The canyon still again.
He glanced up at the nearest wall, that mysterious metal object still shining in the sun. Impossible to be sure, but from his perspective, it looked like an eighty- or ninety-foot climb, and though he couldn’t quite get a fix on the reason, he felt a strong urge to get off the canyon floor as soon as possible.
Ethan wiped the gore off his face with the sleeves of his sweatshirt and scrambled back from the wall so he could get a better look at it. Took a moment to study all possible routes up the cliff face, finally deciding on one that would take him up a series of dwindling ledges to the base of a wide crack that ran all the way up to the object of his curiosity.
He walked to the wall.
In the afterglow of the fight, his body felt absolutely electric.
Be a good thing to plug this energy into a climb.
Reaching up to the first wide ledge, Ethan found a decent lip on the rock and pulled himself up.
The flexion of his stomach muscles was agonizing, compounded by the fact that they were integral to nearly every movement.
But he pushed through the pain.
Twenty feet up the wall, Ethan found a spot on a ledge where he could easily stand, and leaned back into the rock.
It had been years since he’d done any climbing, and his inefficiency was evident in the sheer physical toll just the first twenty feet had taken. He was climbing with his arms instead of relying on the power of his legs, and already he was drenched in sweat, the saltwater running down into every nick, every slice, every cut.
He carefully shuffled back around and placed his hands on the rock. The ledge was shadowed from the sun and the stone as cold as ice. From the ground, this next section had seemed fairly straightforward—a wealth of good footholds and the kind of knobby rock that lent itself to climbing. But now, standing twenty feet above the canyon floor and staring up a near-vertical pitch, the handholds didn’t look quite so inviting, and the distance to the next ledge—where he might grab a much-needed minute of rest—was at least thirty feet.
Ethan shut his eyes and took two deep breaths in an effort to bring his pulse back down to baseline.
You can do this. You have to do this.
A foot above his head, he gripped his smallest handhold yet, and then stepped up onto a gently sloping surface that contained just enough grit to give the soles of his boots several seconds of purchase.
The fear kicked up several notches as Ethan worked his way above the second ledge, trying to ignore that quiet voice lodged in the back of his mind like a splinter, whispering that he was passing out of broken-leg-and-back territory into the caliber of height where a mistake meant death.
He made increasingly risky grabs on progressively smaller hand- and footholds.
Starting out, he’d hesitated between every move, testing and retesting each hold, but no more. Already, his legs had begun to sporadically tighten—a precursor to cramps. If he was hit with one up here on the wall that might very well be the end.
And so he climbed as fast as he could, taking every decent hold he encountered, trying to find comfort in the growing distance between himself and the floor of the canyon, assuring himself that should he fall, it would be far better to just die right off, because a broken leg or back out in this barren wilderness would only mean a slow and agonizing death.
And yet the higher he climbed, the terror gripped him tighter, Ethan fighting the urge to look down, but he couldn’t resist the morbid fascination with how far he was taking himself above the ground.
His right hand finally reached the third ledge.
He strained to haul himself up, digging his left knee into the edge.
By the time he realized there was nothing obvious for his left hand to grasp, he was already committed.
There was an endless second where Ethan hung in midair, one knee perched on the ledge as his center of gravity slowly dragged him back from the wall toward that terrible emptiness beneath him.
He lunged out in total desperation, both hands clawing at the rock, his left just managing to find a crimp at chest level.
For a moment, he didn’t know if he had a sufficient grip to reverse gravity’s undertow and pull himself back onto the ledge, the surface of his fingertips scraping away, his knuckles blanching from the strain.
His backward momentum stopped, and he tugged himself forward by the tips of his fingers until his forehead grazed the wall.
Took everything in his power to swing his right leg up and make himself stand.
This ledge was half the width of the last one and his feet hung off the edge.
Would’ve been impossible to sit down or to remain here for any extended length of time.
The crack in the wall that climbed the remaining distance to that piece of metal opened up just above him. Looked wide enough for Ethan to squeeze into if he could get there, but he didn’t have the strength to try to pull himself up just yet.
He’d nearly died, and his body, head to toe, was still shaking.
The scream ripped him out of his own fear.
He stared fifty feet down to the canyon floor, baffled.
He’d crushed that thing’s skull into pieces.
How the hell—
It wasn’t moving, and it no longer had a mouth to even produce such a noise.
As the next scream—this one a shade lower in pitch—resounded through the canyon, bouncing back and forth between the walls, Ethan looked back toward the electrified fence.
There were five of them moving up-canyon in a pattern that almost resembled a squadron formation, ascending that field of large boulders in fast, elegant leaps.
Ethan pressed his back against the wall, trying to establish as steady a perch as he could find.
The pack leader came sprinting out of the boulder field at full speed, as fast as a dog, and when it reached what Ethan had killed, it skidded to a stop and lowered its head to the ground, sniffing the smashed skull of its compatriot.
As the others closed in, it raised its face to the sky and cut loose a long, brokenhearted moan that resembled the howl of a wolf.
The other four arrived and within ten seconds they were all howling like a choir in mourning, Ethan growing cold as he stood motionless on the ledge listening, his sweat cooling on his skin and the remnants of blood from that thing drying on his face like tiny scabs.
He tried to comprehend what he was seeing and hearing, but there was no explanation.
It was all utterly beyond his experience, and possibly his imagination.
When the howling ended, the group turned to one another and conversed in the strangest language Ethan had ever heard.
Like dreadful birds—an eerie chirping quality to their fast, sharp squawks.