|And here we have April's WIP-of-The-Month!|
Revised for the novel:
They walked on in silence, as the dense moisture in the air thickened and deepened. Edith gasped for breath, and she heard the steady huffs of both Ben and Justin grow louder as the mist curling around them deadened more noise around them.
A few paces in the lead, Ben had slowed to a complete stop. Justin and Edie came up behind him, but he didn’t move.
“What’s up?” Justin asked. Ben’s gaze remained fixed on the wide, dark river beside them. Algae and moss coated the vines hanging into the water, and in the stillness, they heard the odd grunts and cries of various animals deep in the jungle.
Edie crept forward, all her nerves on edge though she didn’t know why. She slid her hand along Ben’s shoulder, feeling the tension through his sweat-drenched shirt.
“What’s wrong, Ben?” she asked softly.
“Shh, quiet!” he snapped. “Something in the water.”
“What, like fish?” Justin mused.
Ben squatted carefully and slipped the pack off his back. Opening it and reaching inside, he pulled out a small portion of a jerky stick. He paused, holding it over the water, as if bracing himself for some big event.
“Something big,” he told Justin, tossing the wad of jerky into the pool.
The murky blackness flashed white with teeth and tongue as massive jaws snapped open at the presence of meat on the water. All three humans scrambled backwards, Edie just barely snatching the pack from the edge of the river as she moved.
“Blast!” screamed Justin. “We need to go!”
“Which way’s west?” Ben, ever the level-headed one, still wanted to make sure that they would not get lost, even in their panic.
“This way!” Edie held the compass attached to the pack she now wore on her back. “Follow me!”
They crashed through ferns and brush as they sought to put enough distance between themselves and the monster in the pool. Edie’s keen ears heard the steady splashing, like listening to a boat plowing through the water—except this “boat” could kill them, and probably would, now that it realized their presence.
“Way to go, tossing that jerky,” she snarled over her shoulder at Ben. “Why not go ahead and stick your whole arm in there?”
“All I saw was the eyes,” he complained back at her, panting heavily from the exertion, “How was I supposed to know just how big the thing was?”
“Tree!” Justin shrieked, and the trio stopped short of slamming into the large, moisture-slick trunk of a fallen tree across the path they were taking.
The plashing didn’t slack any. “It’s trailing us!” Edie shouted.
As if the mere mention had been its summons, the massive beast lunged out of the bushes next to them, pulling itself onto land with stubby, clawed feet. A caiman, but far larger than any predator the three friends had ever seen.
“Run!” Ben shrieked, taking off into the foliage.
“Ben!” Justin yelled. “Get back here, we need to stay together!”
They were all running now, crashing through the bracken in an effort to distance themselves from the threat now skimming along the ground behind them. The snap and crackle of the branches was the only clue as to its location, and each human’s only objective now was to put enough distance that one didn’t hear the ominous sound.
Ben ran in a blind panic; some part of his mind still insisted that he should slow down or what if he wound up breaking his ankle and couldn’t run at all? The rest of him, however, was full of terror and would not let him break pace, even for a second. He ran until it registered that he couldn’t hear any other sound except his own raspy, heaving breath. He slackened just in time to break through the wide-leafed bushes and come to the edge of a wide clearing. He spun in circles, his wide eyes not daring to miss a single twitch as his mind imagined the caiman hiding within every shadow. The dark, spackled coloring would be extremely difficult to distinguish in the dying light around him—but if it wasn’t after him, had it gone after Justin… or worse, Edith? Where exactly had they ended up in this mad dash for survival? How far off-track was he? It would be nearly impossible to find his way without the compass or a map, and with very little idea of the sun’s position.
A flutter overhead just about made him jump out of his skin. He watched in amazement as an enormous black toucan opened its brilliant yellow beak and cawed out a warning, just instants before the caiman burst into the clearing and shot right for his legs, jaws wide open.
It felt like intense pressure on his thigh at first, then the pain slammed into him with the force of an industrial-grade pile driver. The caiman jerked its head to the side, its jaws still firmly clamped around Ben’s leg, and he sailed through the air and smacked on the hard-packed clay mud. He felt his nose snap with the impact, and blood gushed down his face, but the caiman still twisted and rolled a second time, intent, it seemed, on separating the leg from the rest of his body. Ben almost caught himself wishing for that very fate, as he lost all feeling in that appendage by now, anyway. After one more twist that very likely dislocated his hip completely, Ben felt the ground scrape along his back as the caiman began to drag him into the underbrush, in all likelihood back to the river, where it would drown its prey and consume at its leisure.
A powerful shriek rent the air, and stopped the caiman in its tracks. The caiman gave his body another shake, as a low growl rumbled from the middle of the clearing. Again, the shriek resounded from somewhere above Ben’s head, just outside his field of vision, and the caiman abruptly dropped the leg in its mouth and twisted aside to deal with this new threat to its intended meal.
Sprawled on the ground and hovering just on the fringes of unconsciousness as he was, Ben heard the scuffling of creatures behind him and tilted his head (careful of the blood pouring out of his nose) to see what had dared interrupt the monstrous caiman.
A black panther charged squarely at the caiman—but this ferocious feline was much larger than any other species Ben had ever witnessed. Compared to the caiman, whose head was slightly longer than Ben’s whole leg, this panther seemed almost big enough to ride on—a strange comparison, given that it was in the process of slashing and ripping at the vicious caiman at the moment. The scuffle drew near him—so close that the caiman’s tail whipped him in the side—but Ben was beyond the point of caring by now. The caiman snapped and flailed mercilessly, beating the lithe panther back away, and would have made for Ben’s head to snap it clean off—
But the bone-crushing crunch never came.
Instead, Ben felt a sudden, burning weight over his body, and a profound lack of breath as his mouth and nose suddenly filled with thick, putrid fur. The paw with the wicked-looking claw was just a hairs-breadth from his face, and he saw firsthand just how massive it was, as the panther effectually covered him with its body and snarled at the caiman.
No one moved for several moments, and Ben heard no sound except the extended growl rumbling through the panther’s body. Its head was aligned with his own, so when it screamed one last time at the caiman, the sound reverberated right into Ben’s ear, deafening him for a brief moment, much like a flashbang grenade.
When his hearing returned, he no longer heard the growl—which meant that the caiman had probably yielded its prey to the more adamant predator. Now they were alone, the panther and the man—and he was wounded, bleeding, and nearly dead. As the panther bent its massive head down so close to Ben’s own that he could feel the whiskers brush his cheeks, it occurred to him in seeing that muzzle larger than his whole head, that it would take very little effort for the panther to decide to twist its head just slightly, snap Ben’s neck in its jaws, and drag him up to some tree somewhere to be devoured.
The young man fought not to move so much as his eyes as the massive creature snuffled in his face, filling his mouth and nose with the rancid stench of death on its breath. There was no point in holding his breath, as the panther most likely already knew he was still alive, but maybe as long as Ben stayed very still, it would at least disregard him as any sort of threat.
The panther swung its head down Ben’s body, nosing along till it discovered his injured leg. He saw the muscles in the panther’s haunches tense, and the lips pulled back to reveal the gleaming, yellowed teeth. Any second now, the predator would be partaking of the meal that the caiman had been denied.
Something warm, wet, and flat slapped against his leg. Ben bit down on his tongue as the rough scraping sensation slid over the open gashes from the caiman’s teeth. The panther lifted its head, its long pink tongue lolling from its mouth. When Ben didn’t make a move, it bent down again and resumed licking his leg.
The sting was stronger than sandpaper being rubbed over the raw skin, and it didn’t let up. Once it had covered his entire leg in saliva, the panther shifted its position to straddle Ben’s body, and began licking the blood off his face. Now he had the heavy stench of rotted meat to accompany the stinging scrub of the tongue. Ben wondered how long he would have to hold his breath to just pass out entirely—and never had he wanted so badly to be unconscious than he did at that moment. True, the panther had not eviscerated or dismembered him—but this slow torture by inches was almost as bad as all that, especially when the panther accidentally bumped his broken nose. Why did it bother cleaning him up? Were panthers really this fastidious?
Still straddling him, the panther bent its head down toward Ben’s chest, opened its mouth wide, and caught a mouthful of the front of his shirt. When it lifted its head again, Ben’s body lifted slightly off the ground. Hanging from the panther’s mouth by this improvised sling, pretty much only his heels dragged on the ground (and the rest of his mangled leg). Padding carefully, the panther began dragging Ben in this manner back into the jungle, toward a mysterious destination. The blackness in his vision was becoming thicker and darker, and at last, Ben could feel the numbing sensation of loss of consciousness. Sounds faded long before his vision did, but one last flickering thought occurred in Ben’s mind before he blacked out completely: I hope Justin and Edith are safe.
Did you enjoy the rewrite? Stay tuned for more excerpts, or read the whole thing for yourself on Wattpad!