Not for the first time he found himself questioning the wisdom of this trip. But he had already put it off too long. After his last trip south he had vowed never to go any further south than the Kansas/Oklahoma border.
He had barely escaped with his life after he had walked into that nest of Shadows in Las Vegas. Some called them wraiths, some called them shades, demons, or ghosts. But whatever the name they were nasty characters.
At the time he had only been back three years, four years since everyone had been spirited away. He had been wintering at the Bellagio, staying in a suite which would have cost him half a year's salary for one night. But their rates were much more affordable now. He had an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower in front of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. But the huge fountain the Bellagio was so famous for was a bit of a disappointment. Now empty and dry, the pipes and pumps clogged with sand. The robotic jets forever stilled. Tumbleweeds littered the floor and the submerged lights now exposed and broken. The crystal clear waters of the artificial lake gone, a victim of the Mojave Desert.
But he was living the good life. Plenty of gas to run the generators. No need to hunt, plenty of canned and dried food to be found in the casino kitchens and nearby stores. In the whole winter he had been staying there the temperature had not dipped below thirty-six degrees at night and the days were sunny and warm.
Things had been great, at least for a while. Then it started getting weird. He began to feel like he was being watched. He had awakened one night sure that something had been in the room watching him. Nothing had been there when he cut the lights on. But when he got up to check things out he found that something had broken the seal on several five gallon water jugs and let them drain out onto the suite's kitchen floor. As he stood there watching water drain from the jugs a sprinkling of dust tickled his nose and he looked up in time to see a ceiling tile settle into place. He didn't sleep for a week after that. He abandoned the Bellagio and found a room in a smaller hotel. Someplace with a solid ceiling and less hidey holes. He also took to carrying a gun with him wherever he went, not just when he was hunting.
One day while gathering food he had seen a manhole cover slide and drop into place. He pried up the manhole cover and peered into the darkness. He unfastened a self powered LED flashlight and shook it a few times to charge it up before descending into the darkness. He memories after that point were vague and often tormented him in nightmares. He could not even recall escaping clearly. He could only remember weakly crawling out one of the flood tunnels. He had been badly mauled and had lost most of the gear he had gone down with.
That was not his last encounter with the shadows, but once he figured out that they didn't like cold weather he headed north.
Now here he was intentionally headed back into the heart of shadow territory.
He packed his gear, saddled Penny and headed out. The snow was knee deep but the sky was clear and the sun was warm. He had hoped to make it to the next town before sundown, but by the time the sun had started to get tangled in the naked trees to the west. There was a road to either side of interstate that had been severed by the highway. He doubted that there was any pavement under that snow. There were however a few farmhouses and steel roofed barns. He bypassed a farmhouse of more recent construction in favor of an older house with a large stone chimney visible on the west end, A metal barn with a sliding door sat to the southeast of the house. He should be able to stable Penny there. The sanctuary at the Mennonite church had developed a certain ... aroma after three days. He weaved his way through a maze of rusted trucks and derelict tractors. The thought of ambush never crossed his mind. It was far too cold for the shadows to out and even had it been warmer they did not like to go out in the daylight. The possibility of an insane gun toting farmer protecting his land from trespassers did not enter his mind either. Which was why he was so surprised when the one that had crept up quietly through the snow behind him ordered him to freeze.
* * *
Dee was never so happy to leave a church behind her. The chapel would have made a cheery enough home had one not encountered its previous occupants, but Dotty was the only member of their party that had gotten a decent nights sleep. The three nights in the Uni had not been much better. It had been somewhat cramped quarters when she was a child living with her adopted parents, but with four adults and a dog it had even more so. But tonight they would be sleeping in comfort at the Bass Pro Shop just off I-70. They were less than a couple of miles from her biological parents old home in Independence and the home she and her adopted father had been forced out of by the wraiths so many years ago. It was so tempting to engage in a little side trip down memory lane. But now was not the time. Perhaps on the way back.
They parked the Hummer one of the service bays of the boat shop on the west side. Dotty opted to stay with the Hummer while the rest of them explored and scavenged for supplies. They needed more propane for the lanterns and for the Hummer, ammo, arrows, kerosene, windshield washer fluid, matches or lighters, salt, soap, socks, new boots for Allison and Oliver and first aid supplies to replenish their seriously depleted first aid kits. And Allison announced that she had to have some feminine hygiene products which started a rather juvenile exchange between her and her brother. Dotty put a halt to that by the simple means of whacking both parties on the back of the head with a rolled up Spring 2027 edition of the SunTracker catalog.
Dee found herself at the main entrance on the north side of the building. The waterfall had long since quit running and the dried pool at the bottom of the falls showed no signs of life. But the huge fireplace and lounge would make a good spot to camp. A cold draft from a door that had been blocked open by a shopping cart needed attention. She shoved the cart out into the parking lot where it hit a boat trailer and spilled. She looked to the west and for a moment thought she saw a thin plume of smoke. It was perhaps a mile away unless she had just imagined it. The sun was little more than a pale disk behind the clouds and held little sway with the barren snow covered Earth. She was letting the gloomy weather get to her. She turned back inside and let the door swing shut behind her.
* * *
The cuts were healing, but the one ear was still a tattered mess and always would be. He had lost a toe, chewed off after becoming so badly infected that biting it off hurt less than leaving it. The belly wounds had been itching something awful. He was weak still. That was why he was such an easy mark for the coyotes that had been watching him. But they had not counted on the half wolf bitch that had been following him either. She was not full wolf nor man's lapdog. She was outcast from the pack. She had no love of wolves or dogs, but even less for the little coyotes. If she could deny them their fun and food so be it. She waited until the lead coyote made its move then leapt to the side of the big black dog. Her jaws closed on the back of the smaller animal's neck as it lunged for the hind legs of the dog. Her heavily muscled jaw clamped down and she threw her weight into a twisting motion that snapped the coyote's neck. It was over before it even knew it had been hit. The rest of the coyote pack broke and and ran. None of them were willing to challenge her. She was big for a wolf. She could have dominated her pack if her coat had been like the others. But her coat was white and her eyes pale and pink. They would not accept her.
She knew without knowing how or why that she would follow this strange black dog. He had a purpose and a direction and she had none.
He had silently watched the brief struggle, unsure of the intent of the newcomer. The exchanged greetings in the usual canine manner and the black dog began sniffing the ground, picked up a scent and began following it. She sniffed the scent too. It was faint flowery smell with an underlying musk, familiar yet strange. A primitive part of her brain associated this scent with trouble. But he was following it so she would too. It lead to a clearing where a small fire had burned. The scent pooled here and mingled with others like it but different. Most were female, but there was a male among them. Long shallow ruts ran to the south in a parallel line, and the black dog began to follow them.
Bo began to pick up the pace. His new companion kept with him and he moved forward more confidently.
© 2011 R. Keith McBride