Great Victoria Desert, Australian Outback
The wake-up call came early. It always did.
“Yo, sunshine, time to get up,” Master Sergeant Schmitz called from the tent’s entrance. “No more sleeping in.”
I groaned and rolled over on my cot, wincing at the bruises I’d racked up the day before. A quick glance at my watch turned my groan to a growl. “It’s oh-six-hundred. That doesn’t count as sleeping in.”
“Does in this man’s army,” Schmitz said. His grin looked wolfish in the thin sunlight shining through the canvas walls. “Major wants to see you in twenty. Consider yourself warned, Archer.”
I stood slowly. Schmitz was tiny compared to the rest of the team—only about five-eight and wiry with crazy-short hair to match. After my last growth spurt, I’d hit six feet and I probably outweighed him by at least twenty pounds. I wondered briefly if I could drop kick him for being so full of energy this early in the morning but, short or not, the guy was a Green Beret. And I was only fifteen. Chances were good I’d find myself flat on my back with a boot planted on my stomach for my trouble.
So instead I said, “Yes, Master Sergeant. On my way.”
That didn’t mean I had to be cheerful about it, though. After Schmitz let the tent flap close, I glanced my best friend’s cot. It was empty and neatly made. Will must’ve left, or been summoned, long before I had.
I pulled on my BDUs, which were stiff with dirt and carried a funk that I could only describe as Gym Locker Cologne. In the eight days we’d been on the ground there hadn’t been time to do laundry. The monster infestation in the Outback was worse than expected, and sleeping whenever I had a spare minute was more important than smelling good.
When I finally made it outside, a chill wind blew straight through my camo jacket and I hunched my shoulders against the cold. Our camp backed up to a large bluff; it provided us with good cover but also created a wind tunnel between the tents. Shouted commands rang out in the distance. Someone was being run through drills—so that’s where Will was. I’d been through a modified boot camp before we came here, but Will had to pull double duty. He trained whenever we had downtime and watched my back when we didn’t. I glanced across the plain of reddish dirt just in time to see him drop and start a set of pushups. Schmitz was counting them off. He got to twenty, with no sign of stopping, by the time I reached the command tent.
I paused before entering. Last time, I barged in without thinking and caught Major Tannen—aka my Uncle Mike—macking on his fiancée, Julie, who also happened to be second-in-command for our team. How they convinced the general to station them together was anyone’s guess, but the list of people on a “need to know” basis about the monster program was very short, so the general probably didn’t have much choice.
I pushed down a twinge of annoyance just the same. I’d kind of wanted to spend some time with Mike on this trip, especially since he’d just gotten back from Afghanistan, but with Julie here…well, there wasn’t enough time to go around.
Yeah, so far I wasn’t doing such a good job of squashing that thought. I squeezed my eyes shut for a second, willing myself to act like a soldier and not some kid vying for attention. I’d told Mike for years he needed to find a girlfriend, partly because his fridge was a disaster, but mainly because the dude was thirty-eight and seemed a little old to be alone. I should be happy for him and, besides, whiners didn’t last long in the Army.
Deciding I better report for duty before they wondered if I’d gotten lost during the forty-yard walk from my tent to command, I shook off my funk and tried to make my expression as bland as possible. Just another day at the office, right?
To avoid accidently walking in on another make-out session, I cleared my throat loudly and said, “Permission to enter, sir?”
“Come in, Matt,” Uncle Mike called.
I pushed my way through the tent flap. Uncle Mike and Captain Hunter (she told me call her Julie, just not on ops) were sitting at a long metal table, going over the daily intelligence reports. Their heads were close together, but there wasn’t anything going on. My lucky day.
Julie looked up, her nose wrinkled. “Do you smell something?”
Maybe it was time to do laundry. “No, ma’am.”
The corner of Uncle Mike’s mouth twitched, but shook his head at Julie. “Me, neither. Must just be you.”
“Uh huh,” Julie said, giving me a long stare. I shrank a little under her gaze; she intimidated the crap out of me. Julie looked like a supermodel with her long brown hair and great body—even wearing camo—but she also was Military Intelligence and supposedly able to kill a grown man with one hand. I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out how.
Finally I broke eye-contact. Man, she was good. “Okay, okay…I’ll try to air out my BDUs or something.”
That made her smile, and Ms. Scary-Pants disappeared. “You want to know a trick? Sprinkle them with baby powder and hang them up outside. That’ll help.”
Because of course I packed baby powder in my gear. What self-respecting guy didn’t? Seriously, reeking of gym socks was better than smelling like a nursery. “Uh, yeah. Thanks for the tip.”
I settled down at the table across from Mike, waiting to find out why he’d called me in. He didn’t say anything right away, engrossed in the reports. Every once in a while, he’d make a mark on an aerial map of the desert. I watched him work. For a long time, I thought I’d look exactly like him when I got older, but today I was struck by the differences. Sure, we were both tall, and I was on track to be almost as broad in the shoulders, but my hair had turned a darker shade of brown than his and my build was longer and leaner. In a way, that disappointed me. Growing up, I’d always wanted to look like, and be like, Uncle Mike. My siblings resembled him—and Mom—a lot more than I did, and it bugged me some.
Uncle Mike was watching me, a puzzled smile on his face. Crap, he caught me staring. “Yes, sir?”
“Just wondering where you drifted off to.” Uncle Mike stacked his papers into a neat pile, lining the corners up square with the edge of the table. “The drones picked up something interesting last night. They spotted a pack of Dingoes eighteen miles due west of here. This may be the break we’ve been looking for.”
He pushed a grainy black and white picture across the table. I could just make out a group of five dog-like creatures huddled together in a patch of scrub-brush. Even in a picture taken from a distance by a drone flight, there was no mistaking what they were, though. “Definitely looks like Dingoes.”
The Dingoes—our code name for the particular breed of monster we’d been called out to hunt—were a sight to see. The Wookiee-like Bears I’d fought in Montana last winter had their own kind of weird, but the Dingoes really took it to another level. They had canine ears, elongated muzzles with pointed teeth, and reddish-brown fur that allowed them to blend in with the sand and rocks of their native terrain. But that’s where any resemblance to an actual dog stopped. The rest of a Dingo’s body could be mistaken for a barrel-chested pro-wrestler—ropy muscles, thick neck and all. Well, except for the tail and giant paws.
I handed Julie the picture and crossed my arms over my chest against the chill seeping into the tent. “So are we going after them?”
Uncle Mike frowned and I could practically see the wheels turning in his head. Risk his fifteen-year-old nephew’s life by making him fight off five monsters with only backup support, or wait to call in an additional knife-wielder and risk losing the pack.
Tough spot, but I didn’t sympathize. After being chosen to wield one of five supernatural knives created to hunt down things you only heard about in horror stories, I’d worked my butt off to prove I was as good a fighter as the adult knife-wielders. Most of the other team members had accepted my place, but Mike still struggled with it. Part of it was the fact that he’d help raise me, and it was hard for him to let go. The bigger problem was that he hadn’t told Mom about my extracurricular activities. She thought I was in Sydney on a school trip, not in the Outback hunting monsters.
Finally Mike blew out a breath. “I want to gather some intel before we mount a real assault. Julie’s going to take an advance team to scout the area today. In the meantime, I want you here.” He pointed to a spot about four miles southwest of camp. “We had a report that a lone Dingo might be prowling around here. Schmitz will take you and Cruessan to check it out.”
I held in a sigh. This was busy-work while Mike decided what to do. A goose-chase to keep me out of the way and safe. “Yes, sir.”
Julie gave a knowing, and surprisingly sympathetic, smile. “Once we know exactly what we’re dealing with, we’ll call you first, okay? You’re on point for this one since the other team is engaged on the far side of the grid.”
I nodded. “You think this is it? Are we almost done?”
“Should be close,” Uncle Mike said. “If our count is right, and we take out these six, we should be down to the last one.”
The count was right; monsters always showed up in packs of thirteen. Down to the last one, huh? That would be great, but the thought of finding a single monster in an area twice the size of Kansas made my head hurt. “Hopefully the other team will find the last one. We’ll have enough to deal with, looking for our six.”
“No doubt.” Uncle Mike stood and stretched. His biceps strained against his sleeves, and I caught Julie checking him out.
I looked away before they could catch me rolling my eyes. “Anything else, sir?”
“Not until we have the intel,” Mike answered.
“I better get going, then,” Julie said. She turned to leave, but smiled at Uncle Mike over her shoulder. “Back by six, honey. Have dinner warm for me.”
Then, with a wink, she was gone.
Uncle Mike shook his head. “I’m going to have my hands full, aren’t I?”
“Yep.” I reached across the table to whack him on the shoulder. “Good luck with that.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Mike flashed me a cocky grin. “The good news is that we’re going to be stationed at the Pentagon together after we’re done here. I’ll be able to keep my eye on her.”
Wait, did he just say he was moving? My stomach lurched. “The Pentagon?”
The smile slid off of Uncle Mike’s face. “Matt, I’m sorry. That wasn’t how I planned to tell you. It just slipped out.” He sighed. “The general wants Julie to run intel for the whole program, and I’ll be his liaison for the main operations until we’re needed out in the field.”
“You’re moving to D.C.?” I asked. He was leaving Billings again? And from the sound of things, this move might be permanent instead of a deployment.
“It’s orders, Chief,” he said quietly. “We’ll miss you guys—”
“Captain Hunter doesn’t know us well enough to miss us,” I snapped without thinking, then immediately felt like a jackass. “Sorry, man. That was…I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s okay. I sprung this on you at a really bad time.” Uncle Mike stared at the maps on the table, but I could tell he didn’t really see them. “Look, we don’t have to be in D.C. until September, so we’ll be in Billings until after the wedding. Besides, we’ll stay in touch. Just like always.”
Just like always. Except Julie would be part of the “we” who’d stay in touch. It would never be just me and Mike again.
Not like that wasn’t a whiny thought or anything. I might as well hire a violinist to follow me around and play sad tunes. It was time to get out of this tent and hunt a monster or two before my man-card got taken away.
I stood quickly. “Captain Hunter said dinner was at six, so I better run if I’m going to find your lost Dingo.”
“Okay, just don’t be late, or your MREs will get cold,” Uncle Mike said. “And Matt? Be careful, understand? If something happens to you, your mom will kill both of us.”
“Don’t worry.” I stood. “Besides, it’s just one monster. What could go wrong?”
As I left the tent, Mike muttered, “That’s what worries me.”
I headed out to the Humvee we’d been assigned. Schmitz was putting gas in the tank and barely looked up when I slung my backpack into the front seat.
“Seen Cruessan?” I asked.
Schmitz spared me a quick grin. “Probably puking up his breakfast. I made him run sprints after the pushups.”
“Master Sergeant, you can be a real bastard,” I said, laughing. “You know he flushed out that Dingo for me yesterday and had to haul butt to get away.”
On the other hand, this kind of training could save Will’s life someday. And since Will had assigned himself as my primary bodyguard, I had a real interest in keeping him alive. Besides, he’d had my back since we were six, and I had his—which is why I didn’t protest when Schmitz pushed Will harder than his football coach ever had.
Will came around the tents, looking pale but otherwise okay. He walked straight to Schmitz and loomed over him. He was so much taller that he cast a shadow over Schmitz. With his blue-black hair and narrowed dark eyes, Will looked kind of like an ogre terrorizing a villager. But instead of running away screaming—or going for a pitchfork—Schmitz just smirked.
“How are you, daisy?” he asked Will. “Feeling better?”
“Done puking, Master Sergeant. Ready to roll.” Will shot me a hard look. He was no quitter, that was for sure. “You good?”
I patted my thigh pocket. My knife was strapped into its custom-made sheath. Its white bone handle vibrated softly, a gentle buzz that told me it was time to get to work. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
We drove out to the GPS coordinates Uncle Mike had set for us, following a flat plain until we reached a set of foothills. Schmitz forced the Humvee up a rocky incline. “Good visibility up here,” he shouted over the motor. “You two can set up at the edge of that cliff.”
I looked the direction he was pointing. The part of the hill we’d climbed had a ledge jutting out over the plain below.
Schmitz parked under a skeletal eucalyptus tree seventy yards from the cliff’s edge. Small, prickly bushes grew here and there in the red sand and, other than the wind, nothing stirred. I glanced behind us. It was lonely country out here; no one to come running if trouble showed up. A little shudder ran down my back and the knife buzzed in response. That didn’t make me feel any better.
Uneasy, I unloaded my gear and headed to our watch point to settle in and wait.
We’d been lying prone in the dirt under some bushes, staring over the cliff’s edge, for three hours, and we hadn’t seen a thing. My back and elbows ached from keeping me propped up on the ground so I could see, and I passed the time by thinking up choice names to call my uncle when I saw him later.
“Matt, I got something,” Will whispered. He refocused the binoculars. “Yeah, definitely something down there.”
I almost cheered. Maybe it was wrong to get excited about a monster, but I’d hate for this stakeout to be a waste of time. Squinting, I could just barely make out a reddish-brown figure crouched on the sandy plain below “Dingo?”
“Yeah, looks like it.”
He didn’t say anything else, so I nudged him. “And?”
“I don’t know,” Will said, still staring downrange. “This one looks pretty big, even from here. It might be the biggest one I’ve seen.”
My best friend had said those exact words three times in the last seventy-two hours. Every time we discovered a new monster, he had to tell me this one was bigger than the last. Still, Will exaggerated a lot, so I stole the binoculars to take a look myself.
I refocused the view until the beast became clear. “Huh, this one is bigger,”
It was standard Dingo, all right, but huge. Rings of dark fur ran around its tail, which wagged slowly as it sniffed the ground. “Want to bet that it’s more than nine feet tall?”
“Nope.” Will yawned. Sweat beaded along forehead, and the sunlight glinted on his damp hair. “I’d rather figure out how to get rid of it without either of us ending up as dog food.”
I chuckled. “Are you regretting me blackmailing the Army into letting you tag along on this trip?”
“Nah. You need me here to watch your back. Besides, what were they gonna say, after we did so well hunting on our own at home? It’s not like they agreed to let you bring a green-bean,” Will said. “Do me a favor, though. Don’t set me up as bait this time. My hamstrings still hurt from yesterday and Schmitz’s sprints of death this morning didn’t help.”
“No bait this time.” I wiped sweat and grit the back of my neck. It stung; I’d gotten sunburned despite the little bit of shade from the bushes. It was supposedly winter in the southern hemisphere in July, but the arid landscapes of the south-central outback allowed for warmer temperatures than I expected. In the afternoons, the temperature often rose to seventy degrees. Not that hot, when you thought about it, but all of us wore full battle dress uniform and camo got warm on a sunny day. No wonder Julie could smell me this morning.
I watched the monster a bit longer before turning to Will. “What’s it doing?”
Will took his binoculars back. “No idea. It’s down on all fours like a regular dog, sniffing at a clump of grass. Maybe it needs to take a leak.”
We were both so engrossed by the Dingo that a tap on my shoulder made me jump a foot off ground. Clutching my chest in case my heart decided to seize up, I glared at our visitor. “Dang it, Master Sergeant! You gotta stop doing that!”
Schmitz squatted down next to me. “And you need to watch your back, sunshine.”
“Weren’t you doing that?” I asked. “You said you’d scout the area and keep watch while we spied on Scooby Doo down there.”
“That’s no excuse not to be more aware of your surroundings.” He gave Will a hard nudge in the shoulder. “You, too, Cruessan. You’ve had enough training for that to sink in.”
“Understood, Master Sergeant,” Will said, sounding weary.
“So what you got there, Archer?” Schmitz asked, peering over the cliff’s edge. “That’s one big Dingo.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Want to go after it?”
Schmitz watched the monster for another minute before answering. “Let me check in with Major Tannen, first. He’d kick my ass if I took you two on an unauthorized hunt. Stay put.”
He headed back to the Humvee. While we waited, a wisp of alien thought snaked into my mind.
They’re coming, it whispered. Keep watch.
I jerked and pressed a hand to my temple. Being chosen as pet-wielder by a sentient knife was freaky enough, but it’d recently started talking to me. In the back of my head.
I wasn’t sure I liked sharing brain-space with the blade; it was hard to explain that I heard “voices” without sounding crazier than an outhouse rat. Still, the relationship had its uses. Things like monster-radar, for example, which let me know if trouble was on the way.
Kind of like…oh, crap, right now.
The knife set off my early-warning system with a punch of adrenaline. Goose bumps rose on my arms, a feeling like ten-thousand nails on a chalkboard, and my pulse raced as if I’d just sprinted a mile. Already breaking out in a cold sweat, I stood fast and yanked the binoculars out of Will’s hands.
“Hey, grab-master, I wasn’t using those or anything,” Will said.
I ignored him, refocusing the binoculars to scan the area around us. Schmitz stood by the Humvee, talking on the satellite-phone. Nothing else moved, not even the wind, but I didn’t like the silence. I checked downrange—the Dingo we’d been watching had disappeared.
“Will, go tell Schmitz we have incoming.”
Will didn’t ask any questions; he just ran for Schmitz, leaving our gear in a pile on the edge of the cliff. While I waited, I unsheathed my knife. The handle flashed a pale blue in the sunshine—a warning that monsters were near. Yeah, trouble was definitely on its way.
A soft breeze raised the hairs on my neck and I drew in big gulps of air, trying to slow my pulse. I could be calm. I could wait.
A low, grating growl echoed against the rocks, right behind me.
Then again, maybe not.
Be ready, the knife commanded. Turn. Now!
I whirled around as the Dingo leapt over the ledge, closing the distance between us. Its momentum tumbled us both to the ground in a rolling snarl of limbs. Teeth I had to believe would rival a shark’s snapped at my nose and the thing’s breath smelled like week-old hamburger left out in the sun. Holding in a gag, I jerked my head out of its reach and twisted my hips, rolling us one last time so that I ended up on top of the dog pile.
I lifted the knife, preparing to send this monster back to whatever Hell it came from, but the Dingo grabbed the front of my jacket, pulling me so close that we were literally eye-to-eye. “Not so fast there, mate. Take a look behind you. Go on…I’ll wait.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I hadn’t exactly sat down to chat with any of the Dingoes, and this one’s conversational tone freaked me out. The Bears I’d fought back home had sounded like cavemen, mangling what barely passed for English. Hearing the Dingo rasp out perfect English in an Aussie accent made my insides quiver. Gripping the knife tight in my fist, I chanced a quick glance over my shoulder.
Three new Dingoes had surrounded the Humvee and the ring-tailed one we’d been watching downrange lifted Will off the ground with a meaty paw wrapped around his throat. Will stood six-four in his socks and weighed two-twenty—all solidly packed muscle—yet the thing held him up with only one hand.
Schmitz was nowhere to be found. During my boot camp, he’d taught me how to creep through the forest unnoticed; leave it to him to find a way to hide in the middle of a desert. Okay, hopefully that meant he was planning a diversion. I forced myself to let out a slow breath.
“So I looked,” I said, hoping I sounded snide instead of scared. “What do you want?”
The Dingo I had penned chuckled, calling my attention back to it. “You humans are easy to break, yeah? Let me up, or your friend loses his head. Get it?”
If we got out of this mess alive, I’d have plenty to add to my report. We knew the monsters’ intelligence had increased at a rapid pace, but tactics like these were beyond anything we’d seen. I glared into the Dingo’s beady eyes. “Yeah, I get it.”
I stood slowly, keeping my hands up. The Dingo rose on its hind legs, as well, never breaking eye-contact. I knew it would tell me to drop the knife any second, so I had to think of something fast, or we were all Alpo.
There weren’t many options, though. If I killed the leader, I might have time to retrieve the knife and throw it at the one holding Will before it broke his neck. The knife never missed—it’d hit the target. But what about the other three?
To buy some time I asked, “So, why’d you decide today was the day you wanted to die?”
The Lead-Dingo was less than impressed with my trash talk. “I don’t think you’re in a position to ask those kinds of questions, mate.” It jerked its head toward the Humvee. “Squeeze him.”
Will cried out. I hazarded another look. Ring-tail banged him hard against the Humvee. Even from this distance, I could tell Will’s face was turning purple. He scrabbled at the thing’s paws with his fingers and kicked at its midsection, but it didn’t loosen its grip.
Think, think! How would I pull this off? I could get in position to take out the leader, but without a diversion, would I be fast enough to save Will, too? I honestly didn’t know.
Edging toward the Humvee, I said, “There’s no reason to kill him. I’m the one you want.”
“Well, not entirely,” the Lead-Dingo said. “But you’ll do for a start.”
We knew the Dingoes were out here searching for someone. All the monsters seemed to be hunting for a particular person, showing up in very specific places and killing their way across the countryside while they searched. We figured the Dingoes were looking for a shaman from the Aboriginal tribes living in the area, someone who might have a crucial piece of magic to stop them. Maybe dogface here would confirm that for me.
I shuffled a few more steps. “What do you mean ‘not entirely?’”
The Lead-Dingo snorted, sounding so much like a Labradoodle that I had to swallow a hysterical laugh. It noticed and bared its teeth at me. “You think I’m just an animal, senseless enough to answer your questions. How…human.”
Okay, if I couldn’t get it talking, maybe I could piss it off. “We’ve already established the fact that I’m human and you’re not.” I stepped closer to the Humvee, moving slow. “But I’ll debate the animal thing—you’re nothing but an overgrown dog in my opinion. You don’t even have opposable thumbs.”
The beast snarled and showed me the whites of its eyes. “You sound awfully confident for a dead boy. I’ve killed plenty like you, and I’ll kill plenty more.”
Rage thrummed through my chest. Some of it wasn’t mine; the knife was spoiling for a fight, too. “I’d like to see you try, because I’ve killed plenty like you, too.” I gave the Lead-Dingo a cold, hard smile. “And I’ll live to kill plenty more after you’re dead.”
The monster stalked a few steps toward me, its back claws gouging deep trails in the dirt. I used its approach as an excuse to scoot closer to the pack of Dingoes by the vehicle.
When it didn’t rise to the taunt, I said, “Well, you got anything to say to that? Oh, wait…you aren’t going to answer my questions.” I tightened my grip on the knife. This would be tight. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
The Lead-Dingo lunged and I brought the knife up just as a huge “Boom!” echoed across the plain. The ground shuddered beneath my feet and I dropped to my knees. The Lead-Dingo stumbled, howling something in his native language. Two of the others took off running.
Another explosion came, closer this time, sending pebbles sliding down the hill. In the confusion, I popped into a crouch and launched myself at the Lead-Dingo. It scrambled backward as I slashed at its chest, but it slipped on the loose rocks littering the ground and landed on its back. Moving at warp speed, I was right there to land a blow to the heart before it had a chance to stand. It jerked once as the knife slid between its ribs, then was still.
The Dingo holding Will howled and slammed him against the Humvee so hard, he went limp. I yanked the knife free from the carcass and hurled it with all my might. The knife flew like a guided missile and slammed into the thing’s chest, sending it toppling over backward. Will tumbled down on top of it.
The last Dingo standing let out a yip and ran after the others. I sprinted down the hill as fast as I could without sliding on the carpet of pebbles and reached Will just as Schmitz came charging up the hill from the other direction. Together we tugged Will off the dead Dingo.
Will groaned and sat up. His neck was red and scratched, but otherwise he looked fine. “Holy Elway’s ghost, dude,” he said in a raspy voice, “I thought we were dead this time.”
Relieved, I sat on the ground next to him. “Nah, just beat up.” I looked up at Schmitz, who was peering across the desert. “Where’d the other ones go?”
“Not sure. I figured they’d come after me when I set off those grenades, but they kept running, right on out of sight. Even that last one just passed me by like I wasn’t there,” Schmitz said. “Real Dingoes live in packs, but there’s always an Alpha. Maybe losing the boss shook them up.”
There’s always a new leader, the knife whispered. Stay alert.
I loved it when the knife was cheery and optimistic like that. “I bet you’re right Master Sergeant.” I stretched, popping about six vertebrae in the process. Tumbling in the dirt with a nine-foot-tall monster wasn’t good for my back, apparently. “Anybody else ready to call it a day?”
“Amen to that,” Schmitz said.