Pyotr’s chest hits the edge of the pit hard, catapulting shattered lath and earth in an explosion of dirt and blood cry. Bouncing backwards into the pit, he’s gone in an instant, taking with him his mother’s fair hair, slight frame and lightning temper.
“Pyotr!” I watch impotently, my twitching finger resting on the trigger of the .50 cal. Mykola rushes the pit, his goggles still half muddied with twitcher blood and blowing dust. Dear God, I pray, I won’t lose two sons today. I flip the machine gun to rapid fire and depress the trigger. In the split second between my body’s assent and the gunpowder’s explosion in the chamber of the .50 caliber, my mind registers Pyotr’s face lunging above the edge of the pit.
I tug the aim high and watch dirt kick up immediately behind him. Several thunderous rounds tick off before I can release the trigger. Pyotr’s dagger flashes, the tip facing backwards, as he launches his upper body from the side of the pit bringing his full weight down with the savage blow.
Shrieking in pain, the twitcher’s torso emerges from the pit for the first time, and a chill grips me. So dark red as to nearly be black, the beast’s face is a blur of movements too rapid to discern—it’s physical actions outstripping my racing mind’s ability to interpret them. Twice it slams Pyotr’s body into the side of the pit. Gripping my son from behind with only one hand, a vaporous boil of blood bursts from its injured shoulder with each rapid pulse of its heart.
“Dammit, Pyotr. Get out of there.” Mykola’s standing only five feet away, already dangerously close. But his shotgun would tear both of them apart. I rest my finger on the trigger. One more second and I’ll have no choice. If the twitcher decides Mik is more of a threat it could be on him before there’s time to respond.
Then the miraculous happens. In the flurry of uncontrollable movement Pyotr guesses right. Grasping his ax with his left he throws a backward jab with his dagger in his right. The thrust, directed originally at thin air, catches the twitcher’s dancing head in its jaw. Spasming in pain, the monster throws Pyotr through the air like a rag doll, ax and all.
Gunfire explodes as both Mykola and I unleash hell’s fury. But the twitcher’s lightning quickness renders the .50 cal. worthless, like trying to shoot quail out of the sky with a pistol. Mykola blasts the animal’s leg off with his first shot—five feet away with the choke set to full spread and he nearly misses.
The twitcher spins and takes a moment to regain balance on one leg, focusing on Mykola now. The trigger still depressed, I sweep the ground aiming for his second leg while battering the desolate plains with the machine gun’s echoing thunder. The recoil starts to tip the truck, and I adjust my aim accordingly. Mykola pumps another round into the chamber and fires at the twitcher’s midriff.
Both of us are late as the twitcher leaps toward my youngest. The shotgun blast rips off another leg, but fails to stop it. In a desperate effort Mykola grips the shotgun like a bat. Suddenly with a whuffing thud Pyotr’s ax strikes the twitcher full mast and in mid-flight. With a final blood cry the beast’s torso knocks Mykola to the ground and falls motionless, bleeding out in the ruddy dirt.
I slam Leviathan’s gyros into a full 360 sweep of the horizon, searching for twitchers who may have heard the gunfire, and come up empty. In the seconds it takes me to remount the machine gun onto the truck and begin lowering the ramps, Leonid lifts Mykola to his feet. Mykola dashes toward Pyotr while Leonid dislodges the ax from the dead twitcher.
All three sons are huddled together by the time I bring Leviathan’s treads to a stop right beside them. “Pete? Dammit, Pete.”
Mykola leans back so I can see my middle born. Leonid has him propped up, and he’s smiling.