Vanessa blinked a few times. A gun? Thank God! If she’d known about it before, she would have been very uncomfortable about it—she didn’t think Gabriel had a license for it, or if it was even legal. But damn if it didn’t make her feel a hell of a lot better, right now!
She heard a metallic noise and figured that was Gabriel cocking the gun, or chambering a round, or whatever it was one did with a gun after it was loaded. Vanessa promised herself that she would learn everything there was to know about guns at the very next opportunity.
The gun’s click sounded very loud against the stillness. Wait, stillness? Gabriel was right, we’re in the woods—where are the woods sounds? She didn’t hear so much as a cricket. Vanessa peeked out through the tent flap. Gabriel was barely visible, a man-shaped silhouette in the night, the outline of a pistol in his right hand.
Vanessa frantically started pulling on clothing and boots. Stay here? She almost laughed. Did he really think she was safer inside this tiny nylon air pocket?
Outside, Gabriel was standing at the edge of their little campsite with the gun now held in both hands and his head cocked to one side, obviously listening. He was barefoot and bare-chested and was already starting to shiver in the cold air. She ducked back into the tent and brought out his flannel shirt and boots.
“Whatever it was, I reckon it’s gone now,” he said and walked over to the woodpile. He set down the gun, carried over the last few logs they’d set aside earlier, and quickly had a fire blazing. Gabriel stood up next to the new fire with his head back, watching the play of the sparks it flung up against the sky. Vikings and Native Americans clashed in his bloodlines, culling away everything soft and understated. He was tall—a couple inches over six feet—with a powerful build and shaggy medium-length sandy blond hair. Hazel eyes pierced from deeply behind a blade nose. Prominent cheekbones were dusted with a two-day-old beard growth that somewhat softened a strong jaw and square chin. Vanessa could imagine his and Ran’s sister Reese’s ancestors sitting around the same campfire, their laughter forcing back the bitter cold of the north. Gabriel ran, hiked, biked, went rock-climbing, played field sports, and even did yoga—Gabriel was the only straight male Vanessa personally knew who regularly did yoga. As he put the wood on the embers of last night’s fire and started to bring it back to life, she watched the glow play over his bare torso. Muscles she didn’t notice even when he was nude were thrown into sharp relief by the glow from the firepit. Vanessa found herself reluctant to give him the flannel.
“Oo, thanks, darlin’,” he smiled and grabbed the flannel. “It’s mighty chilly out here. Hey! Leggo!” Vanessa grinned and refused to let go of his shirt. “A’ight, fine then!” he laughed and used the shirt to yank her into him. “I can think o’ other ways to keep warm.”
She kissed him deeply, but he pulled away suddenly.
“Ha!” he said, brandishing his shirt triumphantly and grinning.
Gabriel continued to grin and started buttoning his shirt, bare feet standing right beside the boots Vanessa had brought out. Even in this cold, he hated shoes. The grin faded into a thoughtful expression. “What d’ya think ‘at was, Ness?”
Vanessa looked out into the darkness beyond their little campsite. “I’m not sure. Maybe a rabid wolf, though I didn’t think there were any wolves left in this area.”
She looked back at him. “Where’d you get that gun?”
Gabriel smiled kind of sheepishly. “Rolls got it fer me. I know you’ns out here are crazy when it comes t’ guns, but I reckon it ain’t all that smart t’ light out inta the wilderness unarmed.” He chuckled, picked up the boots, and walked over to the fire to sit in one of their camp chairs.
“Rolls?” Roland “Rolls” Pierce was Gabriel’s best friend. “How the hell did he get his hands on a gun in New Jersey?” Vanessa laughed a little nervously. The state park where they camped was hardly a “wilderness.” Major urban areas were less than a half hour drive in any direction.
Gabriel shrugged as he pulled on his boots. “Dunno. I did’nt look no gift horse inna mouth.”
Vanessa sighed. “Must you?”
Gabriel laughed. “C’mon, Ness. You know I jus’ stoke up my Hillbilly roots ’cause it gets under your skin.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “You drive me nuts.”
He reached up and pulled her down into his lap. “An’ that’s why you find me so gol’ darn irresistible, darlin’.”
“No, ‘darlin’,’ it’s your impeccable grammar and nearly imperceptible drawl.”
Vanessa gazed into the crackling campfire and thought about how enjoyable the last two days up here had been. Lately though, Vanessa had started to find his charms…less charming. His drawl and dialect grated on her nerves, now, more often than not. The magnetism that had first enthralled her was now a subject for arguments after every other social gathering. Vanessa hated that he flirted with every woman he met—and she sometimes wondered if flirting was all he did with them. There were other things, too, but his smile excited her, and he was a fantastic lover. Still, she had begun to think that the end was drawing near for their relationship, but she was pretty sure that Gabe did not feel the same.
He was frowning. “Y’know, it’s still awful quiet out here, ‘cept for that thunder over yonder. I should prob’ly get things battened down and packed up so we can git on out if’n we need ta.” Vanessa looked around and listened. There was the rumbling in the distance, just as Gabriel said, but the only other sound was the crackling of the fire. Even the air was still—no leaves rustled in the darkness. Was it just the calm before a storm? Vanessa stood up from Gabriel’s lap, and he stepped to the other side of the firepit where he had laid down the gun. He began to bend over to get it and froze.
Vanessa began, “Wh—?”
Something huge barreled out of the darkness into Gabriel and roared, throwing him into the fire and landing on top of him. Vanessa screamed overtop Gabriel’s yell of pain. Whatever it was quickly leapt back off of Gabriel—presumably to get out of the fire—but Gabriel didn’t try to get himself out of the fire. He didn’t move at all.
Vanessa screamed again, and then the thing settled its eyes on her.
Dirt. The woman’s emaciated body was covered with dirt. Leaves and dirt and sticks and insect larvae were tangled in her hair. She spit dirt from her mouth and dirt filled the negligible tatters of her dress. Dirt filled her ears, and her filthy hands rubbed dirt from her eyes. She blew dirt from her nose, spat out a mouthful of dirt and lay panting next to the hole in the Earth where she had just frantically emerged.
Her panicked clawing out from the ground had taken everything she had left in her. She let her hands drop to the ground and coughed still more dirt from her lungs and throat, gasping. She rolled onto her hands and knees and vomited dirt from her stomach.
She looked at her arms and could not tell if there was anything at all between her bones and her skin. Her wrists and hands were skeletal, yet still appeared grotesquely large compared to her tiny arms.
Oh my god!
She doubled over, her stick-like arms wrapped around her tiny waist. Hunger. She was unable to draw a breath for many long seconds as her body spasmed, and her insides twisted into knots. Hunger. She rolled onto her side and tried to cry out, but she only managed a small gasp and to cough up more dirt. HUNGER!
She had no name, she had no thought, she had no room in her being for anything but the raw need, the cacophony shouting in her head and her guts, the Hunger.
Something moved at the periphery of her vision, and she raised her head enough to see a rabbit staring at her from less than three yards away, petrified with fear. The cacophony of Hunger filling her head became a single note, a single Will, and she unwrapped an arm from her tormented middle, reached out a badly shaking hand, and pointed at the rabbit. She crooked the finger and tried to call to it, but all that came from her mouth was a faint hiss. Her vocal cords were too dry and damaged to produce any sound. She narrowed her eyes in determination and focused her will on the rabbit. She crooked the finger, motioning it toward her.
The rabbit did stared at the desperate woman, expressing curiosity with a rapid twitch of its nose. It stayed put. The woman panicked and lost all rational thought for several seconds before regaining a modicum of composure. The rabbit was still there. She stared at it. She crooked her finger, and it stayed put. Her vision ran red with bestial need, but she remained still and waited for it to pass, never taking here eyes off the rabbit. She cleared her mind of anything but the rabbit, and formed the image of the rabbit making its way toward her. “Please,” her lips formed, unaided by her useless voice. Then, the rabbit slowly—oh, so slowly—crept towards the woman’s outstretched hand, but stopped just out of reach.
With the speed of a striking cobra, the woman was atop the rabbit, tearing into it with her teeth and devouring it without regard for bones, hair, or teeth. Within half a minute, the woman sat back on her haunches, licking the rabbit’s blood from her fingers and hands, before doubling over and violently vomiting the rabbit back out onto the ground. She sat on the ground for several minutes emptying her stomach of the hastily eaten meal.
The woman used a tree to pull herself to her feet before stumbling back to the ground only one or two steps away. One or two steps further away from the disturbed ground where she had escaped Earth’s womb. Her lips thinned over the bones of her skull in a wide smile. She was alive!
Next to the large hole in the ground she had left was a small and scattered pile of the bits and pieces of the rabbit. The bones where dry, the meat desiccated; not a single drop of blood lay anywhere near. The woman’s broadening smile exposed long, pointed canines, and she began a breathy laugh that descended into a wracking cough as she expelled the last of the dirt from her ancient lungs.
It was oppressively big, large enough to be a full-grown bear, but it looked like no bear Vanessa had ever seen. Its legs were long in proportion to its body, and thin—a wolf’s!—and its claws looked to be at least four inches long, extending from oddly shaped paws. But all of those caught only a fleeting glimpse—Vanessa’s attention was riveted to the thing’s maw of teeth. Those were most certainly not wolf teeth. Its mouth was filled with them, and they were all almost as long as its claws. Worse, they dripped globs of saliva and blood. Gabe’s blood.
She looked up at its eyes, and she couldn’t breathe. The thing was looking at her intensely, and though the yellow eyes matched the rest of the beast, the malevolent intelligence she saw there terrified her. It started to stalk towards Vanessa, smoothly, slowly, and unbelievably gracefully—it looked like it was gliding. Vanessa couldn’t move. Something that sounded very like a whimper escaped from her throat.
Gabriel leapt out of the fire onto the beast’s back before it had taken more than a couple of steps. He was bleeding from a cut on the side of his head, and his shirt was still on fire. The thing spun around and fell upon Gabriel with supernatural speed, ferociously tearing through him with its claws and fangs.
Vanessa jumped on it and tried to pull the thing from Gabriel, but it casually swiped at her, grazing her ribs with its claws and throwing her against a tree several feet away. Vanessa was dazed and though she was still moving, she couldn’t immediately get back up.
As the creature once again advanced on Vanessa, she jumped up—trying to ignore the spinning tilt to her vision—and then scrambled to put the tree between her and the thing. It reached around the tree with unusually long limbs and snatched Vanessa’s wrist—with what looked like clawed fingers and a thumb!
The thing jerked up at the same moment that Vanessa heard the crack of Gabriel’s pistol, and then it immediately spun back around towards Gabriel, releasing her wrist. Both Gabriel and the pistol were smoking, and he had deep gouges in his face, across his back and chest, and the his right sleeve was already soaked in blood. Gabriel got off two more shots before the thing was on him, and Gabriel put one more bullet directly into its mouth; the beast jerked away tearing the gun from Gabriel’s hand and mauling his head with a flailing forepaw. Gabriel – still conscious and moving! – managed to clutch at the pistol with his left hand before the beast clamped its jaws over Gabriel’s leg – Vanessa’s stomach flipped over at the crackling sounds that came from Gabriel’s leg – and flung him across the campsite and into the bole of a tree.
Vanessa could not see any blood where Gabriel had shot it, nor did it appear to limp or to move any more slowly.
The red, glowing eyes– Wait, glowing? And when did they turn red? – turned once more towards Vanessa. She wanted to scream, to cry, and though tears wet her face, she could not draw a breath. It lifted one huge paw to come at her, and Vanessa lost control of her bladder.
Yet again, the hair at the back of the thing’s head flared out as Gabriel put another bullet into it.
“Hey, you piece o’ shit. I ain’t done with you, yet.” Gabriel was propped up on his uninjured leg against the tree where the beast had thrown him. He cradled his maimed right hand against his stomach, and blood covered most of his face. Though the hand holding his pistol shook, one clear eye glared out at the monster, fierce and defiant.
“Keys’re inna ignition, Ness.”The monster roared and charged at Gabriel, but immediately stumbled to the ground: Gabriel was aiming for its legs, now.
Vanessa didn’t remember turning away, didn’t remember running, but the feel of the steering wheel slick beneath her sweating palms brought her back to herself. Her Wrangler was pointed towards the campsite. Her heart was screaming to get out of there, to let Gabriel’s life buy her escape, but her conscience boiled over with the shame of letting him die without even trying to save him. Her path was clear, though: the only road out was on the other side of Gabriel and that monster.
Cassandra. The desperation from a few minutes ago had left the woman’s eyes, leaving something predatory and cunning. My name is Cassandra, and I live.
Cassandra stood gracefully, though she stumbled a bit as she started to walk. She felt better than she had at first, but was still so very weak. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the night sky. She sensed something powerful drawing nearer.
Come to me.
She sat back down and rested against the tree.
Come. Another breath expanded the stark ribs against her skin. Come. I hunger.
Cassandra kept sending her call outward and settled in to wait.
Through the windshield, Vanessa watched Gabriel point the revolver at the beast and squeeze the trigger, but the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Then the monster was on him, and Vanessa thought this would be the last time. It tore gouges in Gabriel’s abdomen as it clawed its way up to his shoulder, and then its jaws clamped over Gabriel’s face.
Vanessa slammed the Jeep into first, floored the accelerator, and popped the clutch. Vanessa’s scream pierced over the sound of the Jeep surging across the campsite, right overtop the fire, sending fiery logs spinning into their tent and the woods, and into the tree behind Gabriel, pinning man and beast.
Vanessa raised her foot off of the gas pedal and a whispered a horrified, “Oh, my god!” She ground the gearshift desperately into reverse and reversed from the two of them. The beast writhed on the ground, its spine broken. Gabriel was, amazingly, still conscious, but he was still too dazed to move. As soon as his adrenaline ebbed, Vanessa was certain that he would succumb to shock. The beast dragged itself away from Gabriel with its forelegs, whining and snarling in pain.
Vanessa felt a vicious smile stretch her lips as she smoothly shifted into first gear. Slowly and deliberately, she ran the Jeep over the animal, reversed, and ran back over it, relishing the crunch of its bones and its screams of pain as the Jeep’s tires passed over its body. She leaned across to pop open the passenger door. “Gabe! Grab my hand!”
As Gabriel reached in, the Jeep suddenly lurched to the side, and Gabriel’s bloody hand slipped from hers.
In surprise and panic, Ness’s foot slipped off the clutch, and the Jeep lurched forward a dozen feet past the tree where Gabriel had been transfixed. She looked up in her rearview and saw neither Gabriel nor the beast. The passenger door opened, and Vanessa screamed. It was only Gabriel, who had been clutching onto the doorframe. He pulled himself up and inside with one hand while is other hand— Vanessa put a hand to her mouth and looked away. He was holding in his entrails with the other hand. She could smell that his bowels had been punctured, and he was bleeding so badly that it was already pooling on the passenger floor. There was no way he could remain conscious much longer. There was no way he could survive much longer.
The door slammed shut as the beast’s slavering jaws tried to bite at Gabriel’s window. Its claws made a horrible screech against the steel of the door, but Gabriel didn’t notice any more. Vanessa floored the Jeep into reverse, and hit a sapling as she whipped around, sending dirt and leaves flying, while the beast clawed and bit at the side of the car. She rocketed away from the campsite as the rear window on Gabriel’s side shattered inward. Vanessa raced over underbrush, desperately trying to find the road. The beast leapt on top of the vehicle just as she caromed into the dirt road that lead out of the park.
Vanessa whipped around to the right, flinging the thing off, and then sprayed it with gravel as she sped away.
The corpses of a raccoon and a bat lay atop one another beside Cassandra. Her eyes were still closed, and the flesh of her face looked more filled out than it had before. She was so empty of life that even these animals had been sufficient, barely, to bring her back from the edge. However, they were not enough. She could feel their blood crawling through her veins like roaches in the dark. She needed more. She burned for more, something that would send away the vermin infesting her veins and restore her strength and mind.
She cast her thoughts outward. There had to be something nearby, something better than rodents and forest animals. Oh! There was something impressive. It couldn’t hear her, though.
Cassandra ignored the weak stuttering of heart and focused on the thing she had touched out in the night. It couldn’t hear yet, but it would. She began to caress its thoughts, to whisper seductively in its ears, to begin to entice it to hear her call.
She didn’t know what it was, but she knew that she wanted it.
Come to me, you beautiful thing, she called. You want to come here and give yourself to me.
Vanessa sped down the dirt road, sparing glances at Gabriel to see if he was still breathing, when she felt the Jeep jerk violently. She looked up into the rearview, but there was nothing behind her but darkness. She turned to look at her side mirror and stared directly into the red eyes of the wolf—that is what the head appeared to be: a wolf. Its head was bouncing inches away, as it loped beside the Jeep.
It snapped at Vanessa, but the window stopped it. She screamed, and it did it again—this time, the window cracked. Vanessa downshifted to accelerate, but not before it snapped again, sending a shower of safety glass, blood, and slaver over her.
She barely made the next turn, and the wolf ended up on the other side of the Jeep. As Vanessa accelerated out of the turn and fought to keep the Jeep on the road, she glanced down at the dash.
“What the fuck kind of wolf runs seventy miles an hour!” she sobbed.
The wolf caught up and reached its head and one forepaw into the broken rear window, behind Gabe. Vanessa plastered herself against her doorframe to get as far away from its fangs as possible and tried to push the accelerator through the floorboard.
The Jeep was suddenly filled with light, and then an explosion of sound as Vanessa was thrown violently into Gabe and then thrown again, halfway out her window. Then, blackness.
Sometime later, Vanessa opened her eyes, and she saw the stars. Was she dreaming? Was it all a dream? But then a deep and a cutting pain resolved themselves in her back.
The Jeep was still running, and her headlights showed a large—ridiculously huge, gargantuan—mangled wolf laying on a highway.
Vanessa was hanging halfway out of her door’s window, the remnants of the glass cutting into her lower back. Gabriel’s unconscious body lay over her legs, keeping her from falling out and onto the ground—no, asphalt! That was a paved road. Vanessa’s jeans were soaked through, and she tried to lean up to see what it was, but she couldn’t quite work up the strength to sit up from her dangling position.
As sound began to return to her reluctant ears, Vanessa realized that someone had been speaking. Speaking to her?
“...all right, miss? Can you hear me?” Vanessa blinked at the man upside down and nodded sagely. “What were you thinking, coming out of there like that? And what is that thing?” he asked, jerking his head at the wolf’s body. Strong hands reached under her arms and slid her back into the Jeep. She pushed Gabriel from atop her as gently as she could to find that it was Gabriel’s blood that had saturated her jeans. “Oh, sweet Jesus!” He stared into the Jeep. “What happened to that poor boy!”
“Attack,” Vanessa mumbled. She could barely seem to remember how to speak. Shock. She thought Gabe would go into shock, and realized it was happening to her. She had to stay focused, for some reason. Something was important. She turned to the nice man who had helped her off of her doorframe. Behind him was a big tractor trailer. That must have been the light and sound she’d seen before she blacked out. He must have clipped her as she exited the dirt road coming out of the woods. He was walking over toward the big roadkill in the highway. “No!” she called as the man started to bend over the wolf’s body.
He looked over his shoulder at her. “He ain’t gonna attack no one else, ma’am. Don’t you worry.”
Vanessa’s mouth worked. Don’t go near it, she screamed—or tried to, but her throat was choked closed by fear. No! Did it just move? The man was still looking at Vanessa, but as he turned back, the wolf leapt up, and its jaws closed over his throat. Vanessa stared, unable to move or even think. The man flailed weakly for several long seconds, but the scene was was eerily quiet. Damn hard to scream with your throat torn out.
Vanessa laughed, then, a short, high-pitched bark of hysteria. The wolf looked up, blood and...other things dripping from its maw. The mans had seemed so big and strong when he was helping her off of her Jeep’s door with its broken glass, but his body looked strangely small next to the wolf’s mass. Its red eyes, lit from within, stared into Vanessa’s for several long moments. Then it licked its chops and bent down to feed on the trucker’s corpse. Vanessa felt strangely calm as she shifted into gear and drove away, ignoring grinding and scraping noises noises as the battered Jeep sped away. It pulled strongly to one side, and Vanessa had to turn the wheel far to the right to keep the Jeep pointed straight ahead. No fear, no revulsion, no pity. Just...emptiness. Then, Gabriel vomited blood into her lap and stopped breathing. Vanessa’s emotions came back at once, and she pushed her limping Wrangler into breakneck speed down a dark highway. Gabe was dying. She needed to find a hospital. Now.
In the spotlight of a tractor trailer’s headlamps, something too big to be a wolf was ripping apart what used to be a man. It suddenly stilled, scented the air, and bounded away into the darkness. Something called to it.