A beast shot out of the jungle and landed midway on the stone bridge. Huge paws hit the ancient stones, each as big as her head and tipped with thick triangular claws, razor sharp and glowing like backlit amber. A bronze beast rose, towering over her by at least a meter. Thick muscle slabbed his monstrous forelegs and colossal chest. His hind quarters dipped lower than his shoulders, his back legs bent slightly and bulging with steel-hard muscle. His fur was bronze, painted with faint rosettes of russet, same as the mane that trailed his spine and slid over his shoulder and down each leg almost to the paws.
The beast opened his giant mouth, snarling, showing her bril iant white fangs. His torso resembled an enormous dog, but his head was almost feline. The jaws looked powerful enough to bite through her bones like they were soft candy.
A psycher. A Grade A psycher.
Damn it all.
The beast roared, whipping his triple tail. The blast of sound hit her and Claire snarled back. Her roar rol ed, promising pain and blood.
The beast dipped his head to stare at her. She looked into his eyes and saw the familiar intel ect glaring back.
No. No, this couldn't be.
The beast leaped.
Claire ducked left, her instincts taking over. A clawed paw came down a hair from her shoulder and she struck with her talons , slicing the bronze fur. The triple tail whipped around, catching her flank. Pain stung her, fol owed by sharp spike of heat. Poison. Nice.
Claire shot to the side, rol ing out of the claws' way, and strained. Bloody spray shot out of wounds on her side, expel ing the poison with it. She sealed the wound.
The beast turned his head and stalked after her, the huge paws raising tiny puffs of dust from the rocky surface of the spire.
They leaped at once, flying at each other. His claws raked her side in a searing rush of pain. She bit his neck, ripping through the coils of tight muscle, but his flesh was too thick to reach bone and she withdrew.
Venturo's blood burned on her tongue.
She had to make it to the bridge. It was her only chance. She couldn't bring herself to kil him.
Dark blood poured from the wound on Venturo's neck, wetting the bronze fur. He took a precious second to seal the gash.
Claire concentrated. She shuddered and split herself, throwing four copies of herself three to the right and one to the left. Five identical scarlet cats snarled in unison.
Venturo took a step back.
Her copies rushed him and Claire jumped over him, throwing all her speed into a desperate leap.
The triple tail whipped around her, squeezing her like a noose. He'd seen through the phantoms.
She shot her back whiskers into his ribcage, turning them into hard spears in mid-strike. He snarled in pain and she slapped her own tail to slice at his face, trying to skewer him with the spike. He hurled her back. She flew through the air and smashed into the jutting rock wal . Her ribs cracked. The impact shook her vision into a haze.
Claire jumped to her feet and leaped right, left, jumping like a lunatic rabbit to avoid being hit. Her vision cleared and she saw his gaping maw diving down. Claire slapped his face with her paw, her claws raking four deep gouges on his cheek. The blow knocked him aside. He jerked back and they snarled at each other, face to face.
Fire shot from Venturo's eyes, dashed down his fur, and he stood before her engulfed in flames.
The Element Weaponry. The pinnacle of the psycher bionet training. If she had time, she would have bowed in appreciation.
He advanced toward her, menacing, flames swirling around him. She feigned fear and backed away.
She would not get another chance. This was her very last one.
Her hind paw found air. She was to the edge of the spire.
Venturo leaned forward, the fire roaring around him.
If he was fire, she would be ice.
Glacial mist shot from her. Claire charged into the depth of the inferno. His fire licked her ice barrier.
They col ided.
Claire let go, emptying every last reserve. Spears of ice shot from her, locking him into blocks of ice. She saw his enraged eyes before the ice swal owed him whole.
Claire ran. She ran like she had never before ran in her life, swal owing distance in hungry gulps. She tore through jungle, ignoring branches and thorns tearing at her hide.
Her mind fired brisk, calm commands, sending the signals down the established links to her team.
"Disconnect. Mission complete. Disconnect now."
A roar of pure rage shook the jungle. Ven had broken through the ice. Mere five seconds, maybe less. It had to be some sort of a record.
She had no way of knowing if her team made the hub, so she just kept broadcasting. "Mission complete.
Incoming threat. Disconnect."
Her mind shuddered under the strain. Her legs began to cramp. Every breath was a fire exploding in her lungs. Up the mountain, up, up, up.
She whirled at the mountain top and dared a single look back. A fiery glow was making its way through the canopy below. He was close. Claire ran.
The world began to fade. Darkness encroached. She was running too fast.
Venturo's furious growl shook the leaves behind her.
Claire burst into the hub clearing. Charles-Bul ran in a circle around the hub fountain, chased by an AI dog.
"I'm the last!" he cried out.
"Disconnect," she commanded.
The AI beast leaped at her, and she crushed its spine with one impatient snap of her teeth.
The bul vanished, exploding into dark ribbons.
Venturo shot into the clearing.
She let go of the bionet, hurling up the tunnel into the hotel room. A long shuddering moan ripped from her lips, and Claire took her first breath.
The reality of the hotel room slammed into her. She sat up and pul ed the unit off her head.
Mittali lay on her back next to her, wincing as Tonya rubbed her feet. Charles was breathing hard, as if he'd carried a sack of rocks up a mountain. Zinaida smiled at her. Saim waved. In the corner Kosta sat in a clump, dark head hung down.
Everyone got out alive.
The medic stood by the hub, a glass vial in his hand.
Acid, she guessed. "Dump it."
The medic poured the acid into the liquid interface.
The liquid hissed as synthetic neurons boiled into nothing.
"Are you alright, Kosta?" she asked him.
"He got careless," Saim said. "He was bitten."
Claire swept over his mind. The lesion was smal , but his mind glowed with the imprint of the AI's teeth.
"It will be alright," she said. "Just stay off the bionet for about a month."
"I saw him," Charles said, his voice fil ed with wonder.