Emerson stood with shaky legs and aching feet near the summit of the mountain. Panting, she braced her hands on her hips and looked to the west, closing her eyes to the glaring sun and letting the cold mountain breeze dry the sweat on her face. She unstrapped her pack with numb fingers and lowered herself to the dirt, feeling the stiffness in her limbs as she gazed across a sea of evergreen trees. Pockets of oak groves glowed golden in the sun, fighting for space under the towering Ponderosa pines. Emerson took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh mountain air. Last night’s rain had soaked the earth, darkening the colors and heightening the smells - the musky scent of rotting leaves and the sweet, sharp scent of pine sap in the sun.
She sat there, feeling a surety she never had anywhere else. The world stretched out before her, full of possibilities and promises of adventure. This was where she came to life. This was how she wanted to live. So why is it, she thought, when I'm given the opportunity to have this everyday I'm suddenly uncertain and afraid? She shook her head in an attempt to shake free from her rolling thoughts and focused on the scenery below.
Startled, Emerson twisted around to look up at the man behind her. Absorbed in her thoughts, she hadn’t heard him approach. He stood, lean and straight, his back to the forest and his hands stuffed into the pockets of his ripped cargo pants. The light glinted off of his sun bleached hair and stubbled jaw as he squinted at her, a smile on the corner of his mouth.
What was he doing here? Most people never strayed far from the manicured trails crisscrossing the lower slopes. And of those hikers who went off-trail, only the most experienced trekked to this hard-to-reach western ridge. He’s no experienced hiker, she thought - he wore no coat, had no backpack, and carried no visible gear. And no shoes, she saw, looking down at his muddy feet.
“May I?” He asked, waving to the dirt next to her. She nodded and scooted to the side, sliding across the gritty earth. His eyes crinkled in a smile as he sank to the ground and rested his forearms on his knees.
He picked a dried pine needle from the dirt between his legs and started twining it around his fingers, staring into the distance. She stared at him, waiting for him to speak. He didn’t seem inclined. “Do you… need help?” She ventured, shifting her weight to face him.
“Hmmm? No, why would I?” He wondered, pulling his eyes from the rugged peaks. Emerson looked pointedly at his feet; he followed her gaze and then wiggled his toes, making furrows in the dirt, “I never wear shoes.”
“Like a hobbit.” He nodded and laughed, eyes sparkling.
“What about supplies - a coat?” It was late summer in the valley below, but fall had settled on the mountainside and winter came early up here. As if to reinforce her thoughts the temperature dropped as the sun passed behind a cloud and a blast of wind blew through the trees; she shivered, waiting for his response.
He glanced at her pack resting against her knee and shrugged, still smiling. “I’ve never needed anything out here.”
Emerson frowned in disproval. She’d lived her life in these mountains, and could survive on her own if she was forced to, but she wouldn’t bet her life on it by hiking unprepared. He was either unbelievably skilled or incredibly arrogant.
“How long have you been here?”
“A few weeks.” He replied. Emerson looked him up and down with furrowed brows; a few weeks by himself, in the backcountry, this late in the year. He wasn’t lying - she could tell when people lied - but there was something off. He looked back with an open smile, delighting in her obvious disbelief. She shook her head and let it go for the moment. “What’s your name?” She asked instead.
He dropped the crushed pine needle and brushed the dirt from his hands. “Lok.” He dimpled and held out his hand in the space between them.
“I’m Emerson.” She said, gripping his calloused palm; his skin felt hot against her’s, as if a flame burned below.
“Are you heading down?” He jerked his head back east. Emerson shaded her eyes and glared at the sun descending towards the western peaks. She sighed and nodded. Dark would set in fast once the sun fell behind those mountains. “I’ll have to if I want to make it back before dark.” She grumbled, unwilling to leave the sanctuary of her isolated mountain.
“Mind if I join you for a ways? I haven’t met anyone else in ages.” She’d come here to be alone, to find peace from her mind’s twirling thoughts and nagging doubts, but Lok intrigued her, and she found that she wouldn’t mind the company of this strange person - or the distraction his story provided. She nodded again and shouldered her pack, brushing the dirt from her pants as she rose.
He beamed in response and climbed fluidly to his feet.
Emerson led the way down the trail. They hiked in silence, paying attention to their footing on the craggy descent. Soon the steep ridge leveled out, leading into a gentle slope. The underbrush rustled on either side where unseen critters startled at their passage and the fading sunlight filtered through the trees overhead, highlighting dust motes in the air and mottling the forest floor in shadows.
Emerson turned to her unusual companion, “You don’t seem like a normal hiker.” She observed.
His laugh rang out, echoing through the trees, “I don’t do a very good job of blending in do I?” Then he sighed, hooking his elbow on a trunk and swinging around; his tone grew less teasing, “I’m hiding - from my brother.”
She waited for him to continue. “He’s out for vengeance. I finally pushed him too far with my latest trick - a work of art.” He assured with a note of pride. His grin faded, “I believe he may just kill me this time, so I ran - where he wouldn’t think to find me.” He hesitated, “I hope.” Despite his casual manner and flippant tone, Emerson saw real fear in his eyes.
Seeing the look of concern flash across her face he grinned, “It’s not as bad as it sounds - yeah it’d hurt like hell,” He grimaced, “But I’d come back - eventually. Still, not something I’m eager to experience again.”
Emerson stopped walking, “Again?” she marveled. Meaning he’s died before?
Lok paused, face concealed in the shadow of a tree, and hesitated, “Well, yeah - gods…” He emphasized his words with sarcastic air quotes, “…never die.” He shrugged, “I find the term a bit archaic, but you humans have always liked it.”
You humans? Gods? Emerson looked at him side-long and raised her eyebrow, skeptical, for once, of the truth she heard.
With an impish grin Lok raised his hand to eye level and snapped; a single flame flickered to life, inches from his skin. He twisted his fingers and a figure formed from the flame, dancing across his palm and through his fingers. Entranced, Emerson watched the swirling fire until he closed his fist, extinguishing the magic with a puff of smoke and a spray of sparks.
Silent, he waited for her reaction with a smile in his eyes. Her thoughts went in circles. Magic. Okay. It explained how he could survive up here at the edge of winter… but a god? Well he was something strange, god or no. She studied him. He was still waiting - expecting her to freak out? Emerson looked at him evenly, then shrugged, determined to disappoint.
Lok grinned into the silence, amused by her blasé manner, “We all have our special talents.” He explained, “Mine’s light and fire, illusions and spells that bend the mind.”
“What about your brother?” She asked, feigned indifference forgotten as she was drawn in by the possibilities of magic.
“Shape-shifting - he can turn himself into anything. Which makes it terrifying to have him after you, believe me.”
Emerson nodded wisely. “You know, I fight with my brother all the time, but he’s never threatened to kill me.” She said as she continued walking.
Lok fell into step beside her, “What can I say,” He lifted his hands, “It’s a skill." She laughed, hooking her thumbs through her straps as he continued, “Actually, we get along most of the time - he should forget all about it in a few hundred years.” Emerson raised her eyebrow - not an exaggeration, she presumed.
They crossed onto the main trail system just as the light began to fade with the setting sun. They would be hiking in the dark at this rate, Emerson thought, glancing at the deepening shadows. Not that she cared. “So…” She asked, “What on earth did you do to your brother?”
“Well,” he began with a wicked smile and twinkling eyes, “It all started with a cupcake, a giraffe, and a spell gone wrong…” Emerson listened with growing amazement - she couldn’t decide whether to be horrified or impressed. She told him so when he reached the end, much to his amusement. “Tip of the iceberg,” He assured, and to prove it he launched into sly a tale of his exploits in ancient Greece, followed by a ridiculous adventure through the Tibetan mountains, and an account of his time on a viking ship that had her choking on laughter.
“Is there anywhere you haven’t been?” She asked, still snickering.
Lok laughed, “Probably not, but that’s the beauty of it - the world is always changing and there’s always more to see.” Emerson’s smile faded. And what have I seen? She thought, envious of his intrepid life.
“That’s always been my dream.” Emerson said with a sigh, “I want to visit Greece, Nepal, Argentina and Antarctica and Japan. I want to drop everything and go - everywhere.” She sobered, “In fact, just recently, a friend offered me a chance to do just that.”
“But?” He challenged.
Emerson shrugged, “But dreaming was one thing and doing is another and now that I have the chance, I’m not sure I can.”
Lok nodded and remarked, “That’s the hard part isn’t it? Taking the leap, seizing the chance, making the change - what you need, love, is a push.” He echoed his words with a shove against her arm. She stumbled, laughing, and retaliated. The conversation moved on, but his words remained, simmering behind her thoughts as the forest slipped by and the shadows lengthened.
Night had fallen and the full moon had risen when a single howl rose up from the ridge behind them. Emerson cocked her head to listen, brows furrowed, “That doesn’t sound like a normal wolf.” The pitch was off - too deep. Lok didn’t answer; he stared over her shoulder, a smile frozen on his face. “Well…crap.”
Emerson turned to look, squinting to peer through the moonlit trees. A shadowy form emerged from the dark, crouched on the spine of a rocky outcropping. It stepped forward, and she could just discern the outline of a massive wolf, etched in by moonlight. The beast measured three times as large as a native grey wolf, with a great barrel chest as wide as a bear. It raised its head in a cry, a howl, that reverberated across the hillside. The sound shook Emerson from her daze. She turned to find Lok still staring into the eyes of his brother; two points of light stared back.
Emerson grabbed his arm and tugged. He shook his head in resigned defeat, but with a glance at her, Lok’s face hardened and, turning, they began racing down the trail. She looked back; the wolf sprang off the rock and charged after them, silent and swift. Her heart pounded in her chest as her feet pounded on the dirt, the impact jarring with every step; her chest ached, her throat burned raw, and she knew it wouldn’t be enough. She could almost feel the beast’s hot breath on the back of her neck.
Lok dragged her away from the trail to the roots of a great pine, “Up the tree!” He urged. He moved like a cat, lithe and quick, springing up the trunk to catch hold of the lowest branch - Emerson right behind him; he leaned over to pull her up, but her coat caught on a limb, her hand slipped out of his and she fell, tumbling to the ground at the base of the tree.
Emerson scrambled back, struggling to her feet and moving around the trunk just as the beast rushed into the clearing. It skidded to a stop, and growled low in it’s throat; she could feel the vibration through the soles of her boots. She threw off her heavy pack and bent down, eyes locked on the wolf, fumbling through the foliage until she grasped a broken branch in her hand. Emerson straightened, hefting her stick - it might as well be a twig, she thought - as the wolf stalked forward, head lowered. She raised her weapon, gripping it so tight the bark bit into her palm, and looked into it’s eyes - slitted and bright. It pulled it’s lips back in a sneer.
“Enough!” They froze at the command. Lok leapt down from the tree, landing in a crouch between them. He straightened, his expression fierce, “I’m here, brother - leave her be.” He spread his arms and raised his chin. An offer.
The beast considered him, then paced forward, lip curling over yellow teeth. Lok held steady, though Emerson could see the fear in his eyes and a tremor in his hands. Her breath caught - the wolf gathered himself and sprang forward, crashing into Lok and throwing him to the ground; it pinned him there, under one enormous paw. Lok lay, motionless and limp as the beast wrapped it’s massive jaws around his neck. Emerson held back her cry.
The wolf paused, eye to eye with Lok - and winked. His brother unclamped his jaws and pulled away, springing to the other side of the clearing. From the edge of the trees he gloated, “Tricked you, trickster,” and laughed, a harsh guttural noise in the back of his throat. With a smug look he turned from them both and, in a rustle of leaves and a whisper of fur, vanished.
A strangling, gasping sound. Throwing her useless branch to the bushes, Emerson ran to where Lok lay, hysterical - laughing like a dying donkey. “Clever,” he praised, gasping for breath, “Oh that was clever, brother.” She checked his throat - unbroken, though a faint outline of teeth showed on his skin, glistening with saliva. She huffed in relief as she plopped to the ground next to the convulsing god.
Moments later, his hysterics abated, Lok sat up, wiping the muck from his neck with a brief grimace, “Well he certainly got his revenge.” He said with the last vestiges of a chuckle.
Was that what that was? Emerson shook her head in confusion, her body still buzzing with adrenaline.
Lok clambered to his feet, drawing in a long breath and stretched, tilting his face to the stars. He laughed then, in relief and joy so palpable that Emerson couldn’t help but smile. “Now what?” She asked with a groan, forcing her battered body to stand.
“Let’s get you home.” He suggested, “And then who knows? I have so much free time now - I haven’t visited Greece in centuries,” Lok smiled, wistful, “I wonder what’s changed - Achilles took me to this tavern once, and it sold these amazing…” He stopped and waved his hand dismissively, “Anyway, perhaps I’ll see you there?” He taunted.
Emerson was silent. Something had formed unconsciously in her mind during her afternoon of magic and gods. She felt it there now - resolve; cemented and sure. “Yeah, you will,” She retorted.
Lok grinned a knowing grin and quipped, “Nothing like being chased down a mountainside by a shapeshifting magic wolf-god to put your life in perspective, eh?” Emerson laughed, lightened by the absence of an uncertain future. She retrieved her pack from the base of the tree and hefted it to her back as she circled the clearing, glancing around to reorientate herself in the dark.
Epiphany or no, they still had a few miles to go yet. Stumbling on rocks and roots, they searched for the path, then began hobbling along the trail. Belatedly, Lok conjured a flame from his palm to light their way; the fire cast flickering shadows on the trees overhead and the ground at their feet.
Lok turned to her suddenly, “You know what this means?” He hinted slyly.
Emerson looked at him in dismay - she was beginning to recognize that tone of voice.
Lok’s grin widened and his eyes glimmered with mischief intentions, “My next prank needs to be epic.”