Early August, 1793
I am not going to die here on this backwoods country road, I promised myself, leaning over my mount’s neck as I urged him forward. The horse broke into a wild gallop, and I was forced to stand in my stirrups, my seat rising out of my saddle as I gave him his lead.
Up ahead, the full moon hung low and pregnant over the road, painting the warm summer night in heavy brushstrokes of black and silver. This canvas of contrasts was as beautiful as it was deadly, for at this speed I couldn’t tell if we were galloping into an innocuous shadow or a hole that might break my horse’s leg and end us both.
Ancient pines crowded on either side of the narrow road. Their lower branches were rendered skeletal by the moonlight, twitching and shivering in the breeze as if they were animated by some sinister magic. As we raced beneath their bows, they seemed to reach toward us like the grasping fingers of the dead.
You’re imagining it, I tried to tell myself. Trees don’t have conscious thought. Trees can’t reach toward you. Trees –
A shriek tore itself from my throat. One of the branches had dipped low enough to tangle its needles in my hair and nearly rip me from my saddle. The horse, caught off guard by my scream, stumbled and almost fell, wrenching me forward and out of the tree’s grasp. The tree took a handful of my hair with it, but the pain of having it yanked from my scalp barely registered beneath the all-consuming terror that now flooded my body.
My mount righted himself and barreled down the road, his eyes wide and rolling, his breaths coming in sharp, uneven pants. I looked behind us just in time to see the branch holding my hair curl possessively around its prize before retreating back into the tree line.
I turned back around and tucked my body as close to the horse’s as I could manage, my vision blurred by unshed tears. Overhead, the branches still stretched themselves toward us, but something below them pulled my focus down. I glanced to my right to see that the shadowy undergrowth had somehow become a living thing. Where I had once been able to see into the forest, I now saw nothing but a wall of darkness crouched along the edge of the road. A darkness that seethed and roiled with malevolence. Half-formed phantoms made of smoke and madness billowed into existence and then clawed their way out of the periphery, taunting me to look at them.
Come here, mademoiselle. We only want to play with you. Come here, mademoiselle, we promise we won’t devour you…
I choked back a sob, but was unable to keep a spill of rage-induced tears from dashing themselves against my cheeks.
I will not die here!
As if the forest meant to prove me wrong, a chorus of howls rose up just beyond the wall of shadows. They were as corrupted as everything else in this Godforsaken wood. I knew what real wolves sounded like. Not this. Not this deep, guttural baying. Not this unholy chorus of the damned.
The shades that lurked in the undergrowth began to withdraw, seemingly chased away by the howls. Relief rushed through me, but it was short lived. Whatever had the power to drive away such evil was something I very much wanted to avoid.
“Faster, faster,” I urged my horse.
His hooves thundered over the dry, packed earth as he picked up his pace. I had three loaded pistols on my person, and if he stumbled and went down I would use one to put a bullet through his brain before turning a second on myself. Better to die by my own hand than be dragged into hell by the devil himself.
I caught movement out of the corner of my eye – what might have been a flash of fur between tree trunks. Unable to stop myself, I turned toward it. And nearly fell from my saddle. Shapes were slipping through the trees, keeping pace with us. They moved with unearthly silence and unerring grace, loping through the undergrowth like a pack of living nightmares.
They might have been wolves, after all. If wolves stood nearly as tall as a pony and had the musculature of a jungle cat.
My horse must have seen them too. He trumpeted his distress and pulled against his bridle to get a better look. I turned forward and tightened my grip on the reins, trying to keep his focus on the road as I urged him onward. Not two kilometers ahead of us lay salvation; the sole village in this wilderness of towering conifers. I couldn’t risk him laying eyes on those demons and slowing our pace. Or worse, dying of fright.
The wolves threw back their heads and howled again, filling the night with sounds better suited to the darkest depths of the underworld. They were not meant for human ears. That much was clear from the way they reverberated through my very soul, slicing into my mind to tear at the fraying edges of my sanity.
I nearly let go of the reins to cover my ears, sure that they would soon start to bleed.
The howls fell away when a shadowed beast burst forth from the trees not a hundred yards ahead of us. My steed caught sight of it and balked, nearly throwing me. I had to dig my heels into his sides to force him back into a gallop.
That beast had a body. And a body could be injured. Or so I prayed.
The creature stopped in the middle of the road. It was a massive, monstrous thing, its shoulders heavily muscled and widely spaced, its paws tipped with claws that looked designed to rend flesh from bone. Keen intelligence stared out from its eyes. Human intelligence.
A long-forgotten word whispered through my mind to settle itself on my tongue. I was forced to spit it out or risk choking on it.
The creature stood his ground, snarling at us as we ran him down.
My lips curled into an answering snarl as I stood higher in the stirrups, my left hand gripping the reins as I pulled a pistol with my right and lifted it to take aim. It cost me a few precious paces to acclimate to the rise and fall of the horse, but I desperately needed this time to match my breathing to the motion if I had any hope of hitting the beast.
Breathe in on the rise. Breathe out on the fall. In on the rise, out on the fall. Now fire!
I pulled the trigger. The bullet belched forth from the pistol in an explosion of smoke and fire. The kickback sent my arm heavenward and nearly unseated me. My horse, having been bred for war, didn’t even break stride. Gunfire he was used to, demons were another matter entirely.
My aim proved true. The beast jerked as the bullet tore into his chest, then let out a choking whine made up of the tortured screams of the damned before crumpling to the ground.
I switched out my spent pistol for a loaded one as we cut a wide path around the still-twitching body and barreled toward the bend in the road just ahead. As we rounded it, a few fractured shafts of torchlight broke through the trees. The village. We had made it.
The shot I fired had been close enough to hear. The residents would already be stirring from their beds, lighting still more torches. I prayed it would be enough to drive the beasts away. And that God would forgive me for bringing them to their doorsteps.
“Help!” I bellowed, hoping to rouse the whole village. “Help me!”
“Isabelle,” a deep voice growled in response.
The night was filled with a cacophony of sound – hoof beats, howls, staccato heartbeats and rasping breaths – yet that voice might have come from mere inches away. My neck warmed as if breath brushed over it.
“No!” I cried, jerking at the reins as I flinched away.
My horse screamed and veered left. Terror shot through me as I fought to keep him on course. Then I saw it. Something large was moving through the forest off to our right. The rest of the creatures fell back, as though afraid of it. I didn’t blame them. This latest horror was the worst of them all. Too tall to be a wolf, too fast to be a human, and too silent to be anything made by God.
A pair of amber eyes flashed out of the darkness, and recognition struck like a kick to the chest. My breath came in shallow pants. My vision narrowed to pinpoints. It was him. The one who hunted me. The one I had been running from all along. He had finally found me. And I knew from experience that once he had me back within his grasp, he would never let me go.
I faced forward again, so choked by my fear that I couldn’t even bring myself to scream. The light of the village was almost blinding now, and echoed shouts from its inhabitants rang through the night. They had heard the shot. They were awake.
It was then that my mount stumbled. One minute we were thundering down the road, and the next, the saddle dropped out from under me as he began to fall. My stomach lurched as the world tilted sideways. What a cruel turn of fate that less than half a kilometer from salvation I would meet instead with damnation.
Time bent and then fractured as we fell, slowing to a crawl as the ground came rising up to greet me. Seizing his advantage, the beast burst forth from the trees and sped toward us.
You will not take me, you bastard.
I raised the pistol I still held, feeling as though I were moving my arm through molasses. Slow. Far too slow. And no way to aim while falling. I fired into the encroaching darkness regardless. The shot went wide, and then that…thing…lunged. He moved with preternatural speed, so fast I could barely track him. Amber eyes filled my vision, and then he hit me like a battering ram mid-air, tackling me around the middle, crushing my lungs. The scream that had been building within me died on my lips. Suddenly it was all I could do just to breathe.
We hit the ground three meters away from where the horse fell, slamming into the road with bone-breaking force. Dirt and rocks tore at my clothing and turned my skin into a raw, bloody mess. My head bounced off the ground, and stars exploded across my vision. I was momentarily stunned, and my deadened fingers lost their grip on the gun. It skittered away across the loose dirt and then down the embankment, out of sight.
I turned my head toward the village. People were moving within the torchlight, staring out into the darkness.
“Help. Help me.” I could barely breathe. The words were little more than a whisper.
Strong arms snaked around my broken body and dragged me toward the trees. I clawed at them, digging my heels in as I tried to resist. It was useless. Only one option was left to me. I opened my mouth to scream, but a warm hand clamped over it, muffling the noise. I was forced to watch in strangled silence as my horse limped toward the torchlight. The townsfolk surrounded him, one man catching hold of his reins as another tried to soothe him. Still others gazed into the darkness as if searching for his rider.
Here! I’m right here! Please see me! I prayed. They did not, for by now I was hidden by the gloom.
“Isabelle,” that rough voice rumbled, sending shivers down my spine and hot tears streaking down my cheeks.
A branch snapped nearby, followed by the rustling of bushes. I pulled my gaze from the village to watch a sea of nightmares rushing in. Those monstrous wolves were back, and they slunk from the shadows to surround us in a tide of moving bodies.
I tried to jerk back as they neared, but I was too tightly bound by the monster at my back. They sniffed at my legs rubbed their jaws along my body, scent marking me. One pushed his snout into my middle and began to lap at my bleeding skin.
The creature that held me leaned down to whisper into my ear, “You’re ours now.”