Stacks Image 11

Chapter 1

Thursday, July 1st
Icy River, Colorado
(122 miles southwest of Denver, CO)

Robert Edwards hurdled the fallen spruce but refused to break his frantic stride.

He couldn’t afford to. They were still giving chase.

After rounding a bend in the path, he decided to gamble, leaping from the well-lined trail into the dense underbrush of the forest. He dodged the first few branches, trying to shield his face from their thorny vegetation, but his efforts were futile. His reckless speed, coupled with the early-morning gloom, hindered his reaction time, and within seconds he felt his flesh being torn from his cheeks and forehead. The coppery taste of blood soon flooded his lips.

Ignoring the pain, the 32-year-old struggled forward, increasing his pace until the only sounds he heard were the pounding of his heart and the gasping of his breath. But even then, he struggled on, pushing harder and harder until he could move no further, until his legs could carry him no more.

Slowing to a stop, Edwards turned and scanned the timberland for any sign of his pursuers. He searched the ground, the trees, and finally the dark sky above. He had no idea where they had come from—it was like they’d just materialized out of the night—so he wasn’t about to overlook anything. Hell, he wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d emerged from the underworld itself.

Their appearance was that mystifying.

When his search revealed nothing, he leaned against a nearby boulder and fought for air. But the high altitude of the Rockies and the blanket of fear that shrouded him made it difficult to breathe. Nearly impossible. In time, the pungent aroma of the pine-scented air reached his starving lungs, and they quivered with delight.

“I…made…it,” he whispered in between breaths. “I…fuckin’…made… it.”

Unfortunately, his joy was short-lived.

A snapping twig announced the horde’s approach, and without hesitation Edwards burst from his resting spot and continued his journey up the sloped terrain. After a few hundred feet, he reached level ground for the first time in several minutes and used the opportunity to regain his bearings. He studied the acreage that surrounded him, looking for landmarks of any kind, but a grove of bright green aspens blocked his view.

“Come on!” he groaned. “Where…am… I?”

With nothing but instinct to rely on, Edwards turned to his right and sprinted across the uneven ground, searching for something to guide him. A trail, a rock, a bush. It didn’t matter as long as he recognized it. Thankfully, his effort was quickly rewarded. The unmistakable sound of surging water overpowered the patter of his own footsteps, and he knew that could mean only one thing. Chinook Falls was nearby.

Edwards increased his speed and headed for the source of the thunderous sound, using the rumble as a beacon. As he got closer, the dense forest that had concealed the dawn abruptly tapered into a grass-filled clearing, allowing soft beams of light to fall across his blood-streaked face. Suddenly the crystal-clear water of the river came into view. It wasn’t much, but to Edwards it was a sign of hope. It meant that things were going to be all right, that he had escaped the evil presence in the woods.

While fighting tears of joy, the athletic ski instructor scurried across the open field, hoping that the campground near the base of the falls would be bustling with early-morning activity, praying that someone had the firepower to stop the advancing mob.

Regrettably, Edwards never got a chance to find out.

Before he reached the edge of the meadow, two hooded figures dressed in black robes emerged from a thicket near the water’s edge, effectively cutting off his escape route. Their sudden appearance forced him to react, and he did, planting his foot in the soft soil and banking hard to the left. Within seconds he’d abandoned the uncovered space of the pasture and had returned to the wooded cover of the thick forest. It took a moment to readjust to the darkness, but once he did, he decided to climb the rocky bluff that sat before him.

At the top of the incline, Edwards veered to his right, thinking he could make it to the crest of the falls before anyone had a chance to spot him. At least that was his plan. He moved quickly, focusing solely on the branches that endangered his face and the water that surged in the distance. But his narrow focus prevented him from seeing the stump that sat before him. In a moment of carelessness, he caught his foot on its moss-covered roots and instantly heard a blood-curdling snap. He felt it, too, crashing hard to the ground.

In a final act of desperation, Edwards struggled to his feet, pretending like nothing had happened, but the lightning bolt of pain that exploded through his tattered leg was so intense, so agonizing, he collapsed to the ground like a marionette without strings.

“Shit!” he screamed, suddenly realizing the hopelessness of his situation. “Who the hell are you? What do you want from me?”

Unfortunately, he was about to find out.