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What happened in the woods that night changed everything, forever, and if the girl had known what was going to happen, she never would have left her house.
But she didn’t know, see? She didn’t have a clue what was waiting for her, so when she heard the scratching, she thought it was the stray cat that had been coming around. The one with the tattered ear and the hungry eyes.
The sun was just about to set. She could see it still shining in the west, like an orange ball of fire on the verge of falling into space. So, she thought, I’ll just put some food at the edge of the yard. For the cat.
She poured a cup of kitty chow into a plastic bag and grabbed her coat. Then she walked out the back door, into the dying light, like it was no big deal, because it wasn’t … not yet.
At the edge of the yard, she looked for the cat by the tree stump where it usually waited for her. The cat’s fur was so black that at night, all you could see was its eyes gleaming in the darkness. But tonight, the cat was nowhere to be seen.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” she called softly, kneeling down and snapping her fingers like she always did.
Still the cat did not appear.
The girl sighed. The air was damp, as if the fog were rushing in faster tonight than usual, hardly waiting for the sun to finish setting before blanketing the woods in a thick mist that was impossible to see through. She felt so sorry for the poor cat, sleeping in the woods all alone, even when it was cold or windy or wet.
Then she heard it again: the scratching. Just beyond the tree line. And—what was that? A whimper?
The girl glanced behind her at the house, still all lit up, so warm and cozy. She wanted to go back there.
So why was she walking toward the woods?
Because she couldn’t bear it, the thought that the cat was sick or hurt, or in trouble.
If she could help the little cat, she would.
“Here, kitty,” she called again, pushing through the tree limbs. “I won’t hurt you. Here, kitty.”
That the woods should be so chillingly quiet, the girl realized, was weird. Very weird. But instead of feeling afraid, she was curious.
She should have been afraid.
On she continued into the woods, all the way to the clearing where she’d spent so many summer nights on campouts, telling stories in the flickering light of a campfire. She knew that clearing as well as she knew her own bedroom, but she’d never seen it the way she did tonight.
It was hard to see through the mist, but she could tell right away that the clearing was not empty.
And whatever was in it was a lot bigger than a stray cat.
The girl hid behind a thick-trunked tree, her heart thundering in her chest, and stared with wide eyes. She couldn’t have looked away even if she’d wanted to.
Well, to be honest, she did want to look away. But her eyes were locked on the creature, and she wondered, suddenly, if she was dreaming.
But she knew that that was nothing more than a wish, an empty hope. Because nothing had ever felt this real—from the painful pounding of her heart to the bitter taste of fear in the back of her throat.
The monster was eating … something. Dark red liquid dripped from its mouth, soaking into the dirt beneath it. The girl’s stomach lurched, but still she did not move.
Then, to her horror, the creature reared up on its hind legs at the same moment the mist cleared. In the dim twilight, she saw more of it than she ever wanted to: an enormous lizardlike body, covered in scales and slime.
Two tremendous, leathery wings, folded tight against its back.
Two thick, stumpy arms; the end of each one curved with razor-sharp talons, dripping … something. Something foul.
Back legs that rippled with muscle.
A knobby, bumpy head, with two red-rimmed, beady eyes, and a mouthful of fangs.
And a tail that was studded with spikes as long as the girl’s forearm.
Perhaps the worst, though, the memory she would never forget: Along its waxy underbelly ran an angry, raised scar that was barely visible in the fading light. It was obviously an old injury; she could tell from the way the skin puckered around it. Yet still it oozed as if it would never heal.
The creature was like nothing she had ever seen before: part bird, part lizard.
It tilted its head to the side, rotating slowly … slowly … until—no, it couldn’t be—wait—it was—it was staring right at her, the pupil of that horrible eye dilating as it focused on what it wanted.
Then, more powerfully than she ever could have imagined, the creature leaped through the clearing, directly to the tree she was hiding behind. One of its talons sliced through the darkness but somehow missed her, and got stuck in the thick tree trunk instead of in the girl’s skull.
Suddenly she was no longer rooted to the ground in terror; she was running for her life, crashing through the underbrush back to the safety of her house. The creature struggled to get free, screaming in frustration as it watched its prey escape. And it sounded like—
It sounded like—
© 2011 Simon & Schuster, Inc.