By the way," Valentine added, remembering. "There was a funny design on the boat. Kind of a bent X."
"That's good that you noticed it. Can you remember it well enough to draw it?"
Valentine reached for the pencil and beneath the researcher's notes traced out the design.
"You're sure it faced that way. Not like this?" He drew a Third Reich swastika.
"No, it was facing the other way. Is it important?" Valentine asked.
"Hard to say. It's been showing up lately, so I did some checking. That symbol can be found on temples in the Asian subcontinent, on Buddhist artifacts, as well as over here in American Indian cave paintings. It appears in the ruins of Troy, on Egyptian walls, even in China. I will say this: whoever used it in prehistoric times sure got around."