She sucked in the breath to scream as she darted left, and let one rip. She heard its answering call behind her, and it sounded like laughter.
Not real, not true, she thought frantically, but deadly all the same. It toyed with her, wanting her fear first, and then…
She was not going to die here. Not this way, not on the run. She was not going to leave her child without a mother to satisfy and amuse some hell-bent god.
She bent down, scooped up a fallen branch on the fly, then spinning around, she held the branch like a club and bared her own teeth.
"Come on, you bastard. Come on, then."
She held her breath and reared back as it lunged.
The buck came out of nowhere, one high leap out of the air. The rack speared into the bear's side, gored it. The sound of rending flesh and the furious howl was horrible. Blood gushed, splattering red over white as it turned to swipe the buck with those vicious claws.
The buck made a sound that was almost human as his white flank bloomed with blood, but he charged again, rack to claw, pivoting to range his body in front of Zoe's like a shield.
Run! She heard the command explode in her head, jerking her out of the shock of watching the battle. She shifted her grip on the branch and, using all her strength, swung hard.
She aimed for the face, and aimed true. The force of the contact had her arms vibrating, but she swung again.
"See how you like it," she muttered mindlessly under her breath. "See how you like it." And slammed wood against flesh and bone.
The bear screamed, stumbled back. As the wounded buck bunched, dipped its head for a killing charge, the bear vanished in a swirl of filthy mist.
Gasping, Zoe went down on her knees in the bloody snow. Her stomach clutched, had her retching uselessly. When the nausea and the wracking shudders eased, she lifted her head.
The white buck stood, knee-deep in the snow. The gouges on his side glistened with blood, but his eyes were steady and unblinking on hers.
"We've got to get out of here. It might come back." She pushed to her feet and, swaying, dug into her shoulder bag. She came up with a pack of tissues. "You're hurt, you're bleeding. Let me help you."
But he stepped back as she approached. Then he bent his forelegs, lowered his great head in what was unmistakably a bow.
And vanished, in a shimmer of light.
The snow was gone, and the path to the field was clear once again. She looked down where the blood had stained the ground, and saw a single yellow rose.
She bent to retrieve it, and let herself weep a little as she limped out of the trees.
"They’re just scratches, but some of them are nasty." Malory pressed her lips together hard as she swabbed the cuts on Zoe's flesh. "I'm glad you came straight here."
"I thought… No, I didn't think." She was feeling a little drunk, Zoe realized, a little lig
ht-headed and punchy now that she was back. "I just drove here, didn't even consider going home first. Jesus, I hardly know how I got here. It's all one big blur. I needed to see you and Dana, tell you about it, make sure you were both all right."
"We weren't the ones off in the woods alone, fighting monsters."
"Hmm." Zoe tried to ignore the sting of antiseptic.
She'd driven back to the Valley in a fog that had kept her numb. She hadn't started to shake until she'd walked through the doors of Indulgence.
She'd had to shower. She'd needed hot water, soap. Clean. The need for it had been so urgent that she'd asked her friends to come up to the bathroom with her so she could explain while she washed.
Now, wearing only her underwear, perched on a stool in the bathroom with Malory tending her hurts and Dana off to get her some clean clothes from home, it all felt like a dream.
"He couldn't even come after me like a man. Fucking coward. Guess I showed him."
"Guess you did." Overcome, Malory dropped her forehead to the crown of Zoe's head. "Oh, God, Zoe, you could've been killed."
"I thought I was going to be, and I have to tell you, it seriously pissed me off. I'm not trying to make light of it." She gripped Malory's hand. "It was awful. It was just awful—and, and primal . I wanted to kill. When I picked up that branch, I was ready to kill. I was hungry for it. I've never felt like that before."