Talons clicked on the rock below.
Ethan gripped the sides of the vent, pulled.
It didn’t budge—it had been welded to the duct.
He stood up on the ledge and ran his hands over the surface of the wall until he came to what he was after—a large, twenty-pound wedge of granite that looked poised to fall.
He lifted it and smashed it down on top of the vent where it joined the duct.
The alloy disintegrated, the upper left-hand edge of the vent popping loose.
The creatures were ten feet below him now, so close he could smell the decay of their last kill wafting off them like some savage cologne.
He raised the rock again, brought it down in a crushing blow to the right-hand corner.
The vent snapped free and clanged down the cliff, bouncing off the rock and nearly striking one of the creatures on its descent.
All that stood between Ethan and the darkness of a ventilation shaft were the spinning blades of the air intake.
He rammed the rock into them and brought their revolutions to a halt.
Three hard blows completely detached the unit from its mount, Ethan reaching in, grabbing it by the blades, and slinging it over the cliff.
He picked up the rock, held it high, and dropped it on the closest creature as its talons reached for the ledge.
It fell screeching.
Its partner watched until it hit the ground, and then looked back at Ethan.
Ethan smiled, said, “You’re next.”
The thing studied him, its head tilting like it could understand or at least wanted to. It clung to the rock just below the ledge, within easy reach, Ethan waiting for it to make its move, but it held position.
Ethan spun around, searching the cliff wall within reach for another loose rock and coming up empty.
When he turned back, the monster was still perched on the wall.
Ethan wondered if he should climb on until he came across another sizeable rock.
Bad idea. You’d have to down-climb to get back to this ledge.
Ethan crouched, unlaced his left boot. Pulled it off, and then did the same with his right.
He held it—not nearly the heft of a rock, but perhaps it could do the job. Grasping it by the heel, he made a dramatic show of cocking back his arm as he stared down into the monster’s milky eyes.
“You know what’s coming, don’t you?”
Ethan feigned a throw.
It didn’t flinch and come off the rock as he’d hoped, just pressed in closer to the wall.
The next time wasn’t a fake, but Ethan threw so hard the boot sailed over the creature’s head and took an uninterrupted fall into the canyon.
He lifted the other boot, took aim, threw.
Direct hit to the face.
The boot bounced off and tumbled away as the creature, still clinging to the wall, looked up at Ethan and hissed.
A visage of murderous intent.
“How long can you hold on, you think?” Ethan asked. “You must be getting tired.” He reached down, pretending to offer a hand. “I’ll help you the rest of the way. You just have to trust.” The way it watched him was unnerving—a definite intelligence all the more frightening because he couldn’t know how deep it went.
Ethan sat on the rock.
“I’ll be right here,” he said. “Until you fall.”
He watched its heart beating.
He watched it blinking.
“You are one ugly motherfucker.” Ethan chuckled. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist. It’s from a movie. Seriously, what the hell are you?”
Fifteen minutes crept by.
Late afternoon now.
The sun beginning to drop, the floor of the canyon already in darkness.
It was cold up here on the rock.
A few clouds streaming overhead, but they were inconsequential and swallowed up in all that crystal blue like afterthoughts.
The five talons on the creature’s left arm began to quiver, rattling against the microscopic handhold, and something in its eyes had changed. Still plenty of rage, but now an added element—fear?
Its head swiveled, surveying all the rock within reach.
Ethan had already made the same inspection and arrived at the same conclusion.
“Yeah, this is it, pal. This ledge. My ledge. Your only option.”
A tremor moved through its right leg, and Ethan had opened his mouth to suggest the creature just let go when it leaped from its footholds, elevating three feet and simultaneously swiping its right claw in a wide, flat arc.
It would have torn his face open, but he ducked—talons grazing the top of his head—and then Ethan rose up on both legs, ready to kick this thing off the cliff.
But he didn’t need to.
It had never had a chance of reaching the ledge in its weakened state—had merely taken one last shot at bringing Ethan down with it.
The fall apparently came as no surprise, because it didn’t make a sound and it didn’t flail its arms or legs.
Just stared up at Ethan as it plummeted toward the sunless floor of the canyon, body as motionless as if in the midst of a high dive.
Fully resigned, maybe even at peace, with its fate.
Yesterday, she hadn’t left her room.
Hadn’t even left her bed.
She had prepared for his death.
Had known it was coming.
But watching the sun rise on a world without Ethan had nearly killed her regardless. Somehow, the light had made it real. The people out on morning walks. Even the chattering magpies in the side-yard birdfeeder. It was the continuance of things that crushed her already broken heart. The gears of the world turning on while she lived with his absence like a black tumor in her chest, the grief so potent she could barely bring herself to breathe.
Today, she had ventured outside, now sitting listless in the soft grass of her backyard in a patch of sunshine. She’d been staring up at the surrounding mountain walls for hours, watching the light move across them and trying not to think about a single thing.
The sound of approaching footsteps broke her reverie.
She looked back.
Pilcher was coming toward her.
During her time in Wayward Pines, she’d seen the man around town on numerous occasions, but they’d never spoken—she’d been warned about that from the beginning. Not a word exchanged since that rainy night five years ago in Seattle, when he’d shown up on her doorstep with the most outlandish proposition.
Pilcher sat down beside her in the grass.
He took off his glasses, set them on his leg, said, “I’m told you missed your harvest day at the co-op.”
“I haven’t left my house in two days.”
“And what’s that supposed to accomplish?” he asked.