The beast took a step toward me. Hello, varmint. And what mythology did you jump out of?
In the bathroom, metal whined followed by a thud. Andrea was ripping the doors off the stalls and barricading the door.
The beast took up most of the width of the hallway, standing at least four feet tall at the shoulder. Powerful legs, almost feline and corded with hard ropes of muscle, supported a sleek body with a broad chest that flowed into a thick, long, but mobile neck. Its head was feline too, round, armed with jaguarlike jaws, but strangely wide. Two folds rose behind its shoulders. I couldn't get a good look at them because it faced me straight on.
From this angle they looked like wings. Deformed, but still wings.
What the hell are you? It wasn't a manticore. I'd seen manticores before, and they were smaller, and the outline of the body was completely different. Manticores were built like giant stocky boxer dogs, square, with every muscle defined under smooth brown hide. This creature was more catlike, built with agility and dexterity in mind.
As if hearing my words, the beast took another step forward and grinned at me, displaying a forest of eight-inch teeth.
My, my. Scary.
I zeroed in on the way it raised its paws. Living with shapeshifters had given me some pointers. In hunting, the chief difference between cats and dogs came down to the length and shape of arm bones. Cats could turn their paws palm up, while dog paws were fixed permanently downward, a fact that shapeshifter instructors drilled into their students when they trained for the warrior form. Rotating the paw gave cats greater capacity to suppress their prey after they rushed it. It meant the difference between an ambush predator and a pack hunter. This beast was an ambush predator. It would claw and swipe, and those teeth and jaws meant it could bite through my skull. I had to treat it like a jaguar.
Luckily I had practice fighting with jaguars.
The monster took another step. As its paw touched the ground, the orange fur suddenly turned jagged. Now what?
It wasn't fur. The creature was covered with sharp orange scales and it'd just raised them, like a dog raised its hackles. They looked thick too, like mussel shells. So it was big, it had wings, it was catlike, and it was armored. My list of probable targets just shrunk. With my luck it would spit fire next.
Was it a dragon? Some kind of drake? Somehow it seemed too feline for that. Not that I had come across many dragons. The only one I'd seen was undead and rotting, but it was the size of a large T. rex and its head had the trademark reptilian lines. This was a mammal.
No power words. No heavy-duty magic. Not with Hugh less than two hundred yards away. He knew I could use a sword, but the extent of my magic was a mystery to him and I had to keep it that way as long as possible. There could come a time when the surprise of my magic could mean the difference between living and dying.
The creature's bright blue eyes fixed on me. A cold steady fire burned inside its irises. The beast looked hungry. Not hungry for food but hungry for violence. This thing was no scavenger. It hunted the living and it enjoyed the hell out of it.
Let's see how smart you are. "Can we speed this up? I have a dinner to get back to."
The beast tucked its deformed wings to its body and charged.
It understood me. Never a good sign.
The creature came toward me, picking up speed, fangs bared, eyes glowing, gulping the distance in short leaps.
Every animal instinct in my body screamed, Run! I stood my ground. It was a cat. It would pounce at the end.
Leap, leap, leap.
It was a glorious jump, propelled by the steel-hard muscles of the beast's legs. It came at me, claws out, paws raised for the kill.
I dove forward, turning as I fell, and slid under it. The bulk of the beast's body landed on me and I sank Slayer deep into its groin. Hot blood sprayed my face and mouth. The beast screamed.
I clamped its left leg to me, trying to keep it from disemboweling me, clung to it, and ripped Slayer through its insides. The creature yowled and raked at my side with its right hind leg, trying to rip me open. Claws shredded the dress. Pain lashed my side. Argh. It hurt like a sonovabitch. Next time they told me to wear a dress instead of leather, I'd shove it up their asses.
I stabbed again, driving Slayer deeper. More blood gushed in a sticky hot flood. The beast should be going down. It wasn't. It struck at me and I scrambled its insides again and again. Die already.
Magic burned my side, as if someone had grabbed a handful of ice and thrust it straight into the cut. My blood recognized an invader and reacted, purging it from me. Lyc-V. This f**king thing was a shapeshifter.
Its regeneration meant it wouldn't bleed out. I wasn't causing enough damage. I had to get to its vital organs.
I slashed the ligament on its left leg.
The beast charged forward, dragging me with it. I slashed it again trying to cripple it, let go, and rolled to my feet. For half a second its back was still to me, and I jumped on it, right between the wings, grabbed its neck, and slashed its throat. Slayer's blade slid from the scales, barely drawing blood. Shit. It would have to do. The beast braked. I yanked the necklace off my neck, looped it over its throat, and slid Slayer into the loops.
The beast reared as silver pressed against the cut. Choke on that, why don't you?
I turned Slayer, twisting the necklace into a makeshift garrote. My side felt like someone was trying to cook me alive.
The beast shook, gurgling as the necklace bit deeper into the gash. I hung on with everything I had. To fall was to die. It veered left. I jerked my leg up a fraction of a moment before it slammed into the wall. I turned Slayer another half a turn, praying my bloody fingers wouldn't slip.
The creature shook again. My arms shuddered from the effort.
It flipped. There was nothing I could've done. The beast's weight pinned me in place. A crushing pressure ground at my chest. It rolled on me. My bones whined and I cried out.
One more twist of the garrote. Just a quarter turn.
Don't black out, don't black out.
Just a quarter turn.
I held on. My breath was coming in shallow tortured gasps. The beast convulsed on top of me.
I couldn't feel my fingers.
The big body went rigid on top of me. A long hissing breath escaped it, and it went limp.
Get up, get up, get up. This alone wouldn't do it. It wasn't dead. It had just passed out. I could lie here all day, choking it, and Lyc-V would keep it alive.
I crawled, pushing the weight off my legs, and rolled to my knees. The necklace had bitten deep into the beast's throat. It had likely cut its windpipe. I pulled on Slayer. Stuck. I grunted, lifting the beast's head, and turned Slayer counterclockwise. Little more. Little more . . .