Nena grabbed Galen by the hair and stared deep into his eyes. Though she held it back as much as possible, tears eventually made their way down here cheeks as she continued to tell of when she used to be Alyson Lawton, over a lifetime ago.
“I huddled under a fallen tree and spent the night in the woods, trembling with unbelievable fear, terrified of what was waiting for me out there, terrified of what would find me if I even made a sound.” She swallowed hard, her breath hitching slightly. “And when daybreak came, I had to know if anyone was left. I walked the path back to the settlement in a complete daze. When I got there, my worst fears had been realized. Every single person there was—” her voice trailed off.
“—slaughtered,” Galen whispered, his mind flashing to aftermath at Sagebrush.
“Not just slaughtered,” Nena said angrily. She could see it now as clear as if it were yesterday. “Ripped to pieces!”
Alyson stepped into the clearing and could see the church. A scent lingered in the air. Into her nostrils flowed the pungent fragrance of decay and death—of blood and rotting flesh. Tentatively, she moved forward step by step, willing herself to continue even though every fiber in her body cried out for her to run screaming back into the woods.
But she continued, trying to find someone alive, anyone.
She stumbled upon Father Henri, and her heart sank. The priest had been dragged, his legs and head removed. Around his neck was his white collar, bloodied and ragged. He still clutched his crucifix, stubbornly and fruitlessly.
His grip was intense, as if he was protecting the cross from his attackers.
There had been others—the women who had helped raise her lay eviscerated, their innards left dragging behind. She turned over body after familiar body, looking for any signs of life, but found none. Some were barely recognizable, given what little flesh the coyotes had left behind.
She turned away, only to see the young man.
Karle was the boy who originally found her and Miles in the woods. He had been Odile's secret boyfriend, a romance kept hidden from their parents. Alyson was the only one Odile ever told about her love.
Alyson looked down at Karle, his throat slashed so deeply that she was certain his end came as quickly Odile's.
At least that's what Alyson hoped: that they didn't suffer much, and that somehow they would now be together, forever walking hand in hand into the setting sun.
She collapsed to the ground, weighed down by the loss. She had come all the way back here to find Father Henri, as Miles had asked her to do. I failed, she thought.
“Miles,” she whispered. Something had taken control of his body and was killing him from the inside—and now, without Father Henri to help, Alyson feared the worst for her brother.
I'm all alone. Her family and friends had all been killed.
Alyson could not believe that these beasts—ones capable of unspeakable slaughters—could have been made by God’s hand.
She wondered if they. They had seen her. They killed Odile without so much as even touching her. One even looked back; it had acknowledged her. Alyson knew that if she chose to run, they could find her.
But she had no choice. She had to run. If they were to come for her, it would be at her back.
With the palms of her hands, she wiped the tears from her eyes and rose up. The wind shifted slightly, and the smell of death and decay again filled her nostrils. Above, crows began to light in the trees, incessantly cawing.
I have to go—now, Alyson thought. I can’t watch these birds pick apart my friends for their dinner.
She made her way to the home of a woman who had helped raise her; she needed provisions. She found a wicker basket, and used it to carry what was left of a loaf of bread. On her way out, she saw a waterskin hanging on a nail by the door; she took that as well, delaying slightly. Given how light it was, there was no surprise when she removed the cork to find it empty. She would go fill it before leaving this place forever.
As she approached the well, her mind started playing tricks on her, imagining a beasts waiting to spring out from within the hole to attack her. With each step her chest tightened.
When she got there, there was only complete darkness.
Alyson took the wooden bucket and made sure the rope was attached to the handle before dropping it down into the well. It vanished for a brief moment before she heard it splash into the water below.
Wrapping the rope around her small hands, she began pulling up the bucket. It felt full and she strained from the extra weight. She brought in the rope hand over hand—the way Father Henri had taught her—but she continued to struggle; it seemed to be getting heavier.
Again, she peered over the edge—wondering if the bucket or the line had caught on something.
But there was nothing other than the rope disappearing into darkness.
Alyson continued pulling up the bucket, all the while trying to figure out where she would go. The Father had mentioned another settlement far off to the west, but Alyson couldn’t remember which direction that was.
Is it where the sun rises or sets? She felt the push on her back.
Instantly, she was off her feet and tumbling headfirst into the darkness of the well, falling for what seemed like minutes before crashing down into the water below. Her head smashed against the stone wall and she cried out, her mouth filling with water.
Struggling, she made it to the surface, coughing the water out of her lungs as she gasped for air.
Her head buzzed and her ears rang; it was seconds before her eyes came back into focus.
And then she saw him.
“Miles?” she called out.
Standing more than twenty feet above her and looking down from the edge, was her brother. Yet he made no acknowledgment, or effort to help her.
“Miles!” she called out again. Even with the light behind his head and his face in shadow, she could tell it was him—the sibling she’d spent her whole life with.
“They’re all dead,” Miles said.
“Help me, Miles!” Alyson called out, frantically treading in the deep water.
“And they died so that I shall live,” he continued. His voice echoed around her, enveloping her like cold winter rain. “For the selfless sacrifice of their lives helped me survive to fight again.”
“Selfless?” cried Alyson. “They were murdered!”
“They were fulfilling their purpose, dear sister. Why do you think God, in all His infinite wisdom, chose to put them here?” Miles was growing more confident. “They were like sown seedlings, waiting to be reaped at my desire.”
A horrifying thought came to Alyson at the same moment Miles put it into words.
“And it was you, dear sister, who I asked them to follow in order to find this place. You led them here.”
Tears fell down Alyson’s cheeks as his words cut into her like knives.
“I asked them to spare you,” he continued. “I was going to let you live, but I have been badly injured and I fear that it will take one more sacrifice to give me the strength I need.”
Her breath caught in her throat as she tried to speak. The cold water began to numb her arms and legs.
“This is my sacrifice, too, Alyson. I do love you,” he said and before slipping away.
“Miles!” The cold was getting more intense, and Alyson could only whisper
Hypothermia was setting in quickly. She could barely kick her legs.
Moments later she sensed a shadow from above. Once again Miles peered over the edge.
“I don’t want you to be alone down there. I brought you some company,” he called down to her.
She could see him lift something over the edge of the well before dropping it down. It briefly blocked the sunlight as it fell, splashing violently into the water just next to her.
Next to her in the dim light, Alyson could see the bloodied face atop a limbless torso.
Her sudden shriek filled the well, rushing upwards into the open sky, where it floated, ignored, into the heavens.
Miles pushed another corpse into the well, ignoring his sister’s screams.
A third body came down and, with nowhere to go at the bottom of the well, Alyson could only close her eyes and wait for the impact.
Miles whistled as, one by one, he gathered the shredded bodies and tossed what was left of them into the well.
Within minutes, Alyson’s voice was muffled. He waited for several more minutes of silence before leaving the settlement.
Nena’s eyes were full of anger and restrained tears..
“So you see, if it is that land—the cursed killing fields of Shadow Falls that are calling out to you, summoning you to return—then the only thing you will leave in your wake is death and suffering.”
And with her words, she withdrew a dagger from her cloak, and pulled back Galen’s hair, and held the blade to his throat.
“And there is no way I can allow that to happen again,” she told him.
Galen shut his eyes. At her hands, his deliverance would be swift and merciful. His journey would end here.
But when she raised the knife to plunge into his throat, the pockmarked man called out frantically.
“Someone’s coming down the road! Someone’s coming down the road!”
The pair froze, sharing the same fearful thought.
Miles had found them.