Today's Reading

The world spun as Talina tumbled down the slope, tore through the vegetation, bounced off rocks. She slammed onto a weather-rotten outcrop; sandstone crumbled under her weight. The side of her head hit a rock. Lightning and pain blasted through her skull. Her body bounced, landed on loose scree, slid, and broke through a young aquajade tree.

Suddenly she was weightless, falling. The creek bottom stopped her cold, the impact smacked both breath and sense out of her.

Stunned, vision blurred, she came to. Shocked nerves jangled in her limbs. Synapses overloaded and screamed. She tried to move—and gasped. Pain, like fire, burned through her body.

What the hell? Where am I? What the fuck happened?

Accident.

Yes, I know this feeling.

The distant bang of a rifle bored past the ringing in her ears.

Who's shooting?

Panic caused her to reach out, slap a torn and bleeding hand on a large rock. She was in a canyon bottom.

An image burst into her stumbling brain: quetzal. Baby killer.

"Hunting me," she whispered as she reached up to wipe at her eyes—and couldn't, given the long thorns sticking out of her hand.

Dirt and rocks came cascading from somewhere above. A bullet exploded on stone, followed by the crack of a rifle.

Trish!

Talina whimpered as she pulled herself upright and struggled to see through her swimming eyes. Branches snapped above. Pretty clumsy work on the quetzal's part.

Clumsy? Why?

Another bullet popped as it exploded above the cut bank no more than three meters above her.

Talina tried to stand. The numb burning in her leg changed to a white-hot and searing pain that speared through her fumbling brain. She managed to focus on her oddly twisted leg. Broken!

The quetzal slipped sideways above her as another of Trish's bullets exploded in the dirt where the creature had been but an instant before. Then it dropped over the edge, feet thudding into the streambed a couple of meters from Talina's boots.

The quetzal gleamed, skin shining, reflecting streaks of black and yellow with the legs mottling into blackened umber on those deadly three-toed feet. Behind the creature's elongated head, the neck expanded; the flaring collar burst into crimson glory.

Talina's hand—heedless of the thorns—slapped for her holstered pistol. To her horror, the holster was empty, the pistol lost during the tumble down the slope.

The quetzal fixed her with its three black and gleaming eyes. The beast wobbled as if hurt. Took a step, then another.

The quetzal uttered an eerie moan as it raised itself sluggishly. Less than a meter separated her from the three vitreous eyes. The creature blasted out a trilling whistle mixed with a hiss of rage. Crystal drops of moisture caught the light in diamond sparkles where they beaded on the razor-ranks of teeth.

"So, you're taking as many with you as you can," Talina told it, dazzled by the glow behind those angry eyes. And in that instant, she could sense the alien intelligence behind that stare.

"Not that I blame you."

The quetzal replied with a clicking down in its iridescent throat, as if in agreement.

Why the hell hadn't Trish taken the final shot? What was keeping... Of course, this far down into the narrow-walled canyon, Trish didn't have a shot. Couldn't see the target.

"Sorry, pal." Talina granted the beast a weary smile. Blood was running down the side of her head.

The beast kept wobbling on its feet, mortally wounded. Gaze still fixed on hers, it tilted its head, as though in an effort to understand. It gestured with one of the wickedly clawed forefeet, as if demanding something of her. She could almost feel the bottled emotion as the beast whipped its tongue out between the elongated jaws.

She screamed as it made one final leap.
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