Miles stood at the edge of the settlement for hours, staring into the woods until his eyes went vacant and glassy. He kept it a secret: the woods talked to him. Not a single person questioned his strange behavior. Miles had done the same thing nearly every day for seven years, ever since he had arrived here with Alyson.
Almost everyone kept silent about Miles because of the circumstances that had brought him here—the brutal deaths of his family and the four-dozen members of their traveling party. Nevertheless, a select handful in the settlement considered Miles a bit strange. When called upon, Miles was a hard worker and carried his own weight, often toiling in the vegetable fields for hours without a single complaint; still, many felt compelled to gossip—albeit in hushed voices.
One man remarked to his wife that Miles had cried once for his slain parents—the day he arrived—but never again afterwards.
In fact Miles had shunned intimacy with anyone at the settlement, including Father Henri, who made every attempt to be a surrogate father to the boy. Miles chose to be distant, even refusing to learn the native language of his hosts—thus ensuring that the only ones he could communicate with were Father Henri and his now nearly eight-year-old sister, Alyson.
Miles was now seventeen, and had grown into a strapping young man. So, when he chose to go off into the woods for days by himself, nobody stopped him.
During Miles’s ventures, Father Henri would sit, sipping wine through the night with a watchful eye to the woods, anticipating Miles’s return. Though he was unsure what the boy was doing, he was concerned. He had imagined on several occasions that Miles had been journeying back through the woods to the scene of the massacre. And while he himself had not ever gone, the day after Miles arrived, a small party of the men from the settlement made the trek to the spot Miles described in an attempt to find any other survivors.
They found bodies torn to bits and a field full of both four-legged and winged scavengers eager to fill their bellies with the carrion.
The obscuring clouds of blowflies and the decay of the corpses sometimes made it difficult to tell man from woman. As they went from wagon to wagon, the results were the same, appearing just as Miles had described.
They even found a victim who had died not by animal attack but by his own hand. Maggots crawled in his head from the self-inflicted wound, wriggling through the emptied eye sockets in his skull.
Between them, the men could not decide if this one man had been lucky to take his own life or a coward for not trying to save the others.
They returned to the settlement and reported their findings to Father Henri. The priest asked the three men to never speak of what they had seen, and certainly not to Miles. They all agreed it best be left to fade past memory.
But fade it could not, Father Henri feared. The strange boy he had partially raised was returning time and again to, the priest suspected, somehow commune with spirits still haunted the boy.
And even if he had known himself to be even partially right, Father Henri feared he would still be unable to prevent whatever was waiting to happen.
Once again, Miles stepped through the thicket and walked across the overgrown grass to the remains of his parents’ wagon. The seasons had ravaged it until all that remained was a rusted, rotted hulk sitting amid tall weeds.
There was no illusion in Miles’ mind. He looked out at the skeletal remains of the other wagons in the Majestyk’s party and did not see the vibrant faces that rode them when they were almost new. He saw the wrecks for what they were: splintered remnants of the past that, with time, would continue to fade until dust.
There was no nostalgia for this place, none whatsoever. It was not the memories that brought Miles here, but the blood in the ground. The bones of the dead had long since been dragged away—the flesh consumed—but the blood of the sacrificed innocent that had absorbed into the earth acted like a magnet to Miles’ soul.
And over the years, as he grew older, this pull grew stronger until it became ever-consuming force.
The face he wore around Father Henri and the others was a mask. They had proven very useful, providing food and shelter during his time of need—but that time was quickly coming to an end. He had chosen early on to not develop close relationships with those who would not live long enough to warrant the necessity.
And as dusk began to set, he stood in the field and imagined the history of the thousands of lives before his family’s that had been taken here: people who had been held down on the ground while their still beating hearts were carved out of their chests by high priests wielding razor sharp obsidian knives; those who had been buried or burned alive, including children. The young were especially valuable sacrifices because they were thought to be pure and unspoiled, and the more they cried and wailed during their slow, torturous death, the better the omen.
From his pocket he took his father’s kerchief, now slightly yellowed and wrinkled from age. What was inside, however, seemed as pristine as the day he’d obtained it. Gently, he picked up his father’s eye—the one he had kept. He had given the second one to Alyson, who had shunned it for reasons Miles still did not understand.
He gazed into the eye to see what had been impressed on, and traversed by, its visual pathways—to see that which his father had before the journey to the new world; these same visions, Miles was convinced, contained the keys to unlock not only his destiny, but that of every man, woman, and child in the mortal world.
But hard as he tried, he could not bring forth the visions from the long-dead eye. The images his father had seen—which he knew his sister, Alyson, had seen as well—eluded him now, as they had his entire life. Frustrated, he wrapped his fingers around the eye and took a deep breath. He pulled every ounce of strength from within his body; his arms shook and his legs caved under him. Miles fell, the eye rolling from his hands on the ground just inches away He struggled for breath; his heart pounded with furious intensity against his chest.
He sobbed in the grass. Despite the land’s undeniable pull, what was behind that pull continually eluded him. Inside his father’s eye was the portent of what was to come—the very thing he sacrificed his family and the families of those he brought with him on the Majestyk.
With the knife he used all those years ago to remove those eyes from his dead father’s skull, the same knife that his father had used on him to slit the palm of his hand, Miles drew a pentagram in the dirt and placed himself inside. He picked up the eye and again focused his mind on the orb until the ache in his brain pounded so hard it forced him to his knees. There he stayed with his head hung low.
He had never experienced a moment like this one, where the feeling of utter failure totally drowned him. “I’ve failed you,” he spoke out loud. Cupped in his hands, the eye rolled to its side so that nerve pointed back toward Miles.
“Why do you cry?” a voice asked, startling Miles. He looked up. Silhouetted against the setting sun was the figure of what appeared to be a man coming toward him.
In the woods, Alyson walked the path back from the creek toward the settlement and carried a basket of freshly washed laundry. Behind her rose the tuneful voice of Odile, the French girl who had found her and Miles seven years ago in the woods. Over the years, Alyson and Odile had become close friends. It was Odile who taught Alyson her native language—though Miles did his best to counter it with a fair share of English—and the two girls had slowly grown into confidants.
From Odile’s mouth came an old folk song, one about the plight of a washerwoman who ran off with a man who didn’t love her. Alyson began to laugh.
Her chuckle caught in her throat.
Miles is in danger! Go! Now her head told her.
Before she could give it any thought, she let the basket of clean wash fall to the ground and ran into the woods.
“Alyson!” Odile called after her, a little confused and very much concerned.
As the figure approached, Miles felt a sense of utter fear in his stomach not felt since that night his father dragged him away from the camp and into the woods.
The night of his transcendence, as he often thought of it. He had never forgotten the feeling of being trapped inside the pentagram while his father chanted.
And now he again faced the unknown.
In the last seven years, the voices—the ones that spoke to him from the woods—always seemed to guide him, to assure him that he would soon take his place in the changing of the world.
Those voices now abandoned Miles, kneeling in the cold.
His breath left him too; the air around him suddenly turned dry and hot, pushing toward him as if a furnace door had just been opened. Each attempt Miles made to inhale burned his airways. It quickly became apparent that with each step the darkened figure took, the hotter the air got.
The dark figure was radiating heat.
Miles tried to get up, but his legs were useless. The dark figure stood over him, blocking out the light from the sky.
“Do you kneel before me out of respect? Or do you kneel out of fear?” The figure reached down for Miles.
Alyson ran as hard as she could until it felt as if her heart would explode. The path toward the field she had left behind as a baby seemed to open up for her, guiding her way. It was as if something pulled her to her brother’s side.
When she broke through the woods and into the clearing, she could see the overgrown patches of weeds that obscured the skeletal remains of the rotting wooden wagons. Her eyes darted back and forth; Miles was nowhere to be seen.
But she could sense him. He was here. She pushed through the weeds, feeling his presence intensify until she found him, lying bleeding and badly hurt on the ground.
“Miles!” she cried out as she went to him, pulling him to her chest to comfort him. “Who did this?”
It was hard for Miles to answer; when he finally did respond, all he gave was a warning.
“He’s here,” Miles revealed. “The Wolf.”