It was not the clean kill he had hoped for.
Tenn raced across the cornfield. Rain seeped through his leather coat and mud squelched up his boots, but he focused on the shadow darting in front of him. Everything else dulled to gray and black and pounding heartbeats.
Gray and black…and red. Too much red.
If he didn’t hurry, that red would damn them all.
His prey staggered. Fell. A moment later he dropped to its side, dagger in hand. He didn’t want to kill. He didn’t want his hands stained red again. But those wants didn’t
stop him from slicing through its warm, heaving neck.
The buck twitched.
Tenn kept a hand on the deer’s flank as its lifeblood throbbed between his fingers. It wouldn’t be right to look away, to let the poor creature die alone and cold.
Alone and cold, alone and cold, how many have died alone and cold?
The Sphere of Water raged within his gut. It wanted to revel in the blood. It wanted to drown in red. But he pushed the thoughts and the power away. Now wasn’t the time
to give in, either to his own weakness or to that glorious strength. His stomach knotted when the deer’s rolling eye found his. He almost laughed from revulsion; years ago, he’d been a vegetarian.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as the deer spasmed and fell still. Not that it mattered. Not that those apologies ever mattered— not to the dying, not to the dead. Apologies didn’t change the world he lived in, and it didn’t change the deeds he’d done.
“Shit.” Katherine stopped beside him. “That’s a lot of blood.”
Tenn glanced up to her and Michael. Their breath came out in clouds, their forms bare shadows in the gloom. He opened his mouth, but the words got caught in his throat.
Three years of killing, three years of bloodshed, and it still turned his stomach. He swallowed and looked away, washing the blood off in a puddle before sliding his dagger back in his boot. Three years of blood on his hands. Three years…
“I thought you said you were a clean shot,” Katherine said, turning back to Michael.
Tenn stood. The Sphere of Water still raged, still begged for control. He pushed it farther down. The longer he refused its call, the worse it got.
Michael stepped forward, his shoulders hunched and a bow held loose in hand. He was built like a linebacker, but right then, he looked like a puppy caught pissing on a Persian rug. Five arrows jutted from the deer’s hide, and another half dozen were scattered throughout the field.
“I am,” Michael said. His words didn’t hold much conviction as he gestured to his throat. “Usually. It’s just been a while since I had to shoot without magic.”
Katherine ignored him. There wasn’t time for apologies. She pulled a set of nylon cords from her backpack and handed one to Tenn.
She wrapped one cord around the buck’s neck while Tenn tied its hindquarters. Her movements were smooth, wellpracticed— her hands were used to dealing with the dead.
Like Tenn, she was eighteen. Unlike Tenn, she didn’t seem bothered by the buck’s sightless glare.
She nudged him. “You okay?”
He nodded, but his nerves were on edge, and the Sphere of Water pulsed in his stomach like a wound. One that desperately wanted to be touched, inflamed. Over a week had passed since he’d been allowed to open to that energy center, that source of pain and power, and like a neglected child, it sat there and wept and begged to be noticed. But they had their orders: no magic. Not until the enemy army arrived.
They needed that tenuous element of surprise.
“We need to hurry,” he said. “They’re going to smell the blood.” He turned to Michael. “And if that happens, it’s all on your head.”
Had they met before the Resurrection, Michael probably would have shoved Tenn’s head into the school toilet just for making eye contact. The guy was a nineteen-year-old tank, with broad shoulders and short brown hair and tattoos from eye to shin. His face was a plane of white scars and black ink. Tenn, on the other hand, was tall and lithe—years of using Water had crafted him a swimmer’s build rather than the hulking muscle granted by Earth. He hadn’t been at all athletic before being attuned. He’d been a nerd at best, and Michael was clearly used to being respected.
But now, when Tenn spoke, Michael didn’t refute. To Michael, at least, Tenn was a superior. The Resurrection had changed almost everything for the worse; this little levelling of the playing field was about the only perk.
Together, they dragged the deer toward the highway. Tenn kept his eyes trained on the fields. He didn’t want to see the way the deer’s head lolled to one side, its tongue curled out and its eyes wide with static fear.
“We should be okay,” Michael said, his voice cutting through the rain like rumbling thunder. “I mean, rain dilutes blood, right? And there’s no way anything could hear it through the storm.”
“Just shut up and keep your eyes open,” Katherine replied.
Yes, there was a chance the rain had diluted the blood and hid the buck’s wild cries of pain, but there was also a chance the rain was just helping the blood spread. Tenn wasn’t about to test his luck, especially since he’d been sent out with Michael. That alone was a sign the fates weren’t on his side.
His hands still felt sticky with blood.
For all his hatred of killing, he felt naked without his quarterstaff, which was lodged in the earth beside the highway. Katherine had her katanas and Michael had his mace, but physical weapons were barely enough; battles were lost and won by magic now. Without it, they were like lambs
to the slaughter.
Not an emboldening thought when lugging a two-hundred- pound sack of meat.
Chills raced across his skin as he peered deeper through the curtains of rain. It wasn’t the cold—it was the expectation. The fields appeared devoid of life, corn drooping and swaying in the wind and rain. At least, he thought they were empty.
The storm might have been hiding him and his comrades, but it could also be hiding those he was sworn to kill. Without magic, there was no way to tell. There would be no way to know. A kraven could be out there, hidden in the stalks, just out of sight. Just within arm’s reach.
Water sang to him.
Water wanted to help.
Tenn gritted his teeth and focused on the bit of nylon between his palms. The Sphere of Water couldn’t want things, no more than his kidneys could. It was all in his head. It was stress. They were so close to being done with this damned mission, so close, and that’s why Tenn’s nerves were on edge. That, and that alone.
He grabbed his bladed staff when they reached the road. Years ago, this would have been like any other quaint Midwestern highway, but now the road leading back was far from pastoral. Cars lay scattered and broken like some kid played God with his Hot Wheels. Shattered glass littered the ground, shards jutting from windows like open jaws. Rust splattered across trucks and semis like bloody stains. Everything, everything, was quiet and empty, the only sound coming from the rain and the occasional moan of wind through hollowed cars—a cacophony of and for the dead. No movement. No life.
There were never any bodies. Not in the desecrated cities, not in the wild. Not when there were myriads of creatures to gobble them up, bones and blood and all. Tenn shivered again and looked out to the field.
They unceremoniously dropped the deer atop the small red wagon—the same type he’d dragged around as a kid. The sick sound of flesh thumping on metal was a noise Tenn had grown accustomed to, which almost made it worse. He didn’t like relating corpses to his childhood.
How easy it is to get used to dead things.
Tenn nodded to Katherine.
She withdrew one of her katanas and raised it high above her. Then, with a quick slice, she lopped off the deer’s head. It fell to the pavement and rolled away, settling in a pool of its own steaming ichor. Tenn turned; its eyes were trained straight on him, and he’d had enough postmortem glares for a lifetime.
“Still seems like a waste to me,” Michael said. He threw his bow beside the carcass, not caring if the string got bloody, and picked up the handle. That was the problem with food-scavenging missions—no cars, unless you wanted to scare off prey or attract predators. “I thought the tongue was supposed to be a delicacy.”
If not for Michael’s usefulness as a pack mule, Tenn would have cursed Derrick for sending him along. The world might have turned on its head in the three years since the Resurrection, when monsters ripped the modern world apart, but Michael was still the same brain-dead jock. Some stereotypes, apparently, were never outgrown.
“What, and risk being followed?” Katherine asked, cleaning her blade with a spare bit of cloth. “Are you a complete fucking moron or just dense?”
Michael shrugged and began pulling the cart down the highway. Tenn bit back his smirk. At least Katherine was willing to say what he himself was thinking.
“I’m just saying, kravens aren’t known for their big brains,” Michael said.
Who are you to talk about big brains? Tenn thought.
“They think like animals. If they find blood and no body, they’ll search for one until they either find a meal or die. And we already have enough on our plate.”
They’ll search forever. Forever…
Water surged at the thought.
Monsters tear through the city, ripping humans from cars, crashing through houses. Blood puddles like rainwater. He hides behind a hedge, fingers white-knuckled on the gun, blood splattered on his jeans. Not all of it monster blood. How can you tell, when some creatures wear human faces? There’s no chance to ask, no chance… He clutches the gun. The useless gun. He opens to Water. He drowns out the screams in the hum of power. This was his home. Once. Now the houses are on fire and the streets are red and black with bloodied bodies and char and I know those bodies, I know those faces. He pushes deeper through Water, lets the Sphere consume him. I have to save them. I have to—
Tenn snapped back, Water’s magic crashing from his limbs and back into his gut, where the angry Sphere rested and raged.
“What the hell?” he gasped, his heart hammering in his chest.
“What?” Katherine asked. “Did you see something?”
Tenn shook his head. His thoughts swam from the aftershock of Water and he had no idea how to answer. Water couldn’t just dredge up memories like that. Not on its own. Not when he wasn’t utilizing it. The Spheres didn’t act on their own accord—they were energy centers and nothing more. So how had Water done that? Opened up and dredged up his past… He shook his head again, tried to push down the memories, the screams.
He was just tired. He was losing his grip.
Just tired, and Water was just angry at not being used
for so long.
He focused on the cart, on ensuring no blood dripped from the back. He wouldn’t give the kravens a Hansel and Gretel– style bread-crumb trail. That, at least, he could control.
The highway cut a straight line through the fields and hills, sharp and bleak and dotted with abandoned cars. Outpost 37 was still a blur on the horizon, several miles and a few hours away. It wavered like a mirage in the rain, a smear of black-inked buildings on pale gray paper. Every step toward the city was a tick against Tenn’s nerves. The creaking cart was too loud, the rain too heavy. There was no way they could walk fast enough for his comfort. He wanted to be back and dry and warm, preferably pretending they weren’t waiting for battle. Maybe the Prophets were wrong, and the army would miss them entirely. Maybe there was no army. Maybe this was all a waste of time, and the worst thing that had happened was that he’d been bored. Denial had never served him well, but out here, in the freezing cold with no comfort from the Spheres, it was better than reality.
Katherine stopped. She didn’t say anything, just stood with her eyes wide and a slight part to her lips.
A second later, he heard it. A scream. A howl. It sliced through the fields like a scalpel, high-pitched and dragged from the depths of hell.
No living thing could make that noise.
Tenn shielded his eyes and tried to see farther out, but through the rain and the haze all he could see was shifting gray.
The scream was distant. Maybe, if they were lucky…
Michael lowered the cart handle to the ground, slowly, gently, making sure not a sound was made. His mace was in hand the moment he stood. Tenn looked over to Katherine, who had her katanas unsheathed.
“Stay very, very still,” Tenn whispered, his knuckles white on his staff. “Maybe they’ll pass us by.”
“Not likely,” Michael muttered, but he held his position.
Seconds passed in silence. Each raindrop froze into his skin, each heartbeat promised devastation.
There was a chance—a small chance—that it was a single kraven. Just one lowly, lonely monster seeking out its next meal. And there was a small chance that the kraven had found the deer’s head, taken the bait and was on the run for fear its brothers would discover the bounty.
It was a small chance. Delusional at best.
Silence stretched across Tenn’s nerves like a noose. Blood pooled against his gums from a fresh-bitten wound in his cheek. He tried to relax his jaw, tried to breathe slow and deep. In and out. In and out. The silence grew heavier. At least thirty seconds had passed. They would have known if they were spotted by now. He took another deep breath and started to relax his grip.
A second howl split the world, closer this time. And this one wasn’t alone. Another voice picked it up, as high and piercing as shattering glass and nails on a chalkboard. He knew the scream of a kraven as well as his own voice, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other types of Howls out there. The quiet ones were often the deadliest. Without magic or a clear line of sight, he also had no way to estimate how many there were. Could be dozens. Hundreds, even.
It didn’t matter. Without magic, even a handful of kravens could be deadly.
Blood thundered in his ears, louder than the rain. He counted his heartbeats in the back of his mind, wondering how many more he had left before his blood stilled. The Sphere of Water roiled in his gut. It could sense the upcoming battle, could feel it in the pulse of the rain—so much blood was about to be shed, and his Sphere yearned to be a part of it.
His Sphere wanted to cause it.
“We’re going to die,” Katherine said. Her voice was too calm for comfort. Like him, she had faced death a hundred times, and each time had probably felt as final as this. Unlike him, she seemed okay with it. “There are too many.”
“You know the orders,” Tenn said. No magic. Even if the orders get us killed. His eyes flickered to his right arm, to the tattoo he could practically feel burning against his skin. The Hunter’s mark—the tattoo that first bound him to Water and, more recently, to Earth. The mark that let him use the Spheres.
Katherine didn’t say anything in reply, but he could imagine her nodding her head and accepting her own approaching demise. He wasn’t willing to give up so easily. There were still too many lost souls on his conscience to avenge. Somehow, he was going to make it out of this alive. He owed the dead that much.
The first kraven broke through the field with a banshee’s scream, and all thoughts vanished in the heat of survival.
Like all the variations of Howls, the kraven had been human once, though the resemblance was minimal—two legs, two arms, a torso and head. The conversion process twisted the host into something beyond a nightmare. Bones jutted like talons from rotting gray flesh, its spine curved and twisted. Its eyes were bloodshot, red as meat, and its jaw had snapped and reformed like the maw of a piranha in a bulbous human head. The very sight should have been enough to send a sane man running. If not, the dozen others that appeared close behind it would have.
Before the first kraven even reached the road, Katherine ran forward, her blades a whirl of silver. Metal met flesh, and all the fear and anticipation from before washed away.
When he was younger, Tenn had immersed himself in books and movies of heroic battles. The tales were always gorgeous in a way—heart-pumping and engaging, filled with quick moves and dancing blows. Heroes dashed between villains with ease, always golden, always immortal. Always confident and brave and beautiful.
The Resurrection taught him that all those stories were full of shit.
Real battle wasn’t pretty. You trained to block and parry and dodge, yes, but you didn’t think about it, didn’t focus on long dancing combinations. You swung. You screamed a lot. You killed as fast as you could and didn’t think about anything but the feel of flesh giving way under your hands. And if you were even a hairbreadth too slow, if today just wasn’t your day, you were never, ever heard from again.
He gritted his teeth and prayed today wasn’t that day.
Tenn lunged forward, meeting a kraven midleap and slicing its body right through the gut. Cold, black blood sprayed out, but Tenn was already slashing another monster before the first corpse fell. Michael was just out of sight beside him, grunting and yelling, the skull-shattering cracks of his mace echoing across the fields like thunder.
But more monsters were coming. The field was thick with beasts, the air alive and hellish with their screams. A shadow darted behind him. He turned just in time to parry the slash of a cleaver. He barely registered his opponent—male, shirtless, whiter than snow and drenched in blood—before counterattacking. The man’s head fell to the ground with a wet smack.
“Bloodlings!” Tenn yelled, but even though he screamed it at the top of his lungs, he knew his companions hadn’t heard. The world was a living, grinding thing of scarred flesh and teeth and talons, and everywhere he turned he was slashing, dodging, trying to stay alive as the gray tide overtook him. His breath was fire as he fought, as he hacked and screamed his way through the melee. Seconds felt like an eternity, and the damage done to him and his foes was immense. A thousand cuts burned across his skin. A thousand moments he was too slow. A thousand instances he could have died, and a thousand reasons he still might.
A yell broke through the din—masculine, enraged and in pain. Then Michael’s voice cut short in a gurgle. Tenn spared a glance over but he couldn’t see anything through the kravens scrambling over corpses. Katherine screamed as well, but whether from rage or pain, he wasn’t certain.
That’s when he realized, in the far-off corner of his mind, that he was going to die. They all were.
His arm went numb from a kraven’s bite. His hands were drenched red. And still, the monsters came.
Derrick’s voice drifted through his mind as he fell to his knees. Don’t use magic, not under any circumstances. Don’t give yourselves away.
Water and blood seeped through Tenn’s jeans, his numb arm limp. He could only stare at the blood and wonder at how quickly this had come, his end. At how easy it was to die. Pain seared across his back as a Howl ripped through his flesh. Blood was everywhere—black blood, red blood, red rain. The Sphere of Water screamed inside of him as his own life spilled forth. Memories rode the current—flashes of his mother and father, the few friends he’d made and lost, his mother’s voice and a lullaby he couldn’t place. His eyes fluttered. His working hand dropped his staff.
This is how it feels to die, and I will be eaten before they find my corpse.
As another kraven lunged for the kill, mouth wide and broken teeth bared, the Sphere of Water opened unbidden in Tenn’s stomach.
Power flooded him, rushing through in a whirlpool of memory and pain, a roar that filled him with a thousand freezing agonies, dragging him down, down, down into the pits of his every despair. Down into the deepest depth of power.
The Sphere connected him to the rain hammering from the sky and the blood pooling on the ground and the pulse in every vein of every creature within a mile. He could feel it. All of it. He felt Katherine a few yards away, her heart throbbing so fast it hurt his own. He felt the Howls, their pulses thick and jagged and starved.
Most of all, he felt power. More than he had ever tapped before. The rage, the fear, the anger, the thirst. It made his limbs vibrate, made his breath catch, made the rain around him seethe and hum. And in that split second after Water’s opening, he wrapped his fingers deep into the torrent and screamed.
The rain shivered. Changed. He twisted the power and twisted the elements and raindrops became ice, became shards sharper than glass, became hammers that lashed from the sky with sickening velocity. His Sphere raged in joy and agony as its power unleashed, as the bloodlust filled his darkening vision and screams filled the air. His screams. Their screams. Blades of ice met flesh, sliced through skin and bone. Ice spilled forth blood, and Water rejoiced as the world drenched itself in crimson.
Power ran through his veins, and this power craved revenge.
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