By early afternoon, Lena had successfully planted two of the necessary posts. The map had proven useful, and for the most part, accurate, showing elevation and larger bodies of water. She needed to plant one more post before heading back to the game trail. She made sure to remain outside of the V-shaped hill when traveling from one spot to another to avoid the possibility of detection. She figured if she could get one atop the crest of the hill, it would be invaluable to Jael’s resources. She began to climb.
The forest floor rose gradually at first and then became a steep incline as she located her next posting spot. She had to use her hands to keep her balance. Crunch. Crunch. Her footsteps pressed the heavy blanket of pine needles and loose gravel.
Crunch. Crunch. The ground became steeper and increasingly rocky. Her footsteps sent small rocks rolling down the hill. She winced every time she heard one of the falling stones knock against a tree, increasing her odds of discovery. Humongous boulders silhouetted in beams of light sat at the top of the hill like crenelation of a fortress.
Peering through the rocks and the trees, she could see the crest. An enormous slab jutted from the top and provided her a goal. She climbed further and it became apparent that the light source emanated from the other side of the ridge.
She paused about a hundred feet from the top. She thought she heard something over the sound of small rocks rolling down the hill. Was it the rustling of the trees in the breeze? Her nerves were starting to get the best of her as she looked over he shoulder. She listened intently for a moment, unmoving, but heard nothing more.
Pressing on, she took long strides up the hill, placing her hand on a nearby boulder or tree root to sustain balance. Finally, she leaned against the slab. She looked down the hillside, marveling at surviving the achievement. She planted the post, pressing it into the rocky soil with her body weight.
Looking down the other side of the hill, she saw the source of the light. She raised the glasses to her forehead, and the world darkened. Below, a faint light seeped from a deep crevice in the hillside. It was the entrance to the mine. The lair of Verus.
She lowered the glasses and began her descent back down the path, intent on planting the extra post she had at the foot of the hill to secure another year of insurance.
Ripping through the silence came a hideous, shrieking howl from within the forest. Her heart leapt to her throat and she threw herself into the rocky dirt. More cries answered from deeper within the forest. Eyes wide in fear, Lena dared not move. She strained to find the direction of the noise’s source. The beastly cries were far off, but she had another hour’s walk back, twenty minutes if she ran. Her throat clenched. After several excruciating minutes of silence, she began to inch herself down the hill, remaining as flat as she could. This time, she was careful not to loosen any pebbles along her path.
Her awkward crawling grew to a back breaking crouch as the silence continued. The comfort of her own apartment called to her. The thought of Nico. The feel of her purring under Lena’s fingers. She quickened her pace.
She stopped at the bottom of the hill to listen. It felt as if a tangible hostility hung in the air that Lena had not sensed before. The treetops brewed from a cold wind sweeping down from the mountain peak. No insects or birds could be heard. The towering trees surrounded her like sentries, patiently awaiting a single misstep to crush their intruder.
The forest was uneven and difficult to maneuver. She jogged where she could. She ran in the direction of the trail, hoping she would see it beyond the next turn. She used Exodar’s overhead moons to direct her through the unfamiliar trees.
She burst into an open glade. A narrow creek reflected light like a streak of silver breaking the forest floor. She launched herself over, aiming her left foot for a firm bed of leaves.
However, when her foot made contact, it fell through the surface into stagnant water. It was then she realized the glade was actually a reed-ridden bog. She flailed for the surface, coughing up putrid water. The world was dark. The glasses were gone.
She trudged to the nearest bank though chest-high water, straining to find it in the dark. She reached desperately for the first sign of solid ground. Finally, she found the edge and pulled herself out, trembling. Drenched in filth, she collapsed.
The darkness crept around her and into her head like a black storm cloud. She sat up straining to see into the woods. She brushed the wet hair from her face and tied it back into a muddy ponytail.
If the forest seemed hostile before, it had now become a living nightmare. All she could see were the thick trunks of trees fading like ghosts in the eerie light. With her sight nearly useless, her hearing became more acute. Wind bellowed through the treetops high above in a droning howl, crushing the remains of her spirit. The trunks creaked and popped. The sound echoed through the timbered halls, causing the very air she breathed to quiver. Shakily, she stood. She needed to get out of this. Now.
She found the map in her jacket pocket. It was soaked but intact. With no other option, she was forced to use the light from her celltab. With trembling hands, she attempted to funnel the light onto the paper’s surface. She viewed the map frantically, searching for any geographic landmark. The hill she climbed was to her right. She needed to head to her left.
As she closed her celltab another array of shrieks exploded from the darkness. Closer this time. Much closer. A stinging chill ran though her. Tears began to press behind her eyes, but she took a deep breath in an attempt to calm her nerves. What kind of creatures could make such a horrible sound? she asked herself. Her mind raced with the worst possibilities. Why didn’t I even bring a knife?
At that thought, she realized she still had one more of the survey posts. She withdrew it from its quiver and clutched it with both hands like a spear. She mustered as much courage as she could and searched for the trail.
Every so often she used her celltab light to find her footing, and at long last she found the trail. She followed it as fast as she could, twisting around hills and trees as her vision acclimated to the darkness. She could eventually discern textures upon the ground, helping her keep her footing without her celltab.
Something moved quickly ahead of her, darting across the path. She stopped, ducking behind the nearest tree, and peered into the darkness. Branches rustled together high overhead in the endless drone of wind. She strained to see ahead of her, but saw nothing. The forest remained still, waiting for her to make the first move. Cautiously, she pressed on.
She searched the ground for any sort of footprint to identify what had leapt across her path. Nothing. She continued, trying to keep her steps quiet. A long moment went by without howls or anything else out of the ordinary. The treetops thinned, and Exodar cast its light onto the path in ghastly sheets of green. She could navigate rather easily now, and figured she had maybe another ten minutes before she was back safely to Shel.
Lena rounded a curve in the trail and stopped dead in her tracks. She could barely see the ghostly outline of two legs in the darkness standing directly on the path. Its height remained obscured by shadow. She thought she was yet too far in for it to be Shel.
She spoke, trying to keep her voice to a whisper.
“Shel? Is that you?”
Her heartbeat quickened.
“Shel!” she whispered loudly, her voice breaking in fear.
Finally, it moved, creeping towards her.
A fear-stricken paralysis took hold of her. She stared wide-eyed in horror. A soft beam of light caught the figure. Her heart jolted at the sight.
Two eyes gleamed a fierce yellow, lower than she expected. A hulking wolf, dark as stone, emerged from the veil of shadow. It growled, low and threatening. With a trembling hand, she wiped a damp clump of wiry hair from her face , and gritted her teeth against the tears swelling in the corners of her eyes. She readied her weapon.
The creature came closer. It growled, baring its teeth. Lena stepped back, keeping her stance low, trying not to blink. The spear was cold, clutched within white knuckles. It was pointed directly at the advancing beast.
A wave of defensive instinct guided her movements as the culmination of thousands of years of primal knowledge swept over her. From crude wooden spears held by ancestral hominids spanning to this very point in time, she amassed it all to the very apex of her weapon.
The wolf lunged. Lena ducked sideways, evading its attack. She took her chance and thrust the spike towards the wolf. It ducked her attack and closed its jaws upon the weapon’s shaft, shaking it vigorously. She pulled with all her strength, but the wolf’s grip was relentless. She swung her foot in a rounding kick directly to the beast’s head. It let out a yelp, and she reclaimed the post.
The wolf snarled at her as it circled for another attack. It was too quick for a jab. Instead, she swung the post like a club. The wolf hesitated as the post sliced through the air. Killing the animal wasn’t her priority, but she would do what was necessary to defend her life. She swung again, closer to the wolf’s head. It recoiled as she stepped forward to close the gap between them.
The wolf lunged at her again. She had gotten too close to spear the animal and the wolf took the advantage. It pounced on her, knocking her to the ground. She scrambled for any escape. She held the post in both hands, pushing the head of the wolf away from her throat as its jaws snapped ferociously, inches from her face.
As quickly as the wolf had tackled her to the ground, it released her. She opened her eyes. A boot kicked the post from her hands, and then came to rest on her chest. It was a robed figure, a hood obscuring its face. A second figure appeared. The two turned her over onto her stomach forcefully. She was face-down in the dirt, and a heavy weight came down onto her back. She attempted to cry out a plea as the wind was knocked out of her. A strong hand reached to cover her mouth. She gasped for air and her chest filled with a noxious fire as her world went black.