As a man of prophecy, Jake Barrett foresaw his own death. He perished between the gaping jaws of a monstrous black wolf. His blood-curdling howl thundered around the world. Flames burned in his eyes, smoke curled from his nostrils, and leathery lips drew taut over glistening white incisors.
Always, the beast swallowed him whole.
Boots pounded on the hard-packed dirt. The lone hunter sprinted toward the pack of enormous wolves. He reached across his torso to claw at the stylized dagger inked on the back of his forearm: his tattoo weapon, indestructible and always with him. The intricate artwork had rough edges that overlaid scorched scar tissue like a brand. Dark tendrils of energy surrounded the knife, arcing beneath the surface of his skin.
When his palm covered the hilt, sharp pain radiated through his arm. The stench of burnt flesh filled the air. The tattoo vanished from Jake's arm, and a dagger appeared in his hand. The knife had a thick, wide blade aglow with a halo of molten steel.
When he neared an outcrop, he halted briefly and studied the pack. A great red wolf ran at the head of the group. Several dozen wolves followed in a loosely spread formation. They were no mere beasts. The shifters were the descendants of Fenrir, the son of Loki, and several times larger than their animal kin in size. Claws dug into the stony terrain, casting a spray of dirt and jagged rocks in their wake. The Alpha's piercing howl split the sky, carrying for miles across the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, Arizona.
A half mile distant, Skinner and the hunters loyal to Jake fought in grim desperation for their lives. The enemy army emerged from an old mine shaft in a steady swarm, seemingly endless and without any discernible source. Jake wanted to be with his men at the heart of the fight, not defending their flank alone against the new threat.
The radio transmitter Jake wore buzzed with static, but he clearly made out his second-in-command's voice across the airwaves. Skinner sounded understandably worried. "Is that old Fireball Finn?"
Chuckling, he reached up to adjust the fit of the earpiece. "No one calls Finn that to his face–"
"—and lives," they finished in unison.
"What do you think, friend or foe?" Skinner rasped.
Across the radio, a burst of machine-gun fire blasted Jake's hearing. He winced and grimaced. He infused his voice with confidence. "Friends."
"Twenty bucks says they're going straight for our unprotected flank."
"I'll take that bet, and our flank isn't unprotected. I'm here. Hold the line, solider."
"That's exactly what we're doing, sir. Tho', I'm thinking now's a great time to take the time off I'm owed."
For all Skinner's sarcasm, he would do exactly as he said. They'd served together in the Marine Corps prior to forming their own private paramilitary organization, and they'd had each other's backs in countless confrontations.
Jake trusted no one more.
"What the fuck are these things?" Heavy breathing, grunts of exertion, and the occasional muttered swear word accompanied Skinner's question.
"They're called draugar," Jake muttered. "Incredibly rare." They were an obscure breed of vampire from Northern Europe, and they were a problem. Not only were they noted for their strength and intelligence, but they could walk in sunlight. Individual draug usually operated as solitary predators found in cool, watery environments. Jake wondered what they were doing in the Arizona desert.
"Fucking great!" Skinner said. "Vampires on the critically-endangered species list."
"I'd like to reduce that to extinct." Chuckling, Jake resumed his journey to intercept the pack. He adjusted his path to skirt around an area where the rough terrain looked too dangerous to cross at a full run in poor light.
When the Alpha wolf neared, he howled again. The pack echoed the call, blending their voices into a chorus to produce a ferocious battle cry. The sound boomed across the landscape.
Jake's heart thundered in his ears while he ran straight at the charging wolves. The red werewolf stood as high as a horse in the shoulder, taller than Jake at full height, which was impressive, even for one of the wolf shifters. His size, combined with the distinctive ginger hue of his fur, left no room for mistaking the Alpha's identity: Fireball Finn. He led a war party from the White Mountains Tribe, perhaps thirty in number.
They were far from their territory, but he didn't have time to consider the possible reasons. He had to deal with what fate put in front of him. It meant regarding them as a direct threat until proven otherwise. The wolves weren't the sworn enemies of the hunters, but neither were they allies. A bitter conflict and many gruesome deaths had undermined trust and destroyed their cooperation.
Skidding, Jake slid into a defensive stance, his dagger poised to strike. He focused on Finn, ignoring the other wolves. In a challenge, the Alpha alone mattered. A bellow tore from his throat, a primal shout of aggression and dominance. He beat his chest with his fist. "Finn, face me as a man!"
The great red wolf broke stride, head and front quarters jerking up in surprise. The heave of his breathing rumbled the air. His long claws struck bedrock, throwing a shower of sparks. His stride shortened. A perceptible ripple spread through the war party. The remainder of the pack transitioned from a gallop to a jog. They scattered to both sides to avoid colliding with one another.
Finn underwent a swift transformation from wolf to man. His muscles rippled, flowing like water beneath his thick fur. Bones cracked. Tendons crunched, breaking and altering. His spine straightened, and his hind legs restructured. He stood upright. Fingers grew from his front paws. His muzzle shortened to allow speech. He halted the change midway, a form reminiscent of the classic movie wolfman. On his hind legs, the werewolf towered over twelve feet tall, covered in shaggy reddish fur.
Skinner sometimes likened werewolves to living tanks, mounds of muscle with deadly teeth and claws that obliterated everything in their paths. They could be hurt by fire, drowning, or steel weapons, but their real vulnerability was silver. Still, a full-grown male was typically an even match for many undead.
The Alpha's eyes cast a golden glow upon his face. His sharp teeth glistened when his lips peeled back in a grim parody of a smile.
Jake strode to meet the wolf's advance. "State your business, Finn."
Finn's sides heaved a huff of laughter. "Are you challenging me, Hunter King?"
"Alpha Finn, if you come to settle a debt of honor, then fight me alone in personal combat." Jake's voice rose to a shout. He brandished his burning dagger to add emphasis to his challenge. "Act with dishonor, and Odin shall know you as a coward!"
"Impressive that you, a nonbeliever, have Odin's ear." Animosity replaced the amusement in the Alpha's gaze. He snarled, slyly mocking. "Why should I question your honor, huntsman? It's not as if your hunters participated in the slaughter of an entire pack."
Annoyance frayed his self-control, but Jake refused to acknowledge the snide jibe. His eyes narrowed, and he offered a stoic stare. "Do not test my patience, Finn. Are you here for me or the undead?"
A ripple tugged the red wolf's neck and traversed the length of his body, terminating in a tail twitch. His mouth opened, and a snarl rolled from his throat. "Our fight is not with you, Barrett. We come for the vampires."
"Then don't let me stand in your way." Jake lowered his dagger.
Finn's thick muscles bunched as he launched into a standing leap. The hunter's arms jerked, hands tightening on the grip of his weapon. He aborted the impulse to take a swing when the Alpha flew overhead.
The red wolf's paws passed close to Jake's head, so close he could have used the long claws to shave his beard. He stood his ground and refused to duck or give an inch before the test of his nerves. Even the slightest sign of fear would make him look weak. Following their leader, wolves swerved left and right, flowing about the hunter like a river around a rock.
Torrential relief drenched Jake. Then instinct took over. Whirling, he lurched into a dead run toward the thick of the battle. He kept pace with the pack for a short distance, but even the slowest wolf possessed superior speed when traveling on all fours.
Ahead, Fireball Finn reached the tightly packed wall of hunters who fought against the undead. The unit was dug in on a narrow shelf, located midway along the side of a mesa, facing uphill toward the opening of an abandoned mine. A steady river of undead streamed from the entrance, an army of reanimated corpses–bloated, big, and brutish.
Standing shoulder to shoulder against the overwhelming odds, his men maintained a tight formation. They fought as one. Each man trusted his brother. They lived and died together.
Jake's breath hitched, and the blood in his veins froze. His men were wide open to attack from the rear. They trusted him to protect them. For a paralyzing second, he doubted himself. Doubted the wolves. Doubted instinct and integrity. Without a treaty, Finn had no duty to treat Jake as an equal, no obligation to accept a challenge to personal combat.
A howl swelled from the Alpha's chest when he launched into the air. The rest of the pack echoed their leader's primal song. The first wave also leapt straight at the wall of pinned hunters.
The red wolf slammed into a vampire, and his claws sank into its swollen chest. Sudden pressure distended the gray flesh. Thick fluid burst from the gashes. The pair toppled and vanished from sight behind the sea of animated corpses. The great red giant rose out of the grayness and held the vampire aloft. Roaring his rage, he ripped the revenant's head from its shoulders. Both body parts flew high, disintegrating to ash that was carried away on the hot desert wind.
Battle produced its own sort of music. The rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. The draconic roar of flame throwers. The pops and booms of firearms. The primal shouts of soldiers. Jake took pleasure in the composition.
The agonized scream of one of his men destroyed the harmony. Through the magic that tied all hunters to him, he experienced the agony of his follower's injuries: A sharp, stabbing pain near his heart... Lungs burning as he labored for breath...
Their connection cut off.
He added another name to the steadily mounting fatality list: Ron Buckley–a loyal friend, loving husband, father of three, and grandfather of ten. A man who had complained constantly about his bum knee, slurred the letter S when he spoke, precisely mimicked over a hundred unique bird calls, and possessed an uncommon obsession with lacrosse.
Jake sprinted up the slope toward the front line.
"Cease machine guns," he ordered, so the wolves wouldn't be hit by friendly fire. "Kill the flame throwers and switch to small-caliber firearms and melee weapons from here on out."
Ahead, Skinner repeated the orders. He extinguished his flamethrower. He dropped to a crouch and yanked a machete from a belt sheath. The other hunters did the same while more wolves passed overhead.
Arriving in groups of three and four, the rest of the pack rushed and leapt above the defensive line. Midair, they tackled undead. With bloodthirsty howls, they charged straight into the thick of combat.
A steep incline marked the last ten feet. He dislodged dirt and debris that sent a shower of pebbles down the slope. Once on the shelf, Jake hurried to rejoin his soldiers.
With the last of the wolves having completed their overhead jumps, the hunters stood upright. Following his orders, they fought hand-to-hand or fired handguns.
"You owe me twenty," Jake said, coming alongside Skinner. "They are the cavalry."
He swung his dagger and struck a vampire's neck with a decapitating blow.
The stench of seared flesh filled the air. The revenant fell to ash. His remains fed the thick cloud of dust that rode the scorching wind. Sooty grime crusted the hunter's nostrils and mouth, clogging his airways. A harsh cough wracked his lungs.
Jake caught another vamp in the throat then rammed the molten steel at an upward angle toward the brain. Dead flesh sizzled and its face ballooned. Escaping gases rose to the surface of the skin and formed swollen bubbles that expanded and burst, releasing rivulets of necrotic sludge. The skull exploded. Coagulated blood and bits of carrion rained down on him.
"Never thought I'd be happy to see a bunch of flea-bitten werewolves." Skinner barked his laughter. His machete flew in a wide arc. The blade embedded deep in a vampire's forehead. He spared his leader a curious glance. "How did you know they were friendly?"
Jake flashed a toothy smile. "I didn't."
"The hell you didn't." Skinner edged closer, tightening their defensive stance. He bore cuts on his face and arms. Blood stained his shirt, but none of the injuries appeared to slow him.
The dagger tattoo on Skinner's dark brown bicep glowed white hot, signaling active magic that granted him augmented strength and speed. Every hunter had the same mark, the symbol of their brotherhood, a spiritual bond to the Hunter King.
While the werewolves created a new front line, the beleaguered unit seized the much-needed reprieve, reloading firearms and attending to their wounded. Finn's initial attack appeared to be turning the tide in their favor, driving the vampires back.
The advantage couldn't last forever.
"Where are these bastards coming from?" Skinner shouted.
"There's a magical portal in that mine head," Jake said. "I can feel it. We've got to blow it shut."
"That's a tall order." Skinner swung around, shouting, "Kincaid, what's the status on that repair?"
Crazy Cali Kinkaid crouched over a MANPATS, a man-portable anti-tank system. Greasy brown hair stuck out in every direction from the female hunter's helmet. "It's busted, sir!"
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Skinner demanded.
Glancing up, Cali's eyes glittered. "It means this piece of equipment is tits up, sir! I don't know if I can fix it."
A colorful spray of curses flew from Skinner.
Jake slapped his friend's arm. "There's another MANPATS in the back of my truck. We'll have to fetch it."
"You." Skinner grabbed Jose Ortiz's shoulder. He issued the orders, sending the young man off at a sprint.
"We need a backup plan." Jake tilted his head back, gazing uphill toward the mine entrance. Impassable rock formations arose on either side of the narrow ravine. Flanking the enemy was impossible. He'd have to swim against the undead current to reach the mine. "Where's the C4?"
"Over here." Skinner dashed to Bobby Edwards's dead body to retrieve a sack. The young man lay face down in a pool of muddy blood upon the rocky ground.
Sorrow twisted in Jake's gut. Bobby had been an orphan. When he was ten, vampires had killed his parents, and he'd escaped thanks to blind luck. It looked like fate had finally caught up with him. Now his adopted family would mourn him.
Skinner tossed Jake the backpack. "Are we going to set charges to blow that entrance?"
"We ain't. I am. Fortify the line and evacuate our wounded to safety." Jake performed a cursory inspection of the contents of the bag, confirming it contained detonators and explosives. He closed the fastening and threw the straps over his shoulders.
"You're gonna get yourself killed." Skinner's flinty stare drove home his disapproval, but he didn't argue.
"Better me than you," Jake retorted. "Once I have the charges set, I'll give the signal. Have the men fall back to the vehicles. I'll warn the wolves."
Skinner slapped him on the back. "Good luck. It's been good serving with you, sir."
"You too, Hal." Full-blown laughter tore from Jake.
Skinner must have said the exact same thing to him a hundred times. It was their private joke for the nearly forty years they'd fought side by side, made all that much richer for the irony. One day, inevitably, would be the last time the words were spoken. No retirement in sunny Florida, not for them.
Jake dropped his shoulders. He charged straight through the thick dust, slamming into a revenant and knocking it aside. He pressed onward, picking his way through the combat, evading confrontation rather than seeking it. Hands grabbed for him, but he knocked them aside. The business end of his blade harvested an arm at the elbow, another at the shoulder. He didn't slow to finish the job.
An ice-cold hand caught his sword arm. Elongated nails dug deep, gouging his skin and rending muscle. Blood flowed freely down his forearm. Pain burned. The unbreakable grip stopped him in his tracks.
A cultured male voice asked, "In a hurry, hunter?"
A snarl curled his lips. "As a matter of fact, I am."
Jake grabbed the vampire's wrist with his free hand and bore down with inhuman strength, crushing bones. A pained snarl burst from the revenant.
Over their locked arms, the malformed face of the vampire confronted him: solid black eyes set in a soggy mass of flesh, jaws spread wide, needle teeth formed a tight spiral that covered the inside of its mouth. The stench of death clung to the creature.
The revenant's head cocked. His tone conveyed surprise. "You smell human, but you stink of magic. Who are you?"
Jake's heart roared in his ears. Sweat drenched his entire body. The excruciating pain in his arm fed his anger. Conjuring his magic, he bolstered his physical prowess, pitted his strength against it. Slowly but surely, the tip of the dagger turned toward the draug.
"What are so many draugar doing in the desert?" Jake demanded. "You're a century and a continent misplaced."
He called down even more potent magic so the dagger's molten halo blazed brighter.
As if hypnotized, the revenant stared at the weapon, mouth hanging open. His hand dropped from the hunter's arm. "We go where we are summoned."
"Who summoned you?"
"The necromancer summons us."
"What necromancer?" Jake asked.
A brutal impact from the rear knocked Jake off his feet. He hit his head on a rock, lost his grip on the vampire, and dropped his dagger. As soon as it hit the ground, the blade vanished. The tattoo reappeared on his forearm. He landed on his back, the impact forcing the wind from his lungs.
A snarling werewolf and four vampires tumbled toward him. The grizzled gray wolf was about the size of a Siberian husky. No doubt, a she-wolf. Male werewolves were usually twice as large as the females.
Jake scooted aside to avoid being crushed. Head reeling, he scrambled to regain his footing. Glancing around, he spotted the draug he'd been interrogating. The vampire was headed downhill, still close enough to catch. He stormed after the vamp. A gut-wrenching moan erupted from the she-wolf. He hesitated, bloodlust warring with humanity. The diversion cost him precious seconds.
With a grimace, he twisted toward the wolf and her assailants. The she-wolf whimpered, struggling weakly beneath one of the vampires while the others circled, looking for an opening. The draug held her by the throat, its greedy mouth pressed to her jugular. The feeding created a revolting noise, like a plunger working a clogged drain.
"Ah, hell." With a savage shout, Jake abandoned his target and charged the skirmish.
The three revenants blocked his path. The closest was an obese female. Her stone-colored skin formed in thick folds; swollen breasts hung to her navel. She latched onto his arm and shoved her face toward his throat.
Jake caught the bony gray skull between his hands, immobilizing her. He gazed down into the gaping maw. Writhing maggots squirmed along the gum lines, feeding on rotted danglers.
His lips curled over his teeth in a sneer. His heart thudded. Magic pulsed at his core. His tanned flesh grew translucent. Runes appeared beneath his skin, each symbolic of the most powerful forces in the cosmos. He'd sacrificed much in their acquisition, endured enormous torment to make the arcane magic integral to his being.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a deed to another deed.
Stout frame straining, sinew popping, Jake threw back his head and a primal shout tore from his throat. A transformation swept through him and turned his body from flesh and bone into a statue chiseled from glossy obsidian. His pitch-black flesh smoldered, wisps upon the desert air.
He crushed the vampire's skull between his hands. Her body exploded outward in a shower of ash and bone, a billowing cloud thick on the air. Before the haze cleared, Jake veered through it. He squinted to shield his eyes from the grit.
Another draug appeared before him. His body throbbed while he channeled more magic. Striding steadily toward the undead, he punctured the leathery hide with his fist and buried his forearm to the elbow in its chest cavity. Carrion squished. Rot flavored the air.
The vampire howled.
Severe pain lanced through Jake's gut. His hand still buried in the vamp, he staggered on the verge of collapse. A jagged wooden spike protruded from his stomach, the entry point in his lower back. Bright blood coated the end and gushed from the wound.
Braced against the pain, Jake's fingers closed on the hunk of meat that was the revenant's heart. Grimacing, he yanked his arm from the corpse, ripping the organ free. Worms and maggots writhed within the muscle, slithering against his fingers. Closing his fist, he pulverized it like hamburger. The vampire perished, reduced to ashen remains.
Jake encountered resistance from the other end of the spear when he pivoted. He reached for the protruding weapon and gripped the front and back. Wrenching the shaft, he snapped it in half, and then yanked both ends from his body. A searing jolt of agony ripped through his innards, an injury to fell a normal man. Magic sustained him.
He confronted the final draug, a stout and shaggy creature. The undead stood with her mouth agape, staring pie-eyed, oblivious to the battle raging around them. She stumbled backward. The terrified draug whirled and sprinted downhill. Hefting one of the wooden halves, Jake hurled the weapon with all his might. The spear impaled the draug clean through the heart.
Dust on the wind.
Returning his attention to the she-wolf, Jake lumbered toward the intertwined pair. He landed atop the feeding draug. His knees dug into its spongy flesh, and an overpowering wave of decay hit his nostrils. His dagger wasn't an option. He couldn't risk injuring the she-wolf with the magical weapon.
He yanked his boot knife free. His hand wrapped around the vampire's chin where its slick lips connected with blood-soaked fur. Gritting his teeth, he pulled back with all his strength and forced the vampire's head aside. The draug growled and bucked, attempting to dislodge him.
A pitiful whimper escaped the gray wolf. Her greenish-gold eyes were full of misery and anger. Sympathy grabbed him. His stomach muscles clenched.
Well, fuck all. Talk about getting soft in your old age.
"Let's get this leech off of you." He positioned the tip of the knife at the hinge joint where the vamp's mandibles attached. Delivering a precise downward stroke, Jake thrust, and the blade severed muscles and bone. He wrenched the vampire's head. Bones snapped with a crisp crunch. The draug's lower jaw tore away from his face, exposing pulpy flesh and yellowed bone. Thick necrotic fluid oozed from the wound. The stench was worse than a septic tank. He gagged and breathed through his mouth. It didn't help. With surgical precision, he jabbed with his blade and skewered the spiny tongue.
Yowling, the vampire let go of the werewolf's throat and rolled, attempting escape. The sudden shift upset the hunter's balance. He pitched forward and dug his knees in, which prevented the pinned vampire’s escape. His free hand caught a fistful of plush fur softness against his skin.
The gray wolf rumbled.
As he fell, the she-wolf lashed out with her claw, but missed the draug's head. Those wicked claws caught Jake's eyebrow and raked down, gouging his left eye socket. The orb burst and released a flood of hot fluids.
Agony exploded throughout his head. An awful shout tore from his throat, and he jerked away. Blind on that side, he threw all of his weight backward and grasped for his tattoo weapon. Blood and sweat oozed into his good eye so the world blurred about him. He dodged a shadow, swinging, but missed.
A body struck him, knocking him flat on his back. Decay flooded his nostrils. The wolf thundered her displeasure. He rolled and surged to his feet, brandishing the burning dagger before him. Another frontal attack hit his leg and shattered the kneecap. The wave of pain sucked him inexorably toward oblivion.
He thrust with his dagger, taking a blind stab, and hit a solid target. The blade sank deep. The resulting moan contained a plaintive note. His heart sank and a terrible sense of wrongness filled him. Nothing undead produced such a sound. The odor of singed fur and flesh filled the air.
His groping hand encountered wet, matted fur. His gut twisted with grim acknowledgement and regret. He crouched on the ground, listening to the wolf's dying whimper, focused completely on her suffering. The raging faded from his awareness. Disbelief swamped his mind.
He never harmed innocents, never slaughtered allies.
Sickened, he yanked the dagger from her side. A terrible yowl wrenched from the she-wolf. In the grip of despair, he stroked her fur. His men's lives were still imperiled, and the loss of his sight could cost them the battle, especially if they couldn't get the MANPATS to work. Given time, he would heal. Just not soon enough. He shifted his grip on the dagger's hilt, accepting there was only one thing left to do.
Incanting the ancient runes beneath his breath, he summoned all his remaining power. Sheer willpower and raw magic mingled. Reality bent and distorted. Within his mind, the second sight he kept sealed off behind a heavily warded doorway swung open.
His perception shifted to the spiritual plane. His altered vision showed him ghostly whorls: light and darkness, swirls of energy, splashes of color. Nothing physical, nothing solid.
His awareness in the mystical realm expanded further. An aurora. Streams of light. Great sweeping patterns. The she-wolf's life thread, terribly short, connected to so many others. The future that should have belonged to her and her children grew fainter with each passing beat of her failing heart.
He had slaughtered countless monsters. He killed without regret or compunction, and sometimes for the simple pleasure of the hunt. But not like this. Never like this. He lacked the ability to heal her, or he'd have done so in a heartbeat.
The vortex aura of a draug rushed toward him. A dim spark burned at the center of the vampire's dead pattern, the trapped soul that resided in his heart.
In an act of desperation, Jake grabbed for more energy, siphoning from his men. Not just the hundred present but the far-flung thousands scattered throughout the world. A volcano erupted within him. Magma rising. His skin burned. His body pulsated with unchecked power, threatening to annihilate his mortal vessel. The sting in his good eye cleared and allowed him to see.
Rage filled him.
He stood on his ruined leg and towered over the battlefield. His dagger transformed into a spear. He braced the end against the ground to angle the weapon. The head struck dead center, impaling the draug through the heart. The revenant's momentum drove it further onto the shaft. The body turned to ash, scattering on the hot wind.
Grasping the shaft, Jake slid heavily to the ground. The weapon fell from his clutches, clattering before it vanished.
Skinner's voice buzzed in his ear. "The MANPATS is operational."
"Are the wolves clear?"
"From the looks of it, but you're too close."
"Fire it," Jake commanded.
Gathering his strength, Jake crawled to the dying she-wolf. With heroic effort, he gathered her warm body into his arms and settled her across his lap. Covered from head to toe in blood, he stained her plush fur everywhere he touched
"I'm sorry." Stroking her head, he leaned in, whispering into her rounded ear. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
The muscles at the base of her ear tugged, and she whimpered. Her tongue lapped his arm with a single swipe. A gentle voice touched his soul. I forgive you.
Shuddering, he placed his palm against her side in time to feel the last breath leave her body. Her heart stopped. He choked on denial. His heart wrenched in his breast. "No! I don't–"
Murder innocents. Not ever.
"Heads up. The MANPATS is in the air," Skinner's voice announced across the com just as a missile passed overhead, trailing fire.
The missile entered the mine and the detonation released an earth-shattering boom. A plume of fire shot from the shaft and the explosion filled the sky. Jake ducked his head, and leaned forward over the she-wolf to protect her with his body. Burning debris and chunks of rock pummeled the battlefield. A thick cloud of smoke and dust blanketed the area.
The remaining draugur rushed downhill and escaped into the desert.
Jake sat with the wolf's body across his lap and watched while her pack chased down and destroyed the fleeing undead. He thought it funny how Finn and the rest of the White Mountains Pack appeared unaware of their pack mate's death. Or maybe she wasn't important enough for them to care. Their indifference filled Jake with righteous indignation. Then, he spotted the body of a fallen wolf twenty yards away. Another corpse, and then another. They'd lost a lot more than one member.
The realization gutted his anger.
Ravens descended out of the sky, their coarse craaing heralding the arrival of the unkindness. Lighting amidst the carnage, the shiny-eyed black birds picked through the bodies.
The wolves and the birds worked their way across the steeply slanted battlefield. A raven strayed too close to one of Finn's people, and a claw arced through the air. The bird squawked once, and the body flew. The hot wind whisked away black feathers. Thereafter, the ravens kept their distance.
During the battle, Jake's crew had retreated to the base of the mesa. It would be a good ten minutes, minimum, before they reached him. Through his magic, he sensed the absence of fourteen of his own men. An aching wound filled his soul. He mourned for them. Holes in the unity all hunters shared. Fourteen dead. More suffering.
It could have been so much worse.
His sight remained altered, his portal to the mystical world open. In fading shadow, an averted future lay before him. His entire unit annihilated. They all would have died if not for the wolves.
Always, he wondered, Why can some futures be altered but not the one that matter most?
His gaze dropped to the dead she-wolf on his lap. He held her close, and cradled her body and soul against his chest. He considered the absolute insignificance of her death. In the grand scheme of things, her life and death, her very existence, meant nothing.
They were all doomed in the end.
The futility of everything staggered him. He should close the second sight before apathy overwhelmed him. Yet, he gazed out upon the whole of the universe, unable to look away.
He desperately missed his wife, Sarah, the mother of his four sons. She had kept him balanced, held the apathy at bay, and served as his connection to humanity. Without her, he was lost in this mortal nightmare.
A white-hot halo approached him and broke his fugue.
Jake blinked and looked up. In his mind, the foresight portal slammed shut.
Beautiful young women wearing cloaks of cream, hunter green, and burgundy walked amongst the fallen. Valkyries. His men had died honorably, serving him and his cause. Valhalla awaited those worthy dead. Ultimately, all companions in life would be reunited in the great halls.
A shield maiden with golden-blonde hair bent over the body of a fallen werewolf, gathering his soul for transport to Valhalla. She straightened and approached the she-wolf he'd tried to save and accidentally slaughtered.
Sarah had always insisted that every life mattered. If only someone cared enough to give a damn. His arms tightened around the wolf's body. His fault. His terrible mistake. The stubborn determination to do right by her set him on his course.
"No. You will not have her." Baring his teeth, he tilted his head back and peered out of his good eye, looking up at the blonde warrior woman.
The Valkyrie paused, gazing at him with curiosity. Her brow knit. "You can see me," she said. "How is that possible?"
"I can see you, Skeggöld."
"How do you know my name?" Even as she asked, she studied his face. His ruined eye. His fierce stare. Her mouth opened, dawning realization on her face. "I must bring the wolf's soul to Valhalla. It is my duty."
"Not this one," Jake rasped. "Not this time. Heal her."
He clung to consciousness with stubborn tenacity like a man denying Death to steal one last breath. Even so, dusk closed about him, shadows closing on his waking mind.
Confusion crossed her face, alongside fear.