Mal struggled to control his breathing, wishing he had never locked eyes with the lurking prowler yet unable to look away. He arose shakily, the huff of his knees lifting from the dust seeming as loud as the crash of angry thunder. He backed away, half-crouched, afraid to stand up straight, hoping that staying low might somehow make him invisible. He reached the door and pushed it open, wincing at the screeching protest offered by the rusty hinges. Cold, grey half-light spilled into the shed, chased the shadows into the corners, scared the spiders into their lairs, fell upon the beast in the blackness, and the boy staggered back, his face shocked white by a debilitating terror, a primal fear that transcended thought and action.
The abomination unfolded itself, four legs stabbing against the floor, lifting a bulk that was more mouth than body, a great white maw of muscle and sinew that flexed unnaturally, gaping open like a chasm dropping into the black centre of Hell. The beast seemed to pull back, legs tensed, jaws clamped closed – then it suddenly sprang forth, its cavernous mouth stretching open, emitting a terrible shriek that made the boy cry out in horror. Its spider-like legs caused it to move with a disjointed, insectoid motion made even more unsettling by its terrifying speed.
As the beast hurtled forwards the boy acted on instinct, stumbling back and slamming the heavy wooden door with all the strength he could summon. The beast smashed through it, tearing out the hinges in a shower of splinters. The boy was pinned beneath the door and the creature’s legs speared the ground either side of his small body as its maw slammed against the wooden barrier between them. Unable to sink its teeth into the flat surface, it skittered backwards, clamping onto the door’s edge and ripping it away, sending the shattered piece of wood spinning to the ground behind it.
Again the snapping, shrieking, spitting beast came forward, jaws chomping at the boy’s leg. He rolled away, but then cried out as he felt the full weight of the creature upon his back, pressing him against the ground and blasting the air from his lungs. Hot breath covered him like a wind, fetid with a stench unlike anything he had encountered, and he tightened his eyes, willing himself to wake from this nightmare, refusing to believe that the abyssal mouth stretching wide above him would complete its grisly work.
He heard his uncle bellow his name as the weight of the creature lifted from his back.
He turned his head, grazing his chin on the dry ground to see the beast on its side, legs whirring frantically as it tried to rise. A long spear was thrust into the side of its great face, but as it shook and kicked and barked the spear came loose and clattered to the ground. Another took its place and the beast howled again as the boy felt his uncle’s hands grab his shoulders, dragging him away and up onto legs too weak with fear to hold him steady.
The monster’s legs found purchase and it pulled itself upright, skittering around to face them. Uncle Athartes held a long-handled wood axe in his hand and he hefted it, forcing the boy behind him. The beast seemed to be in pain, dancing in a circle, attempting to dislodge the second spear. Unable to do so, it locked its eyes on the boy and his uncle once more and bellowed at them in frustration.
Then it charged.
It closed the distance so fast that the boy thought it would swallow them both in one mouthful before either had a chance to move, but his uncle dropped the axe, lifting him by the waist and hurling him away. He rolled onto his back in time to see the beast crash into the old man, its great, saliva-coated jaws closing upon him, tearing away his left arm and half of his torso with a single bite. Blood sprayed the ground as Uncle Athartes twitched and gurgled, and the beast spat out the morsel. Not enticed by the warm blood of its kill, the monster swung its bulk away from the mauled corpse to face its intended prey once more.
The boy watched the death of his uncle, his carer, his only family, with a sense of detached dread, as though he were observing from a safe distance and not standing less than ten yards from the shrieking, manic, blood-soaked nightmare that had so brutally deprived him of all that he loved. Something inexplicable stole over him as he witnessed his uncle’s final moments; a fire flowed into his veins, burning hot, lighting a flaming path to his frantic heart. He sprinted forwards, snatching up the fallen spear, black blood sizzling and spitting on its point, and turned to face the beast.
Tears rolled down his cheeks as he braced himself, one foot forward, knee bent, spear outstretched. The creature shrieked again, launching itself towards him. He leapt sideways, his timing somehow perfect, turning as he did so to plunge the spear into the small mound above the creature’s mouth that held its horrifying eyes. Unable to stab with an adult’s strength, the boy nonetheless managed to tip the creature over.
It scrambled up, legs scrabbling in the dirt, exuding an atmosphere of desperate aggression, a need to kill that seemed to go beyond animal instinct. The boy stood defiantly, his fear all but gone. He had done all he could; he had not fled, had not abandoned his uncle. He had stood his ground and would do so until either he or the beast lay dead. Eyes flicking toward his uncle’s abandoned axe, the boy wondered if he had the strength to lift it…
He steeled himself.
The monstrosity braced, coiled, sprang…