Ethan tightened his grip on the rock, fighting against a wave of dizziness, the world tilting beneath him.
All five of them were sniffing the ground now in the vicinity of the dead one—haunches high, faces jammed down between the rocks.
Ethan tried not to panic as it hit him, but he realized something standing there above the monsters—after they left, there was no way he could climb back down. Not even off this ledge. The only way off this wall, where he’d so thoroughly bitten off more than he could chew, was up.
One of the creatures suddenly barked a high, piercing shriek.
The others rushed over, gathering around and chirping frantically, and then the largest of the bunch—easily twice the size of the one that had attacked Ethan—broke out ahead of the others, its nose still to the ground.
Only as it reached the base of the cliff did Ethan finally understand.
The creature pressed its nose into the rock and then came up on its legs.
It backed slowly away...
...and looked up, straight at Ethan.
They’re following my trail.
The canyon fell silent.
Five sets of milky eyes studying Ethan up on the ledge.
He could hear his heart raging in his chest like someone trying to beat a way out of a padded room.
A single thought scrolling through his mind on an endless loop...
Can they climb?
As if in answer, the large one who’d first picked up his trail reared back on its hind legs and sprang off the ground in a five-foot jump from a stationary position.
Stuck to the wall as if covered in Velcro, the points of its talons digging into tiny crevices in the rock that Ethan could never have used.
It gazed up the cliff face at Ethan as the others began leaping onto the wall.
Ethan looked up at the crack above his head, searching until he spotted a workable handhold just out of reach.
He jumped, palming a cluster of sharp, dark crystals as he heard the click of talons on rock ascending toward him.
He scrambled up the wall, got his other hand on a level surface inside the crack, and pulled himself the rest of the way into the opening of the chute.
It was tight, less than three feet across, but he forced his boots into the walls and created just enough opposing pressure to keep himself suspended.
He stared down.
The big one had already reached the second ledge, climbing fast, fearless, with no sign of fatigue.
The others close behind.
Ethan turned his attention to what lay above—a chute enclosed on three sides. Not much in the way of handholds, but he figured he could chimney up.
He began to climb, the enclosure of the rock giving a welcome, if false, sense of security.
Every few feet, he glanced down between his legs, his view now obscured by the rock surrounding him, but he could still see that thing out in front, moving effortlessly between the second and third ledges up a section of the wall where Ethan had struggled.
Twenty feet up the crack, seventy above the canyon floor, his thighs burning.
Couldn’t tell how much farther he had to go to reach that piece of metal that had gotten him into the shit to begin with. On the other hand, if he’d been down in the canyon when those things had shown up, they’d be eating him right now. So maybe in retrospect that shimmering metal that prompted this ballsy climb had actually prolonged, if not saved, his life.
The monster reached the third ledge and, without a moment’s hesitation to rest or consider its next move, leaped off the narrow shelf of rock.
A single talon at the end of its left arm caught on a square millimeter of surface just inside the opening to the crack, and in a feat of brute strength, it pulled itself up with one arm and squeezed into the chute.
Ethan locked eyes with the monster as it began to climb on foot- and handholds so insignificant Ethan had disregarded them, traveling at least twice as fast as Ethan could manage.
Nothing to do but keep climbing.
He struggled up another five feet.
The monster twenty-five feet away and close enough that Ethan could see the pink pounding of its massive heart, obscured through its skin as if tucked behind thick, frosted glass.
Ten more feet and then the crack appeared to lead out onto flat, vertical, horrifying wall.
The handholds near the top looked good, Ethan realizing that if he kept chimneying that thing was going to reach him before he made it out.
He switched to hand-over-hand climbing, racing up the last ten feet.
Just before the top, one of the holds broke loose and he nearly lost his balance.
Caught himself before he fell.
He could feel the wind streaming across the opening to the chute.
Glimpsed something catching sunlight straight above.
He’d almost blown the chance to save himself.
With the monster fifteen feet away and two more trailing close behind it in the chute, Ethan reached down, the loose handhold that had nearly killed him just within reach.
He tore the chunk of rock from its housing, hoisted it over his head.
It was a handful, even bigger than he’d thought—two pounds of quartz-laced granite.
He wedged himself between the rock, took aim, and let it fly.
It struck the creature dead center of its face just as it was reaching for a new handhold.
Its grip failed.
It plunged down the chute.
Talons scraping rock.
Its velocity too great to self-arrest.
It hit the one beneath it at a high enough rate of speed to knock it from its perch, the pair crashing as one into the third, and then all three screaming for two long seconds as they shot out of the bottom of the chute, bounced off the third ledge, and accelerated toward the rocks below where they slammed aground in a tangle of badly bent appendages and broken skulls.
Ethan emerged out of the chute squinting against the flash of brilliance now just a few feet above his head.
He was at least a hundred feet above the canyon floor, and his stomach churned. From his new vantage point, he could now see that the opposite wall climbed another five or six hundred feet to a razor ridge, which in itself looked impassable.
If his wall did the same, he might as well jump off now, because he didn’t have it in him to climb another hundred feet, much less five.
The two remaining creatures on the wall snapped him out of the despair. Instead of following the others up the chute, they had climbed around, one on each side—slower going, but they were still alive and now thirty feet below Ethan.
He reached up and grabbed a ledge under the shiny metal, got both elbows onto the widest shelf of rock he’d seen, and hauled himself up, face-to-face with a steel vent protruding several inches out of the rock. It was square, approximately twenty-four inches across, the blades of a fan spinning counterclockwise directly behind it.