The Hunters Trail Part Five

Darius squatted beside the fire pit, sniffing in almost ecstasy at the smell of coffee. Real Coffee, the black stuff that kept men going when all else fell. This stuff that made life worth living, he decided. In the scheme of things, Coffee ranked right up there with Ford trucks. He was pretty sure that God drank a cup every morning before he went out and drove to the office in his Ford pick up. God I miss my truck! the thought was brief the smell of coffee distracting him.

He smiled as he thought of another Coffee addict, a man who loved the stuff even more than he did. Jared Stone would move heaven and hell to run a train line all the way from Sullivan to Gills place just to get coffee. Why with a cup of coffee every morning Jared might even be able to reunify the United States before Christmas.

YES! its ready, he thought as he reached for the pot and poured himself a cup. He held that cup for a long moment, savoring the smell, anticipating the taste. Then slowly took a sip and sighed with an almost orgasmic joy as the strong, hot liquid rolled over his tongue and down his throat.

He looked around dreamily to see Adam, Noah and Lee leaning towards him, or more accurately towards the pot. The impulse to shoot them and keep it for himself was almost overwhelming. “Precious” he muttered in an impersonation.

Lee laughed and snatched the pot before Darius could stop him. Once the three men had steaming cups in their hands they sat in silence drinking coffee and enjoying the moment. A moment that none of them thought would ever come again in their lifetimes.

“Drink slow little man, that stuff will put hair on your chest and I know for a fact my sister doesn’t like hairy men.” Noah warned Adam who for once had no witty come pack, he only glared over the rim of the tin cup at Noah then took another drink.

“So how did the trade talk go?” Adam asked a few minutes later as he refilled his cup. “I assume good since we now have coffee.” Like Darius all of them were still stunned by the fact that Gill and his people grew coffee. If that wasn’t proof of miracles then the world was in trouble, Darius thought.

“It was a hard bargain, but they settled for a testicle each from you and Noah for two pounds of coffee.” Darius said in that slow drawl that even years out of his home state hadn’t softened.

“I would have traded them both” Adam said as he lifted his cup to his lips then paused to grin at Darius. “My wife wouldn’t have cared as long as I brought some of this back.”

“I vote for giving both of his too. Can you imagine what his babies would look like.” Noah said as he reached for the blackened tin coffee pot only to have it snatched out of his reach by Adam. “Spill that Tiny tot and you’re a dead man.” Noah warned.

“I will shoot both of you if it gets spilled. Kiss and make up. or make out I don’t give a damn just set the coffee down.” Darius warned them both as Lee chuckled. It still amazed him how good of a friendship had developed between them. Though there were moments where Darius seemed. Darker maybe is a good way to describe it. a deadly do not fuck with me light in his eyes.

Lee looked past Darius as he started to add his own joke only to frown and fall silent.

Darius, seeing the change in Lees mood turned his head to see Travis and Lili walking across the cut grass towards the Camp behind the Farm house. The kid looked upset, but all he saw in Lili’s face was worry. Darius drained his cup then set it aside and rose to his feet knowing that nothing good was about to happen. .

“Dalton is gone” Travis stated as soon as he was close enough not to have to yell.

“When was he last seen?” Darius asked not wasting time with inane questions.

“About two hours ago, just before your meeting with Lili and Aishani.” Travis said almost angrily. He was angry at himself, Darius realized. “what happened?” Darius asked glancing at Lili who remained quiet letting Travis talk.

“I..Uh… well I screwed up Darius. You know how he is about the horses, and he was pretty bummed out that we were going to be leaving tomorrow or the next day and knowing that we would be coming back, I told him he could go with us and learn more about working with the horses if it was all right with Gill and…. I..” Travis shot a look at Lili, who nodded silently. “I shouldn’t have, But I wasn’t thinking about his… problems.”

“Dalton went to my father to ask permission and my father being a brusque jerk on occasion told Dalton not no but hell no.” Lili supplied. “To say Dalton was upset would be an understatement.”

“Son of Mongolian sheep herder” Darius swore, trying and failing not to glare at Travis. “What in the hell were you thinking? The kid is slow Travis, do you really think traveling around out there where people will try to take advantage of him or kill him was a bright idea.”

“he is slow not stupid and he is a good shot” Travis snapped back.

“When he finally figures out that some one really wants to hurt him.” Darius growled then turned to Lili. “Any idea where he might have gone?”

“Off the Farm we think,” She stated worriedly. “our people have searched every nook and cranny in every building and there is no sign of him so he has to have slipped off the Farm. Knowing that you and Lee there are supposed to be good trackers, My dad thought it was wise to ask you for help.”

and because one of our people caused this damn problem in the first place, Darius thought. “Did he take anything, supplies, clothes?”

“Not that we could tell.” Lili said then gestured towards the sky. “its going to be dark in a few hours, and considering who and what has been lurking around the farm not to mention the chances of him being hurt in an accident. We want to get him back before dark.”

“Travis get the horses saddled, your coming with me. Lee I think you and Noah should see if you can find any tracks around the farm house he might have left so if he is still inside the fence you can find him.
Travis and I will go out the gate and ride the fence line. We will either find tracks to follow or hopefully he will see the horses and come out to talk.” Darius said as he reached for his gun belt.

Lili stood there watching as the Hunter finished strapping on guns and knifes, then slapped a battered cowboy hat on his head. He really does look like a cowboy she thought. He hadn’t shaved so he sported a heavy five-oclock shadow and wore faded, patched Jeans and a denim shirt. His gun belt rode low on his hips; sunlight glittered from the brass cartridges that filled every loop of the gun belt. All he was missing was a battered tin badge and a duster.

She watched silently as he pulled both pistols, modern pistols compared to the antiques that Lee carried. He checked the clips, or magazines as she had heard him call them then checked the actions of both weapons then satisfied he slipped them into their holsters before checking his rifle. As he finished inspecting his weapons, Travis appeared leading their saddled horses.

“We will find him Lili, My word on it” Darius said as he stuck a foot in a stirrup and swung into his saddle. Travis mounted up and with out a look back they rode for the gate.

Clearing the gate, Darius frowned seeing two crosses laying in the leaves outside the fence line. Some one had ripped them down and he was pretty sure it hadn’t been Dalton.

It hadn’t been Dutch’s people either Darius thought. They would have done their best to hide their presence and casual vandalism wasn’t the best way to hide your presence in an area. In fact if I had a paycheck to bet, I would bet that the gun battle a few nights ago was Dutch’s crew against who ever has been harassing the farm.

I loved it so much better when the land was pretty much empty. Lately it seems damn crowded around here. Next thing you know, some city council will appear and start handing out ordinances. God save us from Bureaucrats.

He leaned down in his saddle studying the ground, sometimes a sign was faint, nothing more than a bent blade of grass or broken twig. In this case, a boot print in some old leaves, it was near invisible but Darius had gotten damn good at tracking over the last 12 years. nothing like Old Pete who had worked the Ranch, Pete could have tracked a ten pound man across New York city during rush hour.

He slipped out of the saddle and slowly spiraled out from that single print. Ten minutes later he found several more tracks, three sets and only one of them was Daltons.

Two of them had been adults, judging by the size and depth of the tracks, one wore old Military boots with heavily worn soles.

The two adults had headed towards the east side of farm, while Dalton had gone west. Thank god for that, Darius thought as he moved westwards leading his horse till he entered the high weeds and grass scattered amongst the trees and following the kids trail grew easier. Mounting up again, he and Travis headed west following the fence line.

“That’s him!” Possum said as he and Green watched the man and teen ride away. “that’s the Hunter.”

“you think he is going out looking for you?” Sgt. Green asked quietly as the continued to observe the area around the gate from a tumble of old Limestone rocks.

“Maybe” Possum said though he wasn’t certain that was the case. It was possible that the Hunter didn’t know Possums men had been trailing him or that Possum had figured out his destination and gotten there ahead of him. Not that he really believed that. Any Idiot could have seen the lights up on the mountain and there was no one he could think of that wouldn’t have headed towards working electrical lights after so many years of not having seen any. So the Hunter had to have at assumed that Possums group would have headed up here to check out the lights.

And even if the Hunter hadn’t thought that possibility, there was no way he could have missed the sounds of the battle with the Brotherhood on the mountain the other night.

“You were really going to kill him?” Green asked out of curiosity, his voice slightly lower than a whisper. Like the other survivors of Kronnen’s men in Lovetts group he held no real animosity towards the Hunter and why should he. The hunter had almost exclusively killed off Possums fellow criminals who had served Kronnen. No Animosity, but there was apprehension. The Hunter had hated any one that served Kronnen.

“Dutch wasn’t happy with the idea of the Hunter lurking around Porters town. But ultimately whether I took the shot or not was my decision.” Possum replied his voice as low as Greens. “To be honest, just before the Brotherhood attacked my camp. I had pretty much come to the decision that the Hunter really wasn’t a threat to us or hadn’t been before Connors Ambush. I was trying to figure out how to talk with him and convince him not to go looking for revenge on our crew when the attack rolled in.”

“ballsy of you. Facing the Hunter that is. ” Green said as he shifted slightly to scratch at an insect bite on his arm. “That explains why the Colonels…Lovett’s idea didn’t bother you a lot.” He said referring to Lovetts plan to confront the Hunter.

“Not the idea no, but finding out about the Brotherhood and the twins that was a bit upsetting.” Not to mention the idea that this Brotherhood could follow us back to Porters town and attack. The town itself would probably survive, there were enough people with guns in town that the Brotherhood would pay a steep price for the attack. The people that lived out on the farms would probably get slaughtered though.

He felt a flicker of surprise that the idea bothered him and then he just accepted it. He had realized a few days ago that Porters Town was home and he had apparently grown more attached to the town and its folks than he had thought. His old life, just seemed so distant and unreal that it had no real impact on his life today. He had been a criminal in the old world, His was a different person in this new world, maybe even better than he had been.

He fell silent again, studying the area. The Brotherhood had been checking out the fence for the last three nights, as well as sweeping the area looking for Possum and Lovetts people, or more to the point the girl. His gaze fell once more on the broken crosses on the ground. “Why did they do that?” he asked “tear down and break the crosses.”

“The crosses represent a false religion of the dead world, just like the farm with its solar panels and green houses are part of the Dead world. They consider it an affront to God, blasphemy.” Green replied.

“But I thought they loved the dead?”

“They do, the walking dead are considered Gods Holy warriors, or janitors maybe. They were sent to destroy the old world and the people who were part of it. those that survived the dead were redeemable but only if they gave up the Dead world and all that it represented.

Which is where Kronnen comes in, you see Kronnen was a Prophet, a messenger of God. His mission was to convert survivors into the new way of life to save their souls and usher in the perfect world that God had decreed. but he was killed by the Devils minions, the Hunter and Jared Stone before he could accomplish Gods mission and when he died he became something more, He became one with the undead.”

“Sounds dumber than shit to me.” Possum stated a little louder than he had intended.

“It is, you should hear the sermons from Kronnen’s woman, or Toffler. Real nut job stuff.”

“What was her name?, I don’t even remember. I just remember she had been on TV and in some movies and was hot?” Possum asked curiously. She had been hot. She’d had a body like a sports car, sleek, curvy and built for speed or at least she had before Kronnen had collared her.

“you know no one really remembers her name, she doesn’t even remember it. Sad really. Toffler and the brotherhood call her the mother or the Broodmare. We just say Kronnen’s woman.” Green said.

Both men fell silent as they considered that. Billions had died and maybe a handful would be remembered. To his mind it was somehow worse to have survived the dead and be nameless. Possum didn’t know it but as he felt a surge of guilt for being part of what had damaged that woman so badly, He shared that feeling with Green and the other men in Lovets forlorn hope.

Sunlight fell in glorious bands through the gaps in the tree cover as Darius and Travis rode silently through the woods. Darius continued to scan the ground, occasionally dismounting to check for tracks in rocky and rough patches.

Travis fidgeted, the silence wearing on his nerves. It was probably the first time Darius had truly been upset with him and Travis wasn’t proud of it. Darius had in a very short time become more than a boss, and a friend but a father figure. Finally he couldn’t take the silence a moment longer. “I’m sorry okay. I thought that I was doing a good thing.” he said, his words falling into the silence like a rock in a still pond.

“I know” Darius replied.

“That’s it, ‘I know’ is all you have to say.” Travis said shaking his head.

“Would you rather I cussed you up one wall and down another. Call you an idiot, pull down your pants, bend you over my knee and tan your ass with the my hand.” Darius asked his eyes never leaving the ground.

“I…” Travis said then paused for a second collecting his thoughts. “No, I just expected a different response.”

“Travis, I don’t see a point to trying to make you feel like crap. You screwed up trying to do the right thing. It happens, the only thing I care about is finding the kid and getting him back safely.”

“So why the silent treatment.” Travis asked.

“No reason, I figured when you were ready to talk you would open your mouth and words would come out” Darius replied with an touch of grim humor in his tone.

Travis shrugged gladly willing to move on. “So how far do you think he could have gone?”

“Several miles at least. He has a destination in mind, his trail is pretty straightforward, the only time it changes is to go around outcroppings, thick underbrush and fallen tree’s.” Darius commented. “any idea where that might be? you spent a lot of time with him. Did he ever mention a place on the mountain he liked to go.”

Travis thought about for a moment and started to say that no he didn’t then a memory surfaced of Dalton laughing and saying he would love to ride one of the horse’s out to an old stone house on the mountain. Not that is was going to help find him.

“He mentioned an old stone house here on the mountain, but never said where it was.” Travis finally said after spending a couple of minutes trying to remember if Dalton had said anything else about the place like where it was.

Darius grunted something that Travis didn’t catch then stood in his stirrups and looked around. “what?” Travis asked seeing the look of concern on Darius face.

“Wolf tracks” Darius stated. “Four of them and it looks like they are following Dalton.”

“Oh great” Travis moaned then curiosity took over. “How can you tell it’s a wolf and not a dog.”

“the size mostly,” Darius said as he cast about for more sign. “a wolfs tracks are larger than all but the biggest breed of dog.” He pointed to one of the tracks, “that one is almost five inches long and about four and a half inches wide. Unless Cujo is running loose up here, that’s a wolf track. Cougar track is similar but there are no claw prints on a cougar track.” Darius commented.

“how dangerous are they?”

“one would be bad enough if it attacked, but four would be a bitch. They hunt in packs most of the time. one draws the preys attention while the others close in from both sides and behind. Whether they will attack Dalton or another human is hard to say. Wolf attacks were rare back before the dead. Or at least rare when there were a lot of people and they had been driven almost to extinction. Now, I don’t really know. But if they are hungry or injured, Dalton would be a great target for them. Alone and a kid, that’s a happy meal in the making.”

“If your trying to make me feel worse, congrats its working” Travis said softly his worry for Dalton increasing.

“Get your weapon ready.” Darius said. He suspected they were close to where ever Dalton had gone. He had no basis for that belief other than Dalton must have snuck off the farm many times to know about an old stone house and know a path to get there by memory. The kid had probably snuck off to spend time in his private get away as often as he could.

Darius glanced at the sky, at least they still had an hour and half to two hours before sunset. He dropped his gaze back to the wolf tracks, trying to remember all that he had ever learned about wolves. Which to be honest wasn’t a lot, back home the only real predators had been alligators, coyotes, wild boars and feral hogs.
Even now, he had only rarely seen wolves and not more than three at any one time. Rare they might have been before the dead but in ten years with no one hunting them, assuming plenty of game there could be some pretty large wolf packs out there and a pack of wolves, hungry wolves, was not likely to be scared of a man much less a boy.
Lets hope they are not hungry only curious, he thought.

She sat in the sunlight, enjoying warmth on her bare skin. She remembered enjoying doing this very thing at, at. She frowned frustrated then it hit her, The beach. Her skin had been like burnished bronze and she had worn a bikini when she went to the beach.

Suddenly with a clarity that surprised her, she could remember the waves rolling in and breaking, the Tang of salt in the air. She could see children playing in the sand and couples walking in the surf. A tear trickled down her cheek as feelings of loss rolled through her like a tide. Something trembled right there on the edge of her mind, the face of a man and a name, her name. But the it was gone swept away into the darkness of her mind once more.

“Are you okay?” She turned her head at the question and smiled sadly at the younger man who pulled himself up through the roof hatch. She wiped away the tears and nodded not trusting her voice at the moment.

“You don’t look like your okay” Paul Watson said sitting down on the roof beside her. “your crying”

He was the only one in the entire brotherhood who treated her like, like she had once been. She almost felt like a person when he came to spend time with her.

Her eyes fell on her only remaining daughter and felt a shiver race down her spine. The girl was sitting there staring off into the sky, her small hands resting on equally small knobby knees. She could sit like that for hours, had in fact done so on many occasions. Abbi was paying no attention to her mother, which was normal and something her mother appreciated. Those that Abbi paid attention to usually had bad things happen to them.

She knew she should love her daughter, but try as she might she couldn’t bring herself to do it. There was something wrong with the girl. No matter how cute and innocent she looked, she wasn’t.

The Girl was the chosen, she told herself sternly. No, no that’s not right. But its what he said. She thought her eyes darting around the roof looking for any shadows He might be hiding in.

That was his place during the day. Where the light of the sun locked him into isolated pools of darkness giving her some relief. But at night, oh god at night he could move freely. She would awaken to see him bending over her bedroll staring at her with that horrid shark tooth smile or sitting beside Abbi talking of Death and destruction.

“Maggie” Paul said softly touching her arm. An electric jolt shot up her arm at his touch and that name sent tremors through her mind. She didn’t know if he only called her that, or if it might actually be her name but it helped. Names were important, they meant something, they made you a person, gave you an anchor in life instead of being an object or soulless machine lumbering through life with no real purpose.

Paul watched her face intently as the vacant look faded from her luminous brown eyes with their amber flecks. Some times it worked sometimes it didn’t he thought and if Toffler found out he was a dead man. “Remember when I told you that the Hunter was down there?” he asked softly. She nodded lifting a hand to gently touch the side of his face. “You were supposed to keep it a secret.” Another little fact that Toffler would have killed him over, Paul thought.

He had been scouting the area for an upcoming raid and had seen the Hunter entering the Farm. Paul had met him once after the Dead had collapsed and had been spared. He wasn’t sure why the Hunter had spared him but he hadn’t complained then or now at the Hunters decision.

Seeing the Hunter down there at the farm had finally given him the courage to act after years of just going along to scared to leave the Brotherhood. Even joining another faction of the Brotherhood might not keep him safe and the truth was he no longer believed. It had taken years, even after Lovett and the other Fallen had broken free taking Isabel with them, but he had. not even fear would have kept him here for so long if it hadn’t been for her.

“I… he made me speak.” She said slowly on the verge of sliding back into the blackness. Paul knew she wasn’t talking about Toffler. He had hoped to spirit her out of this damned place and get her to the Hunter where maybe she might recover.

It might have taken me years to come to my senses but I have, he thought. the question now is what do I do next. He glanced over at Abbi, who paid them no attention. He might not believe in the God of the dead any more but he knew there was something strange possibly supernatural about that girl and he wanted her mother as far from that child as possible.

At least Toffler believes that the message came from the other side, not from me. Because he would put me to the Test if he suspected me and I wouldn’t last an hour before I started screaming. He shuddered at the thought; Only Toffler would have come with some innocuous name like the Test for the series of tortures culminating in being burned alive.

Paul doubted that being burned alive hurt half as much as what came before. he had seen it three times over the years and the broken, skinned and shattered wreck of humanity on the bier had done more than anything else to push him away. How did we become this, he asked himself not for the first time. He had been a good man once, a decent Job, a good woman as a girlfriend, friends and the most offensive thing he had ever done was ogle a good looking woman on occasion.

“Maggie, he can’t make you do anything. Not any more. Kronnen is dead.” Paul gently told her.

“Not Kronnen, Him. The One who walks with the Dead.” She said looking around nervously. He sighed heavily, he had heard the stories about the thing in the Bowler hat that many claimed to have dreamed about and heard how she swore it had lived in the RV with Kronnen, coming out of the shadows and Darkness when she was alone with Kronnen to torment her. “I cant escape him, never escape him.” she said mournfully as tears began to slid down her cheeks.

Yes you can, he vowed silently and I think I know exactly how to do it. he told himself as he watched her fade again. he rose to his feet a hard light in his eyes as he gazed at the girl for a moment then turned away. He had things to do and not a lot of time to get them done.

The Stone faced two story house sat on a steep slope, surrounded by Hickory and Red Maple trees. A mostly washed out gravel drive way stretched across the overgrown lawn to a cedar shingled wooden carport beside the house. A Jeep covered in a decades worth of grime, its forest green paint faded, sat on four rotting tires.

“What about the wolves” Travis asked nervously looking around.

“What about them?” Darius asked as he dismounted his eyes sweeping the area for threats.

“Where did they go?”

“They broke off about a mile back, heading north up the mountain.” Darius said as he led his horse towards the House.

“couldn’t they loop around and jump us from another direction?”

“Yes” Darius replied as he stopped to hitch his horse to a tree, noting the disturbed dirt and leaves on the front porch.

“That’s it, just a yes.”

Darius grinned tightly as he moved cautiously onto the porch. All but a few windows were broken, most of them had been covered by plastic sheets or old wood. The only intact windows he could see were the two Gable windows on the second floor that looked out over the front yard.

There, he thought spotting a print that he knew was Daltons. “he is inside.”

“Let me go in first” Travis said stepping forward.

“NO!” Darius said placing a hand on Travis’s chest. “just in case, he isn’t alone in there.” Darius added hoping to take the sting out of his response.

Travis fell silent but readied the pistol he carried. Darius pushed and the door opened with a squeal of swollen wood and rusted hinges.

He stepped inside noting that it was clean, or rather cleaner than it should have been. No cobwebs, very little dust on the furniture or floor. Even the screen of the old 50” flat screen on the wall had been wiped down. The mold that grew around the window frames had even been mostly scrubbed away.

“He has been busy” Travis said peering around Darius. “Why?”

Darius didn’t reply, he moved forward almost silently old habits making him check for trip wires and other traps as he searched the ground floor finding nothing of use or value. He climbed the steps staying close to the wall. After a decade of neglect he wasn’t about to place his faith in those stairs taking his weight.

The stairwell ended in a short hallway that bisected the upstairs. the door on the right was swollen shut, but the left one opened at his touch and his eyes widened in surprise.

Gems covered the window sills, jeweled necklaces and rings hung over the windows and from the ceiling. The fading sunlight splashed through the windows, striking the jewels and bathing the room in a rainbow of colors and hues.

Dalton sat on the floor staring up at the shifting weaving lights, his arms wrapped around his knees as he rocked slowly back and forth. A table against the wall held several family portraits and framed pictures of two dogs. A golf bag leaned against the wall by the small bed, and several toys including a stuff bear had been lined up on the small bed.

There was a laptop, DVD cases of old kids movies propped up on a shelf. And even a half sized replica of R2D2 with a tray on its dome that served as a nightstand. Everywhere he looked was memorabilia from the old world.

It was the kind of decorating a kid would do in his tree house. Well if he had an unlimited budget and huge tree house.

“Dalton?” He said as he moved into the room, then squatted a few feet from the boy. “You need to come back to the Farm with us.”

Dalton said nothing; he just kept staring up at the ceiling.

“Dalton we need to get moving, its not going to be safe out here after the sun goes down”

Normally he was a very patient person, normally. But with the people Gill and his group called the infected lurking around, his patience was limited when dealing with a kid who might get them all killed by being obstinate.

“No”

OH hell, I could just knock him out with the butt of my rifle and carry him back strapped over the whithers. Lets not get nasty just yet, you still have an hour or so, he told himself.

“I want to go with you and the horses”

“Gill thinks you would be safer staying at the Farm” Darius said almost smiling as he heaped the complete blame on Gill.

“I want to go with the horses.” Dalton said slowly making sure he got the words right.

“Darius” Travis said entering the room at last. “He is good with the horses and they are good for him.”

“Travis, we have been over this” Darius said turning to glare at Travis. I thought you figured out it was the wrong thing to suggest, he almost said. But knew if he did. He would end up yelling and ripping Travis a new one, deserved or not Darius wasn’t not about to start screaming like an ass if he could help it.

“Darius, all he does on the farm is shovel shit, pick up stuff and do anything else that others are to busy to do. Have you watched him with the horses?” Travis pressed. Damn the boy for not letting go.

“Travis, let me talk to Dalton. You keep watch.” Darius said firmly cutting off the conversation with a hard edged look.

“was this your house before the dead?” Darius asked hoping to change the topic and make Dalton a little less hostile.

“No,”Dalton muttered his eyes falling to the floor. “found it walking around.”

“it’s a nice place. you made it look good.” Darius said, casting a glance out the window. Oh screw this, stop talking to him like a kid. “Its time to get back to Gill and the others Dalton. Its not safe out here.”

“I want to go with the you and the horses.” Dalton said stubborningly. “I can help, honest.”

Darius started to explain all the ways it could be dangerous for Dalton out on the trail, the wild life, low lifes, thieves and that wasn’t even counting accidents. The truth is those same dangers apply at the Farm too don’t they, Darius asked himself. Humor him then, do something or your going to have to hog tie him and carry him back.

“Okay Dalton, answer me a couple of questions. Why do you come here to this house and why do you want to go with us so badly?” Darius asked.

Dalton looked directly at Darius for the first time, clearly thinking about his response for a moment. then he began to speak, slow and haltingly but as clearly as he could make himself.

To the casual observer there was no rhyme or reason to the things that Dalton had chosen to decorate the room with and he really couldn’t have put into words why he had picked the things he had. Put simply it was the life he remembered before the dead, a life seen through the eyes of a five year old. Fragmented memories of a family he only barely remembered and longed to have again.

It was what drew him back to this place that he had made his home. Now as he tried to explain himself, hating the slow hard to pin down thoughts and speech, he gazed at the pictures on the table that had reminded him of the ones in his parents home. He liked to pretend the people in those pictures were his family.

When he was with Travis and the horses, he felt like every one else. He felt alive and nothing about the work confused him and Travis never made him feel stupid or slow.

Darius listened quietly, resisting the urge to look out the window to check how low the sun was. But his nerves were ratcheting tighter and tighter with each passing moment, between the possibility of an attack by the Infected and the wolves that had stalked Daltons trail almost the entire way he was past eager to get back to the Farm and its defenses.

Finally, Dalton wound down and fell quiet. His eyes silently pleading with Darius to understand. And I do understand, Darius thought as he looked around the room. It must have taken a long while to clean this place up, then gather up all the things he decorated with. There was no way all that Jewelry and some of the other stuff came from this house, or on this mountain. So Dalton had been traveling around the area when he could collecting anything that reminded him of home and family.

Darius finally allowed himself to glance out the window and saw the shadows cast by the trees had grown longer. We are running out of time, Darius thought and if I refuse to take him with us, or talk to Gill about him going. Dalton is just going to dig in his feet and refuse to leave here and I will not lie to him to get him leave even though I should

The Kid was slow, not stupid Travis had said and he was right. In addition, he had survived for some time on his own after the dead had fallen over. Darius mulled over that fact and what that implied. Gill and I are probably wrong about his ability to cope with the dangers out there, Darius told himself bluntly. At least obvious dangers at any rate.

And you’ve become a bleeding heart, an inner voice chided him. maybe, Darius conceded. After all the people I’ve killed, it’s a good change. He looked down at his hands almost able to see the blood that stained them and if this kid does go with us and gets killed then I end up with more blood on my hands.

What’s the answer Darius?, you’ve seen the way he is with the horses, that kid comes alive working them. do you really think that which ever of Gills people you train to work with the horses will do much more than let Dalton feed and curry them. Maybe walk them around a corral. And they wont do it to be intentionally cruel or dismissive, but to keep him from getting hurt because he is slow!

He will always end up being a second class person because they are trying to protect him and all he wants is to do something he likes and enjoys.

Travis wanted skills that would give him a new life. Dalton needs skills to have a life beyond this room, this monument to his dead. Darius drummed his fingers on his holster, eyes sweeping the room till his gaze fell on a kids cowboy hat and cap gun that sat on top of a coiled rope beside the bed.

Dalton was waiting and hoping. He didn’t understand why the cowboy looked sad and worried, or even why there was a flash of anger and something else in those somber grey eyes. His breath almost stopped as the cowboy looked up and their eyes locked

“Dalton, I give you my word that I will talk to Gill about letting you go with us. But Gill and the others are as close to family as your going get these days, so understand that he is only trying to do right by you.” Darius said rising to his feet and extending a callused hand to the boy.

A smile trembled at the corners of Daltons mouth and hope flared in his eyes at those words. I only hope that I am not making a huge mistake, Darius told himself as he helped Dalton stand. Everything I told Travis still applies. It is dangerous out there. He ignored the look of thanks Travis gave him. The kid is going to give me hell for giving him a hard time then doing the same thing he had done.

Stepping outside, Darius hesitated for a moment then passed Dalton his Glock noting the long shadows that lay across the former lawn. “Do not point that at any one you do not want to kill.” He told the boy who nodded slowly it wasn’t the first time he had handled a firearm, he knew from experience how dangerous they could be.

They had maybe forty minutes of day light left and five miles to cover. At a Gallop they could make it back easily, assuming they had a road to use. But all they had was a rough, rocky trail along forested ridges and a mountain side and galloping along that was asking to injure a horse or be thrown. Which meant it was going to be Dark by the time the got back.

He wasn’t really worried about getting lost; the horses could navigate pretty well in the dark with out any assistance from him. But they wouldn’t do it quickly unless there was danger nearby. As long as he gave them their head they would head back to the rest of their herd.

“ Lets go” he said sticking a boot into a stirrup and swinging himself up and into the saddle. “you ride behind me Dalton.” He reached down and pulled the kid up waiting till the boy was settled in his arms locked tight around Darius’s waist. “Lets Ride” He said with the ghost of a grin touching his spurs to his horses flanks.

“HI HO Silver” Dalton shouted happily as the Nokota sprang forward. Darius gave a surprised laugh wondering where Dalton had picked up that old saying.

The Nokota had been a feral or semi feral breed depending on who you asked, born and raised in the Missouri bad lands of North Dakota and his horse no matter where it had been raised, still had all the instincts of its ancestors and was smarter than the average paint or quarter horse. He reached down and stroked the Horses neck affectionately. He trusted that horse more than he trusted the bulk of humanity.

They made good time, but not even the fastest, most agile horse in the world could have outrun the setting sun. Behind them, the fiery light of the sunset vanished and darkness, no longer held back engulfed them. Immediately the horses slowed the pace and Darius didn’t argue. He didn’t want to lame or kill his horses for any reason, especially when he had a choice.

They were maybe a mile away from the farm, coming in from the west. There were several sections of thick woods and rocky areas between here and the Fence. Darius could picture the trail in his mind and knew that they were close to where the infected scouts, if that’s who it had been, had broken away and headed towards the saddle to the west of the mountain peak. If that was the trail they used to get down here, He and Travis and of course, Dalton might run into them now that it was dark.

Travis felt blind in the complete darkness as he looked around, his knees tight against the saddle. He was letting the horse pick a path and felt trapped and with no control in the stygian gloom under the tree, made worse by the lack of any moon. At least he could see the glow of the lights from Gills Farm on the horizon. He wondered how hard it was going to be, to get back on the road tomorrow where there were no lights to come back to.

His first warning was the abrupt shift of the horse under him as its head came up alert to sudden danger.

They came out of the darkness, only shadows darting forward with axes and spears. Thunder crashed over him, deafening after the near total silence. At almost the same instant, a tongue of flame erupted into the night from where Darius rode. In that brief flash of light. Travis saw pale angry faces and reaching hands and waving weapons then his horse reared and he clung to the saddle to keep from being thrown.

A hand grasped his ankle and pulled. Some how he managed to stay in the saddle but before he could do anything else his horse wheeled around and reared again, fore hooves lashing out. His attacker fell back with a gurgling scream, shoulder pulped and ribs shattered.

Travis fumbled for his pistol, the job complicated by the movements of his horse that threatened to spill him from the saddle. It was insane, he thought. there were screams and shouts and over it all the Boom of Darius’s rifle. How Darius managed to sit in the saddle with Dalton clinging to him, firing into the crowd of men that rushed him, while his horse spun and reared time and again Travis would never know. But he did it. Surely this fight had lasted ten, maybe twenty minutes Travis thought as he finally got his pistol out and fired at a pale face in the darkness. the hair on the back of his neck standing painfully out.

“Ride” Darius shouted as the slow crawl of time finally sped up. it hadn’t been tens of minutes it probably hadn’t even been two minutes, Travis realized. Getting out of here sounded like one hell of a good idea in his book and whatever fear he might have felt about charging full speed through a dark forest was nothing to the fear he felt as more men rushed towards him.
He clapped heels to flank and his horse responded leaping forward, bowling over a man who stood in their way the hooves silencing the attackers scream of surprise with painful finality.

“Hang on Dalton” Darius called back as he leaned over the neck of his horse as it plunged through the woods deftly placing each hoof with precision as it thundered through the Darkness.

Limbs and leaves lashed at Darius’s face as the horse wove through the woods. Then he felt the muscles under him bunch and braced himself, one hand flashing back to grasp Daltons arm as the Nokota leaped up and over a obstacle that Darius couldn’t see. Despite the almost mind Numbing terror Dalton felt as he hung on for dear life, the boy Howled with delight as they landed and the Nokota lunged ahead, hooves throwing a spray of dirt.

I am going to die, I am going to die, Travis was silently chanting as his horse damn near flew down a slope that he couldn’t see then splashed across a creek before racing up the unseen rocky slope on the other side. He was pretty sure he had left his stomach some where back by the creek and any minute he was pretty sure he would leave his spine too. Ahead the lights of the Farm were brighter and Travis was pretty sure there were more men waiting up ahead. This just keeps getting better, he decided.

Toffler swore nastily as the two riders drew away from his men. He had lost the element of surprise when the lead rider had opened fire. The Farm would know he was coming now. there was no need to rush, his men were rattled and disorganized after the bloody and very brief fight. He needed to reorganize and adjust his plans. With surprise out the window, he was left with two options to postpone the attack or to push on and drive over the place so that he and his men could cleanse the world of a little more of the Dead world.

Another factor of course was the riders would be able to reach the Gate and the scouts he had sent to watch the gate, far faster than Tofflers force. On foot it would take his force almost half an hour to reach the gate, the riders would be able to reach it in five minutes or so at the speed they had been riding out.

He began to pass orders via runners trying to get his men organized again while he had the horded firearms and ammunition passed out to the designated fighters, all men he trusted and had been Guard in the old world.

The bodies of his dead were stacked for burial later, after the attack was completed and his wounded were triaged, those who wouldn’t survive were put down with a knife through the eye into the brain, the rest were bandaged up and returned to their assigned units for the attack.

His mouth twisted angrily as he heard more and heavier gunfire from the direction of the Farm roll over his position. That was..upsetting, only a few of the men he had posted to watch the gate had been armed with firearms mostly old hunting rifles, and one AR. But many of the weapons firing were M-4’s and at least one M-16 judging by the sound and that ruled out the People on the farm who had never shown weapons like that on any of the probing and harassing attacks.

He knew who it had to be, Lovett and the Fallen had decided to be real men for once and go on the offensive instead of hiding like they usually did. I could use horses myself, he thought toying with the idea of taking the riders prisoner and finding out which one knew how to train horses and convince them to provide mounts for the Brotherhood.

“what do we do sir?” Sherman Kerbel asked anxiously. He was one of the Old Guard, who had not sought the blessing and the mark of the dead but he was loyal none the less.

“The Attack is still a go.” Toffler stated harshly. He had invoked the word and declared anathema of the people with in the farm. But even if that were not true, he was not going to miss a chance to once and for all destroy Lovett and reclaim the child. For only with her death could he restart Gods plan to cleanse the world.

“Send Higgins to carry the word to Walton, I want him to go over the north side fence when he hears our assault on the farm house.” He added his disfigured face twisting into what passed for a smile. “Tell him that the time is at hand, God has delivered the Fallen into our hands at last.”

The Farm was close now, the lights blazed in the darkness. But before they could get into the farm and its illusion of safety they had to pass through a battle. Darius slowed his horse to fall back along side Travis. “Take Dalton, I will draw their fire and I want you to ride as fast as you can for that Gate. Do not fight unless you have to. Darius said as both riders halted. Darius looped his reins around his saddle horn then twisted in the saddle. “Your going to be scared to death in a few minutes, but you will be all right” Darius assured the boy as he picked Dalton up with both hands and passed him over to Travis. “Remember do not fight unless you have to. Get through that Gate and to the Farm house as fast as you can.” Darius said.

“what about you, your going to need help” Travis said not happy with the idea of leaving Darius alone in the middle of a fight.

“DO NOT FIGHT, you can send help once your at the farm house. You will probably pass the help on your way to the house anyway. No way they haven’t heard this cock up.” Darius said. “Just get Dalton safely back” Darius said as he pulled his rifle from the boot that hung from his saddle.

Lincoln Chadwick, was not the most fervent of believers the brotherhood had. but he did believe and the violence was only a plus in his book. He had been a thug in the old world and saw no reason to try and change what worked at this late of date.

At the moment he was huddled behind a slight rise, a rock and some weeds was what he called it, as bullets hissed through the air around him. He didn’t have a rifle or pistol, just a lousy damn double bit axe which was fine when the other side didn’t have guns, but with guns his axe was not worth spit.

Toffler screwed up on this one, he told himself, this farm is well armed and determined and he would be damned if he went on another cleansing with out at least a pistol as back up. He who walks with the dead had better show them were a stock pile of guns and bullets were if he really wanted the Brother hood to conquer the world because this crap sucked.

Something caught his attention over the crash of gunfire and the shouts of combat, he turned his head seeking what ever it might have been. Something there, he thought rolling to one side and readying his axe as he saw a large shadow moving through the darkness. To large he realized a moment later, puzzled and not sure what he was looking at. then it lunged into the light and the sound of hooves pounding the earth was as clear as the sight of the Horse bearing down him. The rider had something against his shoulder, and just as Lincoln realized what he was seeing. There was a flash of light, he was dead before the gunshot rolled over him like the Drums of the God of war and the horse thundered past his corpse, the riding firing into the men he could see back lit by the lights of the Farm. Lincoln would never know that the bullet that killed him had been guided more by luck than skill.

Darius slowed his horse’s head long flight as he rode into the gunfight, he guided his horse using his knees as his rifle snapped up into position as two men erupted from the underbrush beside the fence line. He fired on the first target that brandished a pistol; the heavy round smashed the man back into the brush.
He jacked the lever chambering another round then settled his sights on the axe wielding, leprous looking back lit man. He stroked the trigger thankful he couldn’t see the damage the heavy round made of the mans chest.

He fired a third time and missed but his target threw himself behind a log, freeing Darius to find another more dangerous target.

He had no idea who was fighting whom, one group was just to the south of the Gate firing into another smaller group that seemed to be trying to keep Travis and himself from entering the farm and that wasn’t going to happen.

He kept his horse racing back and forth, making them both harder targets and in some ways easier to hit. It also meant that he missed far more often than he killed someone. He didn’t mind that, slaughtering these A holes really wasn’t necessary at the moment.
Travis with Dalton hanging on for dear life galloped past heading for the gate.

Only need to hold on for another minute, Darius told himself as bullet grazed his upper thigh. He had acquired a thrown knife in his calf as well, which hurt like a copper plated ex wife. He wheeled his horse, ducking low at the same time and wrenched the knife free. I am so going to hate myself tomorrow morning, Darius though then barked a laugh. Lets hope I live through this to feel like crap tomorrow he corrected himself. As he came upright and slammed his rifle into the boot and drew his pistols. Travis had just entered the gate. YES!

 

“Damn look at him go” Green muttered as he watched the Hunter shoot down two more of Toffler’s men that tried to cut him off from the gate. A third was trampled into bloody gruel by his horses hooves at it rode over the would be attacker. Green was and had been of the firm opinion that what eventually brought Kronnen down was pissing off that man and his friends and seeing the Hunter in the action only convinced him further.

He ducked as a bullets chewed up the rock that he sheltered behind. “I think they spotted us.”

“Spotted you not me” Possum corrected. “your bad luck. I can still slink away unseen”

Green grunted then grinned hearing the real humor in Possums reply. He popped up fired off a burst and saw that the Hunter was just passing the Gate into the farm as the gunfire began to peter out and soon silence lay over the area.

 

Darius came to a halt around the bend just out of sight of the gate listening to the silence. After a moment of undisturbed silence he turned his horse and trotted back as far as the gate house.

If any one had been present, they would not have been able to tell what he was thinking or how he really felt as he sat in the saddle gazing with flat cold eyes at the bodies sprawled sloppily in death around the gate and along the fence.

His horse shifted nervously as it caught the hot coppery scent of spilled blood, but it gentled as he placed a hand on its neck and absently stroked the sweat covered flesh. The soft cries and moans of the wounded and dying drifted to him on the wind.

More blood, he thought. Will this crap never end. He knew the answer of course, in this new world it wouldn’t end for a long time to come. To many men and women thought that might makes right and attacking others to take the food and supplies was morally defensibly for them. The rest of the world might disagree, but that wouldn’t shake their beliefs they had the right to steal and kill instead of working with their neighbors to increase every ones ability to eat and defend themselves.

He lifted his eyes to gaze out into the darkness knowing that sooner or later who ever had been shooting at the group that had been around the gate was going to show themselves and Darius was willing to bet trade goods that it was that group from Porters town. Why they would actually help, he didn’t know but he supposed that sooner or later they would show up to tell him.

Behind him he heard at least two horses at full gallop he didn’t turn to look he just sat there waiting and watching the dead and dying feeling no urge to go and help men who had waited in ambush.

While he waited for the riders, he lifted his injured leg up and hooked it around the Saddle horn, sitting side saddle then tied a rag around the knife wound. Tying it tight to slow, or hopefully stop the blood flow from his wound.

 

“What the hell is going on” Lee asked as he pulled back on his reins too sharply and his horse taken by surprise locked its legs and slid to stop.It was only blind luck that kept Lee from being tossed over the horses head.

Lee seeing the corpses sprawled outside the gate and along the fence line, turned an incredulous look on Darius. “you did all that?”

“No, I only killed a few of them, some one else killed the rest.” Darius stated as he sat his saddle calmly and began to reload his weapons.  “Hows Travis?” he asked. Travis had to have passed Lee on the way to the house.

“Fine, I think he and Dalton need to change their underwear but they are fine. He is waiting just around the bend for us.” Lee said then waved a hand at the battlefield.

“Who did all that?” Lee asked.

“At a guess, that guy and his friends.” Noah said pointing at three men who seemed to appear out of the darkness walking towards the gate.

“Good guess” Darius said as he watched the three men with cold eyes. The small group approached slowly, their hands empty of weapons. They stopped just outside the lights where Darius could get a good look at them, then one stepped fully entered the spill of warm light from the spots around the gate and Darius was not surprised that he recognized the man. the short, dishwater blond man with a face that looked like some one had carved it with a chainsaw had been in Porters town all right.

“You can stop right there,” Darius called out, keeping his rifle ready but pointed slightly away from the three men, but it was obvious he could bring it in line and fire quickly.

The three men came to a stop, then the one He recognized from Porters town took a step forward his hands up. “Listen, we don’t have a lot of time. and there is a man here who needs your help.”

“My help?” Darius asked with harsh laugh. “You try to kill me and now you want my help”

“We did just help you out.” Possum pointed out. “I’m Possum Jones.”

“Your mama must have hated you to name you possum.” Darius said.

Possum ignored the jibe, they really didn’t have a lot of time to waste.

“Hunter,” Possum said not even bothering to pretend that it might not be the Hunter he faced. “That the Jack ass and his buddies that attacked you did it against Dutch’s orders.” The thin man replied.

“I suppose your just on your way home and ended up out here for no real reason either” Darius said. He had spent to long hating Kronnen’s men and it was almost impossible to keep from being snide with them. Which beat shooting them out of hand.

“And we really don’t have a lot of time.” Possum said. “the man that wants to talk to you isn’t part of Dutch’s crew.” He stepped back gesturing and another man stepped forward. Darius sat straight in the saddle as a man that looked more like one of the undead stepped fully into the light, followed by the third member of the group who was a stoutly built, bearded man in an old faded Army uniform.

Darius felt his gorge rise as he took in that ravaged face, but managed, barely, to hold it in check. Holy shit, that poor bastard, was his first thought. Teeth gleamed through a hole in the mans cheek, open ragged wounds around his face wept. One corner of his mouth was gone, leaving raw red infected flesh. His left ear was a just a stub and the flesh around his right eye looked angry and swollen.

“You are Darius Zane McAlister?” the man asked, his voice oddly slurred from his deformities. “The Hunter?”

“Well might as well say yes, if they were going to shoot me I am sure they would have done it already. “That would be me yes.” He said in a level deadly voice.

“I am Colonel William Lovett, or was and I need your help.”

Darius felt his mouth sag open, He had heard of Lovett from Proctor while on Sullivan island. Lovett, according to Proctor, had been one of Kronnen’s top National guard Officers and had been part of the Command team during the Battle of D.C. and one of the last people Darius expected to see much less being asked to help his former enemy.

“ Toffler and his main force will attack anytime now, so we are short on time. We..” He said motioning at Possum and the other man who had not been introduced. “will help you defend this place and all we ask is one thing.”

“You spent almost two years helping kill and enslave survivors, you served a mad man, launched a war against the only really organized band of survivors who stood a chance of rebuilding. Kidnapped, enslaved and Killed friends of mine. And now suddenly you have slight problem with one of your old buddies and you want me, the man who killed you people in job lots to help?
Doesn’t that strike you as a little bit insane, or at the very least idiotic.” Darius said with a sharp angry shake of his head. What were the damn odds, Toffler and Lovett from the Battle of D.C. here and now and what the hell happened to Lovetts face.

“Tell you what, you boys just keep on going down the road. You aint getting no help from me. Just feel lucky that I don’t feel like killing you.”

“Hunter, I am not asking for you help to save my own life or my friends life, but ..” Lovett said as he lifted a hand and waved it towards the tree line. “bring her out” Possum called out.

Four men, appeared from the trees escorting a little girl who raced over and grasped the large callused hand of the Beard man and buried her face in his side. Only one of the four looked infected and a worse appearance than Lovett.

“They are trying to kill her.” Lovett stated, as he looked down at the girl and gave a smile that looked gruesome thanks to his disfigurement. “ We will help you fight Toffler in exchange you take her with you when you leave.”

“Who is she?, who is trying to kill her, and why do you give a damn?” Lee asked, glancing at Darius who sat rock steady and silent on his horse as he gazed at the little girl.

Possum looked down at the ground and swallowed heavily. “She’s Kronnen’s daughter.”

“the fuck you say” Darius snapped, he really didn’t cuss all that often and it surprised Lee to actually hear that particular word come from Darius. If Possum was worried about Darius doing something rash like killing the girl, he needn’t have bothered how ever.

“There is a group called the Brother hood of the dead, who worship Kronnen, the walking dead and … and her twin sister. They believe if Izzy is killed then the apocalypse will start up again and her sister will lead the Brotherhood and the Army of the dead to wipe out the last of humanity, except those who have seen the light and convert to the worship of the living dead. It’s a long story, and … “Possum’s voice trailed off as he saw the look on Darius’s face.

“Darius” Lee prompted. “ we really need to get back and quickly”

“Why would any one want to kill her, aside from the fact her daddy was a psychotic butcher, slaver and rapist.” Darius commented.

Possum stared at the Hunter, honestly surprised at the reaction. He could understand the Hunter telling them to go pound sand, but not leaving a little girl in danger much less with men that had served Kronnen. “Well?” The Hunter asked in a calm, controlled disinterested voice.

“Your not the man I was led to believe” The disfigured man said stepping forward. He was no less hideous up close. “Me and mine have spent eight years on the run trying to keep her safe from the Brotherhood.”

Darius silently studied the girl. She was scared, that much was obvious. She clung to the hand of the man in the faded Army ACU’s, shivering, wide eyes staring at the horses and the men who sat on them. God knew how long she had been living on the run.

“Darius I hate to be a asshole, but we need to get moving.”

“No Captain, I am exactly the man you were led to believe.” Darius said in a voice that sent shivers through Lee. Lee was right, Toffler and his people could arrive at any minute. He looked at the girl again and felt some of the hate and distrust fade. It could still be some sort of trap but it might not be as well. “get your men and follow me, You can tell me the story along the way.” Darius said in a more normal tone.

“What do you think is going on down there.” Lili asked her father. The sounds of a Gun battle had finally faded into the night and now there was only silence.

“Nothing good,” Gill stated. “that was a lot of guns going off.”

“God I hope Dalton is okay”

“Nothing we can about it at the moment, try not to stress yourself. Lee and Noah went to check things out. When they get back we will find out what happened.”

“Your damn calm for a man that thinks Vampires are just waiting to suck us dry in our sleep.”

“Do not sass me Lili, your not to old I cant tan your bottom. And Vampires don’t use guns last I heard.”

Lili paced in front of the window again, hands clasped behind her back. Dalton was as close to a little brother she had ever had and she was worried about him. Her father was worried too, not that he was going to let on to that fact. For some reason he seemed to believe if he didn’t act worried that would calm every one else down and reassure them. when in fact it made it very hard not to choke him to death in a very public display of frustration.

“Honey, I know we really don’t know Darius. But I think if any one can find him and get the boy back safely its him. His friends damn sure think so.”

“But if the infected are out there.”

“I’m sure they are, that’s probably what all the shooting was about.” Gill said not even trying to speculate on who all those guns belonged to. The infected that had attacked the farm in the past had usually carried knifes, axes and even rocks on one occasion. She could count on two hands the number of fire arms the infected had used in the past.

She continued to pace, letting her father talk. The minutes ticked by, her tension mounting.

“Their back” Some one shouted outside. Lili burst out onto the porch to see four horses, and a large group of men coming down the lit drive. The group stopped and two of the horses ridden by Darius and Travis, continued towards the farm house.

“Lili” Dalton shouted, as he leaped from Travis’s horse and raced to her side, wrapping her in a bear hug. “we rode fast through woods in the dark, then there was a gun fight, and infected and I saw a shooting star.”

“are you hurt.” She asked checking him over.

“No, I’m fine. Darius shot a bunch of people with his rifle and his horse ran the sick people down and crushed them like grapes. It was gross but cool.”

Lili started to tell Dalton something like crushing people like grapes was in fact not cool, nor was gunning them down but she decided now was not the time.

“Thank you” she told Darius as he dismounted.

“Don’t thank me yet, this isn’t over.” He said removing his hat and raking his fingers though sweat soaked hair.

“who are all those people” She asked as her father and Henry joined her.

“I am going to let them explain that, but I wanted to warn you first, before you saw them or saw a couple of them at any rate. You see some a few of them are infected, they were exposed to flesh eating bacteria.” He said seeing Gill stiffen angrily. “Don’t go getting riled up just yet Gill. They came to help, they have a score to settle with the people who have been attacking your farm.” He didn’t add that some of that group were Dutches crew and had been sent to hunt him down as well. it would take to damn long to give the whole back story. “just hear them out, if you don’t want them here when they have explained, they will leave.”

“Probably a ruse to get a look at our defenses” Gill grumbled.

“There are twenty some odd dead men out there by your gate and at least ten more about two miles from here, I don’t think they would kill that many of their own men to convince you they are harmless Gill.” Darius said. “We don’t have a lot of time before the main attack comes so lets get this show on the road.”

“All right I will listen, but if I don’t like what I hear, they are gone.”

Darius turned and waved at the waiting group, two men and a little girl started forward.
“They have a kid with them. They took a child to a fire fight.” Lili said in disbelief.

Darius said nothing, he just waited.

Lovett came to a stop under one of the bigger lights, letting them get a good look at his face. He hadn’t like the idea of bringing Izzy with him to talk in case they ended up in a fight. But Darius had insisted that Gill and his people would trust him more with the presence of a little girl nearby and that if a fight did break out, Izzy was no safer in the middle of a group of armed men that were going to be targets.

“you got something to say, then say it.” Gill said swallowing hard, hoping he didn’t toss his dinner all over the ground.

“My name is Colonel Lovett, this is Sergeant Green and that’s Izzy.” He said “the people who have been attacking you are called the Brotherhood of the dead and they will not stop attacking you, till all of you are dead and this place is burned to the ground.”

“You look like one of them.” Gill pointed out.

“Because I was one of them. Till Izzy here came along.” Lovett replied. “It all started with a Man named Kronnen..”

he talked quickly, leaving out nothing. Elaborating only when asked a direct question by the time he finished Darius was torn between fury and being sick.

Apparently after the battle, Kronnen’s forces had split up into factions, the majority of the guard unit feeling disgust for what they had for the most part unknowingly helped create had headed for home. Determined to change things in the bases and outposts they had created on their long march. Others had scattered to the wind. But the group that had become the brotherhood had clung together for almost five years before, different chapters had split off and settled down. Like most religions the new chapters had varied beliefs that differed from the original faith. Many of them didn’t even believe in the symbolism of the Twins that Tofflers group held as the most sacred core of their faith. Despite their differences they remained if not friendly, helpful and mostly cooperative.

All but the fallen at any rate, the different chapters were united on the Fallen. One Chapter had already settled here, on the other side of the mountain they were the ones who had till recently been harassing and probing the farm. To weak in numbers and weapons to risk an all out attack till Toffler and his band had tracked the Fallen to the area and they had joined forces to wipe out the fallen and the farm.

Lovvett and his people had been moving around the Empty all this time, till one of his scouts, who had seen Darius before, had spotted him leaving the area claimed by Porters town. It still bothered Darius that so many of his enemies, former or not lurked in the area.

But at least most of them had been here well before he had shown up on the scene. He wasn’t sure he could handle it if they had all just some how managed to wander up to the same spot at the same time, he would have had to do mental gymnastics to accept that as coincidence.

He looked at the girl again, and shook his head angrily. How many sick ass people are going to cook up weird ass religions and kill every one they can lay their hands on.

“And your telling me that they want to kill that little girl, like a sacrifice” Gill asked looking ill. His voice dragging Darius back to the real world.

“Yes.” Lovett said hoping, praying these people would do the right thing.

“ I be damned.” Gill said lowering his shotgun. “still don’t trust you, but If your willing to help, I’m willing to take a chance if it means keeping us alive. Besides I think He would kill you before I even got the chance if you betrayed us” Gill said pointing at Darius.

Darius nodded slightly then crouched in front of the girl who had been quiet through out the meeting. She might be Kronnen’s kid, but she wasn’t Kronnen and like it or not he believed Lovett was telling the truth about the girl and his desire to save her. “I promise you Izzy, I will do my best to keep you safe tonight. So why don’t you go with Lili there and get something to eat.” Darius said. The girl looked at him with huge eyes then looked up at the bearded Sergeant who nodded at her.

“It will be okay Izzy, you can trust him.” The Sergeant said, his voice as deep as his barrel chest. The look he gave Darius promised dire consequences if he failed to protect the girl.

“Lili if you have a safe place you might want to get Dalton and Izzy there. Toffler might be late but I am sure he will show up tonight sometime.”

It was almost time, his men were gathered at their jump off points. Weapons and ammo had been given to every qualified fighter. It had taken far longer than he had liked, three hours to be exact. Three hours his enemies had, had to prepare for the assault but it wasn’t going to matter in the end. He had more men and more weapons and far more ammunition. It was fitting that the enemies of Gods plan would be destroyed by the weapons of their dead and corrupt world. And by sunrise Isabel would be in his hands again and then at long last they could usher in the new world and he who walks with the dead would rise with his host and finish what God had started.

If he had been the man he had once been, he might have questioned the sanity of his beliefs, but that man had died long ago. the echoes of his past had finally died with the blessing of the Mark and now all that remained was his belief. A belief that was as much a burden as it was a joy to him. Shaped by pain and darkness, it gave him the only relief left to him. “Sir we are as ready as we can be” Kerbel said joining him. He had been doing final checks of the units.

“Then lets take them out” Toffler said, “pass the order.”

“Yes sir” Kerbel said almost snapping a salute, then turned and began to send out the runners.

“that’s about all we can do” Gill said joining Darius on the porch of the Farm house. They had hauled out crude hay bales and stacked them along the porch rails, placed quick but deadly boob traps most of them Darius had helped make. The last three hours had been a god send and Gills people were still working finishing up.

Darius nodded as he laid out pipe bombs behind the hay bale bulwarks. “Then you need to get into your position Gill. The bad guys should be along any time now, unless we get lucky and they turn tail and run.”

“Do you think they will?” Gill asked trying and failing to sound hopeful.

“No I really don’t.” Darius replied being honest. “they will come streaming in here looking for blood. They have lost to many men and from what Lovett has said, I don’t think these guys are the forgiving types.”

“That’s what I thought.” Gill said then extended his hand. “You didn’t have to stay and help us. You didn’t have to go after Dalton either and for both of those things I want to thank you. No Matter what happens here tonight, You have made friends here Darius.”

Darius almost argued, of course he had to stay and help and there had been no choice in going after Dalton either. But he didn’t because the truth was far to many people would have just said tough shit and rode on. He stayed because of who he was, who he had become. despite all the blood on his hands, everything he had done had been in trying to do the right thing no matter the cost he thought as he shook Gills hand.

“You need to get under cover” Darius told the older man then returned to readying his positions.

Ten minutes later a motion sensor tripped and an alarm began to wail. The Brotherhood had arrived.

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