Excerpt — An Oath of Dogs

An Oath of DogsI was taught that people could choose to do evil and that they were free to make that choice. But I never believed I would. I didn’t believe – could not believe – anyone who knew love and kindness and the laws of God could possibly choose evil.

I did not understand what that choice could look like.

– from Meditations on the Meaning of Evil by MW Williams

Chapter One

Duncan’s murderer shoved him across the bench seat until the open glove box filled his field of vision. One of Olive Whitley’s drawings was in there, crinkled under the weight of Duncan’s favorite wrench. He wanted to get up, to look anywhere else, to get himself someplace safe. But his hand only scrabbled weakly against the cheap fabric of the seat. He could hear the bubbles popping in his lungs as his airways filled up with blood.

The other bastard, the one who’d picked up the bolt gun and cleaned off the prints, said something. His voice was too low to make out clearly.

“Then hide it in the woods.” Duncan’s killer gave Dunc’s leg a shove. “The deep woods – someplace no one will go.” He pulled himself up into the utility vehicle with a little grunt. The door slammed shut. “You brought this all on yourself,” he said, his voice conversational, as if he was just making small talk at the Night Light over pool. “You shouldn’t have come out here, Duncan. Huginn is no place for a limpwristed treehugger like yourself.”

Duncan coughed out a spray of blood that spattered across the UTV’s dash in a fine mist. Dark blood, not bright arterial stuff. He felt a little surge of hope. Maybe he wouldn’t bleed out after all. He wished he could move his arms and pull the bolt out from between his ribs.

The utility vehicle jolted forward, shaking his body. “What the hell were you thinking going out there to Sector 13? You got that data line installed. You had no reason to go back.”

“Fuckers,” Duncan managed to choke out. The horrible burning in his chest sent a burst of pain deeper inside him. He gagged on blood. He had a great deal more to say, but his body wasn’t about to oblige him. What he knew about the company and the woods would stay unspoken now.

“Don’t worry. Nobody else is as snoopy as you. And nobody’s going to find you. I don’t think anyone’s going to look too hard – not the sheriff, and not your old fuckbuddy, either.” He was probably right. Not many people asked questions like Duncan did, and nobody listened to the answers carefully enough.

The UTV lurched and jolted on the rough road. Branches shrieked as they scraped across the vehicle’s roof. The door vibrated as something slammed into it. They had to be headed out toward Sector 13. Duncan wished he could look at something else besides the goddamned glove box. Olive’s picture was ruined – the spatters of his blood obscured the details of the little creatures she’d drawn. He was going to miss that kid. She could see the world around her, really see it, the way most people didn’t even want to.

The bumping and thudding slowed until the UTV eased to a stop. The other man climbed down out of the rig, and for a moment it was just Duncan and his blood spatters and Olive’s drawing. The colors wriggled and danced, the bright pinks and luscious yellows he’d never seen in anything living before he’d come to Huginn. If there was one thing he regretted about his life, it was that it had taken him so long to get to this stupid, wonderful moon. He thought about trying to pick up the drawing. Olive had wanted him to keep it.

Then the passenger door flew open and his armpits were seized. He slid out of the vehicle and hit the ground, hard.

His killer grabbed his arms. Duncan tried to twist away from him, but he didn’t have the energy. He could barely breathe, although he could smell the woods all around him. The bright perfume of crushed button ferns brought a familiar sting to his nose.

He was going to die in the woods alone. The thought made him go cold.

“Wodin’s coming up.” The man grunted as he yanked Duncan over a fallen horsetail tree. He was skinnier and shorter than Duncan, and Duncan felt a perverse pleasure in the man’s struggle. “Going to be full dark in about an hour. Lucky for me, the dogs don’t usually come out until Wodin’s high, and I’ll be back in town by then.”

Duncan made a little whimper.

“That’s right. The dogs. Jeff Eames said he saw the dogs on his farm last night. That’s not that far from here, really. They say a dog can smell blood up to four kilometers away. You think that’s right?”

The skinny man dropped Duncan’s arms, and Duncan fell onto his back. The broad limbs of a horsetail tree spread out above him, the candelabra arms nearly blocking out the sky. Full dark might not be for an hour, but it was plenty dark under the trees.

“I hope they don’t find you, Chambers. We’ve all seen what the dogs do to the dead.”

He walked away, his fancy cowboy boots jingling with every step. Duncan listened for the chiming to fade. Finally the silence seemed complete, and he found the strength to push himself closer to the tree, where the up-swellings of its roots lifted up his head a bit. It was harder to breathe now. He guessed he only had a minute left, maybe two. At least he could see the forest around him.

A leather bird dropped down beside him. Its eyeless face stretched toward him, its nostrils vibrating as it drew in his scent. The creature’s soft clicking, the sound of a scorpion’s feet on dry stone, made his skin prickle. Another landed next to it.

He choked on blood, coughed, gagged. The nearest leather bird rushed at him, its belly splitting open to taste the air. The yellow stinger inside shot out.

Duncan Chambers closed his eyes. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled.

Copyright © 2017 by Wendy N Wagner. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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