52 - Spectral Hound

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Consciousness returned slowly.

Disoriented and in pain, Nat didn't know how long she had been out. It could have been seconds or hours. The fog lifted from her mind, relieving her from the darkness, but her brain remained muddy and jumbled. She grasped at the loose edges of fleeting thoughts, trying to ground herself back in the present. 

The wound in her shoulder throbbed steadily, but the bleeding seemed to have slowed. She rolled laboriously onto her back, crossing an arm over her chest to clutch at the wounded side. Her body felt weak and shaky.

But alive.

The house was quiet. The silence filled her still-ringing ears, catching there strangely like a wrong note played on a piano. The light was still on, but it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the brightness, to see anything that made sense.

Eventually, it all began to come into focus.

She was on the floor, sprawled close to the dog standing sentinel at the doorway. The door behind her was open. A set of damp crimson footprints left a fading trail across the threshold and out onto the porch.

Kyle lay not far away, flat on his back, his wide bulk taking up most of the kitchen threshhold. His head tilted back unnaturally, his chin thrust up toward the ceiling. His eyes were wide open, glassy like something dead and stuffed.

Three wide shotgun blasts had made mincemeat of his chest. A tattered dress shirt blended with his mangled flesh, bits of blue fabric stained a deep plum now twisted through the torn open meat of his torso. Blood, nearly black, pooled around him.

Liz was gone.

Liam was gone.

Nat struggled to sit up, pulling herself upright against the doorframe. Her legs shook beneath her, and she thought she might crumple back to the floor. She knew that if she fell, she might never make it back to her feet. She leaned heavily against the door and closed her eyes against the wooziness that threatened to drag her back to darkness. Deep breaths. She opened her eyes again, searching the living room for more bodies, some sign of what had happened with Liz and Liam.

But they were gone. The bloody footprints out the front door were the only indication of what had happened in the shapeless darkness while she was unconscious. Liz had gone -- and taken Liam -- but where? Why? 

I won't let you take him. 

Had Kyle been threatening her? Had this been some act of self-defense, a desperate and defensive bear protecting her cub from a looming villain? 

She knew the answer, and did not want to know it. But she could no longer afford the choice between unlikely and impossible; she had only reality, and the choice to act against it. 

"Kyle?" She whispered, knowing it was futile even as the word left her mouth.

Kyle stared back, unseeing.

A low, rumbling growl sounded through the house, bodiless, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Nat pressed herself against the wall, huddled against the door frame. Her wounded shoulder throbbed, but the pain was dulled by terror.

The dog, standing guard at the doorway, slowly turned its head.

Glassy eyes turned toward Nat, and a red-gold glow of flame ignited within them. A lip curled upward, revealing a row of teeth that were no longer glistening and white but stained red-brown with old blood. A pink tongue lolled out, hot breath coming in an excited pant. A froth of drool gathered in the pocket of his cheek, foaming up from the gap between dark gums and darker lips. 

The dog lifted one leg, slowly, creakily. It stepped forward, its stiffly preserved body cracking and snapping with each movement, the way a knot of wood pops in a fire. Each step was a muffled gunshot against the silence of the house as the monster found its confidence and footing. 

The hound passed by Nat, head held low, nostrils snuffling against the floor. It paid no attention to her, its interest caught by something more immediately enticing -- the smell of fresh blood. It stalked stiff-legged toward Kyle's body.  It sniffed the length of him, nostrils working furiously over the scent of gore. Then a long tongue, pink and damp, emerged from behind dark lips and began to lap at the blood, teeth nibbling delicately at the ragged edges of torn flesh.

As he ate, the hound seemed to grow.

His body swelled, growing steadily in height and width. From spaniel to labrador to mastiff to bear -- impossibly huge, broad and bristling. The silky black fur grew rougher, standing in jagged spikes from his shoulders and his broad, shaggy neck. The carefully manicured nails extended, curling forward into talons. 

As he grew, the room seemed to brighten, as if he were drawing the darkness into himself, using the shadows to expand his body.

Having eaten his fill, the dog turned away from the corpse. He turned, moving easier now, his body as loose and languid as smoke.

In two easy strides, the dog passed Nat and into the yard beyond. In his wake, he left the stench of sulfur and the sick-sweet scent of decay.

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