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Woodcutter's Grim Series, Futuristic Novel: Hunter's Blues (Paranormal)
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Woodcutter's Grim Series, Futuristic Novel: Hunter's Blues (Paranormal)


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For the ten generations since the evil first came to Woodcutter's Grim, the Guardians have sworn an oath to protect the town from the childhood horrors that lurk in the black woods. Without them, the town would be defenseless...and the terrors would escape to the world at large.


Loosely based on "Little Snow White" by the Brothers Grimm.

The year is 2093. When the evil in Woodcutter's Grim unleashed with a vengeance fifty years ago, humans turned into ghouls that avoided the sun and water...and had the innate instinct to contaminate others with their evil. In no time at all, the evil spread and wiped out most of the world's population before the Protectorate--the guardians sworn to protect Woodcutter's Grim and those outside against the evil pervading it--came up with a way to hold the threat at bay, not completely but enough to save those few left. In these years, everything has changed, from occupations to marriage. A curfew has been imposed and all live within the heavily-fortressed walls on the Shaussegeny Estate. Few children are born and those that are have a mutated form of dwarfism that makes them barren. Protectorate hunters patrol the world outside in the daylight. They are the last of humanity with no idea how much future they actually have left.

Unofficial Guardian and hunter, Reece Pallaton, wonders what it's all for and whether he'll lose everyone he cares about in this endless battle. Fellow Protectorate Brethren, Mishell "Shell" Anderson insists that they can find a cure, a way to survive and push back the evil, that life will someday go back to normal. But Reece is beginning to believe that the battle he and what's left of humanity are waging can never be won...until he discovers the source of the evil, the mirror that's only the opposite half of the "glass darkly" world he lives in, and his own terrifying connection to both.

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"When it was morning little Snow-white awoke, and was frightened when she saw the seven dwarfs. But they were friendly and asked her what her name was. 'My name is Snow-white,' she answered. 

'How have you come to our house?' said the dwarfs. Then she told them that her step-mother had wished to have her killed, but that the huntsman had spared her life, and that she had run for the whole day, until at last she had found their dwelling. The dwarfs said, 'If you will take care of our house, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and if you will keep everything neat and clean, you can stay with us and you shall want for nothing.' 

'Yes,' said Snow-white, 'with all my heart,' and she stayed with them. She kept the house in order for them; in the mornings they went to the mountains and looked for copper and gold, in the evenings they came back, and then their supper had to be ready. The girl was alone the whole day, so the good dwarfs warned her and said, 'Beware of your step-mother, she will soon know that you are here; be sure to let no one come in.' 

But the Queen, believing that she had eaten Snow-white's heart, could not but think that she was again the first and most beautiful of all; and she went to her looking-glass and said: 'Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall, Who in this land is the fairest of all?' and the glass answered: 

'Oh, Queen, thou art fairest of all I see, But over the hills, where the seven dwarfs dwell, Snow-white is still alive and well, And none is so fair as she.' Then she was astounded, for she knew that the looking-glass never spoke falsely, and she knew that the huntsman had betrayed her, and that little Snow-white was still alive..."

~Little Snow White by the Brothers Grimm



Prologue


November 21, 2093


At the static of the room-to-room intercom coming through, Mishell Anderson looked up from the test she was running, mildly annoyed at the interruption. Without setting down the test tube or pipette, she leaned over and pressed the response button, asking in a warm voice that betrayed none of her irritation, "What is it?"

"Sorry to bother you, Dr. Anderson, but I knew you'd wanna be informed immediately. We've got incoming wounded."

Mishell set the tube in the rack after capping it, already realizing her five minutes to herself were up. She had so few each day, so few by her own choice. Even or especially at the end of the world, giving hope and kindness were crucial to morale. "How many, Ramey?"

Instead of responding, the controller on duty in the West Tower paused, then said, "I'm putting you straight through to Lars."

Instantly, Mishell froze as her brother, six years older than her and obsessively protective of all his sisters since their father had died eighteen years ago, was patched through. She could feel an icicle shove into her chest, heading straight for her heart. I'm being superstitious. We shouldn't have fought, but it's just superstition that made me believe she would be next. I shouldn't have said what I did to her. She hasn't been the older sister I loved when I was a child since she was fifteen... but she's my sister, and I can't lose any more family. Not even Cally...

Only a month ago, Cassie, Cally's twin, had been taken by the ghouls. She was gone without a trace, no chance of rescue. 

"How many, Lars? Who?" Mishell murmured, paralyzed.

"Just one," his voice, distant maybe from proximity but certainly from emotion, offered. Like almost every day, he'd been outside the fortress walls at first light, when it was safest to leave, with the rest of the hunters. With Cally... 

With Reece...!

Mishell tried to draw air, but her lungs were burning and locked as she succumbed to dread. "You're a monster, Cally. And Reece has seen that. It's why he wants nothing to do with you ever again."

Fifty years ago, the barriers had broken and the world had fallen, overrun by the power of darkness, beings of supernatural and mythical origin, unleashed in the form of a virus that infected the population and spread so fast, there was no hope of containing or curing it. Once infected, the undead husk left behind had only one goal, one mindless purpose: To contaminate everyone and everything everywhere. The Protectorate--those sworn to guard Woodcutter's Grim and those outside against the Great Evil that'd originated here--had been all but helpless against it. Only the forethought of Reece's father, their Guardian, in making an alliance with the Shaussegeny family and in enclosing as much of what was left of humanity behind heavily-fortressed, towering curtain walls inside their vast estate had prevented total annihilation. 

By day, hunters patrolled the town and areas outside, destroying any ghouls they came across. As soon as night fell, no one was safe on the outside. The ghouls came en masse to the fortress, howling their rage so the sound blocked out all else, intent on finding a way through the moat, over, under, up the great walls, past the drawbridge, through the double portcullises that led to the main gate, which was only one of two ways in or out of the fortress. So far, none had breached their defenses. But there was seemingly no end of the creatures, no doubt flooding into Woodcutter's Grim from the rest of the world on all sides... and mankind's numbers had dwindled to a few thousand. My mother, my father, my sister Cassie. Reece's beloved parents and his sister Neve, my best friend in the world, when she was only nine.

"Cally?" Mishell asked in a hoarse whisper, closing her eyes almost in slow motion. All her senses felt dull with guilt. "The mem rad you gave her...it'll work. She'll recover again." She spoke the sentences with more confidence than she felt. Cally had been taken by the ghouls when she was fifteen, but the Brethren had recovered her, given her the memory irradiation injection that stopped the siphoning of her soul and took away her memories of the previous twenty-four hours. Cally had been badly damaged by the experience. The change in her after her capture, her retrieval and recovery, had been radical. No longer was she the sweet sister, Reece's loyal lover, the fierce hunter, in the years after she'd lived to fight...lived like today was her last day. She cared about no one and nothing other than herself, the worship she desired above all, and her cruel, sinful pleasure. 

Was the sweetness, the loyalty, in that bit of soul that'd been stolen for her before we recovered her? How often had Mishell wondered exactly that? 

"Reece doesn't love you, Mishell. He'll never love you, you little fool. Because he loves me. Maybe he went through the act that inadvertently made you pregnant, but he did it thinking of me. You know that, don't you, sweet sister? You know he'll never feel about anyone the way he does about me, even now, even if he takes someone else to ease his pain. You were mere convenience, a poor substitute..." Just that morning, Cally had stood before her smiling, her mane of red hair falling around her shoulders, her face and body so heartbreakingly beautiful, no man could resist her. Mishell had felt her own inadequacy like a burst of electrocution stealing everything from her in one ruthless jolt.

"Mishell," Lars spoke, his deep voice cutting through the memory of her last conversation with Cally and thrust her back into the present, "Cally was taken. Dear God, she was taken and we... we called in the other teams for assistance. Right now, that's not what's important--"

That our sister was taken by the ghouls, unretrieved, isn't what's important...?

Events, assumptions that she knew had to be absolutely correct, fell into place in quick succession. If Cally had been taken, it didn't matter that Reece had moved out of their living quarters (essentially divorcing her), that they were no longer anything but hunters on the same team. He would have gone after her and nothing could have kept him from retrieving her. "You know he'll never feel about anyone the way he does about me, even now..."

"Mishell, he's in bad condition. They must've been all over him before we got there. He's broken...bleeding...everywhere."

Mishell's terror broke through the paralysis. She yanked off her sterile lab gloves, tore to the elevator, jabbing the button to surface. Once in the infirmary on the ground floor, she grabbing her medical bag as she flat-out ran out of Ransom Tower, into the compound, bee-lining straight for the front double wooden doors of the castle outside into the bailey. Her feet barely seemed to touch the ground as she flew down the path toward the vehicles, not seeing anyone or anything. She jumped into one of the Jeeps, backed up and tore down the path. Without conscious thought, she nevertheless headed straight for the gate. 

Long ago, the walls surrounding the Shaussegeny Estate had enclosed only the main house and the buildings surrounding it. With the Protectorate alliance with the Shaussegenys, they'd worked to expand the massive walls surrounded the property so most of Woodcutter's Grim was encompassed inside the fortress. The Protectorate Building had been moved within the walls to its center. Additionally, the Black Lake had been significantly enlarged to encircle the whole of the fortress, a moat and drawbridge created, to provide a defensive barrier that couldn't be breached, given the ghouls natural aversion to water. The last of humanity had their own small power plant right on the estate, still in optimal condition because maintaining it was a priority, but, as much as possible, they used solar, wind and hydro-electric power.

While she raced break-neck down the road, her mind focused painfully on reaching her destination, she realized she'd heard the darkness alarms going off just before she'd entered her basement laboratory. How could the hunters still be out? The portcullis and main gate would have been closed for the night, the drawbridge pulled up, when darkness descended. The hunters wouldn't abandon Reece. They followed him when he went after Cally. And Lars must have told the gatekeepers to be waiting to let them in, even if it was after dark.

Mishell grabbed the radio receiver, connected to the control tower and asked impatiently to be patched directly to Lars once more. "What's your ETA, Lars? Over."

"Five minutes. Over."

"The gatekeepers didn't secure the entrance for the night? Over."

"No. The other gate is closed, and the sentries on the walls are keeping the area spook-free, but they're waiting for us before pulling up the drawbridge and securing both gates. Mishell, there's more. Reece was bitten and he won't let us give him the mem rad. Over."

"What do you mean he won't let you?" Mishell screamed.

"He...he acts like he's been injected with it before, keeps saying he never wants it again. He fights us every time we try to give it to him... Over."

Mishell's breathing came in harsh, scorching pants. No, he can't know. No one knows the unthinkable thing I did. No one except me. And I'll never forgive myself. But the only thing that's saved me all this time is that he can't remember...

"Maybe because of what happened to Cally the first time?" Lars murmured, clearly trying to make sense of Reece's refusal to be injected with the memory irradiation that would stop the steady loss of pieces of his soul. 

Cally came out of it after she was bitten, but she never really recovered beyond the physical. She became someone else, a complete stranger to all of us, someone cruel. Soulless. The very thing the mem rad was supposed to prevent.

The ghouls were the embodiment of the soulless. In essence, they were what human beings would be without their souls. To be bitten and infected caused the soul to drain and shrivel to nothing more than a husk. Hunters had a limited amount of time to get to someone who'd been taken captive. While long ago, the zombies had fed on human flesh, they'd unfathomably stopped that horrible practice and there'd been speculation that the cessation had something to do with the fact that all domesticated and wild animals had been destroyed. Mammals couldn't be infected, but they were raw flesh that the creatures craved. If they couldn't have humans, they'd made do with animals. But once all the animals were gone, the hunger had seemingly gone away, too. That had been the only anomaly in the "evolution" of the ghouls in fifty years. It was as if the spooks had chosen a higher purpose...infecting humans instead of devouring human flesh.

Now captives were taken to ghoul lairs, where they would be bitten if they hadn't already been, and the soul would begin the siphoning process that would make them full-on zombies themselves, with the same single-minded purpose. If the person was retrieved within the first twenty-four hours of capture, the memory irradiation injection that Mishell's father had developed but Mishell herself had perfected burned out the newborn infection as well as erased a days' worth of memories. Removing the memories of the trauma was crucial to recovery. In all Mishell's father's early experiments with the drug, the horror left behind from the soul-siphoning caused irrevocable damage. Suicides had been inevitable. Mishell's refinement of the injection had proved that, while the portion of soul stolen could never be recovered, restored or replaced, the person would recuperate, leaving the remainder of the soul and mind intact. Life could go on for most of the victims, though the mem rad wasn't a cure and showed no inclination toward immunizing the person from future infection. Hunters carried syringes of the drug whenever they went out and gave the injection in the field whenever necessary, as soon as possible after the bite. 

Mishell reached the still open inner portcullis just as Lars' armored truck pulled through the tall gate tower. She could hear the groan and whine of the drawbridge already being lifted. The outer portcullis slammed down in the wake of deafening en bloc shrieks and screams of violence met by the volley of explosive defenses from the battlements. The vehicle spun to a stop once through the inner gate that was immediately secured as well. Mishell jumped out and ran to the other vehicle, yanking open the back door and throwing herself inside when she saw Reece stretched out on the backseat clutching his neck. His broken and bleeding body shuddered, battered from within as the venom inside him spread like acid through him. 

Not Reece. Please, God, not Reece...

Kneeling by him, she reached into her bag and got the injection, preparing it as if her hands weren't shaking, as if she could be clinical and professional with him. As she worked, she said angrily, not even sure who she was talking to as the door behind Reece's head opened and Lars was there, "You should have given him the injection. If you had to render him unconscious to do it, you should have."

He's Reece Pallaton. It doesn't matter if his father betrayed us all, made a pact with the Evil, disappeared. Reece is nothing like his father. He's a hero, the one that keeps us all fighting, alive, motivated toward the goal of survival. Maybe he refuses to take up the mantle of Guardian that he deserves, that's his by right of birth, but the Brethren follow him, they listen to him, they trust him implicitly. If he refused the mem rad, they would hold off until they got him to me.

Without waiting for her to give him instructions, Lars leaned forward and shoved back Reece's ragged shirtsleeve. Quickly, all her focus on a single intent, she swabbed his cubital fossa, then pulled off the needle cap of the prepared syringe. Pinching his skin, she pressed the needle to the insertion point. 

Suddenly, a strong hand grabbed her forearm and her gaze met Reece's wild one. Even as she struggled to hold onto the last of her comportment, she couldn't help gasping at the sight of him. His long, dark, shaggy hair and thick beard were tangled and soaked with dirt and blood and bits of flesh. If she had to guess, gray matter. How close had he been to the ghouls when he pulled the trigger? 

Beneath his heavy eyebrows, his forest green eyes locked with hers and the imploring inside them made her moan out loud in shocked sorrow, so deep she felt winded by the tug-of-war between her guilt and his pleading. "Shell...no...no mem rad...no more. Please don't."

His entire body convulsed, and Lars bit out a harsh expletive that jolted her out of Reece's pain rendering him unconscious, her own borne out of secret shame. Ruthlessly, she inserted the needle and injected the full dose. This isn't the same. Not the same at all. I have to do this. Last time--

Mishell swallowed as she accepted that the partial dose she'd given him six years ago had left behind more than she'd believed. She'd never truly hoped the precious memories would be fully erased but she'd been convinced Reece recalling little or nothing was for the best. For both of them.

Lars put a hand on hers still holding the syringe. "We have to get him to the infirmary, Mishell. He doesn't have much time."

Stunned, she looked down at the man she loved so much, she wasn't whole because he wasn't now. Her primary assessment was done without having to move. He would die within the hour if she didn't treat him immediately. 

Did he know that? Did Reece somehow know that last night when we were in the chapel together? Only in that place, only when the two of us are completely alone, would he admit that his faith in mankind's survival is shaky. Last night...last night was the worst I've ever seen him. When he'd spoken, she'd heard the agony bleeding into his every hated word. He hadn't wanted to speak them out loud, hadn't wanted anyone--not even her--to realize just how lost he was. "What's the purpose, Shell? We're fighting a losing battle. The evil's playing with us." His full lips had curled in disgust. "It'll never tire of the cat and mouse game. And I just want it to be over. I wanna stop playing into its' hands."

"Why are you here then, Reece?" she'd asked, putting her hand over his huge, cold one with firm, warm comfort. 

He'd looked past her at the altar steps where the simple cross hung. "To cry out to God. In despair."

She'd heard shame in his tone. He fully realized his role here. There wasn't a single person alive who didn't look to him for strength, guidance, the inspiration to keep fighting one more day. 

"Do you know why I come here, Reece?"

He'd turned to her, looking into her eyes for a long, sad moment before he'd lifted her hand, encasing it between the two of his, and then pressed it against his heart. "Because you're a good person," he said without a single doubt. "You're the heart and soul of all that's left now."

Didn't he realize he was that heart and soul? Irreplaceable? Or maybe he hadn't wanted to accept that fact, not anymore. Mishell had leaned closer to him and watched his beautiful green eyes fill with an emotion she couldn't identity. But what was inside those depths was soft and gentle and made her feel the way their one stolen night together had. Cherished. Loved. Loved beyond anything I'll ever experience again. "I come here, like you, to cry out to God, but out of hope. I know we can find a cure. I know we can turn the tide and defeat the evil. We just can't give up." 

If we give up...if Reece gives up, then mankind truly is lost, without hope.

Mishell had stopped breathing when he lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it with his gaze downcast. When he'd spoken next, she'd felt a knife twisting around inside her, piercing her heart over and over. "I don't have that kind of faith anymore, Shell. I want to...but I'm tired. I'm so damn tired. Sometimes it feels like all that's left is to prepare my soul for the inevitable."

The memories killing her slowly, Mishell looked up at Lars and spoke clearly, refusing any argument that she knew would come. "Bring him to my apartment in the Ransom Tower."

Her brother's shock was instant, and his hand tightened on hers. "No. Mishell, no, there's no way I'm gonna let you--"

She cut across him. "If I don't do this, Lars, he'll die. Do you understand me? Reece will die. I'm the only one who can heal him. Modern medicine can't do what I can. And it'll take a lot of time, more than one healing." Her empathetic gift of healing allowed her to absorb minor and major injuries and wounds into her own body, where damage would be neutralized...eventually. The amount of energy required of her had almost killed her when she'd used it to heal their father, only to have him die a few years later. The gift had been passed down through her family, sometimes skipping many generations as if had before she discovered she possessed it. "Bring him to my apartment."

"You'll die, Da Vinci."

His nickname for her did nothing to soften her. She shook her head. "I'm strong enough. I'm stronger than I was when Daddy..." She looked down, closing her bag. "Bring Reece directly to my apartment in the tower. I'll rest in the small room next to Heathcliff's. Can you check on my son as often as you can while I'm healing Reece? Coraline will take care of him when you're out during the day."

"Dammit, Mishell, you can't do this. I know it's Reece, but what's gonna happen to Heath if you die trying to save Reece? Don't tell me you've forgotten what it was like to lose Mom. It was harder for you because you were just a little girl. You were Heathcliff's age when she was taken. Don't do that to your son. He'll never recover."

She couldn't meet her brother's ebony black eyes that so many found disturbing. "Reece is our Guardian, whether he'll accept that role or not." Reece is the father of my only child, even if he doesn't know that or even remember the act of conception took place. No one except me knows who the father of the son I keep hidden from everyone except my direct family is. Not even Lars. But I have the feeling he's always suspected the truth, though he hasn't dared ask me for verification. 

She backed out of the vehicle, only looking at her brother again when she was standing outside the open door. "I'll be all right. But hurry."

"Humanity can't survive without you."

In ways, she knew he was right. While she'd done her best to train her staff to handle as many medical emergencies as possible, few had the aptitude or the innovative reasoning to attempt a cure the way she had. Only her son could continue her work if the worst happened. As young as he was, he was so far advanced that Mishell knew he would soon surpass her. She was replaceable. Reece wasn't, could never be. "Imagine it without Reece then. 'Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness'." 

The Desmond Tutu quote didn't even make her brother blink in his shocked grief and disapproval. 

"Reece is that light, Lars. You know it as well as I do. And I'm going to save him." 

Or die trying.


Chapter 1


He'd stood before the unornamented mirror so often he could almost see the countless reflections of himself like a house of mirrors extending back to the first time he'd been there. But he'd also stood in this place so often, he knew exactly what to do to change the images of himself to the ones he really wanted to see. Eagerly, he reached toward the center mottled gray glass in the three-paned mirror. The instant his fingertips touched the clouded, dark silver, he could see far beyond, could hear the voices he knew so well. 

"We've been together forever, honey. How can you not feel that?" The voice could have been, maybe was, his own...in another place, but not another time. 

Her laughter was soft and intimate, and he tensed with his fingertips firm against the living reflection beginning to solidify before his eyes in the world beyond the mirror. "Reed, we've know each other all our lives. That's not forever...but it will be."

Their images, their bodies pressed together in a timeless embrace, lips as one, showed on the other side of the mirror. For a moment, he was convinced he could smell the scent of her perfume--lilacs and sunshine and bright blue skies, if all those things could be smells comingled--and taste the sweetness of her full, giving mouth beneath his own. In unison they sighed, and Reed murmured, "We've been together in all worlds, Shelley. That's what I mean. Just like we are now." Reed turned his head to the mirror and her blond head turned, too, tucking against his chest, to follow his gaze. "Together. Always together. In every world, we've been together forever, together as light in the darkness, happiness, possibilities and hope for the future."

She could have easily laughed again, denied it, but instead she whispered, "You're a romantic from another era, love." 

This time Reed chuckled, drawing her delicate face around again so he could cradle her delicate jaw in his large hand. "Okay, so maybe I am, but do you really not feel that we've been together always? That we've lived other lives, and, in all of them, we're like this. One mind and body, one heart, one soul?" Reed lifted his hand from her cheek, holding it up, fingers separated. 

Shelley raised her smaller one and pressed it against his, palm-to-palm, fingertip-to-fingertip. "Yes," she said softly. "One. Every world. Always."

As one, they brought their hands to the mirror. As soon as they touched it, as one, they saw him...

Reece Pallaton woke with a start, not surprised by the wetness covering his face but bewildered as to his location. He expected to hear the silence of the world, like even the water was holding its breath against the stillness that never felt quite real. Each and every day he woke, the silence was unnerving because the sound of the ghouls' shrieks had filled the night before, filled until that one merged voice was deafening and there were no other sounds on the face of the planet. Only that integrated scream was real. He expected to feel the world gently swaying beneath him in safety. Another illusion. There was no safety, not anymore. 

It's dark. Every ghoul in the world is screaming its vengeance at once. God, I forgot how close it could sound. On the water at night, he could hear it but not like this, not like he was in the center of that storm. From the water, the sound was louder, yet almost... He laughed. Am I actually thinking peacefully distant? Because I'm not in the center of it anymore? Because I go as far as I dare on Lake Superior, away from this place?

His movements slow and filled with stiff soreness, some pain, he reached up to his face and got another shock. The thick beard and moustache--as unkempt, unclean and untidy as his hair that were all part of the hunter's disguise against the ghouls--were all but gone. The goatee that was left was sleek and strangely soft under his fingers. 

Where the hell am I?

He lifted his head, not recognizing his surroundings. The room was dark save for the sliver of moon peeking through thick windows set into the rounded stone wall of the fortress. Tower. Not one I've been in before. Ransom Tower. 

Instantly, his mind went to Shell, and he closed his eyes as the exotic scent of her filled his nostrils until his senses were overwhelmed with agony, need, certainty that she'd been near him, surrounded him, skin on skin, her every body part pressed intimately to his every body part. Recently. Though he couldn't be absolutely certain, he believed this had to be her private apartment in the Ransom Tower. 

So what am I doing here?

When he tried to remember where he'd last been, his brain hurt. The effort to bring forth the memories made him wince. Nothing came to him, nothing at all until he stopped straining, and then he remembered the chapel beneath the East Tower living quarters. "I come here to cry out to God, Reece, but out of hope. I know we can find a cure. I know we can turn the tide and defeat the evil. We just can't give up."

Reece pushed himself up on his elbows, not surprised by the weakness that raced over him, threatening to send him toppling back on the bed once more. He waited it out, still smelling Shell's perfume. He suspected she was the only person in the world who actually cared about smelling good. Beyond that, having a distinctive scent wasn't a good defense. Any human smell drove the spooks insane. It was safer to stink the way the hunters did, to blend in. A bubble of laughter escaped his throat as he waited for his strength to gather. 

When he could maneuver without collapsing, he sat up, aware of two unnerving realities. He had blood in his mouth, iron, rusty. And he was naked. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been in that state, didn't want to remember. Grimacing, he pulled back the fragrant covers and saw his white body covered in bruises, but there was no blood and no dirt. In order to blend with the ghouls while hunting, he rarely bathed. Few did in this time. What was the point? The day was for hunting or gathering, the night for the sentry teams that patrolled the battlements. Or, if it was your night off, drinking pig slop until you were blind, trying to forget the way it was, the past, present and future all mingled into the same thing. He reached up to his hair. Also clean. Combed. 

He glanced around, almost expecting to see Shell. Once more, he tried to remember how he'd gotten here, recall a reason why he was so stiff and sore and bruised, naked and clean as a newborn. Pain greeted him again, and he reached behind him, pulling the pillow from behind his back around to his front and pressing his face into it. 

Shell. Despite the aches and discoloration on his skin that hinted at an injury, or more accurately, massive injuries, he felt his manhood harden savagely, almost beyond bearing, as Shell filled his senses with her scent, the knowledge that this was her bed he was in. When he closed his eyes, he could feel her bare skin against his, curve for curve, hardness molding the satin softness, her limbs stretched out over his. Although a part of him felt a nudge of something that might have been a memory of a sexual act, acts, that had never happened, he realized this particular impression wasn't sensual. Shell's body had covered his line for line, her cheek pressed to his, their breaths one and the same, and recently. He knew it, even if the recollection was cloudy. 

She healed me, like she did her dad. Reece couldn't imagine ever forgetting that incident. She'd been little more than a child and her father had been dying, no way to save him. The Protectorate had been aware for most of Shell's life that she possessed the gift of healing like her ancestors did, though probably not as strongly as they did, that she could empathically restore someone to health by drawing the injury into her own body, where it would ultimately be neutralized. But until it was, she was damaged, suffering, in the case of her father, dying, and Reece had never felt more terror than seeing her collapse after her father had recovered from his fatal affliction beneath her slight weight. 

Shell healed me. But when the hell was I injured? Why can't I remember?

"You're a good person, Shell. You're the heart and soul of all that's left now." Reece could feel her hand encased between his own again, pressed to his heart, then his mouth. Shell had come to him in the chapel, encouraged him when there was little faith left in him. She was the only doctor remaining in this ruined world, and she gave everything. Medical treatment, spiritual, mental, discovering cures and solutions to so many problems. She knew every single last soul alive in this time, and she loved them all. We can't survive without her. I can't. Sometimes I feel like she's all I have left. 

The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth again, and he felt the brush of anguish he'd pushed so far away from him it should have disappeared. Maybe it would always be there, a dark shadow over his heart. Cally. Once the love of my life. My whole life. Life itself. So long ago, and now all I see is death. Cally disappeared, the one I loved was long gone, and, while she was retrieved, supposedly saved with mem rad, she's spent the time since destroying me with the monster that's left of her. She makes me worse, never better. She's nothing to me but another hunter...

Shooting pain went through him, reminding him of the dark cloud hovering over him that used to be his reality. Almost six years ago, it was over with her. I was free. Free of the obsession that filled my every waking thought, my nightmares, the jealousy that drove me to fight my own brothers stupidly because she lived for those confrontations. They made her feel coveted while I felt hopeless, useless, worthless by the same token. But then the black cloud went away, and I'd be a fool if I forgot the reason why. 

Shell. Her light broke up that impenetrable darkness, and sometimes I think the nightmare was never real. Only Shell is real, only she's worth living for.

The heavy wooden door to the apartment opened with a long, loud, slow creak that made Reece cover himself as the real world came back into focus. He turned, not surprised to see Lars enter. As one of the Chosen Seven, he was clearly the prophet  in their number with his onyx, otherworldly eyes. There was always a prophet in the Brethren, but, like the Protectorate as a whole, he didn't function anymore. There'd been no prophecies in so long as to make them wonder if there ever really had been any. Shell was the only one with a gift that actually worked. Even if it wasn't at full strength, she saved lives every single day with it. 

Not for the first time, Reece thought, The Protectorate is dying, or it's been almost dead for the past fifty years. It will die because there's no one left to carry on our work. All the children, including those born to the Brethren in the last twenty years, are dwarfs, not healthy, not strong, incapable of fighting the evil. We're the last and, when we're gone, this war will truly be at an end. 

"Shell healed me," Reece said without preface. "What the hell happened? Why can't I remember?"

"You can't guess?"

The question filled in the blanks inside his mind. Mem rad. I was given mem rad and that can only mean I was bitten. "How bad?"

"You wouldn't be alive now if Mishell hadn't healed you."

Just like that, the memory of how she'd collapsed while her father recovered from her empathic healing brought Reece to his feet. "Where is she? How is she? Why the hell didn't you stop her?"

"I tried. We all tried. We knew that's what you would've wanted. But she wouldn't be swayed."

No, she wouldn't. Shell gave everything for the last of humanity. She gave selflessly, altruistically, because it was who she was. But he knew it was more than that. Shell had been part of him, part of his family, all his life. She'd been his sister's best friend when they were growing up, and then... She became mine. She'd been there as long as he cared to remember. 

"Nothing's worth risking her life--"

Lars caught him when he swayed on his feet and all the strength went out of him. Pushing him back on the bed, Lars looked directly into his eyes, firm hands on his shoulders. "She's fine. I admit, it was touch-and-go at first. She had to heal you more than once to get all the injuries mostly fixed--"

Reece swore. It didn't matter if Shell spent all her time giving him mixed signals. One minute open and proving she shared the intensity of his romantic feelings, the next uncertain and too careful, too distant. Even if he could never admit he loved her verbally because he didn't know which way the wind was blowing from one instant to another, he needed her in his life, his present and future.  

The thought of anything happening to her, especially having her sacrifice herself for him, was akin to hell for him. Hell. Hell is this life, this time period, never winning the war against the evil... all this without Shell. She makes even a losing battle worthwhile. 

Any guilt he might have felt because he'd loved her older sister Cally the first part of his life had dissipated--destroyed by Cally herself with her cruelty, her superficially vain need for worship, to be the most beautiful, by the number of times she'd blatantly cheated on him while they were married. 

"But she pulled through, and you're almost fully healed. Your body can finish the rest. She just needs to rest now, get back her strength."

Reece lifted his gaze. "I can't lose her, Lars. Not her. I've lost everyone else. Not her."

Lars nodded. "I understand. But she's gonna be okay, brother. I promise. She was serious when she said she's stronger now than she was when she healed Dad."

The tone of the prophet's voice reassured Reece the way nothing else could have, short of seeing her and ascertaining for himself the truth of that. "I need to see her."

"You will. Just not now."

For a long minute, their gazes held, and Reece realized with a start that there was more. Turning, Lars walked to the window, looking out over the Black Lake. Reece effortlessly recalled that from his houseboat out on the lake as he left the compound, he could peer back into that very window every night of his life, imagining he could see Shell in the pane, also glancing out over the water at him. The beautiful maiden in the tower, unreachable. I imagine the swell of the violin that I convince myself is louder than the screams that fill the night. 

"Tell me what happened."

"We found you unconscious by the last portal."

Woodcutter's Grim wasn't a normal town, not since the evil entered through the portal three hundred and thirty-six years ago, coming in the form of childhood terrors: Fairy and folk tales, myths, legends, fables, parables and poems. The last portal was the only one they hadn't been able to close. The only explanation they'd been able to come up with for that was because it was the point of origin, how evil had entered their world in the first place.

"You were in bad shape, Reece. The ghouls tore you apart and left you for dead. It was a miracle you were alive."

"You found me alone...?"

"Alone. You were alone."

Reece shook his head in disbelief. "No. I couldn't've been alone. They never leave anyone behind, alive or dead. And...I would've killed any that came close."

What kept the ghouls animated, undead, came down to a simple matter of brain activity. If the brain could be reanimated, the body would go on mindlessly, trying to infect others. Headshots and burning were the only two means of killing the spooks. Electrocution rifles disrupted brain activity long enough for hunters to put a bullet straight through the skull or to chop the head off altogether. Burning the body also prevent the brain from being jump-started. 

"I know. I don't get it either. We can't figure it out. When you're better, we're gonna have to talk about that, figure out why they left you there at the portal, like that. It's hard to believe the spooks got spooked."

The ghouls always took victims to one of their lairs to insure that the infection would spread. The evil had realized a few years ago that if the humans were able to get their people back, they could stop the infection with memory irradiation. So the creatures always took captives deep into their hideouts, tried to keep them hidden so the soul drain could be completed and one of their own kind created in the process. 

Hunters had two main jobs: Priority one was to retrieve any person taken by the ghouls as fast as humanly possible. Twenty-four hours after the bite, there was no way to reverse the damage. The longer it took to rescue a victim, the more damage done. Those missions always took precedence during daylight. The second task was to seek out the dark lairs the spooks holed up in during daylight hours and kept their captives in. The sun made the zombies tame somehow, as if the rage that consumed them at nightfall was temporarily spent. Hunters destroyed as many of the undead as they could during the daylight hours, but they never made a dent in the population. The opposite, in fact. At one time they'd thought the creatures could mate, they reproduced so fast. But they'd figured out that what was really happening was the ghouls were flooding into Woodcutter's Grim from every side, from other parts of the world. Once upon a time, they'd been in contact with other survivors, but it'd been more than fifty years since they'd heard from anyone else, though they kept trying on every conceivable radio frequency. The world had fallen to the infection. And now every zombie in the world was headed their way, drawn here by the evil. What else could they believe? 

"What about the rest of the teams?" 

"We're okay, boss. All the teams are intact."

I don't remember going out hunting that day, after I saw Shell in the chapel the night before, because of the mem rad. I don't remember anything that happened after my stolen time with Shell. 

Against his will, Reece asked tightly, "Cally?"

Lars didn't turn from the window. "Reece, you wouldn't let us give you the mem rad out in the field. You were on death's door, but you fought us. You acted like you'd been bitten before and given the serum. Like you knew what to expect from it and you didn't wanna go through it again. What the hell was that?"

What could he say? Reece couldn't remember anything. Still, Lars' words made him think instinctively, Given mem rad in the past because I wanted to forget being bitten, having my soul sucked out? No. Given the serum to forget something else? Yeah. That's why. Something I wanna remember more than anything but can't. It only comes in impressions, the flutter of a butterfly wing against my skin. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I can't escape the belief that I've tasted mem rad before.

"You've never been bitten," Lars said what Reece well-knew. 

Close but no cigar. If I was given the mem rad before, I wouldn't remember it. That's the whole point of administering it. So why do I feel like I have been given it before, against my will and not based on actual memory? Just like when he tried to recall the past twenty-four hours, he attempted to think, to draw the truth of this out of his head, but his brain felt like it might explode rather than give up the memory. 

"I need to hear everything about the past twenty-four hours, Lars."

The prophet turned, nodding. "You will. But you need to rest up and get better first. I'm gonna go visit Mace. I'll be back later."

Reece wasn't certain whether it was the reassurance in his friend's tone that allowed him to accept the pacification or the dizziness he experienced that made him complacent. Whatever had happened to him, he'd recovered but he was still in a weakened state. 

Gotta see Shell. That's what matters most...

He found himself falling back, his consciousness ebbing away. As his lucidity faded, he realized along the fringes of awareness that Lars had never answered his question about Cally. He'd either purposely or incidentally deflected the inquiry about whether she was all right. Reece didn't have the strength to push the issue before he was out cold.

 

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