The repeated thunderclap of the first salvo of bullets roared as the line of gunmen opened up on the hoard. Most of the shots, misaimed by trembling hands, missed their mark. Few found their targets, but those that did found fur and flesh and bone—crushing skulls, legs, and jaws.
The second line of rifles came to bear, the men's shaking hands desperately searching for accuracy. The bullets, fired in haste, did nothing more than did the first volley.
Massive paws beat against the dirt; the coyotes charged down the men who dared to stand their ground. Those who had not dropped their weapons to flee weren’t given a second chance. From a dozen feet away, the beasts launched themselves into the air at their prey, their great bodies enough to crush the Magus soldiers.
The men in the circle had only moments to glance up from their muzzleloaders to witness their gruesome fate. Claws and teeth.
The first wave of beasts hit the ground with a crash, grasping their prey in their jaws or pinning the helpless before clawing them to shreds. Cries of unspeakable agony drowned in blood. In moments, the ranks of the Magus were halved.
Not everyone gave up without a fight. One man, a hardened veteran of the war, spun his empty rifle and crushed the skull of a beast. He never felt the sharp claws tear into his back, severing his spine. Helpless, he lay as the coyotes bit into his body, pulling him away before taking his legs.
The pockmarked man dodged the first beast and picked up a fallen axe from the ground after tossing his empty pistol aside. He buried the heavy blade into the neck of one coyote, then spun to split open the head of another. But the first animal's blood sprayed onto his face—into his open eyes—blinding him. And as he went to wipe it, strong jaws clamped onto his left arm,. He felt the beast's sharp teeth sink all the way to the bone, and from his mouth came a horrible shriek. Gritting his teeth, he uttered the phrase Nena had taught him—the summoning curse that only be used once.
His voice croaked, and the words came forth.
But the clouds did not open, did not release the peril that he had deeply believed would happen for him. A second coyote locked onto his right arm. The two beasts pulled on him like dogs fighting for a bone, tearing his living body in half.
Nena dropped to her knees and clutched her head as she watched the horror unfold at the base of the hill. The beasts that had made it past the first—and only—resistance of the Magus charged toward her and her brother, picking off the stragglers and deserters one by one. The bucket boy had found his end when the massive coyote pounced on his back, breaking his neck as he fell; he would never know the agony of being eaten alive, like the others.
Miles turned his gaze upward—toward the hill—and Galen could see clearly the eyes of his brother. Even from this distance, Galen could sense there was something very wrong. The sudden longing to go to Miles, who before he could only sense as his brother, snapped, and what filled Galen as he watched the four-legged killers rushing toward him was the overwhelming urge to flee.
He turned and grabbed Nena’s shoulder. She was gripping her hair in both hands. He pulled her to her feet.
“How do we get out of here?” he asked.
The first coyote to reached the top of the hill. With a single arm extended, Nena used her hand to beast stopped in its tracks. With her eyes, she caught the coyote’s gaze. When she broke the stare, the beast turned and launched itself at the coyote following it, clawing at the eyes of its former mate.
“That will buy us some time. Let’s go!” she yelled, rushing toward the woods.
“How did you do that?” Galen called out as he ran after her.
Miles waded through the bodies lying on the grass, marveling at this outdoor slaughterhouse—his creation. Once the coyotes had finished, what was left of the Magus was barely recognizable as human.
And there on the ground, he saw it and stopped. It was the eye of his father, the one he had given to Alyson all those years ago. Its surface was pitted and aged, but there was no mistaking this petrified relic that he had last seen almost 150 years ago.
His fingers closed around the orb and he slipped it into his pocket, avoiding any chance of staring into it; not now—there would be time later. He would enjoy this moment. Miles noticed a number of horses and animals corralled nearby. He wandered over, beckoning a single old burro with his outstretched hand. Miles stroked Blue’s muzzle. He shook his head in disgust at the animal’s sunken back and filmy cataracts. With a single finger, he pressed into Blue’s forehead and, as if shot, the animal fell dead to the ground.
Up the hill, he heard a commotion followed by a yelp. To his surprise, two of his beasts were locked in combat with each other, one having just snapped the neck of its brethren.
Miles stalked through the bodies, kicking aside those laying in his way. The traitor had taken down another coyote, and was preventing others from passing. Pushing aside his beasts, Miles faced the rebel animal, grinning while it snarled at him, his master. He approached and the traitor snapped at him, its jaws striking like lightning. But as fast as the beast was, Miles was faster, moving almost as a blur. With a single blow, he drove his palm into the bridge of the coyote's nose with fatal force. The boy turned to his regiment, eyeing them with a burning anger.
Miles hissed, running his fingers across his throat, causing the beasts to break ranks and dash up the hill toward the two figures disappearing into the woods.
Galen pulled Nena further into the forest. Ahead the woods grew thick to the point of darkness. Crossing his mind was the memory of his wagon ride down into the valley when he had tried to find help for Maria. There had been things in these woods, things not seen, but heard.
“Do you know what is out there?” Nena asked, her voice full of utter terror.
“If you have a better idea, I'm all ears!” Galen shouted, continuing his pace.
“The river!” she yelled.
From a perch high above, he watched them disappear deeper into the forest, away from the light of open ground and straight toward the ghosts hiding in its shadows. Cyril knew they were there because, coming from the opposite direction, he had seen them: beings hidden on the edge of light and darkness; spirits straddling this mortal plane and the next. These woods were full of them.
Cyril had no intention of following the pair—at least not yet. He wanted to guarantee his one chance at surprise.
As the coyotes entered the woods, they slowed from a gallop to a crawl, carefully sniffing the air. They could sense there was need to be cautious.
Also in the air was the scent of the man and woman they were hunting, and it was in that direction which they stalked, keeping low to the ground.
Miles came up the hill into the woods behind them and, once he saw the dogs’ wariness, his own guard went up as well. Never had the beasts he’d come to control ever showed reluctance. Though they were moving slowly, he would give them a head start.
Let them clear the path ahead, he thought. It was only so far that his brother and sister could run. Soon their mortal bodies would tire, and the coyotes would—
The thought broke off. He needed only to look at his feet to see what he was about muse.
Miles realized: she obviously let these people—her people—die.
He reached into his pocket and withdrew the petrified eye of his father. In his mind he sensed…
Cyril had seen the boy enter the woods, and, as luck would have it, Miles slowly drifted fifteen feet underneath the perch he had taken in wait. Silently, Cyril drew his dagger and held it, blade down, timing his leap.
Miles looked up just in time to catch the heel of Cyril’s boot on his chin. The force of the blow drove Miles backwards onto the ground, his mouth bloodied. The hard landing had twisted Cyril’s ankle, but the pain didn’t register. Miles was prone, and here was his chance.
Cyril tightened his grip on the knife and advanced on the master who had betrayed his trust. He knew he couldn’t kill Miles, but after he was done butchering the monster, there would be little left to hurt anyone again.
But as Cyril took another step toward the boy, murder in his eyes, Miles rose straight up to his feet, pivoting on his heels as if on a hinge. With his thumb, he wiped the blood from his lip and turned his enraged gaze at yet another traitor.
Cyril’s breath froze in his throat. He raised the knife at the boy. He was close enough to take one last shot.
But before he could make the move, his body was broadsided by eighty pounds of coyote. The lunge took Cyril to the ground, and the obedient beast held him down as the master approached.
“For you, this is full circle, I suppose,” Miles mocked. “Pity, you could have served at my right hand.” With a slight nod of his head to the beast, the coyote tore its jaws into the soft flesh of Cyril’s face, enjoying his scream as it disappeared down its throat.
They had covered ground as fast as they could, escaping on nothing more than adrenaline. Suddenly, the abated death shriek of Cyril, cut off halfway, reached them through the air—reminding them they weren’t far away from danger.
“The river is about a mile ahead,” Nena told Galen, nearly out of breath. “Those creatures won’t follow us into the water.”
“Are you sure about that?” Galen asked, his legs pumping.
“No,” she answered.
Miles watched with great pleasure as the coyotes disciplined Cyril. He was quite satisfied by all of Cyril’s struggling. What was left was a torso—no arms or legs—skinned and shredded to the bone. He whispered into the ear of a beast, now sated with the flesh of his master’s enemy, before the coyote began digging a hole in the earth.
At four feet deep, it emerged from the shallow grave and pulled Cyril’s limbless body into the pit. When it came back to pick up one of Cyril’s arms, Miles stopped it. The beast dropped the torn limb and, at Miles’ command, began filling the hole with dirt. Miles stood and grinned.
“Now let us find them,” he told the coyote as he stroked its blood-soaked muzzle.
Galen suddenly realized he was holding Nena’s hand as they ran together. Her legs were faltering, but he kept trying to keep pace.
Midstride, Nena’s feet gave out from under her and she fell to her knees, again gripping her temples.
He tried to pull her up, but couldn’t. Nena cried out in pain, fighting back tears.
“Are you hurt?” asked Galen.
But before she could answer, he heard them coming through the woods—Miles’s regiment of unholy creatures, their snarls rumbling through the air.
Galen stepped in front of Nena, shielding her. They stalked behind the trees, keeping their soulless and hungry yellow eyes affixed on their prey, closing the distance in a semicircle around Nena and Galen.
He looked at the approaching creatures, their razor sharp teeth gnashing against salivating gums. They stunk of death and blood—and immediately Galen thought of the day he left his cell at Sagebrush, and what he saw on the outside. He couldn’t fight the idea of jaws crushing his bones. With his head on a swivel, he tried to guess how many there were: too numerous to count. Besides, it would only take to tear out his throat.
And then what? he thought. They could stand around and wait for him to come back to life and do it again and again, if that’s what Miles wanted.
There was nowhere to run. They were surrounded, and within heartbeats of being eaten alive.