Enjoy an early Christmas gift from W.J. Lundy with a sneak peek at the first chapter of the eagerly anticipated WTF 7…
The hunt led him away from civilization, deep into the snow-covered valley. Stopping smoothly, he knelt down to check his back trail; his eyes drifted, tracking the moon through the thin veil of clouds. It would be dawn soon, and he was far from home; there were too many, and he did not know what he would do if he found them. He searched the thick foliage and tall trees, zig zagging the terrain while looking for any sign of a trail.
His chest ached and his body was cold. No time to grab a jacket, he’d been forced to move unprepared in pursuit of the camp’s attackers. He stepped ahead and saw a human track, a trace of crimson; this one fresh, a heel print in the moist clay of the forest floor. Just ahead, a crumbling of rotted stump where the big boot kicked it then ground it down while the wearer stopped to look around. The young soldier studied the terrain. He knelt down and allowed his eyes to search, starting far out then slowly sweeping to objects within his reach.
Grabbing a glove full of the crumbling tree stump, he squeezed it, allowing the damp pieces to fall between his fingers. He reached out and cut a triangle into a nearby tree to mark his path. The ground flowed up and away from him, the trail following the natural contours in the ground. Most game trails moved that way. Wild animals traveled along paths of least resistance and after generations of migration, they broke the earth, shaping the routes that he now followed. Recreational hikers probably once used this same path, compacting the clay and smoothing the surface. He suspected the raiders would follow the same route.
He rose back to his feet and felt the stiff muscles of his broad shoulders. He shrugged, flexing his back, and moved on. Dressed in tanned hides, he had left his worn and faded military clothing in a box months ago. His shirt was thick and well sewn; his canvas pants, soaked in wax and animal fat to make them waterproof. Abandoning most of the things of his past, all that remained were his weapons. He carried an M9 pistol in a belt and an M4 he had recovered from a dead man.
Why did they come here? What reason would the raiders have to attack the camp? The people of Camp Cloud always kept to themselves. Nearly a year had passed since the Primal Holocaust, the beasts had moved to the background of their concerns. Hunger drove the Primals and their behavior was predictable—the living were what really scared the survivors, those that wanted what everyone else had. Dan Cloud, who led the group, managed to keep peace with other bands of survivors, trading when they could, but mostly just staying out of the way and hidden in their own remote mountain valley.
Shane stopped near a downed oak and leaned back, letting his weight rest on his heels. He looked again at the tough terrain. “I should stop now and dig in,” he whispered. “Wait for help to catch up.” They would for sure send a rescue party. He shook his head in frustration. What if they were all dead? What if there was no one coming?
“Impossible, they couldn’t take them all; his people would come. They always came.” Shane knelt again and let his finger touch the edges of a deep hoof print, squeezing bits of the damp soil in his hand. His stomach growled as he recognized the track. A big buck; it would make a fine meal for his fire. He looked up at the sky and saw the rising sun; he had been on the trail too long. He was burning out and losing his edge. He would give it another hour, and then secure shelter.
Crushed and bent vegetation off the trail reflected the light and caught his eye. Searching the battered weeds, he spotted a strange batch of tracks cutting the raiders’ trail. He knew what they were, and it worried him more than his exhaustion. It was unusual to see Primals this far up the mountain, away from the easy traveling outside the valley. The infected monsters stayed away from the highlands unless they were hunting prey. Something either pushed them or drew them there; most likely the gunfire from the attack.
Looking at the tracks, he could see there were at least five of them and one was a big son of a bitch by the way the worn boot tread pushed deep into the soil with every step. Shane stayed near the ground, listening for any sign they were close. He held his breath, exhaled slowly, and then took it in again, trying to taste the musty air. He did not move, becoming perfectly still. Hiding from the Primals was the same as stalking a deer—to stay hidden, you stayed motionless. Breathing lightly, Shane sat and patiently waited for a sign.
He looked up at the sky and back at the tracks; the rules were changing with the indication of Primals. He should move to high ground and seek shelter, find a place to hide until he was rested and more alert. He knew it was not good field craft to get arrogant on the trail, and wait until the last minute before finding safety.
Studying the Primal tracks, he could not tell how old they were; unlike the hoof prints, they could be fresh, a day old, or even older. In addition, the tracks went west, away from him. He swept his hand across the ground searching for more signs, but there was no indication they were doing anything more than passing across the range. Maybe they weren’t hunting in the area?
He scanned ahead and grimaced, testing even his own patience now. He would go just a bit farther and, if he found no sign of the raiders, he would stop and dig in. He would sleep and wait for the men from the camp to join him; he’d marked his path well and knew they would find him.
The game trail wound around and dipped into a ravine. At the bottom, he lost the raider tracks. Shane stepped back, eased into the thick underbrush, and then walked a half circle looking for signs in the denser foliage—something that would indicate where the men jumped the trail. He found a broken branch, and a place where the grass bent in a different direction from that surrounding it. Shane froze hearing the snort of a deer, and then a cry followed by the sounds of bare fists pounding flesh. He edged away. The soldier knew he was in trouble.
Crouching low, he stalked back deeper into cover trying to find a secure position to hide. Ahead, he spotted the flurry of activity at the same time he heard the low scream of an Alpha primal. The Alpha’s were a special blend of infected that led the packs. More dominant, they somehow retained a human survival instinct and an ability to organize and direct what would at first glance appear to be a chaotic mob.
He watched as more of the screaming things joined the Alpha. Somehow, they had managed to corner the buck. The Alpha was already on it, attacking and lunging with fists, as others leapt at the deer trying to drag it off its feet. Shane sympathized with the majestic animal, using its antlers to ward off more attackers as they joined in against it. He wanted to help, but this was not his fight. The deer was unable to flee, but refused to go down even with the Alpha and several more holding it and swarming against it.
The soldier gripped the rifle tight, wanting to use it to put the animal out of its misery, but knowing that he could not. He lowered his head and backed away. He heard a loud exhale and a branch break behind him. The blood drained from Shane’s cheeks. His muscles tensed, knowing he was in for a fight. He had pressed his luck too far. More leaves crunched to his rear, and he heard the sounds of feet rapidly beating the trail. Shane spun just as the first of the Primals leapt at him.
The young soldier rolled to his left, raising the rifle and getting off a single shot that knocked the first of his attackers away. His brain ran a sub-conscious count as they passed through his vison. Five, one already down. He raised the rifle to his shoulder as more closed the distance. He pulled the trigger, nothing; the carbine was jammed and he knew he would not get another shot off. He reached out and grabbed the barrel then swung with a two-handed grip, connecting with the next primal and watching its jaw explode as it kissed the rifle stock. Two down, Shane tumbled forward and found his feet already scrambling ahead.
He was running for the ridge now, desperate to reach high ground. Swinging the rifle as he ran directly up the trail, leading the way with the rifle’s stock, he connected straight on with the faces of his attackers. Three, no, four down. The deer behind him winced and whined, finally falling to the ground in a crash that sent the Primals into a frenzy.
Shane swung the rifle again, catching another. Although that hardly knocked it off course, the creature’s neck snapped as its head shifted. He lost his footing and flew off the trail into a heavy thicket, a Primal tackling him from the side as they tumbled. Where did that one come from? He twisted as he rolled entangled with the writhing Primal. Thorns snagged at his clothing and tore away at his skin. His head hit the ground hard, causing a bright flash as his vision dimmed. Shane lost his grip on the rifle and fought to free his fighting knife from the scabbard. His own hands feeling clumsy, the muscle memory took over as his brain powered down.
Their roll stopped with him on the bottom, the short barreled M4 hopelessly out of reach. The crazy mashed its open jaw into his left shoulder, biting deep. Shane screamed in pain as he drew back the knife. He smashed the knife down hard and drew back. Swinging again, he arced his arm and swung down with his right hand, delivering deep blows to the creature’s back. Shoving the blade into the Primal’s lungs, twisting the hilt and searching for its heart. The Primal convulsed and shuddered a long gurgling breath into the soldier’s shoulder.
The dying beast’s weight settled heavy, pressing Shane to the forest floor. Pinned to the ground with only his right arm free, he let his head drop back. He heard the creatures down the ridge ripping the deer apart. He could feel his warm blood trickling down his neck and seeping toward the small of his back. As his vision faded and closed in while the dense trees above swam and rotated, he waited for more of them to mass on him. They would come, and he would not be able to fight them. He blinked his eyes, looking into the fading light.
He could not move his head; it was pinned to the side with his cheek pressed against the cold earth. Shane could smell the creature; the copper tang of the blood combined with the stench of the primal filth caused his stomach to boil. He clenched his jaw, trying to hold back the retching. Fighting to calm his thoughts and to remain silent, he wondered why they had not attacked him yet. Maybe I’m already dead. Maybe Ella is already dead; maybe they all are. Why did I come here? Why did I think following the raiders would make a difference? He fought the temptation to quit as his body settled into the cold ground.
He tried to focus his ears only to hear the low groans and feasting sounds as the creatures consumed the buck. His stomach twisted. Dizzy and losing blood, he fought off the growing bile as his vision continued to blur. His shoulder ached with sharp pain. His head burned at the base of his skull where he hit his head in the fall. He struggled to breathe, the weight of the creature pressing on him. His vision tightened and closed up, his peripheral sight gone. Using the last of his strength, he attempted to roll the Primal off him, failing to budge it.
Shane took low breaths and fought to keep his eyes open. Listening to the Primals below, he was ready to face death; there was nothing left to do, his body and mind numb. Not wanting to be conscious when they attacked, he hoped he bled out before they came for him. He was tired. His thoughts clouding and running together, he felt the cold ground below him. It’s okay, I’ll just rest for a bit. He released a long sigh and allowed his eyes to close.