Amazon Jungle, Peru
LEAPING OVER A FALLEN log, Pilan skidded on wet mulch and threw out a hand to break his fall. He scrambled up and over the protruding roots, his foot catching, catapulting him into the slimy mire. But kissing decomposing leaf matter was the least of Pilan’s worries. An excruciating pain wrenched through his knee. “Shit.” If he’d blown a kneecap in the middle of nowhere, he was screwed.
He swiped his shoulder-length hair out of his face and winced as he flexed his leg. Relief flooded through him as he took a tentative step and found the leg still supported his weight. It looked like bruising was the only consequence of his stumble.
Around him, monotonous hardwoods towered, each one a photocopy of the last. Long roots twisted to the ground in their quest to find water, but the mass of limbs and tangled wood did nothing for his bearings. Pilan groaned. The nuances of this part of the Amazon were subtle—too fucking subtle for him.
He wiped a forearm over his sweaty face and smeared dirt across his dark skin. Which way was north? Pilan looked to the sky for help but the soaring dense canopy obscured the light, making it impossible to see more than a few inches of blue. “This is ridiculous.”
He turned three-hundred-sixty degrees and got one hell of a case of déjà vu. Shit, those three moss-covered rocks looked too damn familiar. Yeah, he’d passed them before. “Great! I’m going around in circles.”
Pilan focused on the forest floor again, searching for tracks. It was no good.
“Tokala, I need your help, baby.” Inside him, the fox’s ears pricked and she stirred. “Come on. I know the nasty Sasquatch almost trod on you before, but you’re so much better at this stuff, than me.”
Begrudgingly, Tokala agreed.
A silvery mist seeped from Pilan’s pores and as the vapor organized itself, Tokala appeared. The silver fox looked cautiously around.
Pilan crouched down and stroked her solidified body. “You’re safe, girl. That Big Foot isn’t here, that’s why I need you. Do your stuff, my foxy friend.”
Tokala blinked at him through bright eyes then dutifully put her snout to the ground. Seconds later, she keened a low whine, alerting Pilan to the scent trail. “I owe you. Let’s go.”
The fox leaped toward Pilan, vaporizing as she flew through the air, her molecules dispersing, and her essence returning to where it belonged—safe inside Pilan.
Immediately he set off in the direction she’d indicated.
A quarter of a mile later, thundering hooves made Pilan leap into the undergrowth.
In coming, Kanga’s voice chuckled inside Pilan’s head as the huge white mustang skidded to a halt.
Fuck, Leotie. Run me down why don’t you.
The mare tossed her head back in a whinny and reared up. As she towered over Pilan, her hooves pawed at the air above his head. Kanga stepped out of his anima, appearing where Leotie stood.
Pilan grumbled. “I suppose, Leotie thought that was funny.”
Kanga’s mustang anima was wild and crazy, and she shared Kanga’s sense of humor. A sense of humor that was not always appreciated by the other Black Walker Warriors.
“See anything?” Kanga ignored Pilan’s griping and scoured the trail ahead.
Pilan was breathing like a train, the fast paced pursuit taking its toll.
“No, but Tokala picked up it’s trail. We need to go that way.” Pilan pointed ahead.
“How far do you reckon we’ve chased it?” Kanga asked.
“Too damn far. My thighs are burning.” Pilan slid out his phone from his back pocket, groaning as the GPS took its own sweet time loading. He flashed his screen at Kanga, “Would you look at that. Twelve miles. At pursuit pace. No wonder I’m done in.”
“You’re losing your edge, brother. More gym time is in your future.”
Pilan glared back at Kanga. It was all right for him, his anima was a freaking Goddamn mustang. The warrior was built for galloping over plains. Pilan’s silver fox had short legs. She did not do long distances. For that, Pilan had to rely on his human form—which was not built for twelve-mile pursuits either.
A tree limb cracked and fell with a loud thud, scattering screeching birds in all directions. Pilan grinned at Kanga and thrust his device back into his leathers. “Let’s go.”
Gaining a second wind, the warriors took off in their human forms, following the sound of heavy footsteps ahead of them.
“That is one fast SOB,” Kanga muttered through clenched teeth.
He wasn’t wrong. Despite how it looked, the thing possessed turbo power.
They emerged from the trees into a large clearing. Light pooled through the gap in the canopy, its sudden brightness making them blink. The Skin Walkers skidded to a halt, listening for the slightest sound to locate their prey.
A loud squawk startled them and a whoosh of feathers made them duck as an enormous vulture glided into the clearing. Its talons touched the earth, and the bird transformed. In its place stood Adriel. The huge warrior folded his arms across his barreled chest, a few stray brown feathers fluttering to his feet as his dark beady eyes scanned the shadows for movement.
“Where the hell have you been?” Pilan didn’t hide his frustration with his superior.
Kanga and Pilan had run themselves ragged through this inhospitable terrain while Adriel glided on the thermals above them.
Adriel scowled at the disdain in the young warrior’s voice.
“How can anyone lose a Sasquatch?”
Yeah, that was easy for the man with wings and eagle eyesight to say. Not for the first time, Pilan wished his own anima, possessed flight.
Deep inside Pilan, Tokala growled at her master’s foolish desire. Hey, no disrespect sweetheart, you know I love you. It’s just that feathers instead of a bushy tail would come in handy sometimes, yeah? The silver fox curled into a tight ball, burying her snout in her thick fur. Pilan sensed her sulking and wished he’d kept his thoughts to himself. He wouldn’t swap Tokala for the world, but sometimes he coveted Adriel’s anima, Raela, and her power of flight.
“Well? How the hell did it get away from you? It’s as big as a damn billboard.” Adriel’s scowl intensified, his usual soft tone becoming more aggressive.
Pilan wondered that too. The Sasquatch was tall and heavyset. It was bipedal with a long loping gait that ate up distance with ease, but maneuverability wasn’t its forte. Its gargantuan frame rolled from side to side as it laid waste to the bracken and dense thicket that got in the way. The Squatch didn’t slalom around the trees but crashed straight through them.
Irritated by Adriel’s buck-passing, Pilan muttered, “Yeah it was huge and yeah, we kind of mislaid it—but there’s three of us tracking it.”
Kanga intercepted the bickering. “Can’t have gotten far. Besides, it’s leaving one hell of a trail, so how hard can it be to find?”
You had to love the warrior for his optimism, but Pilan wasn’t feeling it. He was too exhausted for another twelve-miles.
A loud bellow echoed through the trees, the sound bouncing around them and making it difficult to pinpoint the direction.
“What the…?” Pilan swung around as branches cracked and fell. A second later, one crossbow, two sets of knives, and three pairs of eyes were trained on the monster.
“Holy mother of God.” At five-foot-six, Kanga needed to crane his head far back to take in the beast before him. “That thing could snap my spine with its little pinky. How the hell are we going to bring it in alive?”
“Alive?” Pilan tried to fathom the logistics. The creature’s thighs were bigger than tree trunks, and its extremely long arms, roped in muscle, dangled below its knocked knees.
“Damn, its reach has to be eight feet.” Pilan did the math—height plus weight, added up to a big fuck-no-way.
He glanced at Adriel. Their brother was a giant among men, standing around six-ten out of his Doc Martins. He was a match for most monsters they encountered, but the menacing beast also dwarfed this warrior. Even Adriel wasn’t getting in arms-length of the Sasquatch, let alone subduing and capturing it.
“Yes, alive. Keep those knives of yours in their sheaths,” Adriel said.
“Could someone please explain why the hell we aren’t killing it?” Pilan hoped Adriel might change his mind.
“Sasquatch, are docile. If it weren’t for this one’s bad habit of stealing livestock, there’d be no problem leaving it to roam the forest. The villagers will only pay for relocation.”
“Docile my ass! It’s eaten half the cattle and sheep in a two-hundred-mile radius.” And now that he saw it, Pilan was apt to believe the other rumors running rampant through the local villages. “They say it has a fondness for young children, but the way it’s sizing us up, I reckon it’d lower its standards and give us a good chew.”
“That’s bullshit. I’d bet my next paycheck those bones the villagers rustled up were primate, not Homo sapiens. Still, dead monkey or dead kid, I reckon there’s only one way that thing is leaving the area.” Kanga liked to keep things real.
“Orders are, we make like realtors and find this little cutie a more appropriate home.” Adriel, on the other hand was all for keeping to the letter of the contract.
The Sasquatch advanced, its thick fingertips grazing Pilan’s midriff as he jumped out of reach.
“You’re joking, right? How the hell are we gonna persuade it to move house?” Pilan couldn’t even assign a ballpark figure to the poundage—strike that—tonnage of their prize. But if the bounty was based on weight, he could retire.
The Sasquatch tired of watching them and rolled its head back, letting out an enormous bellow that made the warriors clamp their hands over their ears.
“What the...?” With the rush of air from the monster’s lungs, a rancid stench of half-digested rotting meat invaded Pilan’s nostrils, making him retch.
“Damn, that’s gross.”
The Sasquatch stopped howling at the sound of Pilan’s voice and maneuvered its sizable bulk toward the warrior. Slobber rolled down its furred chin as dull eyes settled on him.
“Oh, fuck.” Pilan reached for his twin daggers. “Orders or not, if that thing makes another move toward me, one of these blades is gonna fly.”
“Cool it Pilan. I’ve chased this thing twelve miles, I am not going home with empty pockets.” That was easy for Kanga to say, the beast wasn’t fixating on him.
This creature was way too close for comfort. Pilan breathed through his mouth, trying to avoid the smell of its foul breath and stale sweat. Seriously, he was going to puke if he didn’t get down wind.
“Please, don’t feel you have to wait for an invitation, you can step in and help anytime, guys. Don’t be shy!”
Pilan’s fingers twitched around his blades as he ran through his options. Trouble was, each had the same scenario—kill the whacking great monster. And there lay the dilemma. A kill wouldn’t fill his pockets. Pilan decided the village mayor planned it this way from the start. The penny-pinching charlatan gambled that the warriors’ only course of action would be a kill so he’d keep his lana. But with the Sasquatch bearing down on him, Pilan didn’t care. If walking away still breathing was an option, he’d take it over a pile of green.
Kanga retrieved a small dart from a pouch that hung from his corded belt, and from his back he pulled a long blowpipe. He switched to telepathy, so he wouldn’t distract the Sasquatch from Pilan. Keep it interested buddy.
“Sure, thanks. Anything to oblige, my brother.” Pilan would analyze how he’d become Squatch bait later.
Though he wasn’t happy with the extended alone time with Mr. Foul Breath, the sight of Kanga’s darts were comforting. They were also the best chance of taking this thing alive. No one knew what the warrior dipped the darts in, but it was damn effective. The spiked darts could take down a dragon. No joke, Pilan had seen him do it.
“Oy, Mr. Halitosis!” He waved his arms and captured the creature’s wandering attention. Rewarded with another blast of hot breath, Pilan wrinkled his nose in disgust.
The Sasquatch refocused its muddy looking eyes on Pilan. A long arm went to its sternum, and a thick hairy finger tapped at the mangy looking fur covering its expansive chest. This thing could do with renewing its gym membership, Pilan thought. Those were a sad pair of man boobs.
“Fu-wend.” The sound was more growl than a word.
Pilan frowned. It wanted to make friends? He tapped his own chest, grimacing as another wave of putridness wafted over him.
“Yes, me, friend.” He mustered up a welcoming smile and winked. “So, my new pal, you play Xbox or are you more of a PlayStation kind of guy?” Pilan glanced around. “Where the hell did Adriel go?”
A squawk from above alerted him to Raela—airborne, once again. “Well, isn’t that peachy? I’m moments away from being a tasty snack, and my brother chooses this time for a scenic flight.”
“Quit your griping, little girl.” Kanga placed the blowpipe to his lips.
“Fuck you. You’re the one that looks more squaw than warrior.” That was an insult Pilan would pay for later. Kanga’s pretty looks were androgynous and his long black hair the stuff of shampoo commercials. But his beauty hid a dangerous, menacing side and the warrior did not take insults lightly.
Kanga lowered the pipe, his expression darkening. “You can finish the job yourself if you want.”
Pilan decided it was a good time to back down. “I apologize. How about I buy you a beer after you make our friend go bye-byes?”
Kanga repositioned the blowpipe.
The creature lunged at Pilan, pinning him against a tree trunk. “Before it fucking eats me, if it’s not too much trouble.” The monster grabbed Pilan around the waist and, for one horrible moment, he thought his luck was about to run out.
A dart whistled through the air, striking the Sasquatch in the neck. It batted against the sting as if a mosquito were biting it, then pulled the warrior closer. Moments later, a second dart embedded into its thigh. Yellowed teeth appeared in front of Pilan’s face and the wounded animal roared its displeasure.
“That’s it, I’m out of here.” Pilan closed his eyes, struggled to find his happy place, and vanished.
The Sasquatch, bewildered at the sudden disappearance of its new toy, opened its empty hand and keened a low whine. It stared at the void where the warrior once stood as if sensing Pilan was still there.
Pilan’s heart clattered against his chest. “Shit. That was close.”
He concentrated on calming himself enough to keep the mask of invisibility in place as he inched around the creature. If he avoided brushing against the confused beast, he might have a chance of escaping.
There was another howl from the Sasquatch when a third dart sunk into the soft flesh behind its ear. This time it staggered, its head lolling from side to side as the anesthetic worked into the creature’s bloodstream. Confused and dazed, the thing swayed with drowsiness. A heavy arm made a last-ditch sweep in Pilan’s direction, missing him by a fraction of an inch. Pilan held his breath, letting it out ten-seconds later when the overgrown ape fell like a tree.