It was lonely country up here beyond the fence, the rock all fractured and lightning-blasted.
The absence of clouds only underscoring the mood of absolute desolation.
After his time in Wayward Pines, it felt surreal to be this alone again, so far removed from other people. But in the back of his mind, a new worry had begun to eat at him. The canyon appeared to climb another thousand feet to a high, wind-ripped ridge. If his strength held, he might reach it by dusk. Spend another long, cold night trying to sleep on shattered rock. But then what? He would soon be out of food, and though water still bloated his stomach from the last drink he’d taken before the stream vanished, the exertion he was putting his body through would bleed him dry again in no time.
But even more than the looming threat of hunger and thirst, he feared what lay beyond that distant ridge at the top of the drainage.
Miles and miles of wilderness, if he had to guess, and though he still retained a modicum of survival training from his military days, when it came down to it, he was beat to shit and tired as hell. The prospect of walking out of these mountains and back into civilization struck him as beyond daunting.
And yet, what choice did he have?
Return to Wayward Pines?
He’d rather freeze to death alone out here than ever set foot in that place again.
Ethan made his way through a section of the canyon clogged with massive boulders, carefully hopping from one to the next. He could hear water running underneath him again, but the stream was invisible, unreachable, hidden down in the black space beneath the dogpile of boulders.
High on the left-hand wall of the canyon, something threw a sharp glint of sunlight.
Ethan stopped and cupped his hand over his eyes and squinted toward the blinding glimmer. From where he stood in the belly of the canyon, all he could see was a square, metal surface a good ways up the wall, its proportions too perfect, too exact, to be anything but man-made.
He jumped to the next boulder, now moving with greater speed, greater intensity, and constantly glancing up at the wall as he went along, but the nature of that reflective surface remained elusive.
On ahead, the canyon looked more reasonable, the boulders downsized into traversable terrain.
He was considering whether he could make the climb to that piece of metal when the crackle of falling rock disrupted his thoughts.
For a terrifying instant, Ethan imagined a landslide heading his way, a thousand tons of rock raining down off the wall, crushing him to death.
But the sound had originated behind him, not above, Ethan turning, glancing back the way he’d come, figuring it was just a boulder he’d moved across and dislodged several minutes ago, now finally shifting in his wake.
Still, there was something eerie about registering a sound other than his own labored breathing or the movement of rocks in his immediate vicinity. He’d grown so accustomed to the stillness of this isolated drainage.
He could see down-canyon for a long ways, his eyes initially fixing on the electrified fence a quarter mile back, but then on movement much closer, inside a hundred yards. At first he thought it must be one of those marmots, but it was scrambling with a weightless, feline agility, almost too quickly from rock to rock, and as he squinted to bring it into focus, Ethan saw that it didn’t have fur at all. It looked albino, covered with pale, milky skin.
Ethan instinctively backpedaled as he realized he’d grossly underestimated its size. It wasn’t moving over small rocks. It was moving through that field of giant boulders Ethan had just emerged from, which meant it was actually closer in size to a human being and traveling at an intimidating speed, barely even stopping between leaps.
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.