I was in the bedroom, trying to decide if my leather jacket was appropriate hiking gear, when the phone rang.
“Ethan?” It was Claire’s voice. I sat down on the bed.
“Yes, Claire, it’s me.”
“Well, I know you were worried, and I just wanted to tell you that everything is fine. It’s just beautiful here, and we’ve been having so much fun! I rode a horse yesterday, a pretty grey one, to a camp in the valley, and then we had a chuck wagon supper, just like they used to do on real ranches in the Old West. Can you believe it?”
I said something noncommittal, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“The time here is passing so quickly, Ethan. I’m glad we still have a few days left. Tomorrow we go on that overnight hike I told you about.”
My heart sank. I had a feeling I knew exactly where they would be hiking.
“It’s a long way from the ranch, so we’ll be getting up and leaving super early. Oh, I bought new hiking boots in Estes!” She sounded like a little girl.
“That’s wonderful, Claire.”
“I’m so excited. I’ve never camped in a tent before, let alone carried everything I need in a pack on my back.” Her cheerful voice softened.
“Ethan, you know I love you, don’t you?”
“Of course, Claire.” I had to clear my throat. “And I love you too… big sister.” I could almost hear her smile.
“I’ll call you after we return home, Ethan.”
I just sat for a moment after we said goodbye. Whatever we did with Lila, it had to work… it just had to.
It wasn’t more than five minutes before the phone rang again. This time I felt it was Glen. I was right.
“Hi, love, how’s everything going?” he said. Even after more than a year together, his voice alone could lift my spirits.
“Okay. Lila still has the kitchen in an uproar.”
I sat down again and leaned back on our bed.
“You know, Glen, I guess it’s the abstinence, but I have to admit Lila is starting to look good to me.”
“Yes. I mean, she still irritates the hell out of me, scares me too, sometimes. But then she crosses her legs or something, and I find myself looking…” I felt rather ashamed of admitting it, but I wanted to be honest with him.
Glen chuckled, the sound warm and sensuous, raising goose bumps on my neck.
“I suppose that’s a good thing, considering what we’ll have to do for the ritual. And Ethan, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it. I’ve found myself looking down Esther’s cleavage today, more than once.”
I had to laugh. The thought of Glen ogling his motherly secretary was just too absurd.
“Better not let her notice, love, she’ll be shocked… thinks she’s working for a gay man.”
“I promise not to pinch her bottom, though I confess it has occurred to me. There was also this cute little waitress at lunch…”
“You’ve got it bad,” I agreed, smiling. Then a sober thought struck me.
“Glen, I’ll be very glad when this is over and we can get back to normal.”
He didn’t reply right away, though I could hear his soft breathing.
“Me, too, sweetheart… me too.”
Lila was intent on the kitchen table and its precariously balanced contents. I walked closer and looked over her shoulder at the red-leather bound book, opened now, somewhere near its middle. The handwriting on each cream-colored page was in amazingly neat lines and seemed to be in several different styles. Some of the words were faded and, to me, undecipherable. The ink was various shades of reddish brown.
I pointed to a series of marks that looked like, from what little I remembered of college chemistry and physics, a formula. Whatever it was, even handwritten, it looked altogether more scientific than anything I expected to find in the book of an admitted witch.
“It’s a spell,” she said, not looking up and continuing to carefully copy passages onto a pad of plain paper, occasionally adding a new symbol here and there.
Magic spells had formulas?
“What are those?” I pointed. “They look like Greek letters.”
“That’s because they are,” she said distractedly.
For a minute, I studied the string of symbols she was working on.
“So, is it a spell or a formula?”
“Spell… formula… as long as it works, what’s the difference?”
I imagined my questions were disturbing her concentration, but I was too curious
“What’s that one… the one that’s shaped like a triangle?”
I must have radiated puzzlement on some wavelength because she actually tore her eyes away from the book and looked at me.
“Delta is a useful symbol in magic. It can refer to the release of energy or the transformation of one thing into another. And of course its symbol, a triangle, has three sides. Three is one of the most magical of numbers.”
She gave me that dazzling smile.
“Three things working together can be far more powerful than they are apart… like the three of us.”
Yeah, in three-way sex. I took a moment to consider that while Lila took a bite of the sandwich she’d been munching. The more I studied the writing in her book, the more the ink resembled dried blood.
“What is that stuff?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Sardines and peanut butter.” She held up the sandwich. “I eat a lot when I’m working—doing magic burns up calories. Want a bite?”
I flinched. “God, no, I mean…”
She shook her head. “No, the ink’s not made of blood… not human blood, anyway.”
I stared at her.
“How’d you know what I was going to say?”
She shrugged. Her eyes danced to mine, then away. One corner of her mouth turned up.
“Maybe we think alike?”
Maybe we did. But was I prepared to admit it? I didn’t reply.
I continued to watch her work, and after a while, if I didn’t try to think too hard, it almost seemed that some of the written lines made sense. Then something caught my eye.
“Shouldn’t that symbol be here?” I pointed. “Instead of there?”
She startled, her expression skeptical, then looked again.
“I think you’re right.” She fixed me with an appraising stare.
I shrugged. “Lucky guess.”
“Maybe, but that’s the kind of luck we need.” She pushed a sheaf of paper in my direction. “Here, check over what I’ve already written. When we’re finished, we’ll copy it into the book.”
Glen came in just as the afternoon sun was hitting the kitchen windows. He looked at us, almost head to head by that time, and raised an eyebrow at me as he held up a big bag of Chinese take-out.
“Making progress?” he asked.
Lila stood up. Hands on hips, she leaned back until her spine cracked audibly.
“That’s better,” she said. “It’s done, Glen. Things went a lot faster than I had hoped, with Ethan’s help.”
Glen looked at me with pride and a little curiosity. I fought the impulse to say “Aw, shucks” and kissed Glen instead.
We had copied every part of the spell onto a clean page of Lila’s book. We’d be taking it with us, but she said the crucial lines would have to be memorized. I was grateful that wasn’t up to me. I might have worked along with her, but I still wasn’t certain I believed.
Tomorrow was the big day, and I expected to feel nervous, but somehow I seemed to have worked through all that and found an island of calm. I had enough skepticism left to wonder if the accepting feeling was good or bad.
After we ate, Lila spread out a big topographic map of Rocky Mountain National Park. Glen leaned over the map with interest. I knew he had hiked a lot of those trails.
“Where is Claire’s camp?” he asked me.
“Somewhere around here, I think. Not too far from Estes.”
We both looked at Lila. Her finger traced a high ridge.
“Near as I can figure, the anomaly should open up about here. Ethan, can you see anything more precise?”
I studied the map, trying again not to think logically, just to let any volunteer feelings flow through me. A small dark area appeared in my sight, and I pointed to what I saw.
Lila handed me a highlighter pen, and I made a yellow circle around the phantom dark spot.
Lila sighed. “Can’t get any closer than that. We may as well get what sleep we can. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
I looked at Lila. Something about her seemed different.
“You’re worried, aren’t you?”
Perhaps opening up to whatever power I had was beginning to let me read her the way she read me.
I had another flash.
“What kind of things might come through this opening tomorrow?”
She looked away.
“There’s no way to know.”
“But they could be dangerous, couldn’t they… some kind of monsters? That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it?”
Lila gave me serious eyes, then looked over at Glen and smiled.
“With Glen on our side, it’s the monsters that should worry.”
Glen shook his head.
“Lila, you said earlier that you knew something about shape-shifters… others like me. My family thought changing was a curse, I know. They were ashamed to tell me about it, and my grandfather died alone because of it. I’ve always wondered why… why this was given to my family… to me…”
Lila took her time folding up the map. All the other papers and books were safely stacked in the library, except for the ones we would take on our journey.
“Glen,” she said at last, “it’s late, and we all really need to rest. But I will say this much. Indeed, some do think it’s a curse to change, and I suppose, like anything else, it can be.”
She faced him and smiled.
“You may not believe this, but I’ve always wished I could shift. To me it’s another gift, a talent more rare than Ethan’s and my psychic abilities. Myths and legends suggest that that some of the old-time gods and heroes could change into animal forms. Many Native American tribes still believe in totem spirits. Perhaps once everyone could change as you can, but the rest of us have forgotten how. If that’s true, then you are one of the few who retains that ancient ability. You are two-natured. You can blend in with the rest of our society when you want to, but if the necessity comes along; you can fight and survive like no one else. I think that’s a blessing, not a curse.”
Glen’s eyes had gone wide. I could almost see him considering what Lila had said, trying to rearrange the attitudes of a lifetime to include a new acceptance and appreciation of who he was. Right then, I wanted to kiss her, and she turned suddenly and smiled up into my eyes.
“I like you too,” she said, and turned back to include Glen. “Both of you.”
Glen and I were tucked in bed—wearing underwear again, hopefully for the last night. In spite of our enforced abstinence, I wasn’t hard; there was too much on my mind. I turned to face Glen, and there was just enough light from the half moon outside the window to reflect from his eyes.
“Glen … are you afraid of what might happen tomorrow?”
He didn’t answer at once but reached for the thong at the nape of my neck and loosened my hair to his stroking fingers.
“Ethan,” he said at last, “I’ve always wondered why I am what I am. But if I can protect you, and Lila too, while you do what’s necessary to save Claire and the others, then maybe there’s a reason for it. Yes, I suppose I am afraid, but it won’t stop me from doing what I must.”
I hugged him tightly for just a moment. “I’ve never doubted that, my love.”
Glen was up at first light, and I crawled out soon after him. Both of us were dressed and ready by seven thirty, but Lila already had coffee made and plates of steaming pancakes on the table.
“Eat up,” she said, pouring maple syrup on her own tall stack. “We’ll need plenty of carbs for the high altitude trek.”
The pancakes were delicious, and I took time to enjoy them. Even the butterflies in my stomach calmed down and absorbed their share. Glen looked almost eager, and I confess that I felt a certain illogical optimism. Today was finally the day… no more waiting. Today we would face whatever was out there, and tonight we could relax… if we survived.
We packed things into Glen’s Explorer and headed for the mountains, passing through Denver in time to be slowed down by the last of morning rush hour. It wasn’t quite lunchtime when we reached Estes Park, but we stopped for a slice or two of pizza anyway. It’s quite a tourist town and, as usual, the shops lining the narrow streets were filled with colorful, happy people in search of fudge and T-shirts. Seated by the picture window of the restaurant with Glen and Lila beside me, feeling the uncertainty of the day and indeed the future, the pleasant bustle outside seemed more than a bit unreal.
Beyond the little town of Estes was where the real climb began. Denver is known as the Mile High City, and Estes is higher still, but Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park tops out at 14,000 feet. That’s well over 4,000 meters for anyone on the metric system. Glen pulled into a parking lot before we reached that lofty height, but when we climbed out to don our backpacks, the air seemed palpably thinner and the sun extra bright.
Dressed in T-shirts, shorts and hiking boots, Glen and Lila looked quite used to carrying heavy things on their backs. Even though Glen had gone to extra pains to adjust his spare pack for my use, the weight seemed unwieldy, and the straps, though padded, wanted to cut into my shoulders. Glen plopped a tan canvas hat on my head—to avoid sunstroke, he said—and kissed me lightly, his blue eyes now twinkling with excitement. I took a deep breath of the pine-scented air, pleasantly, although only momentarily, distracted from my thoughts by the surge of Glen’s biceps when he lifted and strapped on his own pack. At the rear of the parking area was a simple wooden sign that marked the head of a well-used trail. From the map, I knew we would follow this trail for a while but soon branch off on our own to get to the spot Lila and I had pinpointed.
She and Glen had done a good deal of conferring on what to take besides the necessities for the ritual. Lila had loaded her spell-book and other occult gear into her own green nylon pack while Glen and I divided the more mundane items—water purifier, cooking kit, small stove, electric lantern, and a surprising number of freeze-dried food packets, along with some silver “space blankets” and other odds and ends, including my satellite phone. Each of us carried our own lightweight sleeping bag. The air was warm, and I was glad Glen had vetoed my leather jacket.
At most we’d be gone overnight, and when I grumbled, Glen informed me that we were “packing light,” even as he hung a two-quart canteen around my neck. I forbore to ask what would have constituted packing “heavy.”
I did my best to balance the unaccustomed weight, hoping the bulky pack wouldn’t pull me over backwards as we climbed some steep section of trail.
The noon sun shone overhead as we set foot on the marked path; then the trees closed in and the breeze blew cool and welcome. The trail wasn’t too steep at first. It climbed gradually, twisting and turning back on itself, the natural rock and earth footholds tamed and supplemented by an occasional stair-step made from pressure-treated twelve by twelve timbers, now so overgrown with lichen and moss that they seemed a natural part of the landscape.
I have never been much of a hiker and was glad now that I took at least some sort of regular exercise. Without aerobics and swimming, I doubt I’d have made the first quarter mile. I was glad we hadn’t weighed the packs. Knowing how much extra I was carrying would have been even more discouraging.
After an hour or so, we stopped at a particularly enchanting vista—forest stretching away on all sides, topped by a cloudless sky of an elegant blue, its color echoed in a small lake below.
“We turn off here,” Lila said, pointing toward a thin track that led upward into the brush. From where I stood, it looked much too steep, not softened by the frequent switchbacks of the tamer trail. Lila led the way, and I did my best to follow. Glen paced behind me, never panting or even sweating, no matter how steep the climb.
In another hour we stopped for water and a trail-mix snack. Branches moved in the gentle breeze, birds chirped and twittered, and there was the occasional rustle in the underbrush as a small animal went about its business. I had grown quite used to the background noises and was thinking about how nice it was to remove our packs, if only for a little while. It was a shock when everything fell silent.
Lila stood ready to start up the trail. I reached out, touching her shoulder.
“Wait,” I said, “something…”
“What is it?” Glen said.
Lila only asked, “Where?”
“Over there, in the trees. Like a flutter.”
I was warm from the exertion, but sudden rivulets of cold sweat ran shivers down my sides. I had just seen a circle of reality blink out to a cold gray window and then reappear as though a drape fell back into place.
“It’s gone now.”
I continued to stare at the spot, now quite ordinary again, feeling Lila’s and Glen’s eyes on me. There seemed nothing to say, and after a minute or two, Lila turned back to the trail.
“How much farther?” Glen asked when another half hour had passed.
“Not far, I think. I’ll know the place when I see it,” Lila said and pushed on. Glen and I walked side by side now, where the trail permitted.
The path leveled out a bit ahead, and I was looking forward to the change of pace when I heard an ugly sort of sucking sound behind us. We turned, and then I saw the… thing.
Don’t ask for a complete description. I can’t give you one. I only know that it was huge and dark and had a mouth with teeth as long as my forearm. It made a noise halfway between a meat grinder and a jet airliner, and the long hair on the back of my neck tried to stand up. Glen growled and dropped his pack. The creature shambled quickly toward us on too many limbs, and Glen ran to meet it, closed with it, pushed it back, and struggled with it until both he and the thing disappeared into the bushes.
“Glen!” I cried, shaking off Lila’s desperate grasp on my arm.
“Ethan, no!” she shouted, but I ran back the way Glen and the creature had gone, careless of the treacherous rock-strewn path.
He was entwined in slimy blackness, his head gone cat-shaped, his arms furred, his fingers, claws. The track narrowed there, the rocky cliff reaching high on one side and angling sharply down on the other. Glen and the thing rolled near the edge, and I ran faster than I ever had in my life, grabbed a handful of Glen’s shirt, and threw my other arm around a foot-thick pine. The knit fabric stretched but held, Glen let go, and the heavy dark weight of the creature fell away, spinning end over end to smash on the boulders a hundred feet below. Lila joined us, carefully leaning out to look over the lip of the drop-off.
“What was that?!” I said. I could feel my heart thudding just below my Adam’s apple.
“That,” said Lila, “was a preview.”
Glen turned back to me, his mouth still full of leopard’s teeth. Grimacing, he spat a gob of… something onto the ground. It steamed.
“Gah… what a taste!”
He spat again and rubbed his tongue with the back of his hand. He wouldn’t let me kiss him until he’d rinsed with a mouthful of water.
I wanted nothing more than to turn back then… forget I had ever known anything about magic or monsters or holes in the air. I wanted to hold tightly to Glen and run back down the mountain and return to our comfortable, peaceful, normal lives.
But… could I forget about Claire and Roger and all the other people who might be at risk? Could I turn my back on lives I might help to save?
I looked at Glen and Lila. One minute we were calmly brushing dirt and leaves from our clothing, and the next we were all huddled together, arms entwined, hugging tight, like three children whose only protection from the bogey man was each other… and this bogey man was real.
We stood that way for another moment. Then, shrugging, I helped Glen don his pack, and we went on.
Gradually, the tall pines became shorter, thicker, more twisted. We were nearing the tree line, almost 10,000 feet above sea level. At last we topped out into a little meadow, a grassy clearing surrounded by dwarfed trees, rather like the shaved tonsure on the head of a monk. I could feel the rightness of the area, as close as we could get to the spot I had marked on the map. We had arrived. Without a word, the three of us removed our packs.
The sky was a darker blue now. Fluffy white clouds piled behind the farther, higher peaks, and the sun was little more than an hour above them. I hadn’t bothered to check my watch for that observation; I didn’t need to. The time, the temperature, and our exact location were as clear to me as if I read them from a computer screen… clearer, because there was nothing artificial between me and my environment. I had always been a city boy, but today’s trek had led me farther from my everyday reality than just the top of a mountain. Somehow I felt I had traveled back into a time when nature was everything and human beings only a small part of it.
I took a deep breath. The air was clean and filled with the scents of pine and grass and sun-warmed rock. Mixed with those was the smell of Lila’s herbal shampoo and a scent I knew very well—the sweet musk of the man I love. Calm certainty stole over me. I was precisely where I was meant to be, at the center of the universe.
Glen turned back from his own survey of our surroundings. The smile he gave me was warm.
Lila knelt, opened her pack, took out her measuring rope, and just as we had planned, Glen and I helped lay out the magic circle, marking its boundary with large rocks. When we were finished, the circle was perhaps twelve feet in diameter, placed near the center of the grassy space, leaving a large clear area around it. We gathered more rocks to form a fire ring. Glen built a cone of dry wood and grass inside it and kindled it with a match. Lila brought out a heavy metal bowl and added a small disc of charcoal. When that was lit and burning well, she topped it with leaves from Glen’s smudge stick and some sort of dull yellowish crystals. The herbs and sap caught, and I smelled the dusty scent of frankincense and the refreshing bite of sage.
Glen moved our packs away from the circle while Lila continued her preparations. I prowled the edges of the clearing, looking down at the rocks and brush below, spying the occasional trail. I was amazed at how far my vision stretched in the clear, thin air. I saw hawks soaring above the trees, a fox drinking from a brook, a marmot sunning himself on a rock. Then something else caught my eye. On a path, far below us, moved a line of human figures carrying packs.
“People,” I called to Lila.
“It’ll take them a while to get here,” she said, “if they’re even headed this way. Don’t worry.”
She was busy arranging the remainder of the ritual supplies. I shrugged.
It wasn’t long before Glen returned, his arms full of fresh-cut pine-smelling branches. He piled them within the circle, well away from the fire.
“How long?” he asked.
Lila shook her head.
“A while yet. We should be ready, though. Why don’t you two get undressed.”
It wasn’t cold, but at this elevation, the afternoon wasn’t warm, either. Besides, I wasn’t eager to remove my clothes. If I did, that meant the start of the ritual couldn’t be far away.
Glen obligingly kicked out of his shoes and stripped off his T-shirt and jeans. I couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful body I loved so much. It had been almost a week since we had done anything more than kiss and cuddle. Glen must have felt my eyes on him, because he turned and smiled at me. I felt a spurt of excitement… sexual, of course… but something else as well. It couldn’t be long now.
I concentrated on the mundane task of folding my clothes neatly, determined not to watch as Lila removed her shorts, top, and boots. When I looked back, she was wrapped in a long gray cloak. It covered everything but her bare feet and had a hood as well, though she left that lying back on her shoulders. She had released her hair from its fastenings, and the long dark strands moved with the light breeze.
That same breeze raised goose bumps on my exposed flesh. I eyed the pebble-strewn ground suspiciously, then walked with care, wary of bruising my tender indoor feet, to shelter on the lee side of a clump of scrub oak.
Glen moved gracefully, spreading a thick blanket over the mound of pine boughs, wildness evident in his every step. That ease was one of many things I loved about him, but right now I envied it. I felt very much a naked stranger in this raw place, away from all the comforts I had always taken for granted.
I continued to check on the hikers from time to time. Their progress was slow but steady, and it seemed to me they were headed right for us. I thought about reporting their position to Lila, but I could hear the occasional word of some sort of chant, her voice rising and falling in cadence like a poem. The ritual preparations seemed well under way. It would be wrong to disturb her now.
The day’s light was dimming, clouds massing in the west to cut off the last light of the sinking sun. I strained my eyes, trying to make out individuals in the narrow line of people climbing the path, now less than a quarter mile away… almost within calling distance. I’d grown used to the cool air of the hilltop, but a sudden shiver of presentiment wracked my spine. Could one of them be Claire?
I stiffened, and a splash of fear surged into my bloodstream. Then… with a stygian flash, a dark hole opened in the hillside below. It wasn’t a cave, just a patch of nothingness—the breathless absence of everything normal and expected. Like a monstrous yawn, the opening widened until I could no longer see its edges, a growing stain of blackness with lumps of greater black moving inside it.
The little band of hikers continued up the trail, oblivious. As I watched, my vision now telescope clear, they rounded the last bend before the meadow… and were gone.
It was happening! The memory of my dream came back whole in a flash. How could I have forgotten such a vision? If only I had remembered earlier. If I had remembered, I could have… done something. But… what?
The darkness expanded, further engulfing the mountainside as it grew, creeping upwards toward our circle. The tremendous crevasse of emptiness wiped away everything in its path. Moving shadows roiled at its base. I felt a chill wind touch my feet and thought I heard strange, faint cries. I wanted to shout a warning to Glen and Lila, but I couldn’t move.
“Here!” Lila ordered, demanding my attention. A thin band of brightness, no more than trapped stars in a transparent sheath, formed between us and the dark. “Hurry, I can’t hold it for long!”
“But what about…?” I began, looking away, still hearing the screams that no longer echoed from farther down the hillside.
“Goddamn it!” she swore. “This is all we can do for them. Get over here… now!”
Lila was on her back, naked, the pine boughs further cushioned by the gray robe she’d thrown off with a single gesture. Her pale skin glowed in the firelight.
Glen knelt between her thighs, and as though in a dream, I moved to stand behind him. Thunder rumbled, somewhere beyond the hills. Heat lightning played on the peaks looming above our heads.
“Do it!” she said, voice raw with urgency.
Glen looked at me over his shoulder, eyes gold and green, the pupils gone to stand-up slits. His shoulders seemed to ripple, and thick black fur grew from nowhere, flowing over his skin like spring grass appears after a rain. Lila reached for him, her dagger-sharp nails marking his still pink-skinned sides.
“Fuck me!” she commanded, and I heard the words with my ears and in my head.
Before Glen’s body could complete its transformation, a half-animal scream ripped out of his throat, and he leaned forward, plunging inside Lila with a single thrust. She made a cry—whether of pain or pleasure, I couldn’t tell.
The storm moved toward us at an unbelievable pace, swollen thunderheads filling the sky so low it was hard to breathe. Now the only light was the fire, flames wavering in the wind until the world seemed nothing but shadows. Ozone warned my nostrils, but all I could see was Glen’s round ass, now bearing a coat of dark hairs, muscles clenching as he repeatedly drove himself into Lila’s body.
Until that moment, I would have sworn I didn’t want this, would have given a great deal just to go back to my familiar, routine life with Glen and forget all this frightening nonsense. Now a hammering that matched the thunder took root in my chest. I clutched Glen’s rocking hips and slammed myself into him. Glen roared, throwing his head back, lips drawn away from rows of sharp fangs. Lila shrieked as my thrust pushed him deeper inside her. I closed my eyes at a blinding flash, using the thunderclap’s strength to fuel my movements. Glen’s insides were furnace hot, as though they tried to melt the core of me to become a part of him, even as he was a part of her. The three of us… one energy, one will.
Driven by that power, I pushed in again and again, hearing, feeling the storm’s answer on my skin. The actinic purple flashes were almost constant now. My long hair broke free of its binding to writhe away from my body like the tentacles of a jellyfish, each tendril discharging tiny prickles of energy, scarcely noticeable in the storm’s wrath. Any second and the nexus would be over our heads.
Exposed on the hilltop, we drew the furies like rods of iron. I felt energy build inside me, hot and glowing and raw. A path formed between the clouds and our centers until the weight of power became unbearable.
Lila’s voice rang out like a thunderclap, and I screamed as passion ripped a white-hot bolt through my vitals. A moment later, a tremendous roar slammed us flat to the earth.
There was no sound now but drips and trickles. I rolled free of Glen, still prostrate on Lila’s quiet body. To my relief he groaned and raised himself on hands and knees. I saw Lila move, clutching at the ground. I wiggled fingers, then toes, finally sitting up to push hair out of my eyes and mouth. Rain continued to fall, now no more than a warm summer downpour… tame as a neutered tomcat.
Glen crawled to my side, leaving Lila to gather her own wits. We leaned into each other. His skin was smooth again, without the dark fur. That storm had also passed.
“Glen,” I tried, just wanting to say his name aloud, my voice a croak until I cleared my throat. “Are you all right?”
“I think so.”
He ran a hand over his face, sluicing away the water that still fell in sheets to drip off his beard and the end of his nose.
I heard a nearby cough and then a moan. We three were not alone on the hilltop; a mound of bodies was jumbled outside our circle. One of the closest figures sat up just as there was a faint far-away flash. I caught a glimpse of curly red-gold hair.
“Claire?” I called, full of hope but unsure if I could trust my eyes.
“Ethan,” Claire sighed, and the last tense knot inside me let go.
I stood and staggered to where Claire and Roger sat clutching each other.
“It must have been an earthquake!” Claire cried to no one in particular. “One minute we were hiking, and then… we fell.”
Earthquakes were not unheard of in the Rocky Mountain region. Most were minor and written off as the ground settling after the collapse of some of the old mine tunnels that honeycomb those hills. I was glad for Claire’s explanation, though in truth the effects we’d suffered were more like those of a hurricane.
Roger looked around dazedly, then gently pushed Claire away and crawled toward the other figures, several of which had not yet moved. Glen took in the scene and rose to join Roger, unaware or uncaring that he was naked. Noises of distress came from the tumbled group as Glen and Roger knelt to give them what comfort and aid they could.
Just below us, a pair of pines, burning pitch-hot enough to foil the rain, cast a hellish glow over the scene. There was little remaining of our circle, and as far as I could tell, our clothing seemed to have been swept away by the storm. I couldn’t bring myself to care.
I blinked and wondered how close we were to dawn. I thought I remembered the sun going down only minutes before, but it seemed I could feel it pushing now against the eastern horizon.
I turned back to Lila. She was sitting up, her muddy cloak draped around her shoulders.
“Quite a show, wasn’t it?” she said, pushing a curl of hair off her face. The gesture left a smudge behind. She stretched a hand toward me, tentatively, as though she were afraid I might refuse it. I grasped her cool damp fingers, rubbing them with my own, though mine were little warmer.
“Yes,” I said, “well worth the price of admission.”
The sky brightened steadily, and the rain diminished. The sun’s first rays revealed a sorry band of twelve wet and somewhat shocky hikers, one bedraggled but human-looking were-cat, a muddy, naked witch, and me—dazed, bleary and glad to be alive.
I tried to snug the cape around Lila’s shoulders, but she pushed it off. “I can’t wear this now. The ritual is over.” She smiled. “See if you can find our packs, okay?”
Amazingly, the packs were right where we had left them, all our belongings still tucked neat and dry inside the waterproof nylon. I stopped to pull on the spare sweat pants and shirt Lila had insisted we pack. I felt like kissing the satellite phone but settled for using it to call the park ranger station. While we waited for the helicopters they were quick to promise, Glen set up the little propane stove, and soon everyone was wrapped in a space blanket and had a cup or bowl of something hot. Now I knew what “just in case” meant.
I’d been surprised to find a large first-aid kit in Glen’s pack. We dispensed bandages and Ibuprofen as needed.
Lila put on her spare pants and shirt, but Glen continued with his tasks unclothed until I suggested he get dressed. No one but me seemed to notice or care. Most of the hikers had lost backpacks and parkas, some were missing shoes and socks and one his pants, so our clothing problems were far from remarkable.
Less than an hour later, we heard the unmistakable sound of choppers. The machines took turns landing on the flat space in the clearing. Rangers bundled us efficiently inside the compartments, and then we were airborne. I suppose they could have flown us all the way into Denver and a hospital, but no one was in any particular distress, so we headed for the ranger station’s infirmary.
The rangers told us that those at lower elevations had not experienced such severe weather, but they had seen the lightning storm. Privately, Matt Connolly, the ranger in charge, expressed surprise that we had survived with so few problems.
“Looked like all hell was breaking loose up there!” he said. I didn’t let him know just how right he was.
The rangers were kind, settling us in front of a roaring fire with hot cocoa while we awaited the arrival of a doctor from Estes. A lawyer representing the dude ranch was already on the scene, expressing concern but mostly wanting to make sure no one blamed the ranch for what had happened. He carried around a briefcase with a sheaf of papers and a pen—liability releases, probably. I don’t know if anyone signed them.
Everyone in both parties was safe and reasonably sound, so no one would be inclined (I hoped) to do much in the way of investigation, not that it would matter if they did. Lila assured me that, once the anomaly was closed, there would be no sign it had ever existed. I wondered if the remains of that… thing Glen fought was there at the bottom of the canyon, but I wasn’t about to tell anyone where to look for it. I felt certain the incident would be in my nightmares for some time to come.
Another rep from the dude ranch came over to thank Glen, Lila, and me for our rescue efforts. They asked me how we happened to be there and why we had the first-aid kit and other items with us. I could see a couple of the rangers turning to listen for my answer to that, and I was trying to think what to say when Lila stepped in.
“I haven’t known Mr. Chase for very long, but when he told me he was a hiker I just had to ask him to take me up here.” Lila leaned into the first man.
“I hate to admit it,” she confided, “but the thing is, it still makes me a bit nervous, being in the great outdoors and all. You understand?” The man nodded, eyes wide. I was feeling rather sorry for him by this time. Lila, even in a sweatshirt, was a beautiful woman.
“So, I always take everything I can think of—even on a short hike. Wasn’t it lucky I did? Of course, it’s a lot to carry. Mr. Yeager”—she pointed at me—“was kind enough to come along and help.”
Lila had the “helpless maiden” act down pat.
“Oh, I’m still chilly. Would one of you kind gentlemen bring me another cup of cocoa?”
They practically fell over each other to fetch it. It seemed that discussion was closed.
Glen was in conversation with ranger Matt, and I was sitting alone on a sofa to one side of the large room, sipping hot tea and trying to convince myself that it was really over—and that we had survived. Claire, wrapped in a gray wool blanket and holding her own steaming cup, sat down beside me. “Ethan, I haven’t really had a chance to thank you.” She smiled. There was a skinned spot on the end of her turned-up nose and an Ace bandage wrapped around the wrist she’d sprained. She was wearing olive-green sweats with “Rocky Mountain National Park” stenciled on the shirtfront. She looked adorable.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re all right,” I said.
She looked at me steadily and took a sip from her cup.
“Me too. But what I can’t figure is what you and Glen were doing up there…” She glanced over at a laughing Lila, still surrounded by admiring men. “With her.”
I smiled. “Why, big sister. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous.”
Claire blushed. “Of her? That’s silly, I…” She shook herself. “Don’t try to distract me. Why on earth would you and Glen take that… woman hiking with you? Who is she anyway?”
“Claire, you know Glen tries to keep his clients happy. Besides, he loves to hike. When I heard Ms. Thornton wanted to come up to the park, I thought I should go along—to protect my interests, you know.” I smiled at Claire. She looked at Lila once more, then shrugged.
“I can’t help feeling that there’s something more than just coincidence involved. I guess you were right when you told me and Roger not to go to the ranch. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.” She seemed to be studying the liquid in her cup.
“I could have been wrong, sweetheart,” I said. “And everything turned out all right. That’s all that matters.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. “I’ve never been so afraid before, Ethan. We were walking along, and then it seemed as though the world was falling apart.”
“I know,” I soothed.
“I was so glad to see you… and Glen. Ethan, was he really walking around naked?” A little smile played over the corner of her mouth.
“We were all half-naked for a while. I guess the storm took our clothes.” I didn’t add that we weren’t wearing them at the time.
“Well, the light was pretty bad, but I think I noticed one of the reasons you like Glen so much.” She giggled at the blush rising in my cheeks.
“Claire, you are incorrigible!” Roger chose that moment to join us so, thankfully, that subject was dropped too.
Claire and Roger invited us (including Lila) to dinner the next night, at their hotel in Denver. There, I saw Lila turn on a slightly different kind of charm—this time aimed at Claire. Before the meal was over I would have sworn that Claire had begun to like her. Well, I felt a sense of camaraderie with Lila too. Perhaps even friendship.
Lila’s flight for New York left two days later. The very ordinariness of the airport with its anonymous crowds had a balancing effect on me. Ever since the ritual, I felt that my senses were sharper, that I could see and hear and feel things I hadn’t even suspected before. The sky seemed bluer, the sun brighter, and any other clichés you might care to add. I was pretty sure Lila knew what I was feeling, and I was grateful she didn’t say anything. Part of me was hoping the strangeness was only temporary; the rest felt as though I’d been half asleep all my life and was finally waking up. But if my oddity—my gift, as Lila said—was becoming stronger, did that imply I should use it somehow, for something good, something larger than my own purposes? The idea scared me. I’d never had much luck sharing my “gift.”
Lila had casually mentioned that psychic training was available to members of her “fellowship.” I didn’t feel pressured, exactly, but the offer was there, and we both knew it.
We three shared a last drink, seated at a small round table in a little airport bar that pretended to be on the French Rivera. Lila was back to her fashion-plate look in a sleeveless lavender top and slacks, her hair twisted into a French braid. I sort of missed the shorts and T-shirts.
Glen toyed with his iced tea, finally looking up. “Lila, I’ve been meaning to ask you… something you said earlier… that there are others like me…”
Lila covered Glen’s free hand with her own. “Glen, I don’t think there is anyone in the world quite like you.” She smiled until warmth colored Glen’s cheeks.
“Seriously, though, you’re not alone. I personally know of two others who change, though their furry sides are wolves, not panthers. I could introduce you… if you want to come out to New York.” She leaned forward earnestly, including me in her gaze as well as Glen.
Glen looked almost wistful, then glanced at me and smiled. “I like it here.”
Lila nodded. “Guys, I don’t know how to say this. I’ve always worked alone before, only accepted temporary help on site when I had to, but… the three of us… we’re a good team. I think we could do great things together.” She smiled at Glen, but he shook his head. Her eyes held mine for a second, and then she rose, picking up her carry-on.
“Okay. But you know how to reach me if you change your minds.” Lila reached over to smooth, then tug, my ponytail. Her touch still gave me tingles.
Lila gave us one last wave, and then she was gone, lost in the crowds headed for the security check-in gate. The sudden disappearance reminded me of the first time I saw her. Then she’d been coming into my life; now she was leaving it.
Glen took my hand, looking at me with those deep blue eyes I loved so much. It would be great to be alone again, just the two of us. But… would I miss Lila and the complications she’d brought into our lives, the ones I’d tried so hard to avoid?
Complications? I hadn’t imagined the half of it.
Deep in thought, I held Glen’s hand tightly on the long drive home.
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