I was awakened by a chirp from my phone, notifying me of a new text message. I’d been dreaming that a shiny wolf was teaching me how to peel back layers of the world so I could see how it really worked. In the dream, everything was interconnected, but there was a disease cutting the links, leaving big dark splotches in the world. I shrugged off the dream and looked at my phone.
I smiled when I saw the message was from Carolina. “Hey sexy man. Thanks for last night. I’ve been sketching, thought you’d like to see:”
The pencil sketch was clearly an idea she’d had for my tattoo. The maltese cross was wreathed in flames, and the star of life had angel’s wings sprouting from it. She’d added a Rod of Asclepius to the center, and three-dimensional shading to both the cross and the star.
“I’ll do a cleaner color version. I just wanted to show you what I’d come up with so far.” A second message added.
“That looks awesome.” I texted back. “Looking forward to the final version.”
After a moment’s hesitation, I also sent “I had a great time last night. Looking forward to spending more time with you.”
My phone chirped almost immediately. It wasn’t Carolina. It was Sara. She’d gotten my cell number from the station under the guise of ‘business’, and had a gift for cropping up at the worst moments. “heya fireman havin fun today”
A second later, Carolina’s reply came; “Me too.”
I decided to ignore Sara. I also broke my own don’t-rush-things rule. “How soon can that happen?” I sent back to Carolina.
“just got new bikini wanna see” Sara texted.
“Got a lot of work today. Tonight?” Carolina’s answer came.
My phone chimed again with a message from Sara. There wasn’t any text in the notification box, so I could safely assume the contents were a picture of her in her new bikini. I didn’t tap to find out.
“Tonight sounds good. I’ve needed an excuse to fire up my grill. Steak and dutch oven potatoes sound good?” I shot back to Carolina.
Another image arrived from Sara. She was being persistent today. I didn’t look. I’d already talked to my cell provider about the possibility of blocking her, and they said there wasn’t anything they could do.
“Woah! Pulling out all the stops. I might get the idea you’re trying to impress me.” Carolina’s text replied with a winky-emoticon.
“That’s a hell yes, by the way.” She followed-up almost immediately.
“I can be at your place at seven.” Carolina added.
Another picture from Sara.
“I’ll be expecting you.” I answered Carolina.
“I’ll be there.” Carolina replied.
I had a date with Carolina, not a tattoo appointment, not a magic lesson, a no-doubts-about-it date. Today was going to be a good day. I just had ten and a half hours to kill.
“what u think” Sara’s next text came in.
A minute later, my phone rang. It was Sara. I let it go to voicemail.
Two minutes passed before she tried calling again.
The third time she called, I knew I had to answer. If she was this intent on talking to me, she wouldn’t quit short of showing up at my front door with lights and sirens. I should have known telling her I had a date last night was a bad idea.
“Hey, Sara.” I said, answering the phone. “What’s up?”
“Oh, James!” her voice dripped with fake sweetness. “I was getting worried.”
“My hands were full.” I lied. “Getting ready to head up the mountain.” Sara was as anti-nature as people get. Any time I started talking about spending time in the mountains, she’d get this uncomfortable expression on her face and leave me alone.
“Oh, that’s no fun. I was hoping you’d come to the pool with me. You did see the pictures I sent you.”
“Uh, no, like I said, my hands were full. Have fun at the pool, though.”
“You don’t want to come with me?” Sara pouted.
“I really need to get out of the city for a while. Nebo is gorgeous this time of year, and I’ve heard more rumors about wolves up there.”
Sara harrumphed and hung up. At least it was easy to get rid of her; all I had to do was do the things I enjoyed. I had a hunch Carolina would have been happy to spend the day hiking in the mountains with me.
I threw on some clothes, grabbed my hiking pack, and headed for the kitchen. Hiking in the mountains and a bit of magic practice sounded like a great way to pass the time until my date with Carolina. I also had to worry about Sara checking up on my story.
An hour and a half later, I was at the North Peak trailhead. If I pushed, I could make the peak in a couple of hours. What I really wanted, though, was to find a place I could head off-trail and find somewhere solitary to spend a few hours.
I hiked in, enjoying the cool air and warm sunlight, until just before the trail crossed the ridge to the back side of North Peak. From there, I cut down along the ridgeline and wandered among the trees for a while until I found a comfortable place where I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed.
I stripped off my clothes and spent the next couple hours sitting cross-legged with the mountain sun warming my bare back. At first, I was in a constant state of mistrust, not sure if I was actually sensing magical energy or just wishing I was. After a while, though, I started to trust myself, and it started getting easier.
My phone chirped at three in the afternoon. It disturbed a hawk who’d taken a curious interest in me. The hawk jumped from the tree and soared away while I dug my phone out of my pants pocket and shut it up. I sighed and put my clothes back on; I had to get home in time to get dinner started.
I realized there was something wrong a little more than a mile from the trailhead. At first, I’d just assumed there were some other hikers on the trail headed towards me. Hikers don’t usually carry high-power hunting rifles.
The first guy in the group shouted the moment he saw me. The guy behind him instantly brought his gun up and snapped off a shot. I watched in surreal slow-motion as the bullet slammed into a tree a few feet from my head. Three more shots rang out as I dropped to the ground and rolled behind a tree.
There wasn’t time to think, to try to figure out why a dozen or so men were shooting at me. More shots were ringing out, and I could hear shouting. If I stayed put, they’d fan out and pin me down. My best bet was to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction.
I got up and bolted, abandoning the trail to duck through the dense trees. I passed a thicker clump of trees and cut right, hoping to use the cover to lose my attackers. Whoever these guys were, they didn’t seem too smart, and they definitely weren’t at my fitness level. They did have rifles, though, and that sucked.
Like other predators, human vision keys off motion. I needed to get some distance, but moving was also helping them track me. I hadn’t heard anything to suggest they had dogs, though, so if I could put a bit more distance between us and find a place to hole up, I might have a chance.
I heard the crack of several more guns and heard bullets whiz past. It was time to turn again. I curved left around a tree, trying not to give them a better target. Then I saw what I needed: scrub oak. I sprinted for all I was worth.
I dove into the oak, acquiring a fair number of scratches, but obtaining some cover. I slithered as stealthily as possible through the undergrowth until I found a good-sized tree that I could put my back against while the scrub oak still concealed me.
I took a few deep breaths and silently dug my G43 from my pack. I usually carried it concealed in town, but I’d never dreamed of needing it in the mountains. I chambered a round and waited. I only had six shots, which wasn’t nearly enough. My best hope was in staying hidden.
My sudden change in strategy seemed to be working. I could hear shouting and running as the men passed me by. As their sounds receded, I considered breaking cover and making for my Jeep.
“Stay put.” A voice whispered in my ear.
I jumped about a foot in the air.
“Apologies. I did not mean to startle you.” The voice whispered again. “I am trying to help.”
I looked around slowly. There was nobody there.
“Where are you?” I whispered urgently.
“Next to you.” The voice whispered back.
“Why can’t I see you?”
“Breathe.” The voice answered.
I took a long, slow breath and tried to tune into my sense of magic. It was harder with my adrenaline pumping, but I made an effort to balance myself. Finally, I began to feel the flow inside me. I could sense something powerful beside me. As I focused, that something resolved into a shimmering wolf.
“You’re a wolf?” I asked, almost forgetting to whisper.
The wolf’s ears twitched as he looked around. “I am an ancient nature spirit in the form of a wolf. Your people call me Ulfvaldr.”
“I had a dream about you.”
“Your mind was more open to me as you slept.” Ulfvaldr answered softly. “You have grown considerably. Faster than we dared hope. Unfortunately, it appears our enemies have already become aware of you.”
“Carolina, Saul, Scarlett, Victor. Like you, your friends value the balance of nature. We fight to protect and maintain that balance. Others seek to upset the balance, usually to satisfy their greed. These are our enemies.”
“Including a dozen guys with high-power rifles?” I asked.
“Ultimately, yes. These are minions, puppets who have surrendered their wills in exchange for empty promises.”
“Great. So what do we do?”
“For now, we wait. They have realized you are no longer ahead of them and are circling back searching.”
“Great. I don’t think this little hiding spot will hold up to any serious scrutiny.” I grumbled.
“I am obscuring you from their vision. I currently have limited ability to interact with your plane, but what I can do, I will.”
“Any chance you could let Carolina or Victor know I’m in this mess?”
Ulfvaldr laughed. “They are already aware. Unfortunately, they are currently unavailable to help.”
“Something more important than my impending death?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Well, that sucks. Are they in danger?”
“Damn.” I sighed. “Ok, so…”
“Silence. They are coming.”
Ulfvaldr had some good senses. The men hunting me had gotten quiet and were sneaking through the trees looking for me. I watched through the branches as they moved in formation. One looked straight at me, his burning blue eyes seeking me but not finding me. I held my breath as I watched him walk by.
“These men are under a powerful enchantment, James. They will not stop hunting you while they live.”
“You’re sure of that?” I groaned. That didn’t sound even remotely promising.
“I am. You should feel honored. The enemy must understand the threat you pose to them.”
“The threat I pose?” I asked, baffled. “If I were such a threat, I wouldn’t be hiding in the bushes.”
Ulfvaldr laughed again, a strange half-human, half dog-like chuffing sound. “I apologize. The threat you will pose to them.”
“Ok, so I’m honored. I’m still not sure how I’m going to survive the next couple of hours.”
“All is not lost. Most of these men are so far under the spell that their own capacity to think is severely impaired. There are only four who pose a significant threat.”
“Your version of a significant threat is different than mine, unless you can make me bulletproof.”
“I am afraid not.” Ulfvaldr answered.
“Can you distract them, lay a false trail?” I asked.
“Perhaps.” The ghostly wolf mused. “They may fall for the ruse, for a few minutes at least.”
“I’d love to lead them in the wrong direction, but anybody with a brain is going to know I’ll head for my Jeep.” I pulled out my cell phone and opened my map app.
“Look, the trail follows this ridge. We’re a bit under a mile from the trailhead by the trail. This forest road also leads to the trailhead, but it’s about a quarter-mile longer. If you can get them to run towards this bit of the road, we can add nearly another quarter mile to their run.”
“Getting to your Jeep may buy you time, but they will not stop pursuing you.”
“I’m still working on that.” I answered. I’d actually gotten a flash of inspiration from my phone. “I just need that head-start. Most of these guys look like they couldn’t run the whole distance anyways. I should be at my Jeep within ten minutes.”
“I will attempt to draw them along the path you have suggested. Wait until you hear the cue. I will rejoin you at your vehicle.”
Ulfvaldr stood up and walked through the bushes without disturbing a branch. I hoped he could actually draw these guys off. If not, I was dead.
I waited. It felt like forever. Finally, I heard someone shout “He’s over here!”, followed by a string of gunshots and yelling. There wouldn’t be a better time.
I fought free of the scrub oak and broke into a full sprint. I couldn’t hold it for more than a minute, but it would get me a decent start. I paid little attention to the official trail, selecting my path based off the shortest line I could make on my way to my Jeep.
I was still a half-mile away when I got my first glimpse of the parking lot. My Jeep was there, completely surrounded by a half-dozen cars and pickup trucks. I couldn’t help but smile; they didn’t know much about me or my Jeep. Any Facebook stalker would know exactly what was wrong with their strategy.
I was going full-out on the final stretch to my Jeep when Ulfvaldr’s form appeared loping by my side. “They have spotted you, but you still have a half-mile advantage.” He reported.
“Great. I’m gonna need it.” I panted, forcing myself to run faster.
I heard the sound of a gunshot but didn’t hear any bullet sounds. I was running down a fairly steep hill, so I didn’t dare risk looking around.
I jumped the wood fence around the parking lot and scrambled over the nearest vehicle. They’d parked bumper-to-bumper in a tight circle around my Jeep. It would take me a minute to get free.
I tossed my backpack into the back seat and jumped into the driver’s seat. If they were smarter, they’d have cut my battery cable or slashed my tires, although I’d have just stolen one of their vehicles if they’d done that. This was more fun, though.
I buckled my seat-belt, fired up the engine and put the Jeep in four-low. I cranked the wheel left and backed up hard, slamming my heavy-duty bumper into the door of the pickup behind me. If I was lucky, that door was now permanently jammed shut. A couple more forward-and-back maneuvers with my wheels cranked did some more damage to vehicles in the circle, but it also got me lined up where I wanted. I eased the Jeep forward and positioned my front tire against the side of the front tire of the green quarter-ton pickup. I engaged both lockers, and eased into the gas. Slowly, my Jeep’s tire started to climb up the sidewall of the pickup. My other front tire now started lifting as I worked my way up. My Jeep pitched forward as my tire worked its way onto the hood of the truck, causing my passenger tire to slam down on the sedan’s rear window.
“They just figured out what you are doing.” Ulfvaldr reported. “I believe they are less than pleased. You have about one minute left before they get within shooting range.”
I tried not to get too anxious. The hard part was over, but I still had to get the back tires up. I did some nice body-work on the vehicles as I drove over them. My front tires were just about to drop off the far side when my rear tires made contact.
“Thirty seconds.” Ulfvaldr warned.
I eased forward slowly. The sheet-metal under my front tires collapsed, making things easier. My rear tires came up and a second later, my front tires hit the ground. I could speed up a bit now. I got the back of my Jeep onto solid ground, and quickly disengaged the lockers and low gear.
Gunshots rang out, and I heard bullets slapping into sheet metal and shattering glass. It was time to go. I revved the engine, shifted gear, and dumped the clutch. My Jeep threw a cloud of dust into the air as it lurched into motion.