As she turned, someone in the middle of the battlefield suddenly sat up. A surprised gasp escaped her throat and the man turned his head toward her, the moon’s light illuminating his face. Her eyes widened. She recognized him: the dark bearded man the other two had mercifully killed.
As he stood up, so did another. The boy. The one whose legs and back had been so twisted and broken, he couldn’t possibly be alive. But there he stood.
Both soldiers sniffed the air in her direction and let out a feral growl. Then they started toward her, their legs and bodies jerking clumsily, as if re-learning how to walk.
Cassandra’s throat worked hard to swallow the lump in it. “Can I … can I help you?”
They continued lurching toward her. As they came closer and she could see their faces more clearly, her heart raced even harder. Instead of brown or green or any normal eye color, theirs were red. And glowing.
“Thirsty,” the boy said, his voice too old and broken for such a young face.
“Need … blood,” the man croaked. His hand clutched at his throat while the other reached out, as if to grasp her shoulder though they were still several paces away.
Hunger flared in both of their eyes and their upper lips lifted, revealing teeth that looked more like an animal’s than a human’s.
Cassandra cried out. Then she spun around and ran.
Their halting footsteps pounded behind her. She imagined feeling their ragged breaths on her neck, though she had too much of a lead to truly feel it. But her peplos slowed her down, the ankle-length tunic twisting around her legs. She glanced over her shoulder once. The soldiers were gaining on her, their awkwardness seeming to fall away with each step they took.
Not caring how inappropriate it was, she hitched the bottom of her peplos to her thighs, freeing her legs. She dug her feet into the ground and sprang forward as hard as she could. She knew she ran faster than most people—speed was one of her family’s unusual abilities—but she couldn’t outrun these … these undead men.
A hand brushed against her shoulder and she screamed. She cut sharply to her right and tore through the woods, forgetting her earlier fear of the beasts that roamed within. She had worse worries now. She thought. Something crashed through the trees to her right. She glanced over to see yellow eyes and a mouth of sharp teeth bounding through the woods next to her, keeping her pace. It suddenly veered left, cutting her off.
She skidded to a halt, dirt and leaves spraying in the air. A wolf taller than her stood in her path, its hackles raised and its lips pulled back from teeth longer than her index finger. Its yellow eyes burned into her with a wild hunger and a line of drool hung from its fang. The two men … creatures … whatever they were … slowed their steps behind her, whether because they feared the wolf or thought they had her trapped, she didn’t know.
The animal growled. The men hissed. Cassandra spun to her left and took off running again. She broke through the edge of the woods into a clearing near home, jaws snapping right behind her. The sky had lightened considerably with the coming dawn but, looking over her shoulder at the three beasts chasing her, she didn’t see the looming figure in front of her. She grunted with the collision, the body hard and unmoving as she slammed into it.
“Cassandra?” Jordan barked, grabbing his sister by the shoulders just as she plowed into him. He’d dropped everything when he heard the crashing through the woods, but hadn’t expected his sister to be the one making all the noise. Then two men and an unusually large wolf broke through the tree line, all of their eyes full of hunger and lust. Jordan pushed Cassandra behind him and drew out his sword.
The wolf halted in its tracks. Its yellow eyes locked with Jordan’s and a strange feeling the wolf somehow knew him brushed the back of his mind. With a thunderous growl, the beast suddenly turned and lunged at the men, hitting one and knocking him to the ground. The other soldier grabbed the wolf’s neck and threw it to the side. Jordan’s brow lifted at the display of inhuman strength. Impressive. The wolf snarled again and attacked the second man. He raised his arm in defense and the animal’s snout latched on. The three became a snarling, growling and hissing ball of swinging arms and snapping jaws.
Jordan grabbed Cassandra’s upper arm and lifted her to her feet. As they slowly backed away, the sun edged above the horizon, flooding the clearing with its brightness, and the fight ceased immediately. All three of the combatants looked to the sky. The men cringed and their hands flew up to shield their red eyes, while the wolf whimpered and ran away. The men’s bodies sagged, as if suddenly and completely exhausted. They exchanged a puzzled glance before loping off into the darker woods. Jordan noticed how neither of them had a single scratch or any blood from the wolf’s teeth or claws.
“Let’s go,” he whispered, still staring after the strange men. He wanted to chase after them—to find out who or what they were—but Cassandra still trembled at his side. “Come on.”
She ran as though she were still being chased. Jordan followed on her heels, resisting the urge to pass her, staying behind just in case the others came back. They flew into the hut and slammed the door behind them.
“Father!” Cassandra gasped between pants as she braced the door with a stripped tree limb. “Father, you’ll never believe—”
Jordan clasped her wrist, breaking her off. He felt her eyes on him, questioning, but he couldn’t stop his own stare to look at her. Father lay sprawled on the dirt floor, nowhere near his bedding, his hair—blond and shoulder-length, just like Jordan’s—curtaining his face. Cassandra lunged to his side, falling to her knees, but Jordan remained frozen with shock, fearing the worst. He can’t die. It’s … impossible.
“Father?” his sister said, shaking him. “Father, what happened?”
Father blinked several times and then his eyes finally focused on her. Jordan blew out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and finally found the ability to move. He knelt beside them.
“I don’t know,” Father whispered. “I believe I am not well.”
Jordan’s brow furrowed as Father struggled to stand on shaky legs. None of them had ever been sick, not even Father. They hardly even aged. But now that Jordan looked at him more closely, he noticed lines around Father’s eyes that hadn’t been there the last time he’d been home, only weeks ago. Even the color of his eyes—they once shared the same deep blue—seemed lighter and distant, as if he already gazed into another place. As if he’d already left them.
How could this be! A hot seed planted itself in Jordan’s stomach—a seed of anger.
“You should stay in bed today,” Cassandra said to Father, her voice muffled by the blood whirring in Jordan’s ears. “You just need some rest.”
Lost in his own angry thoughts, Jordan watched as Cassandra slid her arm around Father’s waist and helped him make the few steps to his bedding. As he collapsed into a heap and Cassandra tended to him, a memory of Mother flashed before Jordan’s eyes—she’d looked just the same right before she died decades ago.
He needed air.
Despite his sister’s protests, he fled outside with the excuse of retrieving the goods he’d brought home. He took his time crossing the clearing and distracted himself by thinking of the men and the wolf. If they had returned, they hadn’t discovered his haul. He cocked his head to listen for them, but only heard birds chirping from the treetops and the sounds of small rodents rustling in the leaves of the forest floor. He considered how all three of them had stopped when the sun hit them and then retreated. His eyes narrowed with a thought … .
But he didn’t have time to think now. If he delayed too long, Cassandra would come looking for him and the ingredients she needed for Father’s soup.
While she cooked, she told them the whole story.
“Dead bodies stood up and walked?” Father asked, his voice sounding stronger but bewildered. “Cassandra, what kind of berries have you been eating?”
Jordan snorted. Cassandra put one hand on her hip and waved her spoon at Father, her chin jutting out as it always did when they teased her.
“I know my edibles. You know that. I saw what I saw and it was terrifying.”
Yes, Cassandra knew her edibles and Jordan knew she’d been truly frightened. But dead men walking? Absurd.
“It was very strange,” he conceded. “They didn’t appear to be normal men, I can agree with that.”
“That wolf wasn’t normal either,” Cassandra said.
Jordan didn’t respond, but stroked his chin as he gazed into the fire. She was right. The wolf wasn’t normal. The way it had looked at him—as if some human awareness existed behind the yellow eyes. Jordan shook himself. It was just an animal. But his curiosity was piqued. He wished he had chased after them.
“Did they follow you home?” Father asked and the alarm in his voice caught Jordan’s attention.
Cassandra shook her head. “I don’t believe so. They disappeared into the woods and I don’t think anyone has ever run as fast as we did.”
“Well, you do get your speed from me,” Father said with a chuckle that broke down into a fit of coughing.
Cassandra threw Jordan a worried look. The hot seed within him sprouted and his anger grew again. Father was truly ill, possibly even dying. This can’t happen! It went against everything Jordan believed in. And if Father died … all of Jordan’s plans would die along with him. The anger sparked hotter.
“Why were you out before the sun rose?” he demanded of Cassandra, trying to distract himself from this sudden anger. She glanced over at Father, who appeared to have fallen back to sleep, and then she turned away, as if to hide her pink face. She began putting away the goods he’d brought home.
“I helped a soldier after a battle last night. I was worried about him so I went back to where I—” She cut herself off with a gasp and turned to Jordan with wide brown eyes. “What if those … those things got to him? Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find him.”
Jordan narrowed his eyes. Cassandra had always been the compassionate one. She’d inherited their mother’s healing skills and couldn’t stay off a battlefield, even when she should be home where she belonged. So her concern didn’t surprise him. But he heard something else in her voice that he didn’t like, fueling his anger. He drew in a deep breath.
“How badly was he injured?” he finally asked, trying to sound sincere with his concern.
“Just some cuts and a lump on the head. I thought his comrades had come back for him, but … Jordan, what if … ?”
She swallowed hard and fear filled her eyes. She seemed to care more for this soldier than any others. That’s what he’d sensed from her just a moment ago. Why did it irritate him so much? He didn’t know. But he did know this gave him an excuse to get out of that hut. Away from their dying father. Away from his annoying sister. And a chance to hunt down those strange creatures. He started gathering his weapons.
“I’ll go search for him and see.”
“You can’t go out there. It’s too dangerous!”
One side of his mouth pulled into a lop-sided grin. At least she still cared about him.
“Don’t worry about me, little sister,” he said. “This will be fun!”
He was through the door before she could stop him—or throw anything at him. She hated it when he called her “little sister,” because she was, in fact, a few minutes older than him. He liked to tease her, though, because he towered over her tiny body with his tall, muscular build.
He felt free as soon as he left the confines of the tiny hut. He sucked in a deep draw of air and blew it out, then sprinted for the woods.
Cassandra’s pursuers had left clear enough paths of their retreats. The men’s footprints led in the same direction as Cassandra had said the battlefield was, but the wolf had gone a separate way. More interested in the wolf, Jordan followed the large paw prints.
He couldn’t shake the feeling he had made some kind of connection with the animal. Why had it looked at him so … intelligently? Why had it backed off when it saw him? Did the wolf feel the darkness in Jordan, the darkness that had been deepening and growing for years, making him feel isolated from the rest of his family? But it hadn’t feared his darkness as many animals—and humans—did when they sensed it. The wolf had almost seemed to protect him, changing its target from his sister and him to those two strange men.
Jordan growled at himself. It’s just a wolf. An animal. And I’ll slay it for making my thoughts sound like a madman’s. He quickened his pace.
The wolf prints eventually circled back toward the battlefield, but just as the trees began thinning at the woods’ edge, all evidence of the animal disappeared. No more paw prints. No fur caught on tree bark or low branches.
Jordan searched in a widening circle but all he eventually found, near a boulder only a few paces inside the woods, were human footprints. From Cassandra’s soldier? He peered out at the battlefield, where a dozen men carried their fallen comrades to a pile on the far side. Her soldier must be with them. Well, he’s safe now. As if he really cared.
He returned to where the wolf’s prints had left off but still found no trace. Frustrated, Jordan headed home and the closer he came, the more his anger at Father grew. The old man owed them answers. If Father was truly dying, he needed to explain himself—and everything about them—something he had refused to do all these years.
Jordan had developed countless theories, but the one that made the most sense—they were descendants of the gods everyone else believed in—conflicted with their own beliefs in one God. Cassandra rarely played his game of hypothesizing, telling him they should simply be grateful for the blessings God had given them. Of course, unlike him, she’d been kept from associating with other people—women didn’t belong in public places—so she didn’t fully understand just how different they were. How much better they were than all others.
“How is he?” Jordan demanded as soon as he burst into the hut.
Cassandra sat on the floor, next to Father’s sleeping form, her eyes wide and her body tense with the sudden intrusion. She blinked, then her eyes narrowed.
“You’re back already? What did you find?”
“Nothing,” he growled. “How is he?”
“Did you even look?”
“There were soldiers in the field, gathering their dead. I didn’t find anyone in the woods, so I’m sure he’s with them.” Jordan nodded at the sleeping form next to her. “What about our father? Shouldn’t he be your concern?”
Her shoulders sagged, as did the corners of her mouth.