Once Upon A Time…Has Never Been This Hot.
A snarl preceded the animal’s first strike, claws swiping at her chest, teeth snapping in the air as it lunged forward, its overly long arms nearly reaching her. She curled away from the attack as she jumped backwards, darting behind a post. Shards of wood splintered through the air, the beam cracking slightly as the creature connected with it, shaking a cloud of dust and hay down from the rafters above.
Charlie moved to her left, keeping just enough distance between them to prevent getting sliced as the skin walker lunged again, its claws ripping a few holes in her shirt. The rending of material echoed through the barn, the sound strangely hollow. Her wolf surged forward, her canines lengthening as her nails elongated into sharp points, loosening her grip on the hilt. She tried to pull the animal back, knowing she’d fail if she shifted, only to gasp as the skin walker pivoted, catching her across the arm. Pain flared through her biceps and into her shoulder, the telltale burn of the monster’s poison searing her flesh.
The walker snarled, bobbing its head from side-to-side as it stared at the blood staining her shirt. It stepped forward, baring its features to the moonlight. It was more wolf-like than others she’d challenged, its features not overly distorted, yet. Fur covered its face and snout, its mouth freakishly large in comparison. Yellow eyes gleamed in the soft light, the irises slowly fading to red as its gaze locked on hers.
She brandished the knife, nodding at it. “Right here, you son of a bitch. Come and get me.”
The creature tipped back its head, an ungodly howl rattling the shutters before it ran toward her, tipping over hay bales as she moved with it, maintaining their separation. She needed to be patient—wait for the animal to open itself up. That’s when she’d strike. Stick the blade into its heart.
Wooden crates crashed to the floor as the creature charged around the barn, knocking everything out of its path. Charlie dodged amidst the scattered debris, increasing her speed as she headed for the ladder to the loft. She scrambled halfway up before the unit shook, the skin walker clawing at her feet as it started after her. She climbed to the top, waiting poised on the rungs until the animal could swipe at her heels before bracing her boots on the beam of the upper floor and shoving the ladder backwards with her feet.
The rickety wood toppled over, slamming both of them into the floor. She rolled clear as the ends cracked, the remaining pieces momentarily trapping the animal. Angry snarls filled the barn, the creature’s claws scratching frantically at the floor. Charlie gained her feet, shaking off the impact as she stumbled over to the beast. Her vision swam as she lunged at it, knife poised in front. The animal twisted as she stuck, the blade slicing a line across its ribs instead of sinking into its chest.
The creature screeched, batting her sideways as it scrabbled onto all fours then ran at a window. The wooden shutters splintered against its weight, the telltale sound sending shivers along her skin.
She raced for the window, pushing back the remains of the broken wood. The moon gleamed like a beacon in the sky, the warm glow covering the dusty landscape beyond the barn. A dark silhouette moved across the grass, the bobbing form following a dirt path toward the hills.
She hadn’t lost a battle since she’d faced her brother—killed the only skin walker that had ever mattered to her. The only family she’d had left.
Charlie palmed the sill, vaulting over the ledge, not wanting to risk losing sight of the creature by using the door on the other side of the building. Pain burned along her arm, the wounds still oozing blood, as she headed after the creature, her boots kicking up a small eddies of dust.
Her wolf snapped inside her head, wanting to take lead, a disgruntled snort subtly reminding her how much faster it could run. That they couldn’t afford to let the skin walker get too far ahead of them. If the beast made it to the hills, it’d disappear down any number of winding paths, each hidden amidst scrubby bushes and large boulders. She glanced at the twin colts strapped to her hips. If she shifted, her clothes, weapons—everything—would get left behind. Even the knife would be difficult to carry in her wolf’s mouth. And the thought of facing the creature naked once they closed the distance…
She reined in the animal, promising to let it help if the situation turned desperate. Her wolf growled but pulled back, its displeasure marked by an incessant scratching feeling just beneath her skin. She didn’t argue, aware she’d pushed her other half as much as she could. If the canine really wanted to, it could seize control—her injuries coupled with the pull of the full moon giving the animal added strength.
Instead, she used the nervous energy to run faster, doing her best to ignore the increasing burn in her lungs as the pace began to take a toll. She metered her breathing, praying she wouldn’t have to resort to shifting, after all, when the creature’s outline appeared on the horizon just ahead of her, the backlit shape disappearing over the next rise.
Her footsteps pounded the earth as she raced up the path, cresting the ridge. Darkness covered the area—the moonlight creating a patchwork of bright squares on the ground. She slowed to a walk, blade still at the ready as she headed along the trail, picking her way through the spiny branches of the surrounding shrubs. They tugged at her legs, catching on her pants as she kept moving, finally arriving at a small clearing. Smooth rock lined one side, the other winding down into a distant canyon.
The land grew quiet, nothing but the whisper of her breath sounding in the area. She inhaled, allowing her wolf to filter through the scents until the telltale aroma of the walker filled her senses. She followed the scent, aware its black aura was too dark to track amidst the shadows. But it was close.