Lucky Me Publisher
March 11, 2015
Obviously, the woman had no idea she was in danger. But she would. And soon, if Alex had the situation sized right.
He’d been on a parallel course with her for the last ten minutes. She and four dogs traveled down an isolated trail that snaked the mountain from its peak to the pitted road below. She trudged, head lowered, her focus elsewhere. No more than a hundred paces away, Alex and Caleb moved through the trees like shadows. Alex was aware of every snowflake that blustered in the wind, but she hadn’t noticed either one of them. Fortunately, neither had the dogs.
Alex glanced at the bloated sky pressing between the towering pines. It rode low to the ground, spewing fat snowflakes that stuck where they landed. What was the woman doing up here so close to dusk? With a blizzard chasing the encroaching dark? Alone?
And why did he care?
He wasn’t here to protect humans. He was here for the hellhounds. His number had been called to protect the secrets of the Beyond. He’d come to serve.
Assuming, of course, he could find the cursed creatures.
“Not very smart, is she?” Caleb muttered, drawing his attention. The cold made a plume of his breath.
Alex didn’t like that Caleb watched the woman, too. And he didn’t like that he didn’t like it.
“No,” he answered grimly.
She’d blundered into a situation she probably wouldn’t escape. He and Caleb had been told that most humans couldn’t see the hellhounds or hear their disturbing howl. Most, but not all. If she was one of the rare few that could, she’d have the advantage of knowing what came after her, but even if she avoided being eaten, she’d still have to die. No witnesses could be allowed.
Alex knew the rules. What soldier didn’t? But he didn’t like to think of this innocent female dying under either circumstance.
He watched her in bursts of color through the trees. Blue and pink and golden hair. Dressed in a puffy, sky-blue parka and a pink polka-dot cap with a yarn ball on top that bobbed as she walked, she looked like some sweet treat that would melt in the mouth.
Except for the rifle she carried, but that might be just for show. Odds were good that she didn’t even know how to use it. She certainly didn’t look like any killer Alex had ever seen, and he’d seen more than a few.
She probably felt safe, with her big dogs and the gun.
“I can’t believe they haven’t picked her off already,” Caleb said, mystified.
Alex couldn’t believe it either. He wanted to shake her, tell her to pay attention.
A loud crack came from a nearby tree and at last her head came up. She slowed, wiped her eyes, and focused on her surroundings. Had she been crying?
Why do you care?
The sun hovered low on the horizon, gathering deep shadows as it crept away, but the last rays shone valiantly bright. They silhouetted her in gray and evergreen.
Alex knew the moment she spotted him among the trees. She froze for an instant, then glanced away, her chest rising with an agitated breath. Quickly, she started walking again, this time with purpose. Good. Maybe she’d get out of here, away from the coming danger. He let out a low breath of relief, but at the same moment, the dogs caught sight of him and Caleb. They raised an alarm that could be heard for miles.
“That’ll do the trick,” Caleb said under his breath.
In answer, a hellhound bayed a long and blood-chilling warning. They were coming.
The woman wouldn’t know that because she couldn’t hear it. The dogs did, though. All four stilled for a heartbeat before they renewed their barking with rabid fervor. One enormous dog with a square head and a booming bark bounded off in the direction of the sound. The other three weren’t so big or eager to follow. They lagged behind, letting every predator on the mountain know where they were.
“Belle!” the woman called after the horse-dog and then, before she could catch her breath, the other three decided to go after it. “No!” she cried. “Come back!”
“Quiet,” Alex whispered, feeling the wind shift. In the icy blast, he smelled sulfur.
Her head whipped around as if she’d heard and she stared at him, wary. Her gaze shifted to Caleb in the background, then returned to Alex. Indecision flashed through her. She straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. A human gesture, learned from nature. When in danger, try to look big.
It wouldn’t help her.
Her rifle came up, but she was too flustered to take aim. She glanced at the dogs disappearing up the trail, then back to the men who may or may not present a threat, then down at a small, furry thing at feet that begged to be picked up.
Another bay echoed from the forbidding peaks. Hungry and vicious.
“Here they come,” Caleb said.
Alex didn’t need the warning. He could feel the chuff-chuff of their breath; see the lathered hides, the gaping jaws.
He cut his eyes back at the woman. She was bent over a tiny dog he hadn’t noticed earlier, trying to catch it as it hopped anxiously around her legs. It looked like a prancing toy. Every time she got ahold of it, the stupid thing twisted away, yipping like no one could hear it.
Alex didn’t think—he didn’t have time to think. He charged her in silence, hoping to scare her off without drawing the big dogs back. If he could get her to run, maybe he wouldn’t have to watch her die. Or worse, kill her himself.
Behind him, he heard Caleb curse. “What the fuck are you doing?”
More chilling bays shrieked through the twilight. Harsh. Bloody. Close. She looked up, saw him coming and tried to maneuver the dog she’d finally captured and her rifle all at once. He reached her before she had the chance, not that he thought she’d shoot him. It took meddle to pull the trigger on another human and she had no reason to suspect he wasn’t one.
He grabbed the barrel of her rifle and shoved it in the air. She pulled the trigger just as it cleared the top of his head. The blast burned his hand, rang in his ears, and told him he’d underestimated her. If he’d been a split second slower, he’d be dead.
The rifle’s kick pushed her back as he used his momentum to yank her forward. He caught her with his free arm, rifle gripped by both of them in the middle.
It brought her close. He could smell the clean scent of her shampoo, the warm fragrance of her skin, the sweet puff of her breath. Perceptions overwhelmed him, blocking out all else, and his fear highlighted each nuance. The coat padded her figure, but beneath she was small framed and lushly curved. Her breasts pressed against his chest, indescribably soft and weighted. His hips found the cradle of hers, rousing feelings that lit his nerve endings and heated his blood. All the while her scent wrapped around his thoughts like an opiate, guiding him to a place he’d never want to leave.
She stared at him with wide, blue eyes flecked with crystals of white and lavender. Long, golden-tipped lashes fringed them. He’d never seen anything so beautiful, so arresting. Did his have as many colors melded into them as hers?
The hellhounds howled again, a litany of terror that snapped him from the mesmerizing sensations.
“You need to run,” he said hoarsely, his gaze still trapped by hers, her body caught against his. Now was the time to let her go, to push her away. But neither of them moved. In her arms, the little dog growled and snapped at him. Under other circumstances, Alex might have laughed at its tactics.
But right now, hellhounds were coming. The loud and deep barks of her other dogs stopped on an abrupt yelp. The woman’s eyes widened in fear. At the same time, halfway down the slope to his left, trees shivered. As if something had brushed against them on its way to the bottom.
“Run,” he said, desperate now as all hope of chasing her quietly out of danger dissolved. His arms finally opened. “Run, you demented female.”
She pushed away from him and cold rushed in where her body had heated his. She shouted for her dogs as she bolted down the trail and into the deepening gloom. The dogs barked in excited response and Alex heard them barreling down the trail after her.
Another wail whipped over the treetops and whisked around the peaks. Instantly, an answer came, this one low and fierce from the ridges to the south. Others joined in, baying a cold, hostile challenge. Alex pulled out his blade—an iron machete that weighed twice what it should—and spun around. Across the distance that divided them, he met Caleb’s gaze.
They’d trained for this, yet nothing could have prepared them for the real thing. Like the human world itself, the feel of the hellhounds bearing down was too intense to ever be simulated.
The first hellhound slipped out of shadow like the demon it was. Huge and hulking, it held its head low, white eyes glowing like lanterns in its black skull. A bizarre melding of what seemed to be several different creatures, it moved with all of the grace of a lion but none of the beauty. The shoulders rolled, the head bobbed, and the teeth... So many and all shiny and sharp.
The woman’s dogs had been fierce, but this creature was ferocious and fearsome, covered in a leathery hide with sparse fur and tremendous jaws. Jaws that could crack bone and tear limbs from the body.
The thought barely formed before another black blur streaked into sight, heading past him, after the retreating woman. The horse-sized dog bringing up the rear of her pack spun to search the chaos it had left behind, looking for...what? Surely it sensed that what came next would be slaughter?
It didn’t matter. Maybe the huge dog would delay the hellhound long enough for the woman to escape. Alex wished it so, but at this point, all he could do was stand between her and the other hellhounds...and hope.
Alex and Caleb both held their weapons ready. Hewn from the purest iron, treated with the salts of the Dead Sea and the power of the Beyond, the blades could kill these heinous abominations. He sliced the air in front of him and bent his knees. Twenty feet to his left, Caleb did the same. The hounds bayed relentlessly but Alex tuned inward, focusing on the weight of his weapon, the goal of his mission. He counted six hellhounds total, including the one that had raced after the woman, but more could be lurking in the scrub and shadows.
Three of the creatures paced in front of him, snapping and baring teeth that looked as thick and long as Alex’s fingers. The beasts chortled a strange and eerie message to one another as they eyed his blade with aversion. Their sounds made his bones feel cold and his blood too thick to pump.
“Come on,” he muttered, but the hellhounds didn’t move. They seemed to be waiting for something.
On cue, a seventh hound stalked from the trees. The others watched it with hungry eyes, snouts dropped in obeisance. It moved with haughty disregard, not even bothering to snarl as it passed them. Still the other hounds shrank back. Alex marked the beast as the leader.
Carefully, without a word spoken between them, Alex and Caleb drew closer together, knowing they’d need to work in tandem if they hoped to kill them. The apparent leader watched with disdain. The message was clear. They could gang up, pool their power, and wield their weapons, but still they’d be nothing more than food to the hellhounds.
Alex gripped his machete, wondering if the woman had made it to shelter or if her bloody remains even now stained the earth. The thought disturbed him and disrupted his focus. He shouldn’t care. Casualties were expected. But the thought of those beautiful eyes closed forever made his gut clench with despair.
“How many more do you think there are?” Caleb asked.
“That’s my count, too.” Caleb smiled grimly. “See you on the other side, brother.”
A promise of comrades. Today they might die protecting the Beyond, but tomorrow they would awake in the afterlife, purified by their sacrifice.
Or so they’d been promised.
Shoulder to shoulder, they advanced on the pack, but once they hit the middle, they turned their backs to one another as they fought. The hellhounds countered with the kind of military precision that had Alex convinced they were capable of higher thinking, regardless of their bestial appearance. The hellhounds positioned at the sides darted forward in synchronized assaults while others circled around from behind. A small, wiry one hung back, watching and assessing, while the leader leapt to a boulder which gave it a bird’s-eye view of the battle. It surveyed them with glowing lantern eyes and bared teeth. Strategizing. Only a fool would see it as anything less.
Alex took it all in as he swung his blade, intent on cutting through the first hound he reached and clearing a direct path to the leader, but before he realized it, they’d isolated him with a skill he could hardly grasp, leaving him trapped in the middle, separated from Caleb, who fought with a steady, if frantic, pace. Other hounds rushed in and expanded the space between them with their attack, making Alex swing but twisting away before he could do more than draw blood. Wearing him down. He recognized the tactic even as he felt himself tiring.
The big one leapt from the boulder, intent on finishing him off. Alex feinted to the right, turning in mid-step and catching the big one in flight. Blood spewed and its body went one way, the head the other. He finished his rotation, catching a different one with the machete and eviscerating it with a slice it didn’t see coming.
Another creature sideswiped Alex with a body blow that took him to his knees. It was exactly the opportunity the small, wiry one wanted. Downed prey ready for him to finish. The beast landed on top of Alex as he tried to roll away. Claws tore his coat and dug down to flesh. One hellhound sank its teeth into his leg, another his arm, keeping him pinned for the wiry one on top of him.
Suddenly, a furious bout of barking joined the guttural growls and vicious howls of the hounds. From the corner of his eye, Alex saw a mottled blur speed across the patches of snow.
The woman’s dog.
Dread pooled inside him. Surely the woman wouldn’t have come back? The dog plowed into the hellhound poised on top of Alex, knocking it off and following it down. More barking joined the chaos and Alex’s heart seized with fear.
They still had him pinned down and now a huge one pounced on top of him and moved in for the kill. Alex couldn’t get his arm free, couldn’t get the hilt of his machete in a grip that would allow him to swing with the other hand. He bucked and twisted, but it was no use.
A blast from behind him echoed off the shadowed mountains and snow-banked sky. Something massive collapsed on top of him, nearly crushing his chest. Another boom and the teeth in his thigh let loose as a hellhound yelped in pain.
Alex kicked and twisted, trying to get his sword free, trying to get out from under the weight that had him trapped. The hellhound that had gone for his throat lay prone on top of him, skull ripped open. Same for the one sprawled beside him. Several shots went wild, tunneling into the hard ground and spraying dirt everywhere. A bullet caught one of the hounds in the flank and backed it up. It growled with rage and snapped deadly jaws in Alex’s direction. Another shot hit the hellhound in the gut and the wounded beast bounded away, leaving a trail of blood behind. Alex finally managed to turn his head around to see behind him.
The woman with the pink polka-dot hat and puffy blue coat stood ten feet away, her rifle up and her pretty blue eyes staring at him down the barrel. Her dogs growled and bared teeth around her, fur standing on end and eyes wild.
The remaining hellhounds drew in ranks, forming an arc around their downed prey. Alex struggled to get out from under the corpse that had him trapped, but it was a huge deadweight over his torso and chest.
His death was a given, but the woman... She’d come back to help him. A stranger. He didn’t understand why she’d done it, but the kindness of the act burrowed deep within him. He couldn’t let her repayment be death by hellhound.
The big, mottled dog—she’d called it Belle—and the wiry hellhound that had been so shrewd ran from the cover of the trees, side by side. Confused, Alex watched Belle spin to a stop in front of the woman. The dog gave a deep, commanding bark and the hellhound halted beside her. The woman’s other dogs cringed back, brushing against her legs to avoid contact with the hellhound, but Belle barked again, communicating something that calmed the others. Not even the little one ran; not even the bigger ones turned on the abomination in their midst.
Gloriously fearless, Belle nudged the wiry hellhound with her snout. Like it was a collie instead of a killer of the most devious breed. The two animals were nearly the same size, but that didn’t make them equal. Why didn’t the hellhound attack? Kill?
Instead it stood docilely beside Belle, tongue lolling against its black gums, canines so long they curled as huge spires of saliva dripped down to the ground. It had massive jaws, a built-to-slaughter body, and it could rip the woman in two with minimal effort. But it didn’t even try.
At last, Alex freed himself from the deadweight on top of him and stumbled to his feet. Blood soaked the ground and slain hellhounds lay scattered all around him. His gaze found Caleb, mangled and broken on the ground. His eyes stared sightlessly upward. His throat had been ripped open and the hounds had feasted on him until there was no hope that he’d ever draw breath again.
Pain seared Alex from the inside out. They’d been friends, of a sort. As close as any creature of the Beyond was allowed to be. Grief made him feel hollow, but he steeled himself against it and took a step away. His thigh burned from deep bites, his chewed arm dripped blood. The woman watched him with equal parts fear and concern.
Why did it look like the hellhound had joined her dog pack in protecting her? What were the other hellhounds surrounding them waiting for? Why didn’t they attack? And what was with her crazy dog?
The woman looked like she had as many questions as he. Her eyes shifted from side to side, looking for danger. He met her confused gaze and saw the panic lurking there.
“Back away,” he breathed.
She didn’t move. She was afraid to move and she couldn’t see the hellhounds. She’d been shooting blind, aiming at the symptom without seeing the disease. She didn’t even know that one of the creatures stood at her feet.
As if hearing him, the hellhound gave a deep, threatening growl that rumbled low in its throat. The other hellhounds skittered back—just a step. Just enough to betray their fear.
Bewildered, Alex watched the creature stare down the others, only then noticing its eyes. Hellhounds had eyes like a winter moon—silver white lanterns with black pits at the center. This one’s eyes had an icy blue iris surrounding the pupil—so pale he might have missed it if the beast hadn’t been holding still.
The moment stretched as Alex braced for what came next. The woman cocked her rifle just as the blue-eyed hellhound lunged at Alex. He was ready to cut it down, but it veered and brushed passed him with only a glance as it launched itself at the stragglers, chasing them into the woods.
“Belle, stay!” the woman said sharply, calling her dog back when it tried to follow.
Alex watched the hellhounds disappear into the trees with bewilderment, leaving him standing in a clearing filled with dead hellhounds, owing his life to a human female—one dressed up like a blue frosted cupcake with pink sprinkles on top.
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|THE FORBIDDEN LIFE OF ALEX MOORE
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