Authors: Skye Malone
I dropped to the ground as the knife slammed into the white wood above my head. Swinging out frantically, I slashed at his leg, and he jumped back, narrowly avoiding the spikes. I twisted, reaching for the handle.
His hands grabbed me under my arms. With a snarl, he heaved me away from the door and flung me onto the plastic sheet.
I landed hard, the air rushing from my chest while stars burst across my vision. Gasping with pain, I blinked, trying to make my sight clear as I looked toward the door.
With a furious jerk, Earl yanked the blade from the wood and then turned to me.
His eyes flared red. Fissures radiated across his face, glowing like fire burned inside and spreading farther down his skin.
I stared, a whole new version of terror rushing through me as he started across the room. My hands pushed at the floor, my sweaty palms slipping on the plastic sheeting and my body protesting the motion. I retreated till the four-post bed brought me up short.
Earl smirked. His fingers adjusted on the hilt of the hunting knife.
Grabbing at the dusty quilt, I pulled myself upright, not taking my eyes from him. The faint moonlight beyond the windows caught on the blade of his knife, and beneath his feet, the crinkling of the plastic sounded as loud as the rapid pounding of my heart.
The door swung open. Earl paused, looking back.
Zeke stood in the hall, one arm bracing him on the doorframe. His face was haggard, and he breathed hard with the effort of keeping his feet, but rage colored his skin as he glared at Earl.
“Get… the hell… away from her,” Zeke growled.
Earl scoffed. With a quick motion, he hurled the knife through the doorway.
Zeke dropped to the floor as the knife flew past him to impale itself in the wall on the far side of the stairwell.
My gaze darted from Zeke to him. I lunged forward and drove my spikes into the enormous man.
Or tried to.
It felt like hitting a wall of rock. Pain reverberated through my arm, while the blades barely penetrated his side.
Earl looked back at me, disgust curling his lip.
His hand grabbed my throat.
I choked as the pressure of blood unable to escape filled my head. My fingers clawed at his grip and blackness flooded the edges of my vision. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, and my hands tearing at his might as well have been trying to bend stone.
By the doorway, I saw Zeke push back to his feet and charge at Earl.
The huge man seemed to hear him coming. Still gripping my neck, he twisted, his other hand catching Zeke.
With an inhuman roar, he threw Zeke backward, propelling him into the oak railing lining the stairwell. My heart froze as Zeke clutched at the wood, barely stopping himself from going over the side.
And then Earl turned back to me. His hand tightened on my neck and heat like a furnace poured from the cracks still spreading down his arm toward me.
“For my daughter,” he snarled.
I looked up at him. The pounding in my head was excruciating. Shadows were devouring the world. Nothing I could do would break his hold.
My hand clutched his and with everything I had, I willed him to give a damn about me. To love me. Care. Anything.
A shiver like electricity raced through my body, overriding the pressure in my head and the pain.
Earl stumbled and gasped, releasing me.
I crumpled to the ground while he staggered backward. Coughing, I pressed my palms to the slats of the hardwood floor, just trying to stop the world from spinning.
“What…” he stammered. “What’d you…”
My throat burned with every breath and my stomach roiled. I looked over at him, finding him staring down at me with confusion and fury waging an all-out war on his face.
!” A shudder ran through him and he made a choked sound, as though his body rebelled at the word. “I…”
With a shaking hand, I grabbed at the side of the bed and dragged myself up. The world bucked and my legs wobbled as though neither of them wanted to hold me. Through the open doorway, I could see Zeke pulling himself back upright as well.
“Get away,” I rasped at Earl, and another shiver tingled through me, as if the aveluria magic affected my words as well.
The man shuddered again, his feet moving backward though the hatred on his face just increased. Gritting his teeth, he came to a stop and then shook his head, as if struggling to drive something from his mind.
His foot lurched forward.
“No,” I tried, every sound hurting. “S-stay back…”
He retreated a step. A cry escaped him, the noise somewhere between rage and anguish. Desperation twisted his face while his gaze skittered across the room, coming to rest on his daughter’s picture against the mirror.
A growl rumbled in his chest, growing louder. His body went rigid and his fists clenched. Fissures spread through his skin as though driven by an earthquake.
I shoved away from the bed. In a stumbling run, I bolted around him toward the door.
His hand swung through the air, grabbing at me and narrowly missing. With a snarl, he staggered after me.
Zeke caught me and pulled me with him from the doorway. Shoving me ahead of him, we ran for the stairs.
Earl was right behind us.
We reached the landing. My hand clutched the railing as we whipped around the turn.
Earl snagged Zeke’s shirt. With a roar, he yanked him backward and then drove Zeke through the open doorway of the room he’d shown us hours before.
Red eyes glowing, he turned to me.
“No,” I gasped. “No, stay–”
My back bumped into the wall. My hands plastered to it while I inched to the side, attempting to get away from the gaping opening of the stairwell.
A grimace of effort contorting his face, Earl reached for me.
Zeke slammed into him. I ducked as Earl staggered against the wall above me and then twisted to grab Zeke again.
I lunged and shoved him hard.
Earl stumbled sideways. His foot hit the top stair and slipped. Lurching backward, he fought for balance and his hands grabbed at the banister.
The ground shook as he crashed down the stairs.
And then the house was still.
My eyes locked on the stairwell. I barely breathed. Trembling, I tugged my gaze to Zeke. He looked like the hand bracing him on the railing was the only thing keeping him standing. Swallowing hard, I crept to the top of the staircase.
Earl lay on his side at the base of the steps, his arm pinned under him and his legs still sprawled on the stairs. On his skin, the cracks had mostly faded. His eyes were closed. But for the slow movement of his chest beneath his green flannel shirt, he showed no sign of life.
“Come on,” Zeke said, moving past me and cautiously descending the stairs.
I followed, not taking my eyes from Earl. We reached the first floor and, heart pounding, I stepped past the man, waiting for him to wake and grab at me again.
He didn’t move. The rain pouring down like water from a hose was the only sound.
I drew a breath, trying to keep myself from shaking while I looked around the living room. We needed to get out of here. He’d been talking to someone else on the phone. Someone like him, who wanted to hurt us.
Someone who, from the sound of it, could be on their way here right now.
The shaking got worse. With a trembling hand, I ran my fingers through the rat’s nest tangle of my hair.
My gaze landed on his car keys on the table beside the door. I froze, shivers running through me for a whole other reason.
I looked over at Zeke to find him regarding the keys too.
He met my eyes, and from his expression, he seemed to have the same thought as me. “You drive?”
He went for the keys.
My heart still racing, I looked back at Earl. At the wallet in his pocket.
We’d need money. We’d need gas and maybe food.
I couldn’t believe myself. My life. Any of this.
Barely daring to breathe, I approached him. He didn’t move when I crouched down, as far from him as I could be while still keeping him in reach. Gingerly, I drew the wallet from his back pocket.
My heart scrambled up my throat. Straightening as fast as my muscles could move, I backpedaled from him and retreated to Zeke’s side. His eyes fastened on the man, Zeke pulled open the door.
We headed outside.
The night beyond the porch was pitch black and rain gushed down in a torrent. With legs that felt like rubber, I jogged across the sodden yard toward the truck, with Zeke coming behind. The doors weren’t locked, and when we pulled them open, the smell of dust and old motor oil filtered into the rainy night air.
We climbed in, the musty bench seat squeaking loudly beneath us. The engine growled when it kicked over, and the gearshift by the steering wheel locked into reverse at my frantic tug.
The front door opened again and light from the house spilled into the yard. One arm hanging awkwardly at his side and the other bracing him on the wall, Earl gave a furious shout at the sight of us in his truck.
He started down the stairs.
I flattened the pedal to the floor and sent the truck flying backward. Crushing my bare foot to the brake, I took only long enough to throw the gearshift into drive and crank the wheel in a turn, and then we were off again.
The truck raced down the dark road, carrying us away from Earl.
I didn’t know where we were going and I was fairly certain Chloe didn’t either.
Though I doubted either of us cared.
My ribs ached from hitting the rails beside the stairs and my body felt like it’d been run over by the rig of a deep sea trawler. For her own part, Chloe looked like she’d gone a dozen rounds with a giant squid and barely survived. From the darkening skin around her neck to the marks I’d spotted on her shoulders and arms, there didn’t seem to be an inch of her that wasn’t banged up somehow.
I hated the sight of it and my stomach roiled at the thought of what that bastard had been about to do to her. In all of dehaian history, I’d never heard of anything like the monsters we’d encountered in the past day. But between that Noah guy and now Earl, I was starting to wonder how many people over the years who I’d thought were human had actually been those greliaran things in disguise.
Another wave of dizziness rolled through me and I rested my head against the cold glass of the window, waiting for it to pass. That psycho had given us something, and that something was taking a damnably long time to wear off.
“You okay?” Chloe asked over the roar of the rain.
I looked over. In brief twitches, she pulled her gaze from the road to glance at me worriedly. With effort, I buried a grimace. “Yeah,” I replied, straightening again. “You?”
She nodded. Her hands adjusted their death grip on the steering wheel while she returned her focus to the track ahead. The twin lights of the truck illuminated the narrow gravel path, though the night swallowed the forest on every other side. With an emerald sheen, her green eyes glowed, obviously compensating for the darkness.
I watched her, not believing the silent answer for a moment.
But from the way she shuddered every few seconds, I also got the feeling that pushing her was a really bad idea right now.
The track widened and the truck bounced over holes in the gravel surface. The line of trees pulled farther back, giving the rain more opportunity to pound down and turn the grassy ditches on either side of the road to deep water and mud. In misleading curves that felt more maliciously random than anything, the road twisted, heading first away from the ocean and then gradually toward it again.
But no signs appeared. Nothing showed where we were, not even the invisible stars overhead.
Lights glared as a maroon SUV raced around the turn ahead. Chloe hissed with pain, wincing while she quickly adjusted her eyes back to normal human sight. The SUV flew by, passing only inches from the truck’s side.
Red light flashed behind us. I twisted in the seat in time to see the vehicle come to a sharp stop.
Chloe muttered a desperate curse.
“What?” I asked.
“When I woke up, I heard Earl calling someone. They sounded like they might be the same as him.”
Trying not to swear as well, I looked back at the SUV. It was turning around. Inside, I could see the shadowy forms of five people so big, it was hard to believe they’d fit in the vehicle.
And then the SUV’s rear tires hit the side of the road. Hit the mud and the water, and the vehicle lurched down. For a heartbeat, the SUV stopped, and then the other tires spun on the slick gravel and the vehicle rocked, as though trying to drag itself from the mud.
“They’re stuck,” I told her. “Go!”
The truck accelerated as Chloe pushed the pedal farther toward the floor. A curve in the road swallowed my view of the SUV.
Chloe kept going. Small sounds escaped her while the tires slid, barely keeping to the wet road. A triangular sign bearing the word ‘yield’ flashed past as the road curved again and joined a broader strip of concrete. With a quick glance over her shoulder, Chloe raced the truck through the turn, sending it skidding onto the highway ahead of a semi.
Angry honking followed us as we sped away.
“Anything?” Chloe asked.
I looked back. “No.”
A breath left her. On the wheel, her hands shook and she adjusted her grip distractedly.
“Chloe,” I tried.
She didn’t respond. Breathing hard, she tossed short glances to the mirror, checking the road, and then steered the truck around another semi in our path.
I returned my gaze to the highway. I wanted to reach out and take her hand. I wanted to do something, anything to calm her. But I wasn’t sure it’d be welcome. In fact, I was pretty certain it wouldn’t, given how tense things had been between us for the past day. At best, I’d just upset her more. At worst, I’d startle her enough to accidentally send the truck careening from the road.
And so I did nothing and hated myself for it.