Valentine's Rising Online - Vampire Earth 4 - E. E. Knight

Chapter One

The Ouachita Forest, Arkansas, December of the forty-eighth year of the Kurian Order: The pines stand, colorless spindles under a winter overcast. The low mountains of the Ouachitas huddle dark all around, just touching the cloud sea.

Water beads linger on bough, trunk, leaf and stone as though freshly dropped; the earth beneath the fallen leaves smells like decay. Birds overturn dead leaves and poke about the roots in silence, walking the earth as if too dispirited to fly. Brown ferns lie flat along the streambanks, under patches of frostbitten moss flaking off the rocks like old scabs. Even the wind is listless, seeping rather than blowing through the pines.

Naked outcroppings of stone, etched with lightning strikes of quartz crystal, project every which way from the ground like the work of titans who tried to pull out the mountain by its roots. The strata of the Ouachita slopes are jumbled, pushed up and twisted from a seismic pileup mil-lennia ago. Thanks to the blind runs, box canyons and meandering crest lines of these elderly mountains, the landscape doesn’t lend itself to habitation. These hills have been hideouts of liberty-loving Indians, die-hard Confederates, and law-evading brigands —the notorious Younger gang used to hole up here with the James brothers. Between the stands of rock, the ferns’ squashed-spider shapes lie in boot tracks and hoofprints forming a trail that suggests a similar hurried flight from authority.

The boot tracks have a source, noisily crunching over the hilltop’s still-frozen ground. Six mud-stained figures walk with the oddly stiff motion of men on their last legs, strung out in front of and behind a lone horse pulling an A-frame drag sup-porting an unconscious man with blood-matted hair.

Two dreadlocked men in blue-black uniforms share a blanket as they move, muttering to each other in the patois of the sunny island of Jamaica. Walking alongside the horse is the oldest of the group, a meaty-faced man of six-two, dark brown hair flecked with early gray and a boxer’s shovel jaw. His clothing, indeed his whole body, has the look of having just emerged from a threshing machine. An improvised poncho is fixed about his waist with a wide brown belt.

Dried blood stains the parts that dirt hasn’t touched; bits of rag are knotted around wounds in his left leg and right arm. He moves the horse along with a switch, though the occasional lash does nothing more than send it lurching forward a quick pace and into the man leading it.

The lead shape, seemingly bigger than any two of the others put together, is of another species. So forbidding that one might think he was pried off a cathedral and placed among Arkansas pines as a prank, he moves along leaning toward his right side, one tentpole-length arm supporting his midriff. An even longer gun rides his shoulders, tied there by a bit of leather like an ox’s yoke. He has bandages wrapped about the waist, a tight corset of brown-stained cloth that accentuates the width of the meaty, golden-furred shoulders above.

The creature’s eyes shift, widen, and even go a little wet as he spies a figure far away in the trees, jogging toward the file from ahead.

The young man the apish humanoid sees places his feet deliberately as he trots, for a trail in wet leaves on the hillside could be spotted by experienced eyes as easily as a line of signal flares. He favors his left leg, leading with the right up difficult patches of the hill. His shining black hair and bronze skin mark him as more than a spiritual relative of the Osage who once hunted these hills; he moves like them, flowing from spot to spot with the speed of a summer stream: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes deceptively still when he stops to examine the ground. He wears a simple black uniform, mud-splotched, set off by a strange bandolier of snake-skin with oversized loops, as if the sash had been designed to carry hand grenades, and carries a rugged submachine gun fed by a drum magazine.

His right cheek is scarred from the outer edge of his eye down. The wound, like Page 2

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a Prussian dueling scar, traces its pale way along the edge of his face, marring an otherwise handsome frame around brown eyes. The wary, intent gaze of a wild animal patiently reads the woods behind when he pauses to rest and lets the column come to a stop at its own pace…

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