“Okay . . .” The tip of Isabelle’s tongue pokes out where it’s pressed against her front teeth, her forehead scrunched in concentration as she enters the coordinates that Charlie’s pulled up on her phone. “There. So I’ve set the waypoint, and now I just . . .” She pokes at the screen a few more times.
“Doin’ great.” Charlie’s voice is encouraging, but she looks as nervous as Eli feels. “So which way do we go?”
“The house is . . .” Isabelle turns slowly in place, eyes still locked on the GPS unit in her hand, until she finally lifts her head and points triumphantly. “Half a mile that way!”
“Superb, you funky little Girl Scout!” Charlie takes the unit from Isabelle and gives her a high five. “Let’s get moving. Did you hear that, Eli?” Her eyes lock on his, a little too wide above her encouraging smile. “Just half a mile from the house.”
“That’s . . . great.” Half a mile. Fuck. “Let’s get going.”
Charlie keeps up a steady stream of chatter as they start to walk—it isn’t hard, as Isabelle proves more than willing to go on at length about almost anything once you get her going—and Eli does his best to just let it wash over him. He channels all of his focus, trying to open up his senses and stretch them as far as they can go. Smell is a lost cause with so much to filter through, but hearing is a little bit easier. High-up branches creaking in the wind. The fluttering snap of bird wings. Chattering squirrels. What sounds like a few mid-sized animals making their way through the crunch of fallen leaves.
And then, at the very edge of his perception, what sounds like something bigger moving through the underbrush. The crack of a thick branch snapping under heavy weight. What his suddenly adrenaline-soaked brain is certain is a deep, guttural snarl.
“Hey Isabelle.” She looks up at him quizzically, cutting off whatever she was saying mid-sentence, and he summons up his most challenging smile. “I bet you a super sundae you can’t beat me back to your house.”
“Oh yeah?” There’s a calculating glint in her eyes, and he focuses on that to keep from looking over at Charlie who’s gone tense beside him. “With extra cherries?”
“And extra whipped cream.”
“You’re on!” she says, dropping his hand and immediately bursting into a sprint over the uneven ground. “I want two kinds of ice cream!” she calls back over her shoulder.
“Go,” Eli says, and that’s all the prompting Charlie needs before she starts running as well.
Eli’s run from a lot of things in his life, but he’s never exactly been an athlete. Now, though, his legs and his lungs feel strong, his heart rate barely picking up as he practically flies across the forest floor. There’s a dizzying freedom to it, a stark contrast to the way running always felt before, and he makes a mental note to take the time to enjoy it when he isn’t running for his life from a dangerous monster.
Ahead, Charlie has caught up with Isabelle and is carefully keeping pace, and it would be easy for Eli to do the same, easy to overtake them completely. Instead he hangs back, still trying to listen. He still doesn’t know what he’s doing, but if the rogue is following them he wants to make sure it has to go through him first.
Fuck, that’s stupid. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Charlie, if we make it out of this alive I’m gonna kill you.
He’s still about a dozen yards back when there’s a loud groaning sound from up ahead where the girls are, and Eli watches as the forest floor gives way beneath them and they’re both just suddenly—
Eli only just manages to skid to a stop at the edge of the ten-foot-wide hole that’s opened up in the ground, coughing against the cloud of dust and leaves.
“Isabelle?” he calls, heart in his throat. “Charlie? Are you both okay?”
“Ow.” Isabelle’s voice sounds more annoyed than pained, and Eli sinks down to the ground before his knees give out in relief. “That sucked.”
“We’re okay.” Charlie also sounds winded but otherwise steady. “What the hell, though?” A pause, then: “Shit, I’m probably not supposed to curse in front of you. Fuck!”
Eli’s laughing as he fumbles his phone from his back pocket and turns on the flashlight function. Charlie and Isabelle are getting to their feet, dirt-streaked and rumpled, but steady. The hole isn’t as deep as he’d feared—just a little over ten feet from the look of it—but still too deep for him to reach them.
“Okay, uh.” Eli glances around. “Maybe there’s like . . . a tree branch? Or something? I might be able to pull you guys up.”
“Actually,” Isabelle says, stepping over to one of the walls of what seems to be the small cave they’ve fallen into, “you might not have to.”
“I admire your confidence, girl, but these walls don’t exactly look climbable.” Charlie cranes her neck back to peer up at Eli. “See if you can find something we can grab.”
Eli gets to his feet and starts to look around. He thinks he might be able to snap a branch off one of the smaller trees if he has to. He’s giving one a testing pull when something catches his attention.
Something big is moving through the forest—he can hear it again, closer this time, and headed their way. Logic would dictate that there’s no reason to believe that it’s the rogue. There are lots of animals in these woods. It could just as easily be a bear, or a deer, or maybe even a moose.
But Eli knows. He doesn’t know how, exactly, but he knows. He can feel it, somehow.
The rogue is coming.
“Eli?” Charlie has her phone out, shining the flashlight around to make sure more rubble wasn’t about to collapse on top of them. She knows it’s been all of thirty seconds, but it already feels like they’ve been stuck down here for hours. “Oi, make a noise so I know you’re still up there, would you?”
“Hey.” Eli’s silhouette appears at the top of the hole again, backlit by the midafternoon sun. “I couldn’t find anything. But, um. Charlie, I think our friend is close.”
“Close.” Shit shit shit. They came out here straight after school, she isn’t even packing a can of mace right now. “Are you sure?”
“I can hear him. So. I’m gonna go . . . see if he’ll help. You two just stay here, okay?”
“Woah, hold on.” Charlie feels panic starting to rise up inside her and tries to force it down. “I don’t know if we should be splitting up.”
“Eli?” Isabelle sounds nervous now, and moves back to stand beside Charlie. “You’re leaving?”
“I’ll be back. I promise,” he says fiercely. “It’s gonna be okay.”
He’s gone before either of them can say another word, the sound of his footsteps fading quickly into the distance. Charlie drops into a crouch and pulls off her backpack, digging through it to look for anything that she could repurpose into some sort of weapon. A mechanical pencil is the best she has, unless she can manage to bore the rogue to death by reading it her copy of The Scarlet Letter.
That’s a solid plan B, anyway.
“Charlie.” Isabelle tugs on her sleeve, looking uncertain. “Are you freaking out?”
“I’m good, kiddo. Just . . .” Lie, lie, lie. “I’m not wild about small spaces. That’s all.”
Whatever Isabelle was about to say is cut off by a sound above them: heavy footsteps and heavier breathing, snapping twigs and a snuffling growl. Her eyes go wide and afraid, and seeing that, Charlie shoves down her own fear as she lifts a finger to her lips, then covers her own mouth with one hand. Isabelle follows suit, staring up towards the bare treetops and the blue sky overhead, nearly vibrating with tension.
Charlie braces herself, preparing for a fight. The rogue has to know they’re here by now, has to have caught their scent. Might even already know they’re trapped. She doesn’t know how she’s going to protect Isabelle if it comes down here, but damn it, she’s ready to die trying. Maybe she can give it a bloody nose before it rips her apart.
A howl cuts through the air, echoing from somewhere to the south of them. And then, almost directly above them, an answering howl.
Heavy, thudding footfalls as the creature above them bounds away.
Charlie can’t wrap her head around it. The two of them are sitting ducks, easy prey. A werewolf as far gone as the rogue should be running on pure instinct and bloodlust.
A werewolf as far gone as the rogue shouldn’t be shifting during the day.
“Was that . . . a wolf?” Isabelle squeaks out, and Charlie has to take several deep breaths before she can muster up an answer.
“Probably just a dog.” It’s bullshit, but Isabelle’s what, eight? Charlie can sell this. “Sometimes people dump strays in the woods and they go feral.”
“So.” Isabelle stares up at her, eyebrows raised. “Basically a wolf.”
Charlie laughs. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” She listens carefully, but there’s no hint that the rogue is doubling back. “That was kinda scary though, huh?”
“Yeah.” Isabelle lets out a shaky laugh of her own. “Wait’ll Ms. Dhar hears about this.”
“Maybe you’ll get a bonus Wilderness Survival badge,” Charlie grins.
“Do you think Eli is okay?” Isabelle asks quietly.
“I wouldn’t worry about him.” Charlie looks up again, trying to pretend she believes what she’s saying. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
Eli’s not fine. He’s never been less fine, unless you count the last time he’d been hunted through the underbrush by a monster. He can’t even bring himself to freak out about the damn howl that’d crawled up out of his throat like barbed wire. His freak-o-meter is tapped.
His running isn’t so effortless anymore—not with something just as fast as he is on his tail. The trees whip by like the world’s in fast forward, but he’s still at a disadvantage. He only has two legs; the rogue has four.
His only hope is to make it to civilization before the rogue catches him, but . . . no, not an option. He’s not leading this bastard to people, not when it’s already killed at least once. Eli won’t be responsible for more bloodshed.
Well, other than his own. Because fuck, he’s flagging. He’s flagging and he can practically smell the foul breath of the monster on his heels.
He should stop. Turn and fight while he still has the breath to do so. If he’s gonna go down, he’ll at least make sure it’s not worth the rogue’s while to double back for the girls. If he can just—
The ground falls away under his feet like it wants nothing to do with him. For a full half-second, Eli hangs in the air like a cartoon character before gravity joins the party and he falls.
It’s a gorge, he realises too late. A great big split in the earth a good thirty feet across and . . . a lot more than that down. Which is why it’s a lucky thing his flailing hands find a branch, even if the rest of him violently slams into the fallen log it’s attached to.
The breath isn’t so much punched out of him as taken out with a sledgehammer. It’s all he can do to keep his grip on the branch, the only thing between him and an . . . unpleasant drop. Then there’s a growl above him, and Eli swivels as best he can.
The rogue is no less monstrous in daylight. If anything it’s more, with Eli’s new senses bringing it to him in high definition and surround sound. The thing is straight out of a monster movie: bipedal, with hulking shoulders and huge, claw-tipped hands. Its fur is rust-colored, dark with red undertones when it shifts in the breeze. The dark eyes watching him are the most human thing about it. Its teeth, though . . . Eli can’t help but feel like he ought to be wearing a red cloak.
But no. He’s not some helpless babe in the woods. Not this time.
Eli grits his teeth and yanks himself up onto the fallen log. It groans beneath his weight, almost rotted through, but he’s able to gain his feet without it giving way.
He’s lucky. So lucky. Two feet to the right and he would have been a smear on the rocks below. Instead, he’s balanced precariously on rotting wood that’s wedged diagonally across a perilous drop, facing off against a murderous werewolf.
Y’know what? He takes back the ‘lucky’ part.
The rogue snarls, falling onto all fours, and Eli realises it’s gauging the distance to the fallen log. It’s a ten foot drop, an easy leap for a werewolf—or it would be if the log were sturdy.
“Don’t!” Eli yells, feeling stupid until he sees the rogue pause. It can understand him, then. Eli swallows harshly as the log sways under him. “It won’t hold both of us.”
The rogue actually appears to consider this, and for a horrifying moment Eli worries it’s going to give up on him and loop back around for the girls.
Then the bastard jumps.
The log shudders almost as violently as Eli’s nerves, but it doesn’t give way. A second later, he almost wishes it would. The rogue bears down on him like a nightmare, and Eli can’t back up fast enough, can’t block out the low growl, or the rancid breath, or the sharp woodsy smell that hits him behind his tongue—
Then there’s a loud crack, and Eli feels the snarl this time. Because it’s not the rogue. It’s him.
Eli doesn’t think. He jumps.
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