The salt wind off the canal blew wet and cold, prompting a prayer of thanks from Chelsea for the fire and the foresight to dry plenty of wood the night before. The constant rain made that a necessity while camping, despite the canopy of towering trees, taller by far than anything on the east coast.
She hunkered down closer to Bentley, taking comfort in the big mutt’s fur and warmth, even with her thick leather duster. He rested his massive head on her shoulder, bright blue eyes studying her face.
“What’s up, Bent?”
He gave a little sigh, which nearly knocked her over. Laughing softly to herself, Chelsea snacked on her breakfast bratwurst. She and Bentley had been camping along the Pacific coast for weeks now, enjoying the new spring. They hadn’t hunted any monsters since the disastrous battle against the ocean fairies that had cost someone his life. Chelsea couldn’t even call the man a friend, but hunting didn’t feel good at the moment. Luckily, camping did.
The trees of the evergreen forest seemed endlessly wild most days, even with the well-defined trails and surprisingly clean bathrooms. She felt lost without being lost, pushed where the wind and rain dictated.
The damp quiet of early spring would warm up towards midday, but for now, the fire was a necessity. Chelsea and Bentley sat together, quiet and peaceful as the surrounding forest. Three deer ran past and Bentley eyed them, but made no move to run after the small herd. A tremor of unease shivered through Chelsea. The local wildlife normally wasn’t so active. To date, the deer in the area had casually avoided them without any fear. Something had spooked these.
Probably just some other campers.
The thought felt more hopeful than accurate. Chelsea clambered to her feet and dumped a bucket of water on the fire. “C’mon, Bent.”
She kept the sticky mud beach to her right as she didn’t have a compass. Bentley could and would lead them back to the car at dinnertime, but she liked knowing the general direction back to camp. She quickly found it virtually impossible to track the deer that had spooked her. The rainforest was well-loved and cared for by the rangers, but she was a city girl. An experienced tracker might have found broken sticks and hidden footprints, but to Chelsea, one stick on the ground looked the same as any other.
Those seagulls overhead are pretty spooked, though.
She followed the birds to a break in the forest. The trees gave way to slick, dark mud and barnacle-covered rocks before turning into freezing water. Chelsea walked to the edge of the mess. “There’s nothing here, Bent.”
A growl answered her. She turned, bumping into the dog. His thick fur stood along his spine as he glared into the trees. She put her faith in her dog, pulled her ax off her belt, and searched for a decent place to stand.
The slick, sticky mud and razor-edged barnacles eliminated the beach completely. she headed for the woods and firmer ground of the forest- closer to the potential threat was better in this case. Well, mostly. She winced at the wet, spongy undergrowth as a hissing came from the damp darkness.
Along the forest floor, dark shapes slithered toward her. They seemed to be snakes, but Chelsea quickly dismissed that notion. The bodies weren’t sleek and smooth, but weathered and creased.,and the heads that slipped through the leaves came to points too narrow for eyes.
At first, her brain rejected what she saw, but it was too obvious to dismiss. Tree roots were weaving through the undergrowth.
Chelsea darted in front of her dog, arm swinging. Her ax blade slid off the weathered bark.
Bentley struck with his teeth. Her pounding heart blocked all sound as she swung again. She had no idea what was attacking them, but she knew she didn’t want Bentley eating it.
Her ax bit into the monster, and she no longer had doubts. These were roots. She had tried to cut some once or twice since coming to these woods. Water-logged as the rest of the forest, yet tough and fibrous; nevertheless, she managed to hack a chunk out this time. Soggy bark crumbled against her ax blade.
A deep shriek swelled in the woods. It vibrated through her chest, increasing in pressure as it dragged on. Bentley’s growl answered the cry as he took a few steps into the woods
The big mutt growled again, but backed up to stand beside her. Hissing filled the air once more. Chelsea scanned the damp leaves, but no roots moved the dense decay of the forest floor.
Birds squawked above the treetops before the crashes boomed out of damp murk. The marshy ground shook under Chelsea’s boots. Bentley snarled, lips raised to show his sharp, pointed teeth. They stepped closer together, ready to face whatever.
In front of them, a tree crashed to the ground. More birds cried. From the darkness of the deep forest, a leafy crown emerged. The tree attached to it might have had a face, but Chelsea didn’t stop to look. She had only a hunter’s ax, not much more than a hatchet, so she turned and ran.
The big mutt growled, but stayed beside her as she rushed for their campsite. She had no plan beyond retreat. This tree monster stood as tall as the rest of the towering forest, and its roots had proven difficult enough. Her original hunting partners had been very clear on the matter of unwinnable fights: Don’t engage in them.
Smoke from her ruined fire smoldered in the air in front of her and Chelsea’s heart eased. Her car meant escape.
She barely had made plans to drive to the local haunt for reinforcements, when something strong hooked her ankles. Mushy, forest loam invaded her mouth, pungent and cold as she was dragged backwards. The world went fuzzy when her head hit a log. Bentley’s growl triggered her Fight or Flight instincts, but there was no purchase to be found on the soft, forest floor and her kicks didn’t loosen the hold on her feet.
I’m sorry, Bentley. Stay safe. Go find Keegan.
The shriek from before came again and the pressure on her ankles disappeared, though the pain didn’t. Boots came into view, hiking, combat, even a pair pointy cowboys, before a deep voice growled, “Check on the woman. We’re going after the Guardian.”
Chelsea tried to push herself up. Before she could summon the strength, strong hands gripped her arms and hauled her upright. A rough man’s voice followed. “Up you go, hun. How you doin’?”
Chelsea shook her head. “I’ll be better when I get my axe in that fucking tree.”
The rough voice laughed. “Take a load off and let my team handle it. Rogue Guardians need more than a hunter’s axe.”
She ignored his advice and took a step forward. Her rescuer let go of her arms, and her spinning head sent her back to the forest floor. Bentley whined and sniffed at her ears.
The rough voice belonged to a craggy face, at least twenty-five years her senior with worried dark eyes. “Lady, how many fingers am I holding up?”
Two blurry fingers danced her vision. “Okay, maybe you have a point.”
The ripping sound of chainsaws came only moments before another subsonic scream. Dizzy and about to throw up, Chelsea still revelled in satisfaction.
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