Diana Ridley's lungs burned. Her feet tripped over another snarled root.
Behind her, the yip-yip of wild coyotes drowned out the crunch of dead leaves underfoot.
She stumbled, righted herself, and ran, before the snarling, snapping pack closed in.
Diana's world narrowed to two objectives. Running and breathing. One foot, breathe in, two foot, breathe out.
Stop and she would die. Horribly. Bloody images from a late night horror movie spurred her on.
If she didn't stop, her burning lungs would burst.
She scrambled over a deadfall tree. Wheezed for air. Halfway over, the break in the run brought her focus back to herself. Dirty khaki shorts and a fitted tee shirt were no protection from the biting thorny vines and dead brush in Dogwood Park.
Every bloody scratch on her bare arms and legs began to sting. Her limbs trembled. She gulped a breath.
A deadfall tree blocked her flight. Mid-scramble over the thigh-high obstacle, her shoestring lodged in the rough bark. Yip-yips and a chorus of coyote howls brought the terror back in an adrenaline filled rush. Diana jerked her foot loose. She stumbled, making the mistake of looking back.
No time to retie the shoestring. No time at all. Four red-brown coyotes crashed out of the brush behind Diana. Big, hungry coyotes. The animals growled, advancing in slow fits and starts. Eerie intelligence gleamed in their eyes. Foamy saliva from their exertion dotted their muzzles with white.
She was dog food. Dead. The excitement of the hunt washed over her, proving again that feeling others' emotions was not a gift, psychic or otherwise. It was a curse.
Her fear of being eaten crippled her mental shields, leaving her mind open like a sponge, to soak up all available emotion from those around her.
The animals' lust for blood incited a fresh wave of terror from her. The coyotes smelled her fear. The fear spiked their excitement, which scared her more. In her mind, she felt the slavering hunger.
They spread out for the kill. Diana lurched off of the downed tree trunk and fell. She scrambled to her feet and gasped. Her stomach somersaulted and dropped to the ground.
Two wolves, one black, one brown, jumped into Diana's path. They were huge animals, twice the size of the coyotes. The wolves' ears were pinned flat against their skulls. They bared the strong sharp teeth of healthy carnivores and growled. The newcomers' anger slapped into her mind, hot and possessive.
She never picked up on animal emotions. Only human's. Tonight was a fine night to learn a new skill set. The last thing she would feel would be how tasty she was when the coyotes and wolves ripped her to pieces.
The wolves bounded past her, tails high, clearing the fallen tree in a graceful leap. They descended on the coyotes, growling and barking.
Diana ran. Sounds of the vicious dogfight behind lent her speed.
There were coyotes and wolves in the park. The excess emotion and confusion cleared from Diana's mind with every bit of distance she put between her and the animals.
Teenagers. A new horror gripped its claws into her. Teenagers hung out here at night. Like her son, Matthew, who was stranded somewhere out here in the park.
She had to warn someone. Police, Animal Control.
Diana's new goal became her car and the cell phone in the glove box. She prayed that any teens parked out here had their windows up.
Not dogs, wild animals. She knew the difference. Matthew, her son, had written a term paper on them for graduation. Coyotes and wolves. Hungry ones. They weren't supposed to be in East Texas. At least the wolves weren't supposed to be here. Coyotes were a common nuisance, but weren't this big. The wolves too, were twice the size of normal animals.
Please God, she prayed, let Matthew's car have started. Let her son be safe. She had to find the spot where he and his girlfriend had broke down.
No. Diana changed her mind. She didn't want to put anyone else in danger.
The shadows of more animals materialized beside and behind her.
More wolves. They kept up easily and didn't immediately leap on her. She felt the animals' excitement. But unlike the coyotes, the wolves were not slavering for her blood. A psychic, she felt the difference in the animals emotions.
She wasn't stupid. She was no athlete, either. They were toying with her, wearing her down for an entertaining kill, she imagined.
The wolves could take her if they wanted.
Named for the copious spindly trees, Dogwood Park had few trees big enough to climb to safety. Without decent light, without time, she had no way to scope out a good climbing tree without first running headlong into it.
She wished for an oak or something equally tall and strong to smack into.
A wolf snapped at her heels and barked impatiently. She wasn't running fast enough for its, his entertainment. Male emotions had a different flavor than female. The wolves were male.
The stitch in her side was unbearable. She stumbled and kept running. They wanted her to run. She felt their need in her mind. Chase the prey and take it down. Why didn't they take her?
A big one, black in the night, ran alongside her. A patch of hair was torn from his neck. He was one of the wolves that had fought off the coyotes. She didn't trust that saving her from being eaten before meant that she wasn't on the menu anymore.
The brush of the wolf's fur against her bare leg startled her into stumbling.
It barked at her.
Keep up. Run.