Prologue

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December 10, 1866

Their heads are all smashed, skin hanging inward like the collapsing shell of a rotting gourd. Crouched behind a tree, I close my eyes and try to see their faces as they had been in life. I can't; they remain nameless monsters in my mind. They wear our clothes now. It'll throw the ones who are coming for us off our tracks.

I know they’re coming for us, because I hear them; boots make a hell of a noise coming through the bracken, and the men wearing them don’t know how to move quietly, not the way I’ve learned to. I flatten myself tighter against the rough, wide tree, hoping it will shield me from the glow of the search party's lanterns. It's too late to run, now.

"Over here!"

Their lanterns come closer. I pretend to be a part of the tree, imagine my body sinking beneath the bark, my legs weaving with the roots under the soil. It helps keep me still and calms my ragged breaths.

"Is it her?" I recognize the voice, and I shudder. "Is it Evie?"

There's a dull sound, a boot connecting with dead flesh. "Looks like both of them. What's left of 'em."

"You said she weren't infected," another voice adds. "Look at these. They got it."

"No." That awful voice pleads. That voice that has been too close, too often, words dripping with want. He doesn’t sound so threatening now. "She wasn't. Whatever happened to them happened after they came up the mountain!"

"We don't know that." The hammer of a shotgun clicks.

Don't let them do it, don't let them do it, don't let them do it. But I have to. I won't be truly free until they pull the trigger. His actual death will cement the lie of mine, and I will move through the world as a living ghost.

If any of the afflicted have gotten over the mountain, we'll all be dead, anyway.

"Brothers, I beg you, think about what you do here." Dry leaves crunch. I think he's fallen, and those are his feet scrabbling on the rocky forest floor.

"It's what the spirit commanded, brother." Whoever holds the gun speaks with true remorse. They love him, as they love each other in their welcoming, spiritual family. But what had love gotten them in these dark days?

"Please, I'm telling you–"

I squeeze my eyes shut. The shot cracks the air, making me jump and covering the noise of my movement at the same time.

Their footsteps recede. The darkness snugs up around me in a too-tight embrace. I'm fine, I repeat to myself, and when that doesn't work, I'm dead.

The latter comforts me more.

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