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Brandt spritzed a tree with marker, stood back to inspect his work, then caught up with Jemin. Not that catching up with the librarian was a struggle. In fact, keeping this snail’s pace took effort, but gave him the opportunity to both scout for trouble and enjoy the forest. This patch was especially pretty: carpets of orange leaves, yellowing ferns, and rocks decorated with blue-green splotches. He’d grown up amongst buildings, sidewalks, and roads. And down South, he’d hacked through palmetto thickets with a machete and slopped through cypress swamps—all those slick knees rising from black water like the humps of a sea serpent, creepy live oak branches hanging overhead, moss dripping from every branch. Orl would love it down there. She could hang from the branches with the bats.

She turned and glared at him with the one eye. He smiled and waved. Strange girl.

Now, this forest suited him: pretty colors, no biting insects, and a man could wear a jacket without sweating. Smelled better, too, sort of…woodsy. Sure, today was rainy, but rain beat the thick humid muck that passed for air down South. He could do wet if it honestly declared itself. And the trees here made a mockery of those spindly Southern pines. To be fair, radiation poisoning puts a damper on logging, but hey, this forest still felt natural. Maybe in a previous life, he’d been a logger or bear hunter.

“Did you say KP?” asked the Chief, who’d fallen beside him.

Dern his mouth. He shouldn’t’ve mentioned his stint in the kitchen; though the experience had gifted him with ace pancake flipping skills. “Yep. I’m one fine cook, if you ever need to feed a couple hundred soldiers.”

Her mouth remained set in a grim line, although the Chief enjoyed her chow. Sure, the transfer to KP sounded like a demotion. But he hadn’t been demoted…exactly. Sidelined maybe, but not demoted. He supposed she wanted an explanation, but she hadn’t directly asked, so why rehash old history? The past was past, and he wanted to keep his last year of service solidly in the past.

He waited for her to ask—no way he could avoid answering truthfully, but to her credit, she didn’t pursue the issue. Instead, she froze.

“All halt.”

Her penetrating whisper stopped the team dead in its tracks. Brandt tuned in to the woods. Bruk. Rustle. Brup, brup, a deep throated sound with a slight echo as if coming from the chest of a substantial beast.

“Maybe ten meters west, ten degrees north.” He nodded agreement. She wetted her finger, tested the wind, and unholstered her side arm. “You and me. Go easy.”

She raised a palm to bring the others to attention and pointed to a medium-sized tree covered in ruby-red leaves. “Orl and Jemin, up that tree. No noise. Philip, park yourself behind that trunk and stay ready.” One of Phil’s lower eyelids spasmed, but he nodded; he’d have their back. He was a good man. Despite himself. The team stepped off the trail, and she stole toward the sound, moving silently, like an experienced tracker. He’d trade the story about KP to know how she’d learned to move so quietly that in those boots. He drew, unsnapped the stay on his scabbard, and fell in.

As expected, they found the noise’s source up the train and a bit to the right. A massive wall of stripy animal flank showed through the brambles. Bigger, much bigger than a cow. Rup, rup, rup. The thing busily rooted around in something rust colored. The stink of slaughter filled his nose.

Krause moved left like a phantom and positioned herself at the base of a tree. She caught his eye and grasped a low-hanging limb. Then pointed to a tree with a similar build. Easy to climb, he supposed, while hunkering down by the tree’s trunk to wait for the Chief’s signal. He gave her a thumbs up. But thumbs down to Property for this flimsy revolver, a plastic child’s toy of a weapon. Dropping an animal that size wasn’t child’s play.Two accurately pumped clips from these pea-shooters might do the job. Or at least slow it down.

"Ahh!"

Brandt’s flesh jumped at the shriek—it’d come from behind. Hopefully, Phil could handle the down-slope problem, because the animal lifted its head. Dang. That was one ugly beast. Fangs sprouted randomly from its massive gore covered snout, most curving forward like the blade of a nightmare blender. Its beady eyes brimmed with hate and violence. A glance at Chief Krause startled him worse than the monstrous hog. Her jaw hung slack, as did her pistol, which teetered then slid to the ground. But the Chief wasn’t a fear-type. What the… Shit fire! He knew that look; that look wasn’t regular fear. That look was raging PTSD.

The brute trundled forward, tested the air with a snorp, and kicked up a plume of dirt. Sometimes, a spooked animal will just move along, no killing required. He’d wait it out, but if the wind shifted— He flitted an eye toward the Chief to see if he was still on his own. Good news. She was slowly bending at the knees, gaze fixed on their adversary, hand extended to recover her gun.

Suddenly, the woods came alive. The trees tossed, and leaves fluttered and twirled. But in the wrong direction. Uphill. The hog’s ears lifted and swiveled. Its nostrils twitched, and a scream of savage rage tore from the jaws of the beast.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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