Ethan tripped over a rock and jumped back onto his feet, his respirations revving.
The thing near enough that he could hear it breathing—panting—its claws clicking on the stone each time it landed on a new boulder, each leap bringing it closer to Ethan, just fifty yards away now and a sick heat beginning to ferment in Ethan’s stomach.
This is what he’d seen night before last from that alcove above the river.
This is what he’d dreamt about.
But what the hell was it?
How could such a thing exist?
He started up the canyon as fast as he’d dared to move all day, glancing back every other step.
The thing leaped off the last of the large boulders and came down with the grace of a ballerina, now scuttling on all fours, low to the ground like a wild boar, the grating noise of its panting getting louder as it closed the distance between them at such an alarming rate Ethan arrived instantly at the conclusion that there was no point in trying to outrun it.
He stopped and turned to face what was coming, torn between trying to process what was happening and simply preparing himself to survive.
Twenty yards away now, and the nearer it got, the less Ethan liked what he saw.
It was short-torsoed.
Long legs and longer arms, each tipped with a row of black talons.
Hundred and ten, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds.
And above all, humanoid, its skin in the sunlight as translucent as a baby mouse’s—mapped with a network of blue veins and purple arteries and even its heart faintly visible as a pinkish throb just right of center mass.
At ten yards, Ethan braced himself, the creature’s small head lowering for the charge, snarling as strings of bloody saliva dangled from the corners of its lipless mouth, creamy eyes hard-focused on its target.
Ethan caught a whiff of its stench two seconds before impact—fetid, decayed flesh spiced with rotted blood.
It screamed—a strangely human-sounding cry—as it launched, Ethan trying to sidestep at the last possible instant, but it had anticipated this, throwing one of its four-foot arms and hooking Ethan around the waist, talons easily penetrating the thick fabric of the hoodie and piercing into Ethan’s side.
A searing flash of pain, and then the creature’s forward momentum jerked Ethan off his feet, slamming him to the rocks with enough force to drive the air out of his lungs.
Ethan gasped for oxygen as it attacked.
Slashing wildly as Ethan held up his arms in an effort to protect his face from the five-taloned claws that were as sharp as a bird of prey’s, tearing easily through his clothing, through his skin.
It had managed, in a matter of seconds, to straddle Ethan, the claws at the ends of its legs digging into his calves like nails pinning him to the ground.
In all the fury, Ethan glimpsed its face.
Large, craterous nostrils.
Small, opaque eyes.
Skull hairless and the skin stretched so tight and thin over its cranium he could see where the skull plates fit together like puzzle pieces.
Gums lined with double rows of tiny, razor cuspids.
It seemed like he’d been fighting this thing for hours—time slowed into sluggish, terrifying increments—though in reality, only seconds had elapsed, Ethan’s combat training struggling to kick-start, his mind beginning to rise above the fear and the confusion, struggling to quash the mad panic that had engulfed him. The more dangerous and chaotic the situation, the more clearly you needed to think to evaluate how you were going to survive, and so far, he’d failed. Allowed this encounter to sap most of his strength, and if he didn’t get control of his fear and his energy output, in another sixty seconds, he wouldn’t have the ability—mental or physical—to even try to fight back.
The creature landed its deepest strike yet—an excruciating score across Ethan’s stomach, slicing through fabric, skin, the shallow layer of fat on top of Ethan’s well-defined abs, and finally skimming across the surface of raw muscle.
As it burrowed its head into Ethan’s stomach, he could feel its teeth tearing through the hoodie, Ethan coming to the horrific realization of what this monster was actually trying to do—gut him with its built-in knives and have a feast right here in the canyon while Ethan watched and bled out.
Ethan smashed his fist into the side of its head—an awkward blow but a hard one.
The thing looked up from Ethan’s stomach and produced an angry, roaring screech.
Then raised its right claw and swung at Ethan’s neck.
He blocked the oncoming strike with his left arm as he reached across the ground with his right, fingers desperately searching for a weapon.
The luster of pure rage in the creature’s eyes was unmistakable.
It pushed off Ethan’s stomach, its hideous face driving toward his neck, teeth bared.
It’s going to tear my throat out.
Ethan’s hand seized on a rock, fingers struggling for a decent grip.
He swung as hard as he’d ever swung at anything in his life, the stone heavy, the size of a paperweight, and when its blunt end crunched into the side of the monster’s head, the thing faltered, coal-black pupils dilating in those milky eyes, its jaw gone slack with a kind of stunned amazement.
Ethan didn’t hesitate.
Shot straight up and drove the rock through that mouthful of jagged brown canines, teeth breaking as the thing tumbled back, Ethan following with another strike, this one a catastrophic blow to its gaping nose.
It crashed to the ground, deep red blood pouring out of its nose and mouth as it screamed in livid disbelief, throwing weak talon-slashes that didn’t have the force or velocity behind them to even break skin.
Ethan straddled the thing, one hand crushing its windpipe, the other clutching the rock.
Seven skull-fracturing strikes, and it finally quit moving.
Ethan tossed the blood-smeared rock away and fell back onto his side, drawing long, deep breaths, his face spattered with blood and the occasional bone splinter.
He forced himself to sit up and lift his shirt.
Looked like he’d been in a knife fight, bleeding from numerous places across his torso—long, ugly cuts from those talons. The one across his stomach had done the most damage—a six-inch canyon carved through his abdomen. An inch deeper, and this slash would have opened him wide.
He glanced down at what was left of whatever the hell this thing was.
Didn’t even know how to begin to process it.
He couldn’t make his hands stop shaking, still so much adrenaline chugging through his system.