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Monster Hunter International is the premier private-sector monster eradication company in the business. In addition to being MHI’s Finance Manager, Owen Zastava Pitt is widely believed to be the “Chosen One.” Owen vehemently denies this rumor. —A.L.


Larry Correia

“Hello, little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl,” she answered, not looking up from the picture she was drawing. A nurse had brought her a stack of paper and a box of colored pencils to keep her occupied. They had told her that somebody from something called Child Protective Services would be coming to take her to a new home. That was silly. She didn’t need protecting, and she didn’t want a new home. She wanted her old home back, like the way things had been before…

Before the monsters came.

“My apologies, miss,” the man said as he pulled up a chair and sat on the other side of the table. He was wearing a suit and tie, and seemed very polite. “The doctors say you can leave the hospital now. I’m here to take you somewhere safe.”

She didn’t answer. There was no such thing as safe as long as the monsters were out there.

“I’m terribly sorry about what happened to your parents. I’m a good listener. Would you like to talk about it?”

“No,” she muttered, scribbling furiously. She was compelled to draw the battle while the memories were still fresh. She would never allow herself to forget. “I’m drawing monsters.”

The man picked up one of her pictures. The page was covered in streaks of yellow and green, with bursts of purple. Yet there were black claws amid the golden lines, and beneath the chaotic swirl were dismembered stick figures, single-line arms, legs, and circle heads with Xs for eyes scattered around. She had scribbled over all the body parts with red.

“You’re very talented.”

“I know.”

“What’s going on in this one?”

“Good guys fighting bad guys. The good guys tried super hard, but father and mother died anyway.”

“Well, thankfully you’re here.” He slid over another picture to look at. One stick figure was bigger than the others. Red fire shot out the end of an angry cartoon gun. Over the figure’s chest she had drawn a happy face with horns, and then colored it green. “Who is this?”

“His name is Owen. He kills everything.”

* * *

“Owen Zastava Pitt?” the sheriff called out. He looked like an old cowboy.

“Yes, sir,” I answered as I approached the wooden barricade blocking the road.

“Figured it was you. The lady on the phone told me you were a really big fella.”

The lady in question was my wife. Julie was back in Cazador conducting business. It was the full moon so Earl had stayed home, too. That left me in charge. The rest of my team was parked down the hill in our air-conditioned rental SUV until we got the go-ahead to poke around the crime scene. I couldn’t blame them. Arizona in July is hotter than hell.

“Monster Hunter International, at your service.”

I shook the sheriff’s hand. Appropriately, it had calluses like he had spent a lot of time roping horses or whatever it was cowboys did nowadays. My hands were about the same, but that was from weapons, weights, and a few years of beating the ever-living snot out of the forces of evil.

“Monster Hunter International…” His eyes were squinty and suspicious beneath his cowboy hat. “I still can’t believe that’s a thing.”

“Since 1895. The Feds read you in, I’m assuming.”

“They did…and were assholes about it. I’m supposed to blame this string of killings on mountain lions. Can you believe that shit? This is our fourth attack in two weeks, but they went on and on about the need for secrecy, and I don’t feel like getting prosecuted for violating national security”—he nodded in the direction of the yellow police tape—“which is why we’re talking over here, while all my men are over there collecting bits and pieces of my constituents.”

We were pretty far from the nearest actual town, but somebody had set up a roadside fruit stand at the intersection of two roads. It had been flattened and there was dried blood all over the plywood. Deputies were placing little plastic numbers next to the scattered body parts and taking photos. There were a lot of little plastic numbers.

“How many bodies are we talking about, Sheriff?”

“This time? Three, I think…It’s kind of hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, though. And lots of parts are missing.”


“Looks that way.” He spit on the ground. “You don’t sound surprised.”

I shrugged. “You get used to it.”

“So MHI has seen this before?”

“Well, we don’t know what it is yet, but this is the sort of thing we deal with.”


“Every damned day, sir. Every damned day.”

* * *

When MHI had gotten the call, the closest regional teams had already been booked. So it fell on the Cazador team to fill in. This latest attack had happened while we were in the air. As far as the sheriff’s department was concerned, we were wildlife consultants. The county was paying us a hefty fee just to show up, and assuming we caught whatever was killing people, we’d collect PUFF on it, too. I loved getting paid twice for the same job. I’m still an accountant at heart.

We were down two regulars, but Albert Lee had volunteered to come along. Since he’d gotten severely injured, he had mostly worked as the company archivist and researcher, but knowing we were shorthanded, he’d said he could still drive a truck or guard a base camp. He and Holly Newcastle were off interviewing some of the witnesses to try and figure out what we were up against.

That left the rest of us at the latest scene. Trip Jones got a copy of the medical examiner’s report from the prior attacks from one of the deputies and started reading. Milo Anderson had been doing this sort of thing for decades, and was by far our most experienced Hunter, so he went poking around in the splintered wreckage of the fruit stand. I wasn’t exactly CSI, and had no idea what I was looking at, but I tried to help. All I could tell was that whatever had done this had really messed these people up. I’m talking arms pulled off. And gashes through muscle and bone that looked like they had been inflicted with one of Ed’s battle axes.

Speaking of Edward the Orc, he was just sort of doing his thing—meaning he was standing there awkwardly, staring off into the distance, wearing a ski mask and hood even though it was a sunny one hundred and six degrees, and making the sheriff uncomfortable. I’d told everybody to keep it low-key, so we were wearing normal clothes and had left all of our gear in the truck. Sadly, Ed’s idea of low-key meant carrying only one sword.

The sheriff looked at Ed—who had gotten on his hands and knees to sniff the dirt—and shook his head. “Wildlife consultants, my ass.”

“At least he isn’t stealing anyone’s chickens,” Trip said, not looking up from the reports.

“You say so.” The sheriff just looked perplexed. “The victims are the proprietor, who I knew, and two customers. Not locals. No ID on them yet. Their cars are all over there.”

There was one old pickup, and a Honda with out of state plates. The area around us was rugged low hills, lots of rocks, yellow grass, and scrubby plants. There was a hot wind that tasted like dust. Judging by the traffic turning around back at the roadblock, this was a pretty busy road for people driving between small towns, but very few people lived near here. There were only a few houses in sight, solo trailers mostly. If our monster was on foot, then its range—and victim pool—would be limited. But in this job, you never assumed. For all I knew, it could drive a car. Or fly.

Trip was thinking the same thing I was. “Sheriff, where were the other attacks?”

“First was three miles north of here, then five miles west. Last was about eight miles south, toward town.”

“Sounds like hunting grounds. I don’t think it’s passing through.” Trip said. “I know there has been a lot of activity recently, but have people turned up missing in this area before?”

He frowned. “Well, once in a while. This is a pretty quiet place, but the terrain is rugged and unforgiving. We’ll have a hiker disappear every few years. Usually they get lost and fall off a cliff, but sometimes they just up and go missing and we never find a body. Every now and then we find abandoned cars on the highway, and we can’t track down the owners. But as far as the actual number of missing persons, that I couldn’t tell you for sure.”

“How come?”

“Illegals, son. I don’t know how many people I’ve got walking north across my county any given day. They don’t exactly declare at the border and get their passports stamped.”

Most predatory monsters were clever enough to pick off targets who wouldn’t be missed. It was possible that whatever this thing was, it could have been active for a lot longer than the last few weeks. It might have just gotten sloppy lately.

“Anything special happen around here about the time the killings started? Construction projects? Earthquakes? Weird lights?”

“Human sacrifices?” Trip added. “Raining frogs?”

“Now you guys are just messing with me.”

“Pandemonium! Dogs and cats living together!” Milo’s voice was muffled from beneath the collapsed stand.

“Nothing particular that I can think of. There’s always wildfires this time of year, but nothing close by. Big heat wave rolled through around then, that’s about it.”

I made a mental note to have Lee check the area’s history. Maybe we had some sort of monster that got riled up when it got really hot. If it was, of course the friggin’ thing would decide to live in Arizona.

“Found something.” Milo crawled out from beneath the splintered wood. I helped him up, and Milo dusted off his cargo shorts. He’d put on latex gloves, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d gotten something white in his long red beard. I think it might have been brain tissue. “In addition to fruit, they were also selling fake topaz jewelry, pot, and what I think are illegal Mexican fireworks.”

“I can respect capitalism,” I said. “You know what we’re dealing with?”

“No clue. Claw marks indicate they’re long and sharp, four fingers, but I didn’t see any hair, so not a werewolf. Chupacabras suck bodies dry, but don’t rip apart corpses like this. Daytime rules out some undead, especially vampires. Speed it got in and out without being seen by cars rules out most of the others. That takes care of our usual suspects.”

The sheriff crossed himself.

“But whatever it is, it’s prickly. Scratches on the wood and paint wherever it rubbed.”

“It’s got spikes?” I asked.

“My guess, thorns.” Milo held out one glove. “And it left these behind.”

It was a purple flower, partially crushed and splattered with blood. As far as flowers went, it was spikey and aggressive-looking. “I’m not a botanist, Milo. What is it?”

“It’s from a bull thistle, a nonnative, invasive species. Eurasian origins, but all over the US now. They’ll grow anywhere a little moisture can collect above five thousand feet,” Trip explained. We all looked at him funny. “What?”

“Nerd,” I said.

“I only know that because there was a note in here.” Trip held up the police report. “They’ve been found at every attack…You’re just mad that I win at Trivial Pursuit sometimes.”

“Only because of the sports questions!”

The sheriff stepped forward and took the flower. “Yep, every time. When I thought I was dealing with a regular old-fashioned murderer, I figured maybe it was some sort of ritual or something, but they’re just kind of left there, like litter.”

“Do you think it could be some kind of plant monster?” Trip asked.

“I hope not. I didn’t bring my flamethrower.” Milo quickly turned to the sheriff to explain, as if he was embarrassed to be caught without a flamethrower handy. “Rush job. No charter available so we flew commercial. The TSA hates flamethrowers in checked baggage. Actually, long story, but I’m the reason for that rule!”

I looked around. There was a clump of the nasty thistles just across the highway. Most of the prickly things were about four or five feet tall, a couple of feet wide, and chock full of scratchy unpleasantness. The tops were covered in those same bulbous purple flowers. Turning slowly, I realized there were patches of the thistle in every gully and ravine around us.

“They’re camouflage.”

Ed had quit smelling the ground, had wandered over to a patch of thistles about a hundred yards away, and politely raised his hand. I realized that I didn’t know how long he’d been standing there waiting to get called on, but Ed didn’t like butting into human conversations. I walked over to see what he was looking at. The dirt by the fruit stand was packed so hard that there hadn’t been any tracks, but down here the ground was sandier and softer. Ed had found a trail.

The imprint could have been mistaken for a bare, human footprint. It was much smaller than my size fifteen boot. Except the toes ended in sharp points, and there might have been a hook or spur of some kind on the heel.

“Good work, Ed.”

The orc just nodded, then pointed up the ravine. It had gone thataway.

“Any chance you know what this thing is?”

Ed just shook his head in the negative. Then he walked a few feet into the grass and thistle. It raised a cloud of insects. It was so dry that everything just crumpled to dust as he hit it. It made my nose itch.

“Smell…” He didn’t talk much, so when he did, it was probably important. “Little human.” He mumbled something in Orcish. “Girl child.” Ed bent over and picked something up. It was hard to tell, but from his reaction, I think it shook him a bit. He held up his find.

It was a baby doll, new and clean enough that it hadn’t been out in the weather for long.

“Girl drop.” Ed growled. “Monster…carry girl away.”

The creature had taken a kid.

This had just turned into a rescue mission.

* * *

We searched the surrounding hills from morning until the middle of the night. The sheriff offered to bring in the volunteer search and rescue posse, but until we knew what we were dealing with, that might have just given the creature more victims. But we did accept the offer of dogs. Except like Ed’s sensitive snout, they didn’t have any luck tracking the creature by smell either. Ed said that the creature smelled like “dust under sun” which wasn’t particularly helpful.

Lee and Holly joined us. There had been two witnesses to the earlier attacks, but they weren’t much use. The MCB had already given them the intimidation speech to shut them up, so they’d been hesitant to talk at all. It sucks that we’re on the same side, but the MCB’s stupid regulations hinder us from doing our job in a timely manner, which just leads to more witnesses for them to intimidate, which makes their mission harder, but that’s how the system—nominally—works.

However, Holly was persistent and charming—or possibly threatening, I didn’t ask—enough that the witnesses told her what they saw. But they hadn’t gotten good looks. All we got from them was that it was humanoid, around six feet tall, green and yellow in color, and really fast. Now, fast is a relative descriptor, and considering everyone on my team had dealt with vampires, we were a little jaded when it came to the concept of fast movers, but both locals insisted that it was at least track-star-on-steroids speed. And that was when it had been seen leaving the scene, with a belly full of innocent victim, so presumably a little bit on the sluggish side.

We had visited a bunch of houses in the vicinity. There were a few, little, clean and respectable farms, but most of them were poor or run-down, lots of single-wide trailers, even one dude who lived in an old school bus, that sort of thing. Nobody had seen anything. Nobody knew anything. A couple of places no one answered the door. For those I was under the distinct impression that if someone was home they were probably cooking meth, and we weren’t getting paid to get shot at. It was that kind of neighborhood.

We had reserved hotel rooms in town, but I decided we would set up camp in the hills near the fruit stand in the hopes that it would come and attack us during the night. That way we could just kill the thing and get it over with. Sometimes making yourself a target is just part of the job.

* * *

It only got down to about eighty degrees that night, so our camp didn’t get a fire. Milo was a little disappointed, because that man was always looking for an excuse to make s’mores. We set watches, and most of us turned in.

I was too uncomfortable and spun-up to sleep, so I used Google Earth on my tablet, trying to figure out, if I was a monster who had kidnapped a child, where would I be hiding? There weren’t any caves or mine shafts close. We’d hit all the houses the sheriff had known about, but there were a few things on the maps that looked suspicious, like abandoned shacks, rusted-out cars, that sort of thing. So I flagged those. Only for all I knew the critter just slept out under the stars. We were in the desert and it probably needed water to live, but we’d already hit everything bigger than a puddle in a ten-mile circle. But then again, maybe it just drank blood, and that little kid was the equivalent to a canteen. Sometimes the supernatural scoffed at our knowledge of biology.

Lee limped over to join me. I was sitting on the dirt, resting my back against a truck tire which was still uncomfortably warm. He tossed me a water bottle from the cooler. I absently caught it. With a sigh, Lee sank down against the other tire, leg brace creaking. He saw what I was looking at.

“I hate to say it, Z, but we might not be able to save this one in time.”

“Yeah, I know. We’re still going to try though.”

“Damned right we are.” He popped the top on a can of beer. “Eating people is one thing. Eating children offends me.”

“Tomorrow we’ll break into teams of two and hit all these spots. After that we’ll work outward in case this thing can cover more ground that we expect. Any luck on your end?”

“Maybe. I’ve found two times in the last thirty years where heat waves correspond to a higher than average number of people vanishing during the summer. Could be our monster, or it could just be people getting lost and dying of dehydration. But no specific monster legends—American, Mexican, or Indian—seem to match up. There used to be a weirdo separatist hippy cult out here, sun worshippers believe it or not, kept to themselves mostly, but the locals think they all moved away years ago. Maybe they played with some black magic and summoned something? I’ve left a message with the county clerk to see what parcels they used to own.”

“It’s worth a look.”

“It’s a crapshoot.” Lee took a long drink. “I just don’t even know how much I don’t know.”

I put down the tablet and rubbed my face. It was covered in grit and sweat. “Don’t beat yourself up. You’ve been doing good work.”

“It’s a work in progress. I’m collecting every monster story I can, from us, from other companies, Feds…when they’ll talk. Every scrap, tall tale, and sea story, and I’m going to put them all together so eventually guys like us can know what the hell we’re doing. Eventually we’re going to have books of these, ready to go, like a Hunter’s guide of how to smoke anything.”

“Sounds great, Al.”

“Sadly, today is not that day.”

* * *

I didn’t like breaking up the team, especially when we didn’t know what our monster’s capabilities were, but we needed to cover more ground. Flying solo was a great way to get killed, so I settled on teams of two hunters. The sheriff loaned each team a single deputy to act as an escort and to keep us from getting lost. Ed and Milo were on four-wheelers looking for more signs in the hills near the fruit stand. Trip and Holly would take everything I’d flagged to the north, and Lee and I would take all the flags to the south. We were supposed to check in periodically via radio. Though surprisingly, I was getting decent cell phone coverage out here, too.

It had been a fruitless few hours. We were driving up a steep dirt road toward one of the parcels of land that had been owned by the weirdo church Lee had looked up. Our cop escort was behind us in his 4x4. On both sides of the road were patches of thistles, dying and crinkly, their purple flowers fading.

There was the possibility that this case could be a total bust. If the monster only came out once a decade for a heat wave and the worst was past, it could go back to doing whatever it normally did, and we’d never know. Not every monster hunt ended in a big PUFF bounty and victory party. Sometimes people died, Hunters spun our wheels, and the bad things got away.

I really hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those.

Lee was driving. “I couldn’t find anybody who knew much about these people. They lived off the grid, kept to themselves, that sort of thing. Basically they were creepy introverts, and everybody in town assumed they spent their time doing drugs and dancing naked in the sun.”

“Great way to get skin cancer.”

“They were dedicated. Supposedly they worshipped the sun.”

“That’s some hard-core, old-school religion right there.” And I had once nearly been sacrificed to an ancient squid god, so that was saying something. As we crested the top of the hill, the road dumped us out on a flat spot. It was covered in tall yellow grass and lone thistles standing like sentinels. There was a burned-out wreck of an old barn ahead, but surprisingly there was an RV—which still looked mobile—parked next to it. That hadn’t been on my satellite view.

“An out-of-the-way spot like this, what’s your bet?” Lee asked. “Campers, coyotes, or cultists?”

The RV was an old beater, rusty, dusty, but the tires were still inflated. We parked a hundred yards away and waited for our escort to catch up. It was better to let the local authorities deal with people. We were just contractors.

The deputy parked his truck next to ours. His name was Campos. Young guy, but seemed levelheaded and professional. Like Lee, he’d been a Marine, so they had bonded. I didn’t know how much the sheriff had told him about us and why we were here, but he was fired up about our search for the missing kid.

Campos rolled down his window. “Squatters?”

“Beats me. We need to search those ruins for any sign of demonic summoning, but human beings are your jurisdiction, Deputy.”

“Don’t worry,” Lee added helpfully. “If that RV from Breaking Bad is giving you any creepy vibes, I’ve got a machine gun in here I can cover you with.”

“Wildlife consultants, my ass,” Campos muttered as he got out of his truck.

“Your boss said the exact same thing yesterday morning.” I got out, too. Because we were mostly wandering around and talking to people, I was just wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, and two concealed handguns. It was kind of impolite to show up on somebody’s doorstep wearing body armor, not to mention it was too friggin’ hot. Though judging by those claw marks, if we ran into our monster I would probably regret that decision.

Campos walked up the lane. I followed about twenty feet back. Lee, having volunteered to cover us—which actually meant staying in the air conditioning—remained with our rental. The sun was beating down on my head and I was kicking myself for not bringing a hat. It was stupid hot. Sure, our home base in Alabama this time of year was like breathing through a wet sock that had been pulled out of the dryer too early, but this gritty, dusty, no oxygen, standing-in-an-oven feeling was somehow worse. As we got closer, I could see that the RV had New Mexico plates.

Campos went up to the steps, stood a bit off to the side, and knocked on the camper’s door. It made a hollow metallic rattle.

I kept looking around. There were thistle plants all around us, a few solitary but most in clumps. There was no wind. The plants were still except for the insects buzzing through the stickers. The grass was deep enough that you could hide a lion in it.

The hair on my arms was standing up.

One of the curtains moved in the old RV’s side window. Campos saw it, too. He knocked again. “Sheriff’s department.”

And then one of the solitary thistles moved.

I pulled my .45, but the deputy was between us. I didn’t get too good of a look right then—humanoid, but wrapped in spines and prickly leaves—because it leapt at Campos in a flash, tackling the deputy, sweeping him from his feet. The two of them crashed in a cloud of dust.

They were thrashing and rolling. Claws were flying. The monster wasn’t making any noise. Campos was screaming. Walking forward, I punched my gun outward, focusing on the front sight, monster blurry behind it, but had to wait an agonizing second so I wouldn’t plug the deputy. An arm raised to strike, it lifted its body…and for just an instant I had a clear shot.

The bullet smacked into the monster’s head in a puff of dust. It lurched back. I nailed it twice more before it rolled off.

The door of the RV flew open. I shifted focus, but the woman leaping from the doorway was human. There was no time to see what she was doing, because the monster was moving again. I swung the STI over and opened fire.

It was on its belly, face down, arms and legs splayed wide, claws black as obsidian ripping through the dirt, and it scuttled forward like a crab. I kept blasting. Dust and dried fragments of leaves flew from it.

You can go through fifteen rounds really fast when you’re motivated. The slide locked back empty. As I reached for a new magazine, it lifted its head, displaying an all-too-human face, only with black holes for eyes. It opened its mouth, and inside was nothing but a circle of black spines. It let out an unholy shriek.

There was a chain of impacts as Lee ripped off a burst from his rifle. The first was low, spitting up dust and gravel, the next couple slapped right into the creature, and the last was high, the ricochet making a buzzing noise as it continued down the road. One of those rifle rounds punched a hole through its cheek in a spray of black sap.

I dropped the slide and shot it fourteen more times. Lee kept on shooting, too.

By the time the dust cleared, there was a broken, riddled, oozing husk of a thing lying there. It wasn’t moving, so I went to the wounded deputy.

“Oh man! Oh man!” Campos’ cheek had been sliced open. His uniform shirt was hanging in tatters and the vest beneath was shredded. Everything that had touched the creature had been scratched. That was a lot of damage inflicted in the span of a heartbeat. There was blood running into the sand, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. “Oh man!”

“Hang on.” I ripped open the Velcro strap on his vest and pulled it aside. One of the claws had gotten through. I couldn’t tell how deep the laceration down his torso was, but it was bad. I wiped away the blood, saw red muscle through the hole, swore, and then used his vest to put direct pressure on it. “Lee! Grab the med kit!”

The other Hunter had driven the truck up closer, climbed out, and was covering the downed monster with his short-barreled AR-10.

“Hold on. It’s not dead yet.”

I realized that the monster was still twitching. Shit.

Only Lee had already retrieved something else from the truck. There was a hissing pop as the incendiary grenade went off right next to the creature. The prickly leaves it was wrapped in were so dry that they instantly ignited. With a wumpf, the whole thing went up. The intense heat caused the monster to blacken and curl into a fetal ball. That ought to do it.

Lee grabbed the medical bag from the truck and hobbled over. “Did you see the runner?”

There was no sign of the lady who’d bailed from the RV. “What about her?”

“She was carrying a little kid.”

* * *

Campos was all fucked up. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Waiting for an ambulance meant he might bleed to death. So we’d gotten the bleeding under control as best as we could, then I carried him to the police truck. Lee put the hammer down, and the two of them were headed for the hospital.

I radioed for help, paused long enough to grab my vest and Abomination from the SUV, and then I’d gone after the kid.

At first I’d hoped that the runner was human, just some regular person minding her own business, when some dudes had started shooting a crazy thistle monster outside her RV, who had grabbed her child and fled in terror…but a hundred yards up the ravine I found the shredded remains of an abandoned sundress, and a fresh footprint in the sand with toes that were way too pointy.

So it was a shapeshifter. Whatever these things were, they looked like people. Or maybe they were people, but turned into something else. Now that I had a second to think about what I’d seen, I wasn’t so sure that it had been wearing plants as camouflage, so much as they had been growing from its body. It was hard to tell though, since it had all happened so fast. Even if I’d had time, I couldn’t have examined the body, since it was still sending up a cloud of oily black smoke below. There was nothing on the tables for this monster, so I would have to request a government PUFF adjuster to figure out the bounty.

Or somebody else would, if this one killed me. Or if I had a heart attack or died of heatstroke up here.

I was breathing hard. The air was too thin. Every shifting, gravel-crunching, rock-slipping, uphill footfall was sending up more dust and dried pollen, which just made it even harder to breathe. My chest hurt from the exertion. I was covered in sweat. Running as fast as I could, I got out of the gully, but stayed parallel to it, hoping that if I stuck to higher ground I might spot my target.

The problem was that there were thistles everywhere. It could be hiding and waiting for me. These things were ambush predators, and I was blundering along after one without a clue. One of the first things we learned in Newbie training was that solo hunting was dangerous. Avoid it whenever possible. Like Earl said, no matter how tough you were, you can only look in one direction at a time. Even if we hadn’t needed to evacuate Campos, with Lee’s bum leg there was no way he could have made it up this rocky mountainside. The smart thing would have been to wait for Trip and Holly. But I wasn’t feeling smart, I was feeling stubborn.

I hated losing people.

There were at least two monsters, but there could be fifty more for all I knew, but I had a full-auto shotgun and a bad attitude. At the next spot that was relatively clear of brush it could hide in, I stopped to catch my breath and look around. I had to take my shades off to wipe the sweat from the glass. There was no sign of the monster or its hostage. I checked in on my radio and gave Trip my location. He knew it would be a waste of time to tell me to wait for them. Good thing Holly hadn’t answered, because she would have yelled at me.

Then I heard the singing.

Well, singing was the best way I could describe it. It was an alien, keening sound, and it certainly didn’t come from a person or an animal. It was like a hot wind through dry leaves. It was angry and bitter. Sad. Lonely even. I turned around and realized that from up here there was a great view down to the RV, and the blackened, smoking circle we’d left.

It was mourning. I think we killed its mate, and now it was singing a funeral hymn.

The sun was directly overhead, beating down like a hammer. Maybe Lee had been onto something. Maybe these things were the result of the old sun worshippers or, hell, maybe they were the sun worshippers, changed somehow, drawn back here for some reason. Black magic was malevolent like that.

I set out toward the song. Upwards again, through the densest, scraggliest high desert plants yet—of course, because it can never be easy. Another hundred yards and my arms and face were scratched everywhere. Stickers had worked their way through my boots and were lodged in my socks, irritating my skin.

The song stopped. It must have known I was close. I paused to listen…and picked out a new sound. A little girl crying.

I didn’t know what its senses were like, but I tried to come in stealthily. Only that was a job better suited for Ed, because everything I put my foot down on either cracked or caused little bits of rock to scrape and crunch. To hell with it. I was way better at blundering headlong into trouble anyway.

“Hello! Can you hear me?”

The crying turned into a frightened sob. I couldn’t imagine what that poor kid had been through.

I pushed through the last of the brush and reached an uneven, rocky clearing. There were tall tufts of grass and low scrub breaking through the loose surface. And of course, more of those damned purple thistles. The kid was huddled next to a rock, skinny little arms wrapped around her skinny little knees, crying her eyes out. I guessed she was about six. Dirty, scratched, blond white kid, but currently so lobster-red that she was going to have one hell of a sunburn…if she survived.

I shouldered Abomination and approached cautiously. Either the creature had just dropped her here and kept running, or she’d left her out in the middle to lure me into a trap. But I reached the girl without anything trying to kill me. Keeping my head up, I knelt next to her. “Hey. It’s going to be okay. I’m here to rescue you.”

But she was out of it, rocking back and forth, scared out of her mind.

“My name is Owen.”

There was a sudden gust of wind. One of the thistles shook. I spun and fired a round of buckshot through it. The little girl screamed and slapped her hands over her ears.

It was either sit up here with who knew how many monsters stalking me, or get the hell back down to where my friends would be arriving. With an innocent involved, that was an easy tactical decision, but the little girl didn’t look to be in any shape to walk. Her knees and elbows were scraped to hell, and she was shaking like a leaf.

“I’m going to carry you out of here. You just need to hold on tight, okay?”

She shook her head and mouthed the word “no” repeatedly. Poor thing was scared out of her wits. Keeping Abomination in my right, I picked her up with my left. She didn’t weigh much, probably just forty pounds or so, but the hill was steep. She was squirmy and made me even more top heavy than usual, and I really didn’t want to slip and roll down the mountain with the kid. I’d probably squish her. I’d have to be careful.

We started back down as fast as I could go without losing my footing.

I made it nearly a hundred feet before the monster hit me.

I hadn’t even seen it coming.

It passed behind me in a yellow blur, so fast its hands made a snap in the air. There was a ripping noise as claws ran across my back. I spun, ready to fire, but it had already disappeared back into the weeds.


Luckily it hadn’t pierced my vest. Even as hot as the damned thing was, the vest had just saved my life. The little girl was crying in my ear. It was making it hard to listen. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

I kept moving. A bush shook. I put a round of buckshot through it. It could have been the monster, or it could have been a squirrel. Better safe than sorry. I began sliding downward again.

Unfortunately, I was heading back through the thicket. Somehow I’d wound up on a narrow deer trail. I could only see a few feet ahead. The monster we’d killed had demonstrated that it could low-crawl like a boss, and there were a million places one of these things could be hiding. My mouth was painfully dry.

The monster came out of nowhere.

That time its claws got a little bit of skin, but worse, it knocked me through the bushes, off balance. I tried to throw myself flat on my back so I wouldn’t crush the kid. I raised Abomination and shredded the bark on a bunch of bushes, but the friggin’ thing had already disappeared again.

“Are you okay?” I checked the girl for blood, praying she hadn’t gotten hit with a claw. Nothing. Good.

It was a long way down. This hit-and-run stuff was the monster’s game, not mine. It wanted to hide? Fuck that shit.

The sheriff had mentioned wildfires. They were a plague this time of year. Everything in these mountains was flammable right now. I just needed to find a spot where I could burn this place down without getting roasted in the process. There was a pile of rocks about twenty yards to my left. It was an island in a sea of knee-high weeds. I scooped up the girl and ran that way.

Somehow I made it before the monster took another shot at us. I reached the pile of rocks. There was a rattling noise and a snake lifted its head. I didn’t have time to dick around so I just shot the rattlesnake with Abomination. The buckshot pretty much just turned it into a red cloud, but it wasn’t anything personal.

“Stay here! It’s going to get hot, and it’s going to be hard to breathe, but no matter what, don’t climb down.” Then I gently put the sobbing girl down on the rocks.

I pulled out my Zippo. I’d been so jealous of Earl’s that I had gotten myself one with the MHI logo engraved on it too, and I didn’t even smoke. But you never know when you’ll need to commit arson. I held the flame beneath some dried stems and they went right up like they were soaked in oil. I began walking in a circle, lighting plants as I went.

The fire began spreading rapidly, crackling and popping. It was amazing how many flying insects suddenly appeared, fleeing. The creature must have known I was removing its ability to hide. I was forcing its hand. Fight or flight time.

Apparently, it went with fight. I had made half a circle around the boulder pile when the monster flew through the smoke and slammed into me.

Claws flashed. Abomination roared.

I fell on the rocks, but the creature was already gone. Damn, these things were like vampire speed, though I was pretty sure I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, I’d lost my lighter. Not that it mattered, since my little fire was rapidly spreading out of control.

At least the fire would make a great signal for the others to zero in on…or at least tell them where to collect my body. I keyed my radio, only to realize that the plastic housing had been ripped in half by a claw. Wires were dangling from it. So much for communications.

At first the smoke was heading away from us, but then the wind shifted and it was blowing right back in my face. Since my lungs were already half closed off with pollen and dust, and I’m an asthmatic, let me tell you, that was unpleasant. I started coughing so hard that it was making me dizzy.

This time the monster flanked around…and attacked over the rocks. It leapt past the kid, hit me in the back, and knocked the shit out of me. The only reason it didn’t just rip the back of my head off was that we were lucky enough to topple into the fire.

I rolled one way, scattering ash. It rolled the other. The thistles sprouting from its back immediately burst into flames, but it still came up, desperate and swinging one burning arm. I raised Abomination and swatted aside the claws, then kicked it in the stomach. The creature flew back into the fire again.

“Weren’t expecting that, were you?”

It was screeching, igniting as readily as the ground around it. It began running away, but I aimed Abomination low and opened fire, cutting its legs out from under it. The monster crashed back into the burning weeds. It began clawing its way forward, toward the rocks, trying to get away from the fire.

Now I was really pissed off. The fire had reached a big bush. I don’t know what it was, but it went up like a rag soaked in kerosene as soon as the fire touched it, roaring like a bonfire and blasting us like a furnace. The little girl screamed as she saw the flaming monstrosity reaching for her. I walked after the monster, wrapped my hands around its shattered ankles, and dragged it away from the rocks. Stickers and pokey leaves cut my palms as I pulled it toward the flaming bush. It kicked at me with its other damaged leg, and the black spur on its heel embedded itself deep into a plastic magazine full of shotgun shells on my chest. Too little, too late, monster.

With a roar, I swung the creature around and flung it right into the flaming tree. It disintegrated in a shower of sparks.

* * *

A couple hours later I was sitting on the tailgate of a sheriff’s department truck, drinking my third Gatorade. I was sunburned, heat-exhausted, had inhaled way too much smoke, and I don’t think I’d ever been this dehydrated before in my life. I had sweated out water that my ancestors had drunk.

The sheriff joined me. “Well, Pitt, the firefighters are really mad at you. Didn’t you ever hear Smokey the Bear say only you can prevent forest fires?”

“Yeah, well Smokey wasn’t up there getting his ass kicked.” If Smokey had been a Monster Hunter, he would have been in favor of napalming the whole mountain.

“Can I assume we’re done with cougar attacks for now?”

“I think so. My guess it was a pair of…Hell, I don’t know. This is one for the MCB to figure out.” Lee hadn’t read any stories about these either. He’d probably want me to write it up for his collection of monster stories. “How’s Campos?”

“He should be okay. Thanks to your friend blowing through town at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. And the girl is at the hospital, too. Doctors say she’s damned near catatonic, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing right now. We still haven’t identified those other victims from the fruit stand, but I can only assume they’re her parents. Seeing what happened to them? That’s a hell of a thing.”

“Give her time. People are tough.”

“Because of you, that little girl gets to grow up. You MHI guys are okay in my book. That said, I truly hope I never have to see you here again.”

* * *

The man put the drawing down. “You’re very talented.”

“You said that already, mister.”

“I’m not talking about your artwork. I’m talking about who you are. The doctors couldn’t see it because you’re not all grown up yet, but I understand. You see, I collect stories, from every time and from all over the world, so I always know to be on the lookout for things that are special. Like you.”

She was suspicious. This one knew too much. “Father said never to talk about how we’re different.”

“But your parents are gone now.”

“The monsters got them.” As she said the words, she could see them, wilting and twisting as they were consumed by the monster’s fire, and a sudden rage filled her. She slammed her pencil down so hard that it penetrated the table and stuck there, right through the happy face with horns. “Why wouldn’t they just leave us alone?” she shrieked.

The man remained calm. “Because people fear what they don’t understand. Plus your pops got caught ripping some people apart. Society frowns on that.”

“Those humans were a blessing of meat. Father says when the hot time comes the sun grants the blood feast to those of us who sing the black hymn.”

“Yeah, whatever, kiddo. Theological differences aside, it sure didn’t help matters. You were too weak to do anything about it this time, but you won’t always be. You’re too young to control your power, but with some time and a little guidance, you’ll be dangerous as hell. But until then, I know how to keep those monsters away.”

She looked up and really studied the man for the first time. He was wearing glasses with orange lenses that hid his eyes. “Why is your skin so white? Does the sun not favor you? Father said our family is cursed. Do you bear a curse?”

“Sort of. I made something very powerful very angry once. You can call me Stricken.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver object. He held it out for her to see. “This is called a PUFF exemption.”

“It’s shiny.”

“When you have one of these, you’re off-limits. It means monsters like Owen aren’t allowed to hurt you anymore, no matter how different you are.” She reached for it, but with a malicious grin, Stricken snatched it away. “Not so fast. There are rules. You have to earn it first.”


“By doing what you were born to do, but only when I tell you to. Can you do that for me?”

She held out one hand. Her palm split open and a spikey purple flower grew from it.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Come on. You’ll like your new home.”

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