As the first coyote—an aged and scarred killer with hollow and diseased eyes—advanced on them, Galen fanned his arms back, hoping to protect his sister from his same fate. He knew it was futile, though.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I’m sorry, Alyson.”
“Don’t be,” she muttered, coming to her feet behind him.
The feeling on the back of Galen's neck was like some kind of strange electricity; it made each hair stand bolt upright. The power coming from her body was enormous—the sense of which, in Galen's estimation, was akin to standing next to a hundred coiled springs waiting to explode. She didn’t pushed him aside, but rather moved him across the ground so she could face the beasts who stood only feet away, ready to strike.
Her arms stayed to her sides— a gunfighter’s stance—as her eyes swept across the beasts in front of her.
“You won’t win today,” she spoke. As the last syllable left her lips, the coyotes descended on them like wildfire.
Quick as a shot, Nena’s left palm snapped out and she let out a grunt. The coyote closest to her was blown backwards by an unseen force so mighty Galen could see the beast’s entire head cave in. With another grunt, her right arm shot forward toward a second charging coyote and it too was vaulted backwards, slamming into its brethren behind it, knocking aside their broken bodies like so many bowling pins.
As a third beast left its feet leaping at Galen, Nena cast a blow in its direction, propelling the coyote at a ninety-degree angle from its original trajectory, barrel-rolling through the air until crashing into a large oak. The beast’s body snapping in the middle as its legs and head nearly met on the backside of the tree’s trunk.
Spotting a thick fallen branch on the ground, Galen snatched up the hefty chunk of wood, wielding it two-handed as the remaining coyotes approached. With all the strength he could muster, he swung the crude club, striking one of the creatures between the eyes hard enough to stun it. With a second upward blow he drove the beast’s muzzle inwards, killing it instantly. As he turned to spot another, Galen swung the branch low, and could hear the wet snap of bone as he caught the predator at mid-leg. The coyote howled in agony as it plowed headfirst into the ground, unable to advance any further.
His heart racing with adrenaline, Galen felt the dark thrill of the kill shoot through his veins like a drug. The singular sensory explosion of battle had come rushing back as he raised his club to crush the spine of another beast to the point where, unbeknownst to Galen, a slight grin crossed his face.
He turned his head toward Nena as she dispatched beast after beast with a power he could only assume was some sort of witchcraft. The invisible strikes she rendered each time with a grunt and a slight shake of her head, blow after blow, caused mangled coyotes to fall at her feet, dispatched the way one would crumple a piece of used paper.
Immediately Galen’s mind flashed upon a memory from his childhood in a previous life as Thomas Lawton, one so clear it seemed he could reach in from the other side of the door he was hiding behind and touch his mother Corrine Lawton as she drew the pentagram on the floor of their home in preparation for the company she and his father were expecting. It was part of the rituals he often heard them perform as he laid awake upstairs in his bed. The word had never been spoken but on that day, Thomas remembered thinking it: Witch.
And as he watched Nena’s psychokinetic display of bone crushing power and the glare in her eyes, he was struck by the fact she was, in every way, the spitting image of their mother.
But as his attention wavered from the field of battle, it was only out of the corner of his eye that the frenzied beast appeared, coming toward him with its teeth bared. Quickly he turned, holding the club out as it barreled into him, impaling itself on the branch through its mouth as the impact knocked him off his feet.
Galen kept his grip on the branch as he tumbled onto his back. The wounded beast, uncaring about its own condition, focused only on the kill. It lurched forward further pushing the branch deeper into its mouth as its jaws snapped against the club in an attempt to get to the warm flesh of its prey. With a yell, Galen shoved the branch until he felt it snap forward through the back of the beast’s throat. The massive coyote instantly went limp, collapsing on top of him, knocking the wind from Galen’s lungs. Through the beast’s chest he could feel the beating of its heart slow and then suddenly stop.
He tried calling out to Nena but could not gather the air to speak. Bodies of slain coyotes piled at her feet on the ground around her but he could tell by the shaking of her arms that the continued battle was taking a great physical toll on her, that she was weakening.
I have to help her, he thought, though he could not move. Again a wave of buried memories came forth about their mother—the home they had left for reasons he never understood as a child, the journey aboard the Majestyk, the task their mother had on board to take care of the sick and dying.
And the prayers and chants she said over them as they passed from this world.
Galen’s mind flashed back to the memory of his father dropping Anne Walsh’s body over the side of the boat into the swirling ocean.
Then to the one-eyed guide who had mysteriously vanished the night after fighting with his father.
And it was the wispy vision of his father, William Lawton, that Galen thought he saw standing behind Miles as the boy came up quietly behind Nena. His brother looked directly back at him and grinned like a spider eyeing a fly caught in its web before turning back to her. Galen pushed against the heavy body of the beast pinning him to the ground. He had to help her. The heavy animal crushing him budged slightly then settled against his flagging strength, feeling even heavier against his chest.
Suddenly, Nena sensed the presence behind her and spun around to strike, but it was too late. Miles grabbed her by the throat and the young boy lifted her up into the air with one hand. Her eyes opened wide because she saw it too, the image of their father, before it vanished into thin air.
“Very tricky, my dear sister,” Miles hissed. “Sacrificing the flock to make yourself stronger. You are now learning the family curse, I see.”
He paused for an answer but she was struggling for her breath.
“However, I have quite a bit more blood on my hands than you. You cannot expect to overpower me so easily.”
Nena’s legs kicked in the air as she slowly strangled. Miles cocked his head as he looked into her eyes. Finally she gasped. “Kill me now, but know I will come back to stop you.”
“Hmmph,” chuffed Miles, slightly amused. “You still think you have the answers. It’s not quite that simple.”
Miles grinned again as he squeezed her throat, choking her past consciousness until her body slumped lifeless. He was enjoying this immensely. It would all soon come to an end. He glanced over to where his brother had been pinned under the beast and let the expression on his face change.
Galen was no longer anywhere to be seen.
And was the pressure Miles felt around his own throat as Galen wrapped his arm around him that caused Miles to drop his sister to the ground. With his other arm, Galen wrapped up Miles’ free hand and pulled it behind him while squarely pushing his knee into the boy’s back with as much force as he could muster.
The choking rattle of Miles’ surprised exhale echoed loudly into the air and Galen could feel the hot tears streaming down his own cheeks as he gripped his brother as hard as he could.
To his surprise, at no time did Miles struggle against this chokehold. As the boy’s head pointed upward, he opened his eyes toward the sky, gazing directly into the heavens as if fully accepting his fate.
Though he continued to remind himself that what existed inside this shell was no longer his younger brother but a monster, powerful sobs erupted from Galen’s throat as he felt Miles’ strength ebb from his small body as he led his brother to the ground.
It was here in the final moments that Miles struggled for the first time, reaching for the forearm wrapped around his neck, pulling it away, almost effortlessly, enough to utter his last words.
“Now dear brother, it is you who it becomes.”
And as he let go and fell limp, Galen’s heart shook as if a bolt of lightning had run through him. He turned the body of Miles over to face him.
“What did you mean?” Galen called out, shaking the boy’s dead body. He waited for a response that never came, and he watched in wonder as what returned to his brother’s face was what could only be described as a final sense of peace.
It was then he saw them emerge from the woods, those inhabitants of the netherworld. The dead who straddled this plane of existence and the next.
He stood and began to back away when their hollow eyes were upon Galen, gazing at him as if he belonged to them.
Miles’ final words echoed again in his mind. Now dear brother, it is you who it becomes.
The voice that came from behind Galen startled him for he at once recognized it before he even turned.
“Brother Thomas, I am sorry for your loss.” And the man with scorched wings was there, crouching next to Miles’ body. He reached into the boy’s pocket and pulled something out before stepping toward Galen.
With an outstretched hand, he held it out. One of the eyes formerly belonging to William Lawton.
“I believe this is yours,” he said and then laughed as Galen reached out to take it. “You’re going to need it.”
As if pulled into the eye, Galen could see it the same as he had before. The scorching of the earth, the raising of forces of darkness. The vision was vivid and alive.
An archangel impaling a slobbering horned beast on the end of a mighty sword while another has his wings torn asunder by the razor-sharp claws of a dozen hell-spawn. The blood of the righteous and unrighteous flow until every last river on earth runs red.
Standing at the head of this unending phalanx of darkness was a man with eyes like smoke and the head of a coyote.
And it was clearer to Galen more than ever that the face of this man was his own.
“What does this mean?” Galen asked breathlessly.
“Means the Wolf is coming,” Briar spoke. “Now, I would hazard a guess that he’s coming for you.” And with those words he turned away and laughed.
Galen carried Miles’ body to the shade under the tallest tree he could find and, with tears still streaming down his face, he kissed his brother on the forehead. With no tools to dig a grave, he puzzled for a moment before the image of a cairn—a stone pile—appeared in his mind. It was the way he’d seen Indians bury their dead in the hard dirt.
He gathered the stones and piled them on top of Miles’ body as he wept. When he was done, Galen stood beside the grave of his brother and tried to think of something to say. What came to mind was part of a poem he had heard recited several times by a fellow soldier back during the war. Though he couldn’t remember the whole verse, the words of Edgar Allan Poe came forth from his mouth.
“Be silent in that solitude, which is not loneliness—for then, the spirits of the dead who stood in life before thee, are again in death around thee, and their will shall overshadow thee: be still.”
With his hand, he patted the topmost stone of the cairn before remembering he still had another member of his family to bury. As he walked back to the clearing, he could sense the eyes of the dead upon him, smothering him with their persistent gaze. Though he could feel them practically at his elbows, reaching out to him, he kept his eyes forward and his feet moving.
And when he arrived back at the clearing still strewn with the bodies of dozens of dead beasts, he looked for Nena at the spot at which she had fallen and stopped. Again he scanned the area all around but she was nowhere to be found. It was then he began to notice the sounds he heard coming from all around him, countless voices hushed to a whisper. And among them, buried in the cacophony, he could make out two distinct phrases.
“We shall live in His house. We shall live in His name.”
It came as a rush finishing with a feeling akin to being struck by electricity as Cyril’s still heart began beating again. As the blood pumped once more through his veins, his mind suddenly exploded back into consciousness and with it came the agony of resurrection. In moments he became fully aware again. He opened his eyes only to find himself surrounded by complete darkness. His first breath was stifled in his throat as he suddenly felt the heaviness on his body. Again he tried to open his mouth but it would not move and as he realized the grit he could feel against his lips was the dirt from the grave he had been placed into, he started to panic. In the place where his limbs had once been he sensed no feeling as his lungs began to burn from lack of air. Cyril tried to call out for help but could not. As the fire in his chest moved to his brain, he could not remember what had put him in this situation. He was quickly swallowed by a terrifying realization.
Oh God, I can’t breathe, he thought.
He tried moving any part of his body but the weight of his tomb smothered him from above. His lips parted only slightly and he could feel the tiny granules of earth falling onto his dry tongue and into his throat.
Don’t let me die like this! His mind screamed as the burning in his chest and brain became hotter than a furnace. There in the several minutes before suffocating to death in the ground his mind’s last question was not to ask why but whether this would continue to happen again and again.
Galen walked until the point of complete exhaustion and then kept going, afraid that if he stopped the whispering voices from the woods would surround him once again. He remembered what Nena had said when they entered the forest, that somewhere ahead lay a river. There was no energy left in his body but he pushed forth finally seeing the expansive shining blue stretch through the trees.
Down into the mud he stumbled, falling to his knees. He had finally broken through the forest to the bank of a great rushing body of water.
The Mississippi, Galen reckoned. It was even vaster than he remembered. He looked into the sky, glad to have the sunshine directly over his head again. He had spent so much time the past few months navigating through dark forests, the country was full of them, and now he knew what lurked in those wooded shadows. Things he wasn’t keen on being near again any time soon.
Gazing out, Galen saw the mighty paddleboat steaming its way upriver. Though he had no idea where it was going, he imagined himself on it, being that anywhere was better than here.
And there was still a long way to go to complete his journey.
Why continue? He wondered momentarily but deep inside he knew the visions would never end. There were still answers out there. Answers that could only be found when he returned home—to Shadow Falls.
The next step would be to cross this river and continue east. Galen knew that following the bank of the Mississippi north would eventually get him to a boat that would ferry him to the other side.
He walked along the muddy riverbed not seeing any sign of other boats or people and more than once wondered if he was still part of the mortal world, choosing to push the thought out of his mind to keep this kind of madness at bay. As the sun set, and he could not summon the strength for another step. He stumbled to the embankment, where he sat staring out toward the river. He chose not to fight the heaviness of his eyelids as slumber enveloped him in its inevitable embrace.
His rest was a disturbed peace, for the images came again to him in his sleep. The church. The faces, all consumed by flame. But it was the sound that woke him with a start.
And as his eyes opened to the blinding glare of the lantern it took him but mere moments to recognize the face of the young girl from the ghetto at Veracruz. His heart froze as he gazed into her long dead face and rotting flesh and suddenly his mind clicked into place as the memory became crystal clear.
The toothless old man lay on the ground having just been knocked down, his hands up in a futile gesture in front of his face trying to protect himself.
“Take the horse!” he pleaded. “Take the horse!”
“Oh I will,” the voice spoke as the gun was pointed directly at the old man’s head. In the moment the trigger was pulled, Galen recognized the voice as his own for what he was seeing was the firing of the fatal shots that landed him in jail back in Sagebrush with a date for the gallows.
As his mind flashed again, he was there back in Veracruz but the hand holding the knife carving into the screaming young girl’s skin belonged solely to him as now he could see the horrified looks on the faces of his drunken companions.
“It was me,” Galen whispered, unaware he was even speaking. “It was me.”
And over and over the memories returned. The Gypsy crone and the smoking Derringer in his hand. The dozens of faceless men and women he had murdered during his life as an outlaw.
Even the stuttering whore, Daisy, whose companionship he had paid for—in his memory she lay across her bed, the glistening slash across her neck oozing blood as he wiped the blade of his knife on her sheets.
“No.” Galen trembled as he stared back at the long-dead Mexican girl. “No.” It was at that moment he could feel his heart stop beating in his chest as she ran a bony finger along his cheek. And there in his mind he could hear her voice.
“You cannot escape your destiny, Galen Altos, for you have always been Death,” she whispered as her face inched closer to his in the pale light of the lantern. “And always shall you be.”
The ANGEL OF DEATH CHRONICLES series continues with:
SHADOW FALLS: ANGEL OF DEATH
DIARY OF A MADMAN