First came the Killing Cure. Times were lawless and the people were desperate. Yet Andrew the Shepherd knew the old chants and the Word. The spirits fled from him, and the people begged him to rule over and protect them. When the Offworlders came with false promises of deliverance and false miracles, Andrew led men against the first abominations and the soldiers loyal to the Offworlders, the Regime. Now in an unquiet peace, King Andrew has sent his knights, “Runemasters,” to teach allies their secret craft, needed for the defense of all free peoples and coveted by their dark enemies.
Silence and Starsong is pleased to present its first original story. We hope that readers will enjoy it and that potential contributors will take inspiration from it.
The Haunted Valley
Owen watched the sun rise over the peaks of the Allegheny Highlands. Shafts of sunlight like long arms reached into the valleys and glittered on untouched waterfalls. The platoon left in a convoy of three pickup trucks lumbering down an old timber road towards the beaten highway. They would go South on old Route 81, then cross to 11 West, Route 224, and then Route 58 all the way to the Cumberland Gap. It was the route Owen had taken when the King had sent him to the Shenandoahans to teach them runecraft about three years ago. Sergeant Hooper of the Pathfinders knew the roads well and took the lead vehicle. He had traveled up and down the valley and to the border of the Appalachian Confederacy. The road was barely passable and massive potholes from years of frost-wedging and no maintenance forced the vehicles to go slow but still, faster than horses could ride in open country. Sergeant Hill of the Seekers followed up the rear and Owen rode with the cantor monk in the middle car. The rest of the monks were in the bed with their supplies sitting patiently.
It was a frosty November morning and most of the leaves had reached their peak color just a couple weeks ago, before he had known that he was returning home across the wide Mississippi. Orders from the King of the Middle West himself. The Runemaster was to return to his native lands. His mission to the Shenandoah was complete. Now this platoon of the best local troops were to escort him to the river of his homeland. They were to make sure the enemy did not intercept Owen, the runemaster who carried such potent weapons that the abominations dared to enter the guarded valley.
He turned to the cantor. “Captain Amherst introduced you as brother Damascus, right?”
“Call me Owen, brother Damascus.”
“I shall. I prefer, then, that you call me Cantor; my office means more than my name.”
“Damascus is your Christian name, no?”
“It is, but I see my office as more important than my individuality.”
Owen didn’t understand, but the way of the monk was strange altogether. He acquiesced, “you don’t need to wear your hood, Cantor.”
“It will not disturb you? The forehead, I mean.”
“I’ve seen it before. I would keep it covered when we leave Appalachia but for now it makes no difference.”
Cantor took both hands and brushed back his cowl slowly. He revealed a cross chained across his forehead covering a closed third eye which moved independently of his others. “I am aware of the discomfort the third eye causes to some people and as a general rule we do not show it except when we are among the brethren. It is nice to have the veil removed,” he paused, “Owen.”
Cantor’s face was thin, clean shaven, and his head looked like it had never had a single strand of hair grace it. The ghillie robe made him look like a dark, hairy monster and the isolated eye reminded Owen of a cyclops. “Do you believe it is the mark?” Cantor asked, trying to gauge him. The monk’s two lower eyes seemed softer.
“No. I have heard your prayers and seen your devotion. The Scriptures are clear that anyone with the mark cannot be saved and yet you and your brethren’s constant prayers keep the drones and human soldiers from entering our valley. The Lord hears the prayers of the righteous,” Owen assured him. “That being said, I have never met a seer with the eye on his hand that was not an enemy.”
“They are forsaken,” Cantor responded with a hint of disgust on his tongue. “The eye of the mind is one we all have, though ours was so powerful that it manifested itself into this physical world, but like I said, we all have the eye. The eye of the hand is one that can only dominate. They are born tyrants. In the cities, my kind are seen as prototypes, defective, lesser because our powers are to see, not to dominate. Comparably we are much weaker. This ‘Nimrod’ that hunts in the valley will be a force to reckon with should he catch our trail.”
Nimrod, thought Owen. The seer who eluded the hunting parties. He and his abominations penetrated the valley in the more remote areas harrying Pathfinders as they built and maintained roads and killed smugglers selling goods on the black market to the clans of the valley. Those smugglers had whispered that his new target was the runemaster himself. This was shortly before his orders to return were issued. Their mission was a secret so that for all intents and purposes he was still up at the garrison in Harper’s Ferry. Secret movement was their greatest ally now. Whatever creatures Nimrod brought with him would be vicious and could overpower even the entire platoon. Owen pushed the thoughts of imminent danger, danger caused by his presence away. He spoke to Cantor, “I’ve heard many theories about how the eye was formed, about how the seers came to be from smugglers and other seers monks.”
“What did they say?”
“Some say the Regime used powerful electromagnets to warp your brain, others said CRISPR tech and gene splicing. The ones I find most fascinating are the ones that said it was a miracle, something completely unforeseen.”
“I would not call it a miracle.”
“So then, electromagnets?”
Cantor shook his head, “I would call it a curse, whether it was manmade or not. Whether the first seers were an accident or intentional the Regime worked hard to reproduce it since we could enter the Netverse without a headset or bedset. Not only could we see the cursed overlay but we were powerful, virtual gods. The simulation curved around us like we were gravity wells. We could change the simulation, we could hurt people, destroy things. Everyone feared us. Yet we are eunuchs either by design or because of all the things we mingled with our blood. We became more embodied in that world and our lower eyes were shut more often than open. We grew weak and frail as our life transferred into the Netverse. The eye allowed us to do horrible things and see horrible things in the false world. Soon perversity that I cannot mention became the only thing that could sate our lust. We were in darkness and we hated anyone who lived outside of the Netverse, we hated you. Most of my kind had become demonic. I believe I was close to that, but then the miracle happened. One day the simulation changed, and I could not control it. I was isolated on a virtual beach, but it all felt so real. The ocean was so wide and so deep, it was like,” the monk paused, remembering, “staring into eternity. I was on a road leading to it. That road went into the water and I knew it kept going deeper and deeper. I had to take that road. I was curious and afraid because for once in my life I had no power over the world I was seeing. I knew that the deeper I would go the heavier the water would weigh me down but eternity awaited, the great chaotic abyss awaited. There were legends of some seers experiencing something similar. There is always a road, and it is always a choice. To go down the road is to become the cyclops, completely joined into the Netverse. It was to have the lower eyes plucked out completely. It was the goal of most of our kind. Our spirits would leave our bodies, our bodies would die, but the spirit would dwell in the simulation forever. I had met some of them, some of the self-exorcised spirits in the Netverse. I saw them as pure, so much above the users. I descended the road and entered the waves. The water was freezing, I was shocked. I got waist deep and then . . .”
He paused again. Owen was watching the road, but he imagined the monk getting misty eyed because his voice choked when he spoke again.
“The burning one appeared, and I was blinded. He asked me why I was persecuting the faithful but he did not speak; I just knew that was what he wanted to know. I had used my power to seek out the free people. I had used it to cow the population into submission to the Offworlders. I ordered the deaths of many because I was high up in the enemy’s council and close to being lost. I asked his name and he told me why do you ask my name? and then—”
Cantor gasped and tears welled up in all of his eyes. Owen knew that seers could remember things more vividly than any normal human could. It was all replayed for them in the living third eye of their minds. This monk was reliving a moment of pure sublimity.
“Then he reached out and touched me with a burning finger and the water became warm. I cried there because I was completely undone and afraid of how bright he was.”
“If you’d rather not discuss it we can change the subject,” Owen suggested.
“Thank you brother, I have grown used to the tears. It is a beautiful story that I do not give justice. As I had spoken, the burning one told me there was a king over all the worlds and that my allegiance was to him, otherwise my allegiance was to death and to burn in the presence of his glory forever. To die was to lose oneself in the madness of gnashing teeth and unending weeping. It struck me then that I had subjected many people in the Netverse to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Suddenly the name of the king was placed on my lips and then the burning one took me by the head and pushed me under the water and I felt darkness leave me. The water was fresh and warm, it was not salted as I have heard the ocean is. The abyss had become a vast expanse of living water. I lay on the shore as one who is dead. My third eye closed in sleep and my other eyes struggled open. I had not used them in so long that they were weak and pained by the light of day. I took an assignment to the border of the city as an inspector of the reception towers. There I was able to sneak away and come to Shenandoah where I had heard others like me had fled. There I was physically baptized.”
“Praise the Lord for his good work. Who do you think the burning one was?”
“Some say it was an angel, others say it was a saint. I could not tell you. I hope to know in glory one day.”
Owen turned to the monk briefly and nodded his approval. He didn’t have words except maybe “amen.”
The rest of the day went quickly enough though Owen felt the convoy was moving too slowly. At three separate intervals they had to take dirt paths formed by the pathfinders over the years and circumvent Route 81 due to its deterioration at those parts. Owen was thankful it was not the wet season otherwise they would have been bogged down. He had heard it said that this might be the last motorized convoy to take this route. Soon the road would be mostly impassible and the people of the valley would have to use horses. Perhaps one day when the war is over the roads could be rebuilt, though how the vehicles would be powered once the batteries all died and gas was no longer pumped would be impossible to know. Even now there was a shortage. Most of their vehicles were stolen electric vehicles or old gas cars stolen by smugglers and partisans. The Regime did not have the manpower to keep up production that they once had. The world was changing, something new would sprout up eventually. Sergeant Hooper led the convoy to a campsite often used by Pathfinders and they arranged the three trucks in a protective circle. The sun was setting and they prayed the Phos Hilaron. A fire was kindled and food was prepared. They sat around the campfire eating and sharing stories of the wilderness and the olden days. One of Hooper’s men pulled out a harmonica and began playing a tune. They all sung:
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri
O Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, you rolling river
For her I’ve crossed the rolling water
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri
Seven long years I courted Sally
Away, you rolling river
Seven more I longed to have her
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri
Farewell, my dear, I’m bound to leave you
Away, you rolling river
O Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you
Away, I’m bound away
‘Cross the wide Missouri
“Momma always said this song was very old. Much older than grandpa,” Hooper said after they had finished. “She said that grandpa was old when the people finished dying of the cure and lots of things started getting forgotten or erased. They had to choose some songs to save. Many o’ them were old songs. She said none of the new songs was saved. You know she also said Shenandoah was a man and had nothing to do with this valley.”
“The past is a shadow,” Owen responded.
“It’s true, all we have are the old stories and songs, but I say that’s good enough for me.”
“Runemaster, tell us a story from your land. You got some them stories ‘bout the Middle Kingdom?” Sergeant Hill asked.
Owen smiled as the men murmured in agreement. Someone was plucking at a banjo and the dark shapes of the watchmen paced the camp. Owen would miss the beautiful valley. Never had he seen such varied terrain. All his life his eyes had rested on the level horizon of the plains. The mountains here were proud, enchanted. Still he missed a flat horizon, he missed watching a thunderstorm roll in from miles away.
“Do you know how we got a king?” Owen asked.
“I’m sure we ain’t ever heard your version,” Hooper smiled.
“In the days following the Killing Cure, the people were desperate. The plains were lawless but for a few towns that had remembered the old ways. The haints and ghosts had wailed once again with the coyotes on those plains. Andrew the Shepherd knew the old chants and the Word. The spirits fled from him, and the people begged him to rule over and protect them. They mastered the soil and the horse and grew exponentially, picking up strangers and bearing plentiful children. It was a time when disease was scarcely known, a special grace from God. The winters were mild for many years and the bounty of the old world was plentiful. Andrew the First cut his teeth on blessing the fields and fighting the roving bands of raiders and anarchists. Then the Offworlders appeared in the Netverse with their false promises of deliverance and their false miracles. Andrew led men against the first abominations and the soldiers loyal to the Offworlders, the Regime. He slew the cross-breeds, the Tulpas, and the demoniacs with the sword. The continental empire was severed in two and kept breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. The war was so devastating that by the end the weapons of the enemy were spent and many were slain, but King Andrew was still standing and his people more loyal to him than ever. He became a king and a priest to them and wherever he rode the lawless died, and fell spirits fled. He and his sons are still the Priest Kings. The enemy in the West may assail our borders, but our lands are safe and prosperous under the King.”
“Thank you Runemaster,” Hooper smiled. He raised his canteen, “To the King and the Knights of the Middle West!” Everyone raised their canteens and drank the health of the King and his serving men.
“How large are the cities across the Great River?” Sergeant Hill asked.
“There are many people. Most of the old cities are still abandoned and some are even cursed by the King, like Minneapolis or St. Louis. The old towns that sprang up in different places have swelled over the years. They are larger than the towns of the Shenandoah.”
“Is there much learning in those cities?”
“Yes much, I studied Runecraft in Pella.”
The soldiers spoke excitedly to each other. “We were wonderin’” Hill said, “You might tell us where Runes come from.”
Owen chuckled, “That is not a short tale. It depends on which runes you are referring to. Some of the symbols are almost as old as chanting, indeed chanting performs a similar function. Some of the runes are young, from the time of our grandfathers. There were images from what the stories say in a primitive, less controlling version of the Netverse. These depictions were once considered strictly humorous. As the world went mad in our grandsire’s dark days, they would not abide the jokes anymore. Yet the old images stuck in their mind’s eye and became abominable to them. The war was spiritual, one of words. Words and images took on the power they had not had in some time. They became sacred and profane, as if a great gulf opened up and some words fell on one cliff or the other.”
“What did they think words were before?”
“Their meaning and power were forgotten. They were only a means of communicating thoughts and thoughts were considered each man’s only and some, if the stories are to be believed, did not believe thoughts were real.
“Real? What did they think man was? What did they think music was?” Hill asked, astonished.
“They thought man was an engine like this car or like the Regime’s drones.”
“But even drones are homes of wicked spirits, and fire comes from above, from the angels.”
“Very few believed there were spirits.”
The crowd was dumbstruck.
“You must remember that the spirits that haunt this valley were weak and frightened of the sheer number of men. They were not worshipped. Even in the wilderness where they dwelt men did not often go. The spirits could not be seen because the mind’s eye was weak and dull. Men of those days did not believe the actions of the invisible ones were ascribed to animals, tricks of light, imagination, which was, as I said, unique to each individual man. The times were so dark that men did not even believe their eyes when they did see things, because they did not want to. They thought all people who claimed to encounter lights in the sky and dark figures in the woods were mad or liars.”
“To live in those days must have been death to the soul,” a monk spoke out.
“It was for most, brother Phinehas,” Owen admitted recalling the stories his father and father’s father had told him. “That was the enemy’s plan. Starvation of everything true and beautiful, of everything more real but less solid than this world. The men of those days had emaciated souls. Then the blasphemous ‘miracles’ of the Offworlders were like crumbs to those starving men.”
“As dark as it may seem today, those days sound far darker,” Cantor admitted.
“Our fathers must have been strong to withstand such pure and wicked guile,” Hooper said.
“Our fathers were ignorant but faithful in what they knew. The most important thing was that they knew they were missing something. They were spared and their houses increased greatly. In those days most believed the sky was empty, the earth was a machine, and the stars were unliving flames.”
The group seemed to collectively shiver. “I am forgetting the runes,” said Owen, changing the subject.
“They became beacons to the sane, reminding them that they lived in strange times as their neighbors went collectively and uniformly mad. The true power of the runes, however, came from their enemies. Their hatred grew and in that way the images became more powerful until they became alive. Like the image of the mocking frog. They labeled it blasphemous, but our fathers used it as a means of attack and so the image burned itself into their weak mind’s eye. The existence of the frog itself and its incarnations was threatening enough. Those images like the frog, the jak, and the various icons of the kings became weapons in a war of words and images. They became despair to our enemies. They crafted the weapons for us. You have noted that our enemy does not permit laughter?
“Well I sure ain’t ever seen those freaks laugh,” Hooper responded.
“To them it is a mark of insanity.”
“I will point out,” Cantor spoke up, “the enemy does laugh, but only in secret and only the ones high in the council of the Offworlders. We laughed at the people beneath us constantly. It is all ridicule and mockery. To be able to laugh is to be powerful in the Regime. Powerful or mad, perhaps both,” he added.
“Well spoken, Cantor. The runes were erased from history in the great cities but their images still haunted the people as though the hatred and recognition of them had been passed down to the next generation without teaching. Some say it was the gene editing, others say it was a miracle. The runes were not taught to children in schools but still their effect remains. They have become a thing in and of themselves. The psychic trauma seems to echo down into the children and the children’s children of the enemy. All those who exist in the Netverse see the runes. The overlay cannot erase it or change it. Whenever a rune is carved on a tree or painted in one of the cities and someone comes across it, it is seen and becomes like a bomb exploding in the false world. It must be physically removed to be erased from the overlay, but even then the damage is done.”
“Even the drones are affected,” Cantor admitted. “In that lonely world even the machines must offer comfort to their human companions and so empathizers were installed to their detriment. The runes are cursed images in the collective soul of the Regime and it is amplified by the interconnectedness of the Netverse.”
“What Cantor says is true, my apprentices and I ambushed a pack of Boston Demonic Hellhounds and a Pride-class Predator drone a few days before we all left on this journey. We carved the runes into the trees and waited behind our blind. The drones encountered and deciphered the runes and their empathizers engaged. Their crying protocols activated and we finished them off.”
A monk who was on watch hurried over to Cantor. “Brother, lights coming from the Southeast. They are drawing towards us.”
“Trucks?” Owen asked.
“I saw them with my eye,” the monk muttered. Cantor nodded.
“Sergeant Hooper, We didn’t pick anything up on thermals or night scope,” a Pathfinder watcher reported.
“Longaevi,” Hooper muttered. Cantor nodded and gathered his choir together.
“Monks to the perimeter. Everyone else gather around the fire. Keep your safeties on. Bullets won’t do anything against them,” Owen ordered. Everyone fell in line, forming several concentric circles. Owen stood next to Cantor who let out a percenter’s hum and chanted with the rest of his choir:
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
Nor the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence walking in darkness.
The Runemaster saw three bright lights floating towards them through the trees. They crossed the old Route 81 and over to the campsite. Owen and the others crossed their foreheads. The monks held forth their bare crosses, third eyes wide open. The lights stopped about a stone’s toss away from them. There were three floating orbs: one cobalt blue, another emerald, and the last yellow like the sun. The humans heard a thin voice “What are your names?”
“Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after our names?” Owen replied.
“Wither goest thou and whence comest thou?”
“We are servants of the King and since his ascension all of your kind are bid to speed his servants, unless you be his foe?”
“Speak not his name, we pray,” the voice responded. Owen sensed its nervousness. “We will not hinder you lest our time be cut shorter.”
“What art thou?” Owen asked.
“The spirits of this valley. We believed you to be abominations since this is not the season for your kind to travel.”
“Have they been seen in this valley?” Cantor inquired.
“What of the powers and principalities?” Cantor asked.
“They look into the valley, but cannot enter, only their fleshly spirits.”
“Wither were the fleshly spirits seen?”
“Over a hundred leagues south of here. They travel on four legs and the faces of men. North, they travel, night and day. An evil eye rides on them.”
“Leave us, trouble us no more,” Owen said. The orbs were gone, winked away, and the night sounds that had been curiously absent during the encounter, returned. Owen turned to his sergeants, like a king to his council of war. “Sergeant?”
“Werewolves, though there haven’t been any in these parts for many years,” Hooper responded.
“I assume the evil-eyed one is this Nimrod freak?” Hill asked.
“Probably,” Owen agreed. “Last we heard he was north somewhere. How did he end up south of the Gap?”
“He probably didn’t want to put up with our picket lines. Took a chopper south and is now racing north to cut us off,” Hooper suggested.
Owen briefly reflected on the fact that the enemy used a preciously rare aerial vehicle to transport a Seer and a pack of Werewolves down the spine of the mountains just to get him. “That must be it,” he said aloud. “Everyone back on the trucks; we are going to book it. We need to make it to the Gap before our enemy does and they are not stopping to rest.”
The convoy drove as quickly and as roughly as the road and suspension would allow. Several miles of road had become impassible, and the vehicles had to take dirt paths. Cantor drove Owen’s truck while the driver rested. The day finally broke and Owen switched with Cantor so he could lead the choir in morning prayer. When he returned, the cowl of his ghillie robes had been pulled over his face and he was mouthing something. Several minutes of silence followed before he spoke. “Werewolves are swift and can take many paths these trucks can’t.”
“You think they will intercept us?”
“These vehicles will get us a lot farther than our two legs could, even though the road is falling apart.”
“I’m not suggesting we abandon them, but if they are going to reach us then perhaps we should chose a place of strength to defend.”
“Like where? A building in one of these dead cities?”
“Sergeant Hill’s Seekers are too few in number to secure any section of a city. They’re too haunted. We should find a solitary structure somewhere in the valley.”
In the distance they saw the haunted ruins of Roanoke coming up on their left. Old collapsed towers and crumbled houses dotted the landscape. The trucks pulled off and Sergeant Hill walked over them.
“Sir, the trucks need more fuel. We have a few caches here. Y’all hang tight here and we’ll return momentarily with supplies. If you gentlemen wouldn’t mind saying the twenty third psalm for us, that’d be appreciated.”
“Very well,” Owen concurred. Hill nodded and returned to his truck which spun out down one of the few standing exit ramps and into the shattered maze of rock and bricks.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” Cantor chanted quietly. Owen joined in and finished the psalm with him. Sergeant Hooper set up a perimeter as they waited. An hour passed and Owen tried to be patient, but he could almost hear the pounding of the werewolf legs on the red clay charging restlessly towards him. He felt exposed up on the old highway. A single shot rang out somewhere in the decaying sprawl, then another and several more from automatic weapons. Hooper’s men hustled to the ramparts with their bolt-action rifles. Hooper looked down his scope.
Owen rested his hand on the handle of his service revolver. “What do you see?”
“Nothin’,” Hooper responded sourly, “Wait, there’s the truck. They’re booking it this way. Looks like smugglers are chasing them. They got vehicles too.”
“Keep the men down until the last second. I want to spook them.”
“Yes sir,” Hooper said, motioning his men to get behind the road barrier. “I count two enemy vehicles and some runners trailing them.”
Owen reached into his pack and pulled out a furled flag.
“Bet you if Hill was by himself he woulda stayed and got himself killed. That boy never runs from a fight less you order ‘im to. Okay, get ready boys. We’re gonna save the city boy’s collective ass.” Several more shots rang out as the three vehicles exchanged ineffectual fire. Hill’s truck hit the ramp and came roaring up. Owen unfurled the flag which had the frog rune on it. An attacking vehicle swerved and almost struck the ramp wall. Two men flew out of the bed as a result of the sudden correcting turn. Hooper’s men swung their rifles upward and fired a rotating volley. The barrage stopped one vehicle and caused the other to crash. Men piled out of the wreck and took cover behind it. The surviving vehicle returned fire, but began backing up. Some tried to climb on to the retreating truck while others sprinted back down the ramp. The monks were chanting behind the firing line while holding their machetes at their sides. Hill pulled over and his men joined Hooper’s in laying down constant fire on the withdrawing smugglers. Soon the retreating force was out of range and sight.
“Casualties, Hill?” Owen asked, realizing he had never commanded this many men nor even lost a man in combat. Most of his time was spent in whatever makeshift classroom they could provide or out in the field with a single squad. The responsibility seemed much heavier now that they’d seen combat.
“None, sir. They can’t get me in a city, don’t care how many smugglers there are. You shoulda seen how many we got at the depot. Most of it had been raided but we should have enough to get to the Gap.”
“Good work,” Owen commended them. “Let’s get out of this place. I’m just glad we weren’t here at night.”
The convoy hurriedly refueled and took to the road again. Owen’s mind drifted back to Cantor’s suggestion as the truck rattled on down the last stretches of Eighty-One.
“Part of me just wants to get home, Cantor.”
“I wish I could understand an earthly home, but that too was never given to me. None in the cities have homes, just pods and the false world.”
“My home has been ridden on and fought for by my ancestors before me. I want it to be the place where my children grow up, should the Lord give me any. I want my blood and body when it dies to mingle with that soil and become part of it, a seed of the resurrection.”
“Do you have a wife?” Cantor asked.
“I do not.”
“But there is someone?” Cantor suggested.
“I hope so, if she hasn’t married since my deployment.”
“Much to live for.”
Owen nodded slowly.
Throughout the day they took the quickened routes through the cities that the Old Route cut through. They had long been abandoned by death and government consolidation to the coasts. Humans were now strangers in the ancient valley and all their proud buildings were being overgrown and would eventually be thrown down. The concrete was cracked and vines poked through, making the once profane graffiti indecipherable. Owen thought of how dark and miserable the world had once been. He knew that criminals roamed the dark streets then and that jackals and owls were their successors now. He had heard the tales from Seekers telling of strange lights and profane music seen and heard in such abandoned cities in the dead of night. In his rearview he saw the monks crossing themselves and folding their hands in prayer. It was their way whenever they passed a graveyard. They were fifteen miles from the Cumberland Gap now but they had to stop one last time for fill up the tank. The convoy sat in an empty field of tall grass just off the old road. Owen stretched his legs, breathing in the cold November air. There would be a frost tonight.
A coyote slipped out of the brush and stalked them. Those on watch leveled their rifles. The creature was haggard, its fur matted, but it looked more than well fed. It was huge, almost as big as a wolf. It paced them, but did not advance on the platoon. It snarled then lifted up its head and let out a howl. The wind brushed through the valley and up into the surrounding mountains, carrying the howl with it. Owen made a killing motion and several shots rang out. Somewhere up in the mountains a series of answering howls sounded, setting off a chain reaction of baying, which seemed to fill up the whole valley. The sources of the howls were within a few miles of them. Then the platoon heard another more distant call. It was the agonized howl of men, an eerie imitation of a wolf’s howl but not a particularly good one. Owen’s blood ran cold as he realized this dead coyote was an advanced scout for their pursuers. “Sergeant Hooper, can we make it to the Gap before they reach us?”
Hooper listened a moment before saying, “I reckon not, sir.”
“Best speed towards it, keep your eyes peeled for a house or other defensible structure. We’ll make our stand there.”
The platoon leapt back into their vehicles, and they burned rubber down the road. The old thought that his very presence was leading his men to their deaths ate away at him as the minutes ticked by. What did they want with him? There are others who know Runecraft, killing him wouldn’t change much of anything. He was the only Runemaster this side of the Mississippi, at least as far as he knew. The others were probably not yet known to the Regime. He was fountainhead of knowledge for this whole region.
His train of thought was broken by the lead car signaling then turning off onto a long dirt drive through a dense wood. Beyond the wood lay a solitary farmhouse. Owen could still see its broad wrap-around porch standing proud amidst the encompassing ivy. Above the porch, supported by Greek-style pillars, was a balcony and French doors opening onto them from the second floor. They pulled into the circular drive and arranged the vehicles to act as a barricade for the front.
“Hill, clear the house then move the heaviest furniture to block all the entrances on the first floor. Block windows if you can.” The Seeker nodded and dispersed his squad into the house.
“Cantor, bless the house and then be ready for the battle chant.”
Cantor nodded. His choir fell into a line and began chanting and advancing methodically around and then into the house.
“Pathfinder,” Owen called to Hooper. “Search for dry firewood and bring enough for a night, then get back to the house and take up sniping positions. Shoot any scouts you find. Hurry, they will be on us soon.”
Hooper nodded and dispersed his squad into the forest. The house sat on a gently sloped hill in a circular clearing that extended about a hundred yards to the tree line in every direction. The men were moving quickly and in decent order, Owen thought. They knew life was on the line. He checked his bag, grabbed the sealed orders and put it in his interior breast pocket. There was also a flare gun with three flares. He wondered what the chance was of the rendezvous seeing it and making it to them in time? It would also be a beacon to the enemy. Owen elected to wait. The sun was approaching the horizon. Even if the werewolves were close they would strike at night.
Crossing the overgrown drive, he entered the old mansion. Sergeant Hill approached him, “house secured, and the monks are almost done with the blessing and warding.”
“Very good, get some men on the roof to spot for us. Take one man, your best navigator and send him to a truck. Sergeant Hooper will select one from his squad to accompany him. They will press on to the rendezvous and bring back reinforcements, Lord willing.”
The sergeant nodded and went to select a man. After Hooper had chosen two of his men, they were off down the drive. Owen wondered if they would be intercepted and killed or if they might be the only survivors of the entire platoon. He pushed the dark thoughts away, reciting prayers from his homeland and the psalms. He busied himself by carving a few runes into the posts of the house and on the lintels of the doors.
“Do runes work on abomination?” Cantor asked.
“I don’t know. My people have not had the opportunity to find out. Still, it will affect the evil eye if he is with them. The werewolves are part human, I think, so it might do something. I suspect your chants and the sign of the cross will be more effective.”
Owen carved a few rudimentary crosses under his runes for good measure. The sun had dipped below the Western mountains and a series of more human howls came from down the drive. The two hurried into the house and barred the door behind them. He convened briefly with the men.
“It is imperative we hold the first floor as long as possible. We are not far from the Gap and that means reinforcements are probably not too far either. The longer we hold off the better chance we have of making it out of this. Do not fear them. We know what their end is.
The fire was roaring in the lower and upper fireplaces. Water had been set aside ready to boil for the inevitable injuries. Herbs and other medicines had been set aside ready for use. The monk choir voices boomed deeply: “Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hand to war, my fingers to fight. My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer, my shield and in whom I trust.”
The truck lights were left on. They stared down the drive. Spotters called out coyotes entering the clearing. They were all as large as the scout they had seen earlier. “As soon as you have a good shot, take it,” Owen ordered. Two shots rang out and dropped their targets.
Owen unslung his rifle and looked through the scope. There were maybe a dozen coyotes pacing the front of the house and another dozen in the rear based on the shouting from the rear guard. He put his rifle down and removed the flare gun from his pack. He loaded and discharged it, illuminating the whole property. The coyotes suffered more losses and withdrew to the safety of the tree line. The flare drifted to the ground, and it was night. Flashlights on the rifles searched the woods and hit the eye-glow of the coyotes watching. Some of the eyes glowed red. He ordered the flashlights down. The eye-glow of the coyotes disappeared except for the glowing red ones. Pairs of fiery dots crouching in the brush.
“They are here,” Cantor said, removing his cloak and closing his lower eyes. “I can see them. The one we call Nimrod is here too, the Seer.”
The wind was still. The glowing eyes advanced towards the house. They crossed into the beams of the headlights and revealed themselves. The men shuddered when they saw how both human and inhuman the creatures looked. Covered in an unnatural amount of body hair, one could still make out the man-like chest and abdomen. Either through genetic manipulation or skull shaping from infancy, the head had been reshaped into something more triangular. Their teeth were too long for them to close their mouths all the way. Their arms were as big as legs and their fingernails were thick and sharp. The knees of the hind legs looked like they had been surgically reversed to resemble other four-legged creatures. The werewolf in the center stood on its hind legs like a man Owen would estimate to be eight or nine feet tall. “Where is the Runemaster?” it growled.
“Go back to the labs you were spawned from,” Owen responded.
“You will not survive our encounter. We want the Runemaster.”
“You have attacked servants of the King of this world. Flee now lest it go worse for you.”
“You will all be spared if my master is given him. Our fight is not with the peoples of the Shenandoah,” it responded in heaving breaths.
“You raid our borders and steal our women for your breeding programs,” Hooper shouted back. “Go back to hell!”
“Who is your master?” Cantor demanded. Owen turned to see that the monks had withdrawn their hoods and removed the crosses from their eyes. They glowed as if a light inside their minds was shining through. They were staring out at the horde. Some were humming deep tones.
There was a pause. A shorter figure stepped out of the shadows; he was robed and cowled with his arms crossed, tucked into the sleeves of his robe. “I am their master, brother.”
“We are not brothers,” Cantor responded.
“Nimrod, for I know your name,” Owen responded. “In the name of King Jesus, Son of God, the Alpha and Omega, you are to leave these lands and never return lest his wrath come on you more swiftly.”
The werewolves cowered at the name, but Nimrod chuckled darkly. “Our time to live is now, we will not heed the orders of the King until we have no other choice. This is our hour, not yours. We serve the ruler of this world even as your messiah called him.”
He unfolded his hand and opened his left palm to reveal a glowing eye. The hand was no ordinary hand either; it had wrinkles of skin that twisted and writhed into a brow. The brow raised and the eye widened into a maddening glare: wide and empty, as if it could take everything it saw and possess it. Everything it saw was something to dominate.
He made a claw with his fingers. The men crossed themselves and prayed. The monks doubled over in pain. The darkness seemed to bleed into the room and snuff out the lights. The fire felt distant and cold. Fear clutched at Owen’s heart and every mistake and sin he had ever committed came rushing back on him like an onslaught of hell. He saw his men dead, slaughtered before his face, and he saw himself being whisked away by the infernal pack of abominations. The only wise course of action seemed to be to give himself up and let his men live. The spirits that had watched his life mocked, tempted, and derided him all at once. He turned to the other men and saw they were quaking with fear as well. Some had turned to him for orders and he thought perhaps, a dark hope that he would give himself over to the enemy. He struggled to remember much of anything. He saw a hopeless struggle, a war with one long defeat after another. Each victory was just a small battle in a losing war. The Regime had the technology and a wicked hatred that would consume them all. Better to run than to fight, for who could stand against the tyranny of the devil?
He thought of Saint Peter drowning on the turbulent seas and shouted “Lord, save me!”
Then there was a moment of clarity when Owen recognized the attack on his mind. He touched the arm of the soldier nearest to him and began reciting the twenty third psalm with him. It spread to the rest of the soldiers and by the time they reached “I shall fear no evil.” Then they said the Our Father while they picked up their weapons again. In the brief interim the werewolves had charged the house but were stopped, scared by the sign of the cross and seemingly confused by the images of the runes above them. Owen fired a shot; it missed but it galvanized some of the soldiers to join in. Nimrod advanced to see what was keeping his beasts from breaching the house and his evil eye landed on the runes. It blinked and teared, enraged at the sight of the mocking frog, the bearded man and the “Jak.”
With his concentration broken the men recovered their wits and laid down suppressive fire. Owen took aim with his rifle and shot at Nimrod who withdrew into the tree line, his fingers closed over his eyes. The leading werewolf charged past his pack and slammed his gargantuan body against the door which split in half. The furniture barricade held. Bullets ricocheted off the wolves’ bones, but some fell if a soft spot was struck in good providence. Owen turned to Cantor who was kneeling on the floor. The monk looked up when Owen touched his shoulder and he saw that the third eye was crying blood.
“I can’t remember the tones,” Cantor, said, shuddering. “Every wicked thing I have ever done is before my eye and their eyes,” he swept his hand over to the other crippled monks. Owen heard shouting downstairs and furniture breaking. There was nothing he could do now for brother Damascus except place the cross over his third eye.
“Remember the words, remember the chant. We must fend the demons off!”
Owen left him and charged down the stairs. He called the men back to the foot of the stairs where they formed a firing line. Owen tapped a soldier with a shotgun and pushed him down to one knee. The soldier took the knee and leveled his weapon. Two other soldiers crouched down next to him. Suddenly Cantor appeared behind Owen bearing the image of the bare cross in front of him, his eye squinting in rage. The werewolves at the windows shrieked and backed off. The leader let out a threatening roar.
“Get back here! You think running will save you? There is no saving for the likes of us.”
“Your servants are wiser than you, beast,” Owen spat.
“The hour of the damned is now and I shall enjoy and rule every moment before the time,” the werewolf responded, though he was slipping back out the door.
“They’re falling back,” someone yelled from upstairs. They all breathed a sigh of relief and praised God before shoring up the weakened defenses. Along the perimeter red eyes watched the house. A rotation was set up, but those whose turn to sleep found that it did not come easily. Those who could not sleep were ordered to pray. The night was half spent before the watch reported activity in the tree line. They stirred Owen awake. Two dark shapes had dashed across the open field and under the two cars.
“Can you get a shot?” Owen asked?
“No, Runemaster.” The vehicles began to rock back and forth and the sound of metal bending, breaking and fluid running onto the ground echoed up to them. The vehicles were disabled. If they left here, it would be on foot. They all felt truly besieged now.
“Don’t let those two return to the tree line.” Shots rang out, impacting near the trucks. The wolves dashed back to the cover of the trees with bullets zipping by them. About thirty feet from the tree line a round finally struck one and it dropped, rolling over itself several times The other had a round bounce off its shoulder blade. It ran faster seeing the death of its companion. Just as it reached the tree line a final round struck the knee of its hind leg. It limped to safety. Amidst cheering from the men, Owen pointed to the motionless corpse on the lawn saying, “Remember, they can be killed. They bleed and die.”
There was some angry howling in response to the death and maiming. Owen shouted out, “But God of might: in heaven so bright shall laugh them all to scorn! The Lord on high shall them defy, they shall be once forlorn!” The wolves bayed collectively and then were silent. There was some distant rustling that let the platoon know that the wolves were out of sight but not gone. The night was only half spent.
“Are there still people in those things?” one of the soldiers asked.
“The Lord knows,” Owen said.
“I reckon not sir,” Sergeant Hooper whispered.
“Why not?” Owen asked, still watching the trees. Some of the soldiers gathered around to hear Hooper’s wisdom. Owen motioned for others to keep watch. Thankfully there were no serious injuries to attend to.
“Well sir,” Hooper went on, “I’ve lived in the wilderness most my life. If they said Hooper was more at home in a tree than a bed I’d have to confess to it. We Pathfinders do more than huntin’ beasts; we also make the new horse paths and roads through the valley and some of the more secret trails. We see many a strange thing. The prayers of the monks keep a lot of them haints at bay, sir,” he nodded respectfully to Cantor. “But being as we dwell on the East side of the mountains often, we encounter our fair share of smugglers and outcasts, and boy do they have tales to tell.”
Hooper laid his rifle down and took out his corncob pipe. He stuffed it with some tobacco from his pouch. He walked over to the fireplace and everyone followed partly to hear the story and partly to warm themselves. The sergeant took a brand and lit his pipe. The upper fireplace cracked and breathed out warm air thrusting away the drafty night.
“As I was saying,” Hooper puffed, “lots of strange stories. My men and I heard of them critters out there before we ever laid eyes on ‘em. Smugglers said they was grown in the cities. It was one of the techniques the Offworlders taught the Regime. No one except those lady scientists ever go into the top of that pyramid they built in the center of the Pentagram in Washington. You know the Offworlders say they’re responsible for the Egyptian pyramids and the Aztecs? Anyway, sometimes in the city, people see strange lights in the sky around the Pentagram a hoverin.’ Headsets don’t register it, but if you aren’t wearing one you might see ‘em. Lady scientists in their lab coats go in and not all of ‘em come out. Oftentimes animals are herded in there. You might have a better explanation, but those smugglers, the friendly ones, is convinced that’s where these critters come from,” Hooper finished.
The room was dead silent until Owen spoke, “It is as our fathers thought. Abomination and confusion. Cantor, can you corroborate this?”
“No, that was not my department. I didn’t work with Offworlders. I worked exclusively in the Netverse. None of this surprises me. These rumors were heard in my old circles as well. We simply did not care about the world outside of the virtual one. All we wanted was to be in it and to never leave.” The blood on his third eye had dried and he was dabbing it with a damp cloth.
“So there ain’t nothing to pray for,” Hooper continued. “The image of God has no business with the image of the devil. What does Christ have to do with Belial?”
The other men nodded solemnly. “Their reward for making these abominations will be great and terrible,” Owen admitted.
The night outside was still. He felt that they were in the eye of the storm. One of the soldiers took out his banjo and plucked away to the tune of “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight.”
The hours passed without incident, and it was near daybreak before they heard the pack howl from the trees. They rushed the house. The hours of silence had done their work and many of the men had fallen asleep or grown complacent, thinking beyond hope that the enemy had left. The monsters appeared clear in the night vision of the watchmen. The wolves’ eyes showed as white points of light and their open mouths seemed as dark and deep as an open grave. Owen could see through a pair of borrowed thermals that they had short tails as though their spine and tailbone had been stretched then layered with unfeeling cartilage. He felt sick in his stomach but controlled his breathing.
Several beasts attacked the body of their fallen comrade. Pulling organs and other viscera out, they hurled them at the house, smattering windows and the posts that held the runes. With the runes obscured by blood the enemy moved more swiftly and confidently. Others jumped onto the disabled trucks and up onto the front pillars, and with inhuman strength scurried up and onto the balcony. The shooters on the balcony tried to dash inside but the wolves, ignoring their bullet wounds, were on them in a heartbeat.
A monk sprang forward, his third eye blood-shot and weeping, but with the cross removed, shouted a prayer and brandished a machete. His appearance was like a tall man of war whose bloodlust was up. His face was one of black rage. The werewolves hesitated, mesmerized by the holy man’s terrible rebukes. He hacked into the nearest wolf’s flank. There was a howl of pain. The other wolf ignored his comrade and fastened its iron, human-shaped jaws onto his left arm. More shots from inside rang out striking the attacking wolf. Meanwhile, the monk kept up his hacking despite his foe turning and biting him on the machete-wielding arm. The four figures were locked in a death struggle and too intertwined to safely shoot.
Owen heard more wolves below scrambling up the balcony. He saw Hooper take a flaming brand from the fireplace and shouted “the Valley! The Valley! Shenandoah!” The sergeant charged through the French doors, torch in one hand and his service revolver in the other. Owen and the rest of the men charged after him repeating his shouts.
“Break their teeth, O Lord!” Cantor prayed holding his cross aloft. A man from Hooper’s squad had grabbed a hatchet and hacked the neck of the wolf clamped onto the monk. The creature went limp, blood draining over the edge of the balcony.
The wolves that tried to reinforce their comrades withdrew at the sight of the flames, vestigial animal instincts overcoming human. Hooper blasted his pistol into the night hearing a few whimpers as his marks hit their targets. The soldier who still wrestling with the wolf had his free arm wrapped around its gigantic throat. The shoulder was completely dislocated and wriggling freely. Owen got in close with his pistol and blasted it through the heart. The creature crumpled and released its prey. Owen helped him up and they shuffled inside.
More wolves were howling, re-grouping for another assault. Some furniture was hastily dragged in front of the French doors and more brands were pulled from the fire. Owen ordered the men on the first floor to fall back, up the stairs. They would make a last stand to protect the wounded. Just then they saw a flare go up down the road. Owen rushed to the window and saw a pair of headlights and, illumined by the flare, a company of horse charging, following close behind. The messengers he had sent out had come through and brought reinforcements. Owen praised God.
There was a distressed call from the wolves and Owen saw them dash off into the woods. Nimrod must have known he was outnumbered three to one at this point and with fresh troops and the dawn on their heels. He caught a glimpse of a dark-robed figure on the back of the alpha wolf. He thought he saw the figure glance back at the house before disappearing into the trees.
Owen and his men removed the barricade downstairs. Several riders dismounted and came inside. The messenger truck Owen had dispatched pulled off and the men got out to look over the sabotaged vehicles. The leader of the horsemen approached. “Sir, I am Owen Smith,” he told him, handing over the orders still in his breast pocket.
The man smiled and shook his hand. He looked at the seal before returning it unbroken. “Runemaster! It’s an honor, sir. I am Major Wyndhurst Scruggs of the Tennessee Rangers. On behalf of the Appalachian Confederacy, I welcome you to the Cumberland Gap,” he saluted.
“Major, we are happy to see you and thank God for you.”
“My boys tracked the werewolves and saw they were heading this way. We were following them, wanting to strike in daylight, but we ran across your plucky truckers here. Glad we could be of assistance, though you couldn’t have picked a prettier house to make a last stand in,” he smiled.
“Not a last, thankfully,” Owen returned the smile. “They’re after me; we haven’t seen the last.”
“Suppose not. Guess they wanted you for your artistic acumen,” Scruggs said dryly. He eyed Cantor who had come downstairs, his hood covering the third eye. “Don’t see too many monks down South. Say, when are you boys in Shenandoah gonna join the Confederacy?”
“That’s a question for the clans but we are happy to call you friends, at least.”
“Well, I guess we can discuss diplomatic relations in the relative safety of Fort Middlesboro. Are your vehicles in good working order?”
The new dawn was creeping up and with it a sense of hope. “No, major. The dogs damaged them, probably beyond our capability to repair in the field.”
“Not to worry, we brought extra horses. “
“Our brother will pass soon and Sergeant Hooper’s man will have to be transported in the working vehicle. He requires a doctor,” Cantor said.
“Let’s go to him. Cantor, would you lead us in the departing prayers?” Owen asked.
Cantor bowed and led them back inside and up the stairs to where wounded lay by the smoldering fire. The injured monk was pale as though bled dry. He was drenched in sweat and shivering. Another monk was tending him and whispering something. He turned to them and said: “the bites are deep and there must be poison in the spittle because the arm is already dead. It has spread to his heart.”
“Boothby,” Scruggs ordered one of his men, “Can you help this feller?”
“I reckon not, Major. I could talk the poison out, but the damage is done. He also lost a lot of blood judging by his pallor. I’d like to look at the other feller.”
“Proceed, with the Runemaster’s approval,” Owen nodded, his eyes still fixed on the dying monk who had slain the werewolf. It was brother Phineas. His hood had been tossed back and the cross covered his third eye which was clear and bright. His lower eyes stayed mostly shut. Phineas was crying out in fear and despair.
“He is near death,” Cantor said, removing his hood, “The devil is showing him his sins and trying to drown him in despair. Brother Phineas, behold the bare cross before thy closing eye,” the monks traced the crosses on their foreheads and everyone else in the room made the sign of the cross on their bare foreheads.
“Let us pray,” they all bowed.
“To live,” he said
“Christ,” they all responded.
“To die,” he said.
“Gain,” they responded.
“For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and feet.”
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over,” they said.
“The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”
They said the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer of Simeon together. Brother Phinheas mumbled as best as he could. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared before the face of all people to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.”
Phineas gave up the ghost and all were silent.
“We will build a cairn out front for the body of our brother,” Owen ordered.
After morning prayers they set about the task hard and fast, finding many stones on the property from an old short wall that had stood far to the back of the house. When the stones had been piled up they prayed once again at the mound. It was before noon when they set out on the road again.
The company scavenged what they could from the damaged vehicles and all went on horseback except the injured soldier, who they had named “Hatchet” because of his deeds in battle. He was set in the bed of the truck with Boothby, the Tennessee medicine man. Owen could see that Scruggs worried they had tarried too long but had held his tongue. Hatchet’s wounds were not as severe as Phineas’ and the poison was rendered inert, but Tennessee Boothby was concerned an infection would set in. There was more medicine at Fort Middlesboro.
Owen thought about how at the end of this road was another one and after that one was undoubtedly another. Men had died but the enemy had been thwarted. “I’m sorry for your loss, Brother Damascus,” he said as they rode side-by-side.
“His suffering is over. All of our kind fear the moment of death. We are constantly tortured through life because the things we’ve done and seen cannot be forgotten and the devil uses it all. The eye of the soul never stops seeing. We see it more starkly than a normal would, but now all Brother Phineas’ eyes will behold Christ and his tears shall be wiped away. I see as if in a dream that after the wars cease, abominations have passed away, the haints are subdued, and all of Appalachia is brought under the rule of Christ, that I or someone after me will raise up a monastery and that cairn will be the spot of a martyr. Monks will keep vigil there to pray, and it will be a way station for the sojourner. We’ll wash off the cursed blood of the enemy and till that soil. We’ll plant gardens and dig new wells. We’ll pile dirt over the cairn and flowers will grow on it, protecting the body of our brother in seed-form until the day of the resurrection.”
Owen smiled and turned to look back at the old battle-damaged house and the hastily made cairn in its front lawn. He thought about the people who built that house. He thought about his ancestors and the dark world they had lived in, and how they had sacrificed everything to bring a people through the valley of the shadow of death to a brighter, living one. He thanked them silently and was reassured that the good Lord would not let their sacrifice be wasted. It was one of those small moments that are often written off for fear of being proven wrong. In that moment he let the feeling wash over him and the contentedness remain. He turned his head forward to the road again looking West, towards home.
Longaevi interprets and draws his own “runes” in a region of Appalachia known only to a few.