Far below her outcrop, the local monster hunters were battling the mountain guardian. She couldn’t quite make out the details, though. From her height, all she saw were ant-like figures circling a much larger pile of moving rock. The scene reminded her of Bosch’s triptychs. Tiny people doing crazy things.
Sister Mary Clarence would have a field day with this.
A furry weight leaned against her, not quite knocking her off balance. She scratched at Bentley’s ears absently. The huge mutt whined as he took a step towards the edge of the mountain.
Fear sank her stomach, and she hurried a few steps back. “C’mon, Bent. Get away from there.”
Bentley backing up only temporarily settled her gut. Behind them, Karen Soto was doing something to a rock. Chelsea was both curious and well aware that Karen and the other hunters wanted her to stay away.
Then why did they ask for my help?
It was a question without an answer for now. She accepted that her job was a lookout, away from any kind of action.
James’ pleasant voice startled her. “You okay?”
The hunter shook his head. “Really?”
Chelsea shrugged. “There’s a fight below, whatever Karen is chanting is annoying, and I’m sitting here doing nothing.”
James’ smiled reached his eyes, all deep blue warmth and friendliness that Chelsea just didn’t quite believe. “I feel you; I do. I hate being look out too. And I wish I was in that fight. Fighting I can do. Waiting for Karen to–” He broke off.
Chelsea waved a hand. “At least you know what’s going on back there.”
“You should bitch at me some more.” His voice dripped with sincerity. “Both of us will feel better.”
Somewhere Chelsea found a laugh. “Will bitching get either of us in that fight or let me know what Karen is up to?”
He sighed. “Nope.”
“Then I don’t see the point.” She scratched at Bentley’s ears.
“Hmmm.” James studied her. “So, what sent you hunting monsters?”
Chelsea shrugged around the ice cubes in her stomach. “Revenge against a nightling for killing a friend of mine.”
“Must have been a good friend.”
Tears pricked at her eyes. “He took care of me after my parents died. I owed him.”
Sympathy filled his face as he ran a hand along the sword tattooed on his left arm. “I can get behind a good revenge story.”
Chelsea shrugged; eyes glued on the toy-like figure of the mountain guardian. “That’s pretty much the whole story. Nothing else to tell.”
James bumped his shoulder against hers. “Sure, there is. You didn’t teleport from that nightling attack to here.”
She opened her mouth to tell him to fuck off, when the guardian disappeared. “What the hell?”
James pulled his axe, eyes studying the ground below. “Watch out.”
Before she could ask for what, the rock under her feet trembled. Bentley whirled around; bright blue eyes narrowed on the mountain behind them.
Chelsea unsheathed her own axe. Bentley has a knack for fighting monsters and the big dog obviously sensed something.
Between one moment and the next, she saw it. Far above their heads, the mountainside grew a face. More impression than details; she knew it hadn’t been there before. Yet the boulders that formed the eyes looked as if they’d always been there. The ridges of the brows and the lines of jaw were natural cracks in the rock face. But the artist in her hadn’t seen a face in that mountain before, and now it did.
She didn’t bother to tell James. There was no time to talk, even if she could explain what she’d seen. She rushed over to the chanting, and still oblivious, hedge doctor.
The Guardian emerged from the cliff almost as Chelsea bowled into Yvonne and Marena. The other two hunters gasped and pulled their weapons, eyes darting around wildly.
Bentley’s growl raised gooseflesh along Chelsea’s arms and neck. It also seemed to reach Karen. Her chant ended in a gasp; eyes locked on the living piece of mountain that took a step towards her.
Anger and adrenaline surged through Chelsea. She screamed and waved her ax. “Get out of here!”
The Guardian hesitated, watching her from among the clouds and crags.
She pushed away the idea that she could be crushed in an instant. “You heard me. Get out of here!”
“And they say I’m nuts.” Yvonne’s voice laughed, but she held a long knife in each hand as she slipped up between Chelsea and James, Marena on her heels.
“I-I got this.” Karen’s voice trembled.
Whatever the hedge doctor thought she was doing, the Guardian had other ideas. It roared and took another step out of the cliff. Bentley’s growl deepened and the fur along his spine rose. The stone giant eyed the menacing mutt, and a hand descended.
Thought and reason left her. Chelsea screamed and leapt, ax flashing in the morning sun. Her blade bounced off the guardian’s hand, jarring her arm and turning her muscles to quivering jelly.
The Guardian’s eyes swung toward her. She froze, fully aware that the monster towering above could squash her without much thought. When the huge hand shot out, she watched, feet frozen to the ground.
It connected. The pain in her ribs was immediate, hot and fast. The sky blurred around her as she flew backwards. She stopped suddenly and painfully, her breath leaving her chest as a spasm raced down her arm.
To her surprise, the boulder she had slammed into yelled out in James’s voice. “Any time now, Karen!”
“Got it!” A flash of light followed. The Guardian froze as the blaze first illuminated and then obliterated the details of the monster.
Chelsea squeezed her eyes shut against the brightness and Bentley whimpered. After a few moments, she risked a peek. The bright light was gone, as was the Guardian. No sign of the great stone face stained the out cropping.
Chelsea’s relief was short-lived. She pulled away from James, axe clenched painfully in her hand. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew it would come for Karen?”
James lifted placating hands. “So, did you. That’s why we needed help.”
Anger shivered down her spine. “No, asshole, you knew it could come through the rock.”
He opened his mouth, but Chelsea didn’t wait for an excuse.
“I didn’t ask for anything other than to know what and how to fight this thing. Was it so fucking hard to do that?”
He shook his head. “I saved your life just now.”
“You are the one who put it in danger in the first fucking place. You knew it could come out of the mountain and if you had a plan, you left me out of it.” She bumped into Bentley while her rapidly swelling arm was pounding in harmony with her head. “I’m out.”
James glanced over his shoulder at his crew, but the women all seemed vaguely amused and not all interested in backing up their partner.
Chelsea took a deep breath. “Is it gone? Like for good?”
Karen nodded. “It’s asleep again.”
“Okay, then seriously, fuck off.” She turned away from James’s good-natured concern and Yvonne’s obvious delight. “Fuck this part of the country, Bent. We should have left weeks ago.”
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