“Damn it!” Scotty shouted as he slapped at yet another Mosquito that had landed on his cheek. “I hate these freakin’ things! I’m gettin’ bit in places I didn’t even know I had!”
“I told you guys,” I said with a sigh, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes, “Didn’t I tell you before we left?” We’d been moving through the piney woods around Lake Dunmore for the last hour, since darkness had fallen. Even with the sun long gone, the mosquitoes that I’d warned everyone about were still out in force. Unfortunately for Scotty, he hadn’t listened to me and way paying the price as a result.
“You know what, Steve? Why don’t you just… Damn it!” He squished another bug that tried to take a drink from his left thumb.
“Quiet!” Dominique hissed at us, then pressed her finger against one of her earplugs. “Jon, Chris, either of you got anything?”
“Not a thing,” Joe’s voice said back over the radio net.
“Hunter Six, Hunter Three” Chris said over the radio net, “All quiet, no sign of the target.”
“Three, Six,” Dominique replied, unable to suppress a grin, “I copy all quiet, but this ain’t the Corps anymore, Chris.”
“Copy, Six.” Dominique just rolled her eyes.
“Three years and he still does that,” she said, half to herself.
“Guys, I’ve got movement,” Jon said, his voice suddenly tight, “Approximately forty meters west of your position.”
“Shit,” Dominique said, “That’s not good.”
“No kidding,” I said under my breath. The team had split into two groups; Dominique, Scotty, Odette and I were closer to the edge of the lake while Shannon, Chris, and Jon were on the top of the small hill off to our left. The plan was to cover more ground that way, but it had just backfired; if it was the werewolf that Jon had seen, it was now directly between our two squads, and so neither squad could risk engaging it without potentially hitting the other group with friendly fire.
“Can you confirm it’s the werewolf?” Scotty asked.
“Uh, stand by…” Jon said. For a long moment, we stood there, pointing our guns into the moonlit pines. I glanced around nervously, saying a quick prayer that it wasn’t‑ “Confirmed, it’s the werewolf.” Jon’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Okay,” Dominique whispered into the radio, “Listen up, this is what we’re gonna do: Team Two holds position on the ridge while Team One falls back about twenty meters and moves in towards the ridge. We’ll get him in a crossfire. Understand?” Scotty, Odette, and I all nodded.
“Got it,” Jon replied.
“Copy that,” Chris whispered.
“Understand,” Shannon agreed.
Without another word, the four of us slowly began to move back into the woods. Straining my eyes, I realized I could just make out the werewolf; a dark green smudge in the display of my night-vision monocular. I couldn’t really tell if he’d spotted us, but I somehow doubted‑
The howl cut through the night like a machete through thick brush, turning my blood to ice.
“Shit, he’s heading towards us!” Shannon’s slightly panicky voice came over the net as the beast vanished from my sight.
“Stay cool, Shannon,” Dominique said, “Tag it quick.”
“No problem.” A moment later the night was cut by the sound of a shrieking whistle, followed by a wet thwunk and another blood-curdling howl. “Got the sucker!” came Shannon’s excited voice a moment later.
“Move in!” Dominique shouted at us. We needed no bidding; we’d already broken into a run, guns up and ready. We came upon the beast a moment later. It was sprawled out on the ground, unmoving, with a thick oak shaft growing out of its skull. The tip, which I was almost certain was silver, was burrowed deeply into its brain; it had been a one-shot kill. Shannon was standing in front of her latest trophy, bow in hand, that eternal smile of hers filled with pride. Jon and Chris flanked her, guns slung casually over their shoulders.
“Well, that was certainly easy enough,” Dominique said, “Nice shot, Shannon.”
“Thanks, Dominique,” Shannon said.
“I still can’t believe you use a bow,” Odette exclaimed.
“Yeah, me neither,” I added, “Why that and not a rifle or a shotgun?”
“I’m not a very good shot, with a gun anyway,” Shannon explained with a shrug, “I’ve been shooting bows since I was five, though. I was always obsessed with Robin Hood and William Tell as a little girl for some reason.”
“Hey, whatever works,” I replied. “Good shooting, or whatever you call it in archery.”
“Okay,” Dominique said, still all-business, “someone get tissue samples so we can collect the PUFF on this thing, then let’s burn this bastard and go home.”
“What’s the PUFF on this thing, do you think?” Odette asked.
“Well,” Dominique replied, “Near as we can tell, it’s about six months old; taken about a dozen victims, so figure about eighty, eighty-five grand.”
“Not bad for one arrow, huh?” Shannon asked, smile growing even bigger.
“No,” Odette said,” Not bad at all.”
A few minutes later, Dominique and Shannon had taken the appropriate tissue samples for submission to the MCB while the rest of us gathered firewood and built a rudimentary pyre to burn the werewolf’s carcass.
“Damn it!” Scotty shouted again as he swatted away yet another mosquito, “Can we please go home now?”
“Not yet,” Chris grunted as he and Jon heaved the body atop the pyre. “Gotta make sure this thing burns clean first. Don’t want the whole forest to go up with it.” He had a good point; the entire forest floor was covered with dead pine needles; it was a veritable tinderbox.
“Stupid hippie environmentalist – damn it!” Splat!
“Scotty,” I started, but he shoved his hand into my face.
“Steve, I swear to God that if you say ‘I told you so,’ I am going to‑ holy SHIT!”
The ground around my feet exploded. My legs went numb and my knees buckled, sending me sprawling on my back. I screamed in horror as a dozen arms burst through the topsoil at my feet, grabbing and clawing for me. I grabbed wildly for my FAL as the first creature clawed its way to the surface. It was a wight. My fingers found the rifle and I wildy swung it as the creature lunged at me. The vertical foregrip grip collided hard with its temple, shattering the skull and swatting it aside. I quick shouldered the rifle around as another wight leapt from the ground and lunged for me. I flicked the safety off and pulled the trigger just as the creature’s neck touched the muzzle. Black blood and ichor splattered all over me as the creature’s head was literally separated from its body. The thing collapsed atop me, and my body was instantly gripped by a cold, paralyzing numbness. The rifle fell from my suddenly-lifeless hands as a third wight pulled itself from the earth. My eyes locked with the creature for what felt like hours. I could only lay there, helpless, as a hungry grin of blackened, broken teeth appeared on its face. The creature leapt at me.
Then my world exploded into violence.
Bullets tore into the ground around me. The wight let out an inhuman screech as hot lead and silver lanced into its body, turning its undead organs into pulp and spraying black blood all over the forest floor. I wanted to scream; the only reason I didn’t was because my voice was frozen in my throat by the dead wight’s paralyzing touch. The third wight staggered backwards before it disappeared in a cloud of kicked-up dirt.
The focus of fire shifted a second later, to my left side. I somehow rolled my head over to see the first wight, the one who’s skull I’d crushed, staggering back to its feet. Its torso vanished a second later in a bright fireball that blinded me through my monocular. So those were the Frag-12s that Scotty had been talking about.
Strong hand suddenly grabbed my armor and began to pull me away, out of the kill zone. I managed to look back. It was Jon.
“You all right?” He asked. I tried to answer, but the only thing that escaped my paralyzed lungs was a weak croak. “You okay?” he asked again. I managed a nod. “Good.” He abrubtly dropped me and snapped up his SR-25, coolly pumping a trio of rounds into the head of yet another charging wight, exploding the creature’s cranium like an over-ripe melon.
“Hang tight,” he said to me, “I’ll cover you.”
“I got your back too!” Odette called as she ran over, dumping her UMPs magazine into a fifth wight. The heavy .45 caliber slugs stitched the creature from crotch to nose, damn near cutting it in half.
“CLEAR?” I heard Dominique shout a few seconds later. Everyone called back one by one. Clear. It was over.
“Steve, you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I gasped as feeling slowly returned to my body. It felt like there were hot pin and needles sticking into every inch of skin and muscle in my body. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You sure?” Odette asked. There was no mistaking the genuine fear in her voice.
“Sure,” I said. “Could someone help me up?” Both Jon and Odette extended their hands. “Thanks,” I said as I hauled myself to my feet. “Thanks for saving my ass, guys,” I addressed the whole team, then turned to Jon. “Hey, man, thanks for getting me out of the kill zone.”
“No problem, Steve,” he replied, “I know you’d do the same.”
“You know it,” I replied with a nod. “Everyone else okay?”
“Yeah,” Dominique replied.
“Jeez, man, you were standing right on top of them!” Scotty exclaimed. “Are you sure you’re all right?” I nodded. “Hey, Steve, I’m sorry I didn’t blast ‘em right away.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it, like you said, I was standing right on top‑” I tried to take a step forward, but my knees were still shaky and I found myself going down hard. There must’ve been a rock or a root there or something, because the next thing I remember was the team screaming my name as my world was suddenly filled with a sharp light and an even sharper pain.
My eyes snapped open to a clear, sapphire-blue sky. The wind whipped around me, carrying with it the smell of salt water. I slowly got to my feet and took a look around. I was high up on some sort of balcony overlooking what appeared to be the Atlantic Ocean. I looked down over the railing and almost instantly regretted it; I hate heights. Before I clamped my eyes shut and pushed myself back from the railing, I was able to get a good look at the structure below me; a thin, round, and very tall tower. A quick peek up at the rest of the structure confirmed it; I was standing atop a lighthouse.
“You know Stephen, you really need to be more careful out on those missions of yours.” I looked over to see Dr. Bryson once again standing next to me, that mischievous twinkle once again in his eye. “At the rate you’re going, I’d say you’ll wind up dead from one to many knocks on the head long before any Monsters get you.” I couldn’t help but laugh along with him; Dr. Bryson’s humor had always been infections, and besides, he was right.
“Point taken,” I said once we’d stopped chuckling, “but somehow I get the feeling you didn’t bring me here, or come here, or however it works, to crack jokes.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, Stephen,” he said, his smile vanishing. “You remember the warning I gave you?”
“The threat against me and my team that’s coming, and how I’ll have to choose between two lives?” I asked. He nodded.
“It is coming sooner than I had thought.”
“Huh?” I asked, “What do you mean, ‘sooner than you’d thought’? I thought you angels, uh, you are an angel, right?”
“Yes… I guess you could call it that. It’s complicated.”
“Okay, yeah, uh, like I was saying, I thought you angels knew everything,” I said, “how can it be happening sooner than you thought?”
“Stephen, only He knows everything, remember?” That smile was back.
“Okay, right, sorry,” I said sheepishly.
“It’s all right,” he said, then his smile vanished again.
“I’m guessing the wights hitting us tonight was part of said threat.” Dr. Bryson nodded.
“And the ones who attacked you at the diner were as well.”
“And you can’t tell me who or what is coming after us?”
“I’m sorry, Stephen,” he said, shaking his head.
“Can you at least tell me why this thing’s coming after us?” Again, he shook his head. “Can you at least give me some idea of what we’re up against?”
“I’m sorry, Stephen,” he said again. There was no way I could miss the genuine sadness in his voice.
“Free will and all that?” I asked. He nodded. “Can you at least tell me who I’ll have to choose between?” He shook his head again. His eyes were filled with sorrow. “It’s gonna be between two of the team, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Stephen, you know I can’t tell you,” he replied sadly. I leaned back against the cool wall of the lighthouse and sighed, shaking my head.
“Is there anything you can tell me?” I asked after a long moment.
“Well…” he thought for a moment, then his eyes suddenly lit up. “Actually, there is something.”
“Watch out for The Beast,” he said, that impish grin tugging at his lips.
“What?” I said, suddenly feeling very afraid, “What beast?”
“Trust me,” he said as he slowly began to fade from sight, “You’ll thank me later.”
“Steve, I swear, you’ve got to be the clumsiest Hunter I’ve ever seen!” Dominique’s voice was the first thing I heard as I returned to reality, followed shortly thereafter by the splitting headache that accompanied it.
“What… what happened?” I asked as I slowly worked my eyes open. The forest was lit by the pale, wavering light of the burning pyre. It was real freaky-looking. The thick odor of burning werewolf certainly didn’t help matters.
“You tripped over your own two feet and then hit your head on a root.” That was Jon. “Seriously, man, you need to be more careful.”
“Yeah,” I groaned as I slowly got to my feet, “That’s what Doctor Bryson said.”
“Who?” Odette asked.
“You know, Doctor Bryson, my old pastor, the one who… oh.” It was only then that I realized I’d never told the team about him.
“Wait, uh, Steve,” Jon said, “Didn’t he… uh… die?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “It’s… ah… it’s kind of complicated.”
“Well, it’s probably gonna take a while for that bonfire to burn out,” Dominique said as she sat on a fallen log. “We got plenty of time.”
I wound up telling them everything, every single detail from both of my ‘encounters,’ for lack of a better word, with Dr. Bryson. I also told them about the weird dream I’d had the night before; I couldn’t shake the feeling that it might be related. By the time I’d finished recounting everything I could remember, the bonfire had pretty much burned itself out.
“Look,” I said in conclusion, “I know it sounds real crazy—”
“Actually, it doesn’t.” Dominique said, “This isn’t the first time we’ve had a hunter who’s had visions.” She turned to Chris. “Call Earl, bring him into the loop on this.”
“Will do,” he said, then turned and started hiking back towards the trucks.
“Are you sure he didn’t say anything about this threat?” she asked me.
“I wish he had,” I said with a shrug, “You guys know as much as I do right now.”
“He must’ve pissed some big-time undead off real good,” Scotty said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Shannon replied, “Remember, we don’t know specifically who this threat is aimed against. It could be any of us.”
“Maybe, but these wights didn’t start bothering us until he joined up with us.”
“Hey, I’ve got no clue here either,” I said, “And I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything to tick off some undead overlord, er, underlord, er, whatever you call it. Hell, I didn’t even know undead existed until I took out that baby vampire.” Dominique, Scotty, Shannon, and Jon suddenly exchanged alarmed glances. “What?” I asked.
“The vamp could’ve been related to a powerful undead,” Shannon said, “I’ll look into it once we get back to base.”
“How?” Odette asked before I could.
“Oh, I’ll hack the MCB database, see what the DNA results say.” I don’t know what shocked me more; the casual way Shannon said that or the fact that no one else (besides Odette and myself) was the least bit phased by her plan.
“What about the figure from your dream?” Shannon asked, “Can you describe him?”
“Not really,” I said after a minute or so of hard concentration, “I mean, he was definitely a man, he was a little taller than me, but I couldn’t see his face.”
“Couldn’t see how?” Shannon pressed, “Was he wearing a mask?”
“No, his face was just… fuzzy, indistinct, I guess. I mean, he had a face, but I just couldn’t make it out. Sorry.” Both Shannon and Dominique frowned at that, but there wasn’t anything they could do. I mean, I wish I’d seen the guy’s face, but it’s not like I can control my dreams or anything like that.
“What about this Beast he said to watch out for?” Dominique asked, “He didn’t tell you anything about that, did he?”
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head, “Nothing. Actually, wait a sec, maybe.”
“Well, he didn’t actually say anything about it, but when he said it, he had that glimmer in his eye he always used to get when he was about to tell a joke or pull a prank or something.”
“You think he might be setting us up?” Jon asked.
“No way!” I shouted, maybe a bit more indignantly than I should have, “Not a chance. Doctor Bryson would never do that to me! Besides, think about it; if he was setting us up, why would he warn us about this threat in the first place?”
“Good point,” Jon replied, “Sorry.”
“So, what?” Dominique asked, “You think this Beast, whatever it is, might not be part of this threat?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “I don’t think so.”
“You trust this guy?” Jon asked.
“I trusted him with my life when he was alive,” I said, “Any reason I should stop just because he’s dead?” No one could come up with an answer to that.
After a few more minutes, the fire was completely out. We cleaned up the ashes as best we could, hauled the charred bones up to our trucks and dumped them in the back of one.
“I just got off the phone with Earl,” Chris said as we approached the trucks, “He and his team are leaving for a contract job in Austria in the morning, but he says he wants to talk with Steve when he gets back.”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked.
“Probably good,” Scotty said. “If it were bad, he’d come up here and eat you before he had to leave.” Odette and I laughed at that, though for some reason, no one else even broke a smile.
“Where in Austria?” I asked. I’d spent a few months studying in Vienna when I was in college.
“Some little town called Hallstatt, I think,” Chris replied.
“Lucky buggers,” I said, “That area’s beautiful this time of year.”
“Maybe, but I wouldn’t call them lucky.”
“Apparently a lindwyrm’s taken up residence in a salt mine near there.”
“Okay, nevermind,” I said quickly.
“Can we please get out of here now?” Scotty begged as he swatted away yet another mosquito.
“Okay, Scotty, I’d say you’ve suffered enough,” Dominique said with a grin, “Load up everyone. Let’s get out of here.”