Evaney Harwood’s first hint of doom came when the ground rumbled.
Her friends climbed the last hill while she returned to the Land Rover for migraine tablets. Everyone was pumped, believing they were nearing the cave. She didn’t want a headache to spoil Winn Eastman’s joy when he found it. Evaney glanced at her sparkling engagement ring and grinned. Winn’s proposal at the Autumn Inn last night surprised her. For the first time in her life, sheer happiness kept her awake.
The land shook again. She heard whispering. “Guys?” she called out.
Maybe not whispers. Evaney knelt and touched the earth. Impossible. The ground pulsed as if she stood over buried machinery or something electrical. She jerked her hand back and stood. Static electricity ran up to her wrist. Crazy. She massaged her arm until it faded.
Evaney studied the surroundings. Sunset intensified the gorgeous fall colors in rural northeast Alabama. She turned in a circle, scanning the valley and woods. Shadows made her jumpy and her muscles tensed for action. Blood thumped in her ears. The cool air carried a faint sulfurous odor, like burning hair. She shivered. A danger alarm from childhood buzzed in her head. Kooky or not, she had to warn them. Honk the horn?
The wind swirled and carried Jax’s shout, followed by group laughter. Their distant voices sounded excited and her hyped-up state eased. She laughed, feeling embarrassed. They were all seniors at DukeUniversity—cutting classes, true, but here for a common good.
Evaney swallowed more CloudMist, a local bottled mineral water. She had dawdled long enough. Evaney jogged across a carpet of red and gold maple leaves to the base of the hill. Halfway up the incline the land rippled, and she lost her footing. She skidded on her bottom down to the base. Back in the woods, a tree toppled. The thud rattled her.
Anxious, she gazed up at the brow expecting to see worried friends peering back, but no one came. “Winn!” she yelled, brushing dirt from her pants. She knew this cave meant a second chance for Winn’s dying sister. Were they injured?
“A fool’s errand.” Grand Nessy’s grating voice popped into her mind. “It will be dark soon.”
Evaney bit her lip. She never thought of her grandmother and it spooked her. “Winn!”
The sudden quiet jarred her. Leafless trees once crowded with noisy, migrating birds were bare, no insects buzzed around her head, and human voices were silent. Her mouth went dry, and her extremities chilled. “Jax!” Evaney shouted. “Dave!” No one answered.
She strained to listen for life signs, any sounds other than her own. Vibrations from the ground ran up her legs. Her body hairs rose and she broke out in goosebumps. She stamped her feet and wondered if they had stumbled upon a military or research site. Were the land rumbles a security deterrent? The urge to duck and hide overwhelmed her. I can’t go up there.
“Winn!” Panic surfed through her veins as minutes ticked away.
Winn knew her grandmother had abused her. Evaney wanted to die when he asked to see the scars. He kissed them, making her cry. She didn’t tell him plastic surgery had minimized the worst ones.
The ground swarms, because that’s what they were, settled into a continuous tremor. She checked her cell phone—no signal. Evaney took a deep breath and forced herself to join her friends. She had climbed halfway up, struggling in loose dirt, when Jordan’s high-pitched screams rang out.
Heart thumping, she debated returning to the Land Rover and waiting for them. Her inner child wanted to hunker in safety until the land stilled. No, Evaney clenched her teeth and jabbed her manicured nails into the dirt and climbed. She never had friends until college. Despite the loose, rocky soil and self doubts, she made it to the crest. The top was flat for about thirty feet and then it angled down in sharp drops.
“Evaney!” Winn shouted.
His voice sounded muffled. She ran downhill, skidding, and jumping over fissures and cracks. She slid another ten feet in loose dirt. “I’m here!”
Winn’s Tag watchband reflected the waning sunlight from a small hole, but the rest of his body hung down in a cavern. Both hands gripped his ice ax and a slinger leash dangled from the spike. The ground felt unstable as she moved to him. As she watched, he tried to slip his wrist into the slinger. “They’re attacking us!”
He grunted with effort. “Rocks are unsteady.”
“I’ve got a rope.” Evaney pulled it from her backpack and inched across the cracked surface. How did they get underground?
Winn screamed. Her heart fluttered and she froze. The land ripples lasted longer this time.
“Help, Ev!” he cried out.
Evaney dropped the rope and dived for a scrawny pine tree near the ice ax. She got one hand snug around its trunk before the ground fractured beneath her. Sections crashed into the cave. “Winn?”
The P90X workouts had strengthened her arm muscles. Her upper chest rested on a slanted ledge, and her legs flailed into a dark pit not far from Winn. Taking a deep breath, she pulled up enough to grip the tree with both hands. She grunted and prepared to heave up her lower body.
Winn grabbed her leg. Her hands slipped as the sapling tipped over. Its roots held, but both her arms were fully extended under his added weight. He took his weight off. “Rope?”
Winn grunted and then Kaylee screamed, “They’re coming!”
“Climb, Kaylee,” Winn yelled.
“How far is the drop?” Evaney shouted.
He yelled back. “Pull! Pull us up!” He grabbed her legs.
Kaylee shrieked, “They’re biting me!”
Evaney gritted her teeth as pain stabbed her hands. She ignored muffled screams and growling, bear-like sounds. Sweat popped out on her forehead and trickled into her eyes. No matter what she tried, she didn’t budge. “I can’t!”
Kaylee screamed nonstop.
Winn babbled, “We lost Dave. Help me reach slinger.”
The pain became unbearable when either Winn or Kaylee began to twist. Evaney shouted, “You’re hurting me!”
“Vermin always survives, don’t you?” Grand Nessy whispered.
Kaylee’s moans faded and then the pressure eased.
Evaney grunted with relief. “Kaylee?”
“She bled out. Pull up now or we’re next!”
Her body shook. She had nothing left.
“Help me!” His body jerked. “It’s jumping. Toss me the ax.”
Rock scraped underneath her chin from his sudden tug. She slid further. Her muscles burned and cramped. Evaney groaned and held tight. Something slapped her ankle. “I can’t let go!”
“He’s biting me!” Winn sounded terrified. “Please, Ev!”
She clung to the sapling.
“Hiding again, Vermin?” Grand Nessy asked.
Evaney didn’t want the last thing she ever heard to be Grand Nessy’s long-dead, nasty voice. “Winn, I love you!”
Her words gave him hope, or he found new strength. Winn began to climb using her body for support and his feet for leverage. He grabbed her shirt, and fabric cut into her skin. The tree loosened and dirt rolled into her face. She slid back another inch.
Winn howled. His fingers gripped her belt. Something clawed her leg and then her boot slipped off. Her foot ached, no, it bit into her foot. A burning mass shot up her leg before her ankle twisted. She yelped and one hand let go.
Winn saved her life. He found traction and pushed her butt up until both hands grasped the sapling. Her torso inched up the incline. More violent rumbles shook rocks loose.
Evaney screamed as Winn grabbed hold again. His boots kicked against the rock wall trying to find a toehold. She hung on as the tree roots loosened. This was it.
As poison from the ankle bite reacted with adrenalin in her veins, she burned from the inside out. A primitive and familiar instinct took control. She lost her love, her humanity, her pledge to never hurt another. She kicked Winn’s head to break his death grip.
His fingers raked her body, trying to dodge her foot. “Don’t panic.”
Evaney stomped his head. “I can’t die underground!”
Frantic, she kicked him without pause. Winn fell, screaming, “Ev!”
As soon as his weight lifted, grief overcame her. “I’m sorry,” she shouted as wild animals fought over first bite. Growls and snarls made her peek at them. A glimpse. She blinked in shock. Fright rippled through her body.
Rocks cut into her flesh as she frantically inched herself up the ledge. She jabbed fingertips into any void to pull to safety. The ice ax gave support for her uninjured foot. The pack below broke into a fight. She couldn’t let herself cry. Tears revealed weakness. “Winn?”
Evaney refused to look again, refused to confirm they were real, and understood she had been crippled for a reason. She crawled away, dragging her bleeding foot.
Her skin burned and itched, and her throat tightened, forcing her to wheeze. She began to hallucinate about packs of—what were they? Evaney slid headfirst down the hill and sharp rocks cut into exposed skin. Bruised fingers couldn’t slow her descent, and her injured foot slammed into a large rock. She rolled. Pain blinded her and then red and green stars danced in her vision.
Evaney came to a stop on her belly and puked. She turned on her side. A huge gold moon climbed in the darkening sky. Fear of being eaten alive kept her heart twittering in her chest. She rubbed her engagement ring. “Don’t think about Winn,” she said to herself. “Keep moving.”
She crawled across unstable ground. The Land Rover gleamed radioactive white under the moonlight. She grinned and allowed herself to believe she might escape. Behind her came running sounds, and chills bubbled up her spine. No, she couldn’t be eaten alive, not after surviving Grand Nessy.
Evaney ignored the pain and scrambled over the last ten feet. She bit her lip and pulled herself up on one foot. She swayed and her vision darkened. The beast in her, the same one that kicked Winn, forced her to hop to the door and get inside the vehicle. Panting, she yanked on the sun visor and the keys fell into her lap. She cranked the engine and hot air blasted her face.
One rabid monster ran straight into the driver’s door. Evaney screamed. Another one tried to scramble up the back. Both pounded and pushed until the Land Rover began to rock.
Evaney glanced at him and cringed. Man, monster, it. She willed herself not to move and to blend into the seat. It smelled her fear and licked the window glass.
She punched the gas pedal and swerved back on the narrow country road. Her final hint of doom was the pinpoint gleam of a red laser light before a projectile shattered both windshields. She jerked the steering wheel to the right. Evaney’s last thought before the Land Rover crashed off the mountainside was freedom. For the first time in her life, she felt free of Grand Nessy. Totally free.