The body of the dog sprawled under a bush. Blood stained the brown and white fur. Hugh crouched by it. Next to him Sharif leaned closer to the ground, staring unblinking at the crushed bushes and red-stained leaves. Karen, the other shapeshifter, dropped to all fours on the other side and took a long whiff.
Shapeshifters had their issues, but Hugh never agreed with Roland’s disdain for them. He understood Roland’s position well enough and recited it with passion when the occasion called for it, but when it came down to it, shapeshifters made damn good soldiers and that’s all he cared about.
He braced for the uncomfortable flash of guilt that usually flared when he thought Roland was wrong. It never came. Instead the void scraped his bones with its teeth. Right.
“He got some bites in,” Karen said softly, her voice tinted with sadness. “Good boy.”
Sharif bared his teeth.
The dire wolf was big and old. One of the shepherds had snapped a polaroid of him two night before when the beast prowled the tree line, studying the cows in the pasture. From the paw prints and the pictures, the old male stood two feet and ten inches at the shoulder and had to weigh close to one hundred and eighty pounds if not more.
Wild wolves didn’t follow the strict alpha-beta pecking order people assigned to them. That structure was mostly present in big shapeshifter packs. Hierarchy was a primate invention. Instead wolves lived in family groups, a parent couple and their young, who followed their parents until they grew up enough to start their own packs. But this beast was alone. Something happened to his pack and he hunted by himself. A night ago he tried to take a cow. The dogs and guns ran him off. Then the magic hit.
The old wolf was a smart bastard, smart enough to figure out that when the magic was up, guns didn’t bark. Still, he stayed away from the pasture and went for the easier target instead, a ten-year-old girl picking pears from the ground in the orchard while her parents were on ladders harvesting the fruit.
The two dogs with the harvesters did their job, and their job was to give their life for their humans. They found the first dead hound at the edge of the woods. The second was here. Now it was up to human Dogs to settle the score.
“Heartbeat,” Sharif whispered.
Hugh reached out with his magic. The dog was a mess, torn and bitten, but a faint, barely-there heartbeat shivered in his chest. Hugh concentrated. This would be complicated.
He knitted the organs together, repairing the tissue, sealing the blood vessels, mending the flesh like it was fabric. The two Dogs by his side waited quietly.
Finally, he finished. The dog raised his head, turned in the brush, and crawled toward them. Sharif scooped the hundred and twenty-pound hound up like it was a puppy. The dog licked his face.
“He lost a lot of blood,” Hugh said. “He won’t be walking for a bit.”
“I’ll carry him,” Sharif said. His eyes shone, catching the light.
“We’re only a mile in. Take him back and catch up,” Hugh told him.
The werewolf turned smoothly and ran into the woods, silent like a shadow, the huge dog resting in his arms.
Karen took the lead and they followed the scent trail deeper into the wood.
If he never saw another rhododendron bush until his next life, it would be too soon, Hugh decided. The damn brush choked the spaces between trees and getting through it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk.
They pushed their way through the latest patch. The endless rhododendron finally fell away. The woods stretched before them, the massive oaks and hemlocks rising like a forest of thick columns, cushioned in greenery.
A shadow fluttered between the trees, trailing a smear of foul magic. An undead.
The day was looking up. Hugh grinned and pulled his sword out.
The undead dashed right and stopped.
Another smear appeared on the left. Two. If it was Nez’s standard rapid reconnaissance party, there would be a third, each piloted by a separate navigator.
Karen waited next to him, her anticipation almost a physical thing hovering in front of her.
“Happy hunting,” Hugh said.
She unbuckled her belt with the knife sheath on it, unzipped her boots, and gave a sharp tug to her shirt. It came open. She dropped it on the forest floor. Her pants followed. A brief flash of a nude human, then her body tore. New bones sprang up out of flesh, muscle spiraled up them, sheathing the next skeleton, skin clothed it, and dense grey fur burst from the new hair follicles. The female werewolf opened her monstrous jaws, her face neither wolf nor human, swiped her knife from her clothes, and sprinted into the woods to the left.
Hugh started through the woods toward the foul magic staining the leaves. The magic receded. Run, run, little vampire.
Another vampire to the far right, closing in fast. The front bloodsucker played bait, while the one on the left would close in from the flank and try to jump him. They didn’t realize he could feel them. This wasn’t the Golden Legion. The Masters of the Dead would’ve just met him two on one. These were likely journeymen, piloting younger vampires. The undead were damn expensive. Didn’t want to risk the budget, did you, cheapskate? It will cost you.
He ran through the forest as fast as the terrain would let him. Tree trunks flew by.