This excerpt isn't fully polished so please don't hold any errors against me.
If you go to the end, you'll find info on my current paperback Giveaway through Goodreads.
As a man of prophecy, Jake Barrett foresaw his own death. He perished between the gaping jaws of a monstrous black wolf: his blood-curdling howl heard around the world, flames burning in his eyes, smoke curled from his nostrils, and leathery lips drawn taut over glistening white incisors.
Always, the beast swallowed him whole.
Boots pounding on the hard packed dirt, the lone hunter sprinted straight toward the pack of enormous wolves. He reached across his torso to claw at the stylized dagger inked on the back of his forearm. His dedicated weapon: indestructible and always with him. The intricate artwork had rough edges overlying scorched scar tissue like a brand. Dark tendrils of energy surrounded the knife, arcing beneath the surface of his skin.
As his palm covered the hilt, sharp pain radiated through his arm, and the stench of burnt flesh filled the air. The tattoo vanished from Jake's arm; a dagger appeared in his hand. The knife had a thick, wide blade aglow with the halo of molten steel.
Nearing an outcrop, he halted briefly, taking a moment to study the pack. A great red wolf ran at the head of the group, several dozen wolves following in a loosely spread formation. Not mere beasts, but men as well. The shifters were the descendants of Fenrir, the son of Loki, and several times larger than their animal kin in size. Claws dug into the stony terrain, casting a spray of dirt and jagged rocks in their wake. The Alpha's piercing howl split the sky, carrying for miles across the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, Arizona.
The radio transmitter Jake wore buzzed with static, but he clearly made out his second-in-command's voice across the airwaves. Skinner sounded understandably worried: "Is that that old Fireball Finn?"
He reached up to adjust the fit of the ear piece, chuckling as he replied. "No one calls Finn that to his face–"
"And lives," they finished in unison.
"What do you think, friend or foe?" Skinner rasped.
Across the radio, a burst of machine gun fire blasted Jake's hearing. He winced and grimaced. He infused his voice with confidence. "Friends."
"Twenty bucks says they're going straight for our unprotected flank."
"I'll take that bet, and our flank isn't unprotected. I'm here. Hold the line, solider."
"That's exactly what we're doing, sir."
For all Skinner's sarcasm, Jake knew his second would do exactly as he said. They'd served together in the Marine Corps prior to forming their own private para-military organization, and they'd had each other's backs in countless confrontations. There was no one he trusted more.
"What I'd like to know is–what the hell are these things and where did they come from?" Heavy breathing, grunts of exertion, the occasional muttered swear word accompanied Skinner's question.
"No idea but we're sure as hell going to find out." Jake resumed his journey to intercept the pack, adjusting his path to skirt around a patchy area where the rough terrain looked too dangerous to cross at a full run in poor light.
As he neared, the Alpha howled again, and the pack echoed the call, blending their voices into a chorus to produce a ferocious battle cry. The sound boomed across the landscape.
A half mile distant, the hunters loyal to Jake fought in grim desperation for their lives. The enemy army emerged from an old mine shaft in a steady swarm, seemingly endless and without any discernible source. The nature of the undead confounded the problem even further. Jake recognized them as draugar, an obscure breed of vampire from Northern Europe notable for their strength and intelligence, especially dangerous because they were able to walk in sunlight. Individual draug usually operated as solitary predators found in cool, watery environments. Their presence in the hot, dry southern Arizona desert was inexplicable.
He should be with his men at the heart of the fight and not defending their flank alone against the new threat. Standing shoulder to shoulder against the overwhelming odds, they maintained a tight formation. They fought as one. Each man trusted his brother; they lived together and died together.
Battle produced its own sort of music. The rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire, the draconic roar of flame throwers, the pops and booms of firearms, and the primal shouts of soldiers. Jake took pleasure in the composition up until the moment when the agonized scream of one of his men drove a dagger into his back.
Sharp, stabbing pain near his heart ...lungs burning as he labored for breath ...
Through the magic that tied all hunters to him, Jake Barrett experienced the gruesome agony of his follower's death. As abruptly, the connection cut off and he added another name to the steadily mounting fatality list: Ron Buckley–a loyal friend, loving husband, father of three, and grandfather of ten. A man who complained constantly about his bum knee, slurred his Ss, precisely mimicked over a hundred unique bird calls, and possessed an uncommon obsession with lacrosse.
Jake's heart thundered in his ears as he ran straight at the charging wolves. The red werewolf stood as high as a horse in the shoulder, taller than Jake at full height, impressive even for one of the wolf shifters. His size, combined with the distinctive ginger hue of his fur, left no room for mistaking the Alpha's identity–Fireball Finn, leading a war party from the White Mountain Tribe, perhaps thirty in number.
They were far from their territory, but he didn't have time to consider the possible reasons. He had to deal with what fate put in front of him. At the moment, it meant regarding them as a direct threat until proven otherwise. The wolves weren't the sworn enemies of the hunters, but neither were they allies. A bitter conflict and many gruesome deaths had undermined trust and destroyed their cooperation.
Skidding, Jake slid into a defensive stance, his dagger poised to strike. He focused on Finn, ignoring the other wolves because in a challenge the Alpha alone mattered. A bellow tore from his throat, a primal shout of aggression and dominance, and he beat his chest with his fist. "Finn, face me as a man!"
The great red wolf broke stride, head and front quarters jerking up in surprise. The heave of his breathing rumbled the air, and his long talons struck bedrock, throwing a shower of sparks. His stride shortened, causing a perceptible change to spread through the war party like the ripple of a pebble. The remainder of the pack transitioned from gallop to jog, scattering to both sides to avoid colliding with one another.
Lumbering, Finn underwent a swift transformation from wolf to man. His muscles rippled, flowing like water beneath his thick fur. Bones cracked and tendons crunched, breaking and altering, and healing as they reformed. His spine straightened and his hind legs restructured, permitting him to stand upright. Fingers grew from his front paws. His muzzle shortened to allow speech. He halted the change midway, having adopted a form reminiscent of the classic movie wolfman. In hybrid form, the werewolf towered over twelve feet tall, covered in shaggy ginger fur.
Skinner sometimes likened werewolves to living tanks, mounds of muscle with deadly teeth and claws that obliterated everything in their paths. They could be hurt by fire, drowning, or steel weapons, but their real vulnerability was silver. Still, a full-grown male was typically a fair match for a dozen undead.
The Alpha's eyes cast a golden glow upon his face, and his sharp teeth glistened when his lips peeled back in a grim parody of a smile. His sides heaved, a huff of laughter. "Are you challenging me, Hunter King?"
"Alpha Finn, if you come to settle a debt of honor, then fight me alone in personal combat." Jake's voice rose to a shout. He brandished his burning dagger to add emphasis to his challenge. "Act with dishonor and Odin shall know you as a coward!"
"Impressive that you, a nonbeliever, have Odin's ear." Animosity replaced the amusement in the Alpha's gaze. He snarled, slyly mocking. "Why should I question your honor, huntsman? It's not as if your hunters participated in the slaughter of an entire pack."
Annoyance pinched at his self-control but Jake refused to acknowledge the snide jibe. His eyes narrowed and he offered a stoic stare. "Do not test my patience, Finn. Are you here for me or the undead?"
A ripple began at the red wolf's neck and traversed the length of his body, terminating as a tail twitch. His jaws opened, and a snarl rolled from his throat. "Our fight is not with you, Barrett. We are here for the vampires."
"Then don't let me stand in your way." Jake lowered his dagger. He opened his mouth to speak but Finn's thick muscles bunched as he launched into a standing leap. The hunter's arms jerked, hands tightening on the grip of his weapon, but he aborted the impulse to take a swing as the Alpha as he passed overhead.
Howling, the red wolf's paws passed close enough to Jake's head he could have used the beast's long claws to shave his beard. He stood his ground, refusing to duck or give an inch before the test of his nerves. Even the slightest sign of fear would make him look weak. Following their leader, wolves swerved left and right, flowing about the hunter like a river around a rock.
Torrential relief drenched Jake, short-lived because instinct took over. The adrenaline surge whisked him straight from one crisis into the next. Whirling, he lurched into a dead run toward the thick of battle. He kept pace with the pack for a short distance but even the slowest wolf possessed superior speed when traveling on all fours.
Ahead, Fireball Finn reached the tightly packed wall of hunters who fought against the undead. Long body extended, his paws hit the ground. In a fluid stride, a howl swelled from the Alpha's chest as he launched into the air. The rest of the pack echoed their leader's primal song as they also leapt straight at the wall of pinned hunters.
Jake's breath hitched, and the blood in his veins froze. His men were wide open to attack from the rear. They trusted him to protect them. For a paralyzing second, he doubted himself, doubted the wolves–doubted instinct and integrity. Without the treaty, Finn had no duty to treat Jake as an equal, no obligation to accept a challenge to personal combat.
Claws extended, the red wolf slammed into a vampire, talons sinking into the swollen chest. Sudden pressure swelled the gray flesh and thick fluid burst from the gashes. The pair toppled, vanishing from sight behind the sea of animated corpses, and then the great red giant rose out of the grayness, holding a vampire aloft. Roaring his rage, he ripped the revenant's head from its shoulders and tossed both pieces into the air. The parts flew high, disintegrating to ash until carried away on the hot desert wind.
"Cease machine gun fire," Jake shouted as he sprinted toward the front line. "Kill the flame throwers and switch to small caliber firearms and melee weapons from here on out."
Ahead, Skinner repeated the orders. The black man extinguished his flamethrower and dropped to a crouch, yanking a machete from a belt sheath. The other hunters did the same as the first wave of wolves passed overhead. Arriving in groups of three and four, the rest of the pack rushed and leapt over the defensive line, tackling undead. With bloodthirsty howls, they charged straight into the thick of combat.
His band of hunters was dug in on a narrow shelf located midway along the side of a mesa, facing upward, against the incline toward the opening of abandoned mine. A steady river of undead streamed from the entrance, an army of reanimated corpses–bloated, blacked flesh, big and brutish. There were two sure ways to kill a vampire–sever the head or destroy the heart. Undead were vulnerable to fire, sunlight and holy items as well as steel weapons. Bullets harmed them, but didn't kill them.
Rays of light from the setting sun shone on the invading vampires, and they showed no signs of burning or even slowing.
A steep incline marked the last ten feet before he reached his men. Climbing with a drawn weapon required him to stay close to the ground in a hard scramble, dislodging dirt and debris, sending a shower of pebbles down the slope. Once on the shelf, Jake hurried to rejoin his soldiers. With the last of the wolves having completed their overhead jumps, the hunters resumed standing, fighting hand-to-hand so their unlikely allies wouldn't be hit by friendly fire.
"You owe me twenty," Jake said, coming alongside Skinner. "They are the cavalry." He swung his dagger in a downward arc and struck a vampire's neck with a decapitating blow. The stench of seared flesh filled the air. The revenant fell to ash, his remains feeding the thick cloud of dust that rode the scorching wind. Sooty grime crusted the hunter's nostrils and mouth, clogging airways and lungs, wringing a harsh cough from his throat.
He caught another in the throat, ramming the molten steel at upward angle toward the brain. Dead flesh sizzled and the vamp's face ballooned. Escaping gases rose to the surface of the skin, forming swollen bubbles that expanded and then burst, releasing rivulets of necrotic sludge. The skull exploded, covering him in a shower of coagulated blood and bits of carrion.
"Never thought I'd be happy to see a bunch of flea-bitten werewolves." With a bark of laughter, Skinner's machete flew a wide arc. The blade embedded deep in a vampire's forehead. He spared his leader a curious glance. "How did you know?"
Jake flashed a toothy smile, continuing to fight. "I didn't."
"The hell you didn't." Skinner edged closer, tightening their defensive line. He bore cuts on his face and arms, and his shirt was blood, but none of the injuries appeared to be slowing him. The dagger tattoo on his bicep glowed white hot, signaling active magic that granted him augmented strength and speed. Every hunter had the same mark, the symbol of their brotherhood, a spiritual bond to the Hunter King. Prolonged, bloody fights caused a considerable drain on his reserves.
The werewolves created a new front line, allowing the beleaguered humans a much-needed reprieve. Their vigorous initial attack appeared to be turning the tide in their favor, driving the vampires back. Jake recognized the advantage couldn't last forever. They had to act to close the entrance.
"Where are these bastards coming from?" Skinner shouted.
"There's a magical portal in that mine head. I can feel it. We've got to blow it shut."
"That's a tall order." Skinner tilted back his head, staring up the hill.
Jake followed his friend's gaze. Impassable rock formations to either side of the narrow ravine made flanking the enemy impossible. He'd have to swim against the current to reach the mine. "Where's the C4?"
"Over here." Skinner dashed to the right and bent, retrieving the sack from the Bobby Edwards's body. The young man lay face down in a pool of muddy blood upon the rocky ground.
A knife twisted in Jake's gut. Bobby had been an orphan. When he was ten, vampires killed his parents and he'd escaped thanks to blind luck. It looked like fate had finally caught up with him. No one would mourn him or miss him except his adopted family–hunters.
Skinner tossed him the backpack. "Are we going to set charges to blow that entrance?"
"I'm setting the charges alone. Fortify the line and evacuate our wounded to safety." Jake performed a cursory inspection of the contents of the bag, confirming it contained detonators and explosives. He closed the fastening and he threw the straps over his shoulders.
"There's a MANPATS in the back of my truck," Skinner said, referencing a man-portable anti-tank system. "Seems like it'd be easier."
"It'll take too long to retrieve and the C-4 delivers a surer result."
"I'm gonna grab it anyway."
"Suit yourself. It never hurts to have a backup plan," Jake agreed. "Once I have the charges set, I'll give the signal. Have the men fall back to the vehicles. I'll warn the wolves."
Skinner slapped him on the back. "Good luck. It's been good serving with you, sir. Today is a good day to die."