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.
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.