Chapter Two

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In true adventurer fashion, DeRon and Seth didn't scoff at May's plan to hike the remaining distance to Tenna. Instead they cleared a space in the back of the van big enough to smooth out a map of the mountain range.

"This is about where we are now," DeRon said, tapping on a point along the solitary highway that connected Tenna to the coast. "And if I remember this right, there should be - ah! Yeah, right here." His finger traced a dotted line running parallel to the highway.

"Is that the trail?" Excitement raised May's voice by an octave or two.

"The Upper Range Trail," Seth confirmed. "It runs at a higher elevation so with any luck the flood waters haven't been as bad up there."

May searched until she found Tenna. "How long do you think it will take me to get there?"

Seth eyeballed the distance on the map, scratching the mounting stubble on his chin as he did the mental math. "I don't think you'd be able to reach the trail from here so we'll have to double back to reach an access path. But depending on your pace, I think you could get there in two, maybe three days."

Three days. It was risky, but when May considered the alternative - returning to Mondova and starting all over again - she knew it was one worth taking. She needed to keep moving forward.
And so, DeRon turned the van around and sped down the highway until they reached a small gravel pull-off that narrowed into the tertiary path that would bring May to the Upper Range Trail. They bequeathed her with the map, a sturdy walking pole, and an extra bottle of water. In return, May scribbled Dom's name and the address of Tenna's search and rescue HQ so they had someone to connect with when they finally made it to town. She waved and called out her thanks as she embarked down the path, and like the dutiful new friends that they were, DeRon and Seth waited until the dense, mountainous forest enveloped her before driving away.

In the solitude of the wilderness, May could hear the grumble of the engine as it trundled out of the lot and faded down the highway. She was utterly alone with nothing but the forest between her and her destination. A thrill flitted inside her, like the rush of leaping from a rocky outcropping into the waiting sea below; freedom and terror, all at once.

The path was domed under a crowded canopy of pine branches. They did a decent job of shielding May from the drizzle but also blotted out the already dreary light of day. She cursed the shadowy darkness knowing it would quickly render the path too treacherous to follow if she didn't hurry. She compensated by keeping a brisk pace, and she proudly maintained it until something about the path changed.

Gradually the earth beneath May's feet began to rise, its incline increasing imperceptibly until found herself panting. Soon she was pitched forward, hoisting herself up and onward with the help of Seth's blessid walking pole. Every so often the path took a hard left, only to turn abruptly right again later, back and forth in a wicked set of switchbacks that carried her higher up the mountainside.

When at last the path leveled, spitting her out onto the Upper Range Trail, May sank to her knees and heaved for breath. Gingerly she slid her pack off her shoulders with a wince. The unexpected intensity of the climb had left the still-healing gash down the center of her chest stinging angrily.
Holding her breath, May tugged the collars of her jacket and shirt outward, fearful of what she would find. The scar - the lingering reminder of the attack she had suffered a few weeks earlier - was redder in shade than she would have liked, but the skin held fast. She let out a shaky exhale and accepted that she was going to have to take it easier if she hoped to make it to Tenna in one piece.

May settled back to give her burning legs a much deserved break and fished her water bottle from the pack. She was four deep pulls in when-


Startled, May barely managed to regain her fumbling grip on the bottle. A spray of precious water dribbled down her chin.

Fargus flitted down from the branches of a nearby ash and hopped onto the pack, looking haughty.

"I don't need any attitude from you," May grumbled, giving the raven a scalding side-eye. "I'm just taking a quick break. Not all of us can fly."

The corvid wasn't moved by her pity party. While May took another swig of water, Fargus cawed loudly and pulled at the straps of her bag until she finally gave in. Sealing the bottle with a snap, she dragged herself to her feet with an irritable grunt.

"Fine, you win."

What May wouldn't admit out loud was that her annoyance with Fargus was a mask. The truth was the raven's cloying insistence worried her. In her pocket she carried the torn photo of her face Fargus had used to find her, Dom's purposely vague summons printed on the back. She didn't know what was waiting for her in Tenna, but with an anxious raven for a guide, it was easy for May's imagination to get the better of her.

To keep a litany of worst case scenarios from driving her to a panic attack, May decided to busy her mind with recalling the survival lessons Dom had taught her instead. Back when he was showing her the ropes, she hadn't realized he was secretly an ancient forest spirit who had chosen to live among humans. In retrospect, the fact provided an interesting context for the little bits of wilderness wisdom he was fond of peppering throughout her orientation.

Don't climb trees to get away from a charging bear because they're much better at it than you are. Remember that weather conditions can change in an instant in the mountains. Drink more water than you think you'll need when hiking in the backcountry. Never try to outrun a mountain lion.

As the sun sank lower on the surrounding peaks, May decided to call it a day. She threw her pack down on an even part of the trail - she didn't get the impression she'd be in the way on such a desolate stretch of the wild - and began collecting firewood. Her body complained every time she stooped to pick up a fallen branch. She wanted nothing more than to crawl into her sleeping bag and pass out until sunrise. But as the evening air grew cooler, May's rain dampened clothes chilled her skin and settled into her bones. Rather than risk hypothermia, she pushed through the fatigue and instead dedicated her attention to stripping the soggy bark from the wood she had gathered to expose the drier, fire-friendly cores.

It was slow and tedious work, but May sank into the task. She appreciated having something menial and repetitive to do so she could put her mind on autopilot. Around her, the forest was filled with gentle, peaceful sounds. A breeze swept between the peaks, rustling the treetops and sending loose leaves skittering. The occasional bird call would sound from somewhere in the distance only to be answered by its own echo. The rhythmic shaving of May's pocket knife was the loudest noise for miles.

That was, until Fargus started to scream.

May's startled heart nearly burst from her chest. She dropped the stick she was working on and rounded on the raven, who was freaking out in a flurry of feathers on the ground behind her.

"Fargus, what the fu-"

She froze.

Something in the unfocused forest behind the bird had shifted in a way that seemed too intentional; out of place in the middle of nowhere. Her eyes concentrated on the shadowy undergrowth between the trees and met another pair trained, unblinking on her.

A low, throaty growl filled the air.

May's body went numb.

From the shadows, a mountain lion - sleek, compact, pure muscle - took a slow, deliberate step forward.

Dom's words rang through her mind so clearly he may as well have been standing right beside her.
Just hope you never run into a mountain lion. Those bastards will track you through the woods if you let your guard down, and they always mean business.

"Shit," May whispered.

Fargus shrieked.
The lion leapt.


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