From the distance came a child’s shriek.
“The camp!” exclaimed Cyril.
“We’re too late!” Lucius yelled. “Run for your life!”
He turned and bolted as fast as he could, choosing to drop the extra weight of his rifle. However, Lucius's legs, while young and strong, were no match for the pack of four-legged beasts. As a group, they swept past Cyril as if he wasn't there. Their leader, a hulking creature easily twice the size of any of the others, ran with the speed of a wildfire. Bearing down on Lucius, the beast sprang into the air. In mere moments it swiftly and brutally brought down its human prey, sinking its fangs into the soft flesh of Lucius's neck. Lucius tumbled to the dirt, pinned to the ground, coyote on his back. Lucius lifted his head and tried to scream just as the massive beast's mouth clamped down, the powerful and unforgiving jaws severing Lucius’s head from the rest of his body.
Within mere moments, other members of the pack descended upon Lucius—tearing at his carcass; feasting on his flesh.
Cyril stood thirty feet away, stunned to paralysis.
Run! The voice inside his head screamed again, finally awakening flight. He spun on his heels and took off just as the leader of the pack turned its head up from Lucius's carcass, its muzzle thick with blood. Cyril pumped his legs as fast as he could, carrying the rifle in one hand and refusing to look back. He had one shot and he was going to save it, even if for himself. The attack on Lucius left him completely disoriented, and as he ran he hoped it was towards back to camp. He had to make it, he thought. He had to save the others.
Don’t look back; keep running! he told himself. He thought he could hear their growls quickly getting louder.
Then he felt steaming breath on his calves. Cyril thought of the rifle in his hand: one shot. They were many; he was alone. He had seen what they had done to Lucius, rending him limb from limb, their razor sharp fangs ripping into his flesh. With no time to reload, there was only one choice.
He just needed to make sure the rifle was aimed correctly. Not something he could do on the run.
The first coyote was upon him, foaming at his heels. Cyril turned and slammed the butt of the musket into the beast’s muzzle, crushing the cartilage underneath. The coyote collapsed, tumbling forward while it shrieked in pain. There were others—Cyril was sure—and they were coming. Ahead was a large rock jutting from the earth—a massive boulder rising ten feet out of the ground. Cyril ran toward it, scrambling to reach its rounded peak.
Behind him, another member of the pack lunged at his feet, but Cyril was too fast, narrowly pulling away and up the rock, causing the beast to smash headfirst into the boulder and tumble aside. Cyril knew what he had to do; his nimble fingers cocked back the hammer on the musket as the coyotes circled him, jumping higher each time. Cyril didn't bother with a prayer; he just jammed the loaded barrel under his chin as his right thumb scrambled to find the trigger. The rumble the rest of the pack made as they bore down on him, charging at full gallop, seemed deafening—and it caused Cyril to momentarily look up.
In an instant, the pack leader left the ground at full speed, its body arcing high into the air. By the time Cyril saw the leaping beast, he had hesitated too long. The coyote crashed into him before Cyril could get off the fatal shot, knocking him clean off the rock. The musket flew from his hands and he thudded to the ground onto his back with the coyote leader right on top of him. Cyril, his breath knocked out and his chest burdened by the heavy beast, could neither get up nor breathe. In complete terror he could only lie there, staring into the yellow eyes of the coyote as it bared its fangs, the hot saliva dripping from the beast's dark muzzle onto Cyril's face.
Cyril braced himself. His heart shuddered as his brain exploded with panic. The air around him thickened with the scent of the pack—smells of earth, dirt, and especially blood—as they surrounded him. The other coyotes circled their leader, blotting out everything in Cyril's periphery. He tried again to move, but couldn't. The pack leader began to emit a low, angry growl that shook every bone in Cyril’s body, and yet he couldn’t look away. Again, it growled, this time louder and deeper. But something about its voice seemed to be compelling Cyril to look deep into its eyes.
Though stilled with a deep fear, Cyril obeyed the command he thought he heard in his mind. He turned his head even more to gaze into the beast’s face. When he did, its figure turned into that of a man—one whose scarred face was mostly hidden in shadow. Then Cyril could hear them, voices lost in a cloud of whisper—a hundred concurrent, cacophonous conversations. He saw that the coyotes that once surrounded him had taken human forms—cloaked figures, their faces barely visible in the dim light of the forest. To his left was a man with raw empty sockets where his eyes had been. Another bore extreme facial disfigurement obviously caused by a still-thriving disease. Cyril could see their lips moving slightly as the whispers around him grew louder.
With a deafening snarl, the pack leader brought Cyril back to his impending, and remembered, future. Abruptly, the shadowy human figure pinning him to the ground returned to it’s hulking coyote body, its yellow eyes still piercing deep into Cyril’s soul—eyes he could not feel were others than those of Death itself.
His defiant “No” was broken by the coyote’s mouth, which engorged his face from cheek to neck.
Cyril’s arms flailed and body shook as the beast’s powerful jaws tore at him, ripping away flesh, muscle, and bone with insatiable ease. The pain was unbearable, and Cyril’s brain fired every synapse in his body in a desperate attempt to mercifully overload his nervous system. His eyes, still fully functional, locked onto the coyote leader, unable to look away as its bloody jaws came at him again, this time clamping down onto his open screaming mouth, its teeth sinking into Cyril’s soft palate. He felt a sharp tugging at his head, which quickly became a ripping, as the coyote pulled away Cyril’s bloody lower jaw from his skull.
The coyote leader shook its head violently, tossing aside Cyril’s mandible.
Only a deafening, wordless ringing filled his ears.
And then the rest of the pack descended upon him, first ripping at the soft flesh of his limbs, working inward from his extremities.
From either side, he could feel yanking at his arms, his body being jostled back and forth. Those chewing on his legs were simultaneously dragging him. He was hemorrhaging blood so quickly that his mind barely clung to the precipice of conscious thought—just enough to ensure that he could still sense teeth tearing into him. At last, when the fangs ripped into his torso, severing connective tissue from muscle, all of his physical awareness drained from his mind. When they continued to gnaw at what was left of Cyril's limbs, stopping only at the bone before making their way to the flesh between his legs, he felt nothing.
But still his body hung on to dear life, even if just barely clinging to a morsel of fading consciousness.
Within moments his mind registered complete darkness; the pack leader took Cyril’s eyes with its hungry jaws.
Cyril's heart struggled and stammered. Then suddenly, in a flash from deep within his failing brain, a voice rose.
Its words to Cyril were absolute. His part in all this was that of a human sacrifice. In no uncertain terms, he had been made into an offering.
And we thank you, the voice said.
Cyril did not—and maybe could not—question the voice.
And we thank you; we do. the voice in his head repeated. Still, there was no release; each moment of this lived hell faded inevitably into the next, the repeating voice rising into a crescendo.
And we thank you...
And we thank you...
And we thank you; we do...
It was suddenly silenced as the pack leader tore into Cyril’s neck, ripping away his throat.
From within the chasm, Cyril was instantly plunged into no-thought, no-awareness. All that existed was a void—a vast nothingness between himself and the world of the living. He remained here, in this darkness, until summoned by a force beyond his comprehension.
And it was in those very same woods that Cyril’s eyes again saw, peeking out through opening eyelids—his lungs letting out a mighty gasp. Although over a dozen decades had passed, it was—to Cyril—as if not one moment of time had elapsed.
Suddenly, he felt something pulling him forth, and his gaze snapped to a young boy standing before him—one staring back with soulless black eyes.
“I am Miles Lawton, and you will serve me.”