Queen of Darkness and New York Times Bestselling author Pepper Winters strikes again with new novel, Fable of Happiness. Feral and unapologetic, Fable of Happiness is available to read on the Galatea app. The app has received recognition from BBC, Forbes and The Guardian for being the go-to place for explosive new romance novels.
A house hidden in the middle of nowhere.
A man who’s lived alone for a decade.
A woman who trespasses on his solitude.
A love full of hate as well as hunger.
The thing about Gemma’s life… she was was never in control of it.
She just thought she was.
She thought she had everything figured out—a good career, fun hobbies, a bright future, but everything changed when she found an ivy-cloaked house, tucked in a forgotten valley, hiding the man who would corrupt her world forever.
What happens when a strong-willed woman, and a broken man meet in a lonesome cabin. Download the app to read the entire series now
The day I was born, a curse was put upon me.
That curse grew with me from boyhood to man. I had no mark to prove it. No doctor to confirm it.
But I knew.
A blackness had attached itself to me, and I was cursed.
It was irrefutable.
Because of this fact, I didn’t look upon surprises as favorable. Surprises in my world meant pain and punishment. I liked methods. Rules. Comfortable habits and familiar routines.
So, what are you going to do with her?
My hands balled as I paced outside the cell where I’d thrown her.
I don’t know.
That was a lie.
I knew what I should do.
I should kill her because she’d found me. She’d stumbled upon my carefully hidden world. She’d had the audacity to enter my home. To step foot upon my domain.
I glared at the heavy wooden door, dropping my gaze to the rusty padlock that’d continued its role of imprisonment for far too long.
Eleven years since I’d looked upon another person. Eleven years since I’d felt that raw hate bubble in my blood, demanding violence, chanting for their pain before they could summon mine.
I pulled the key from my pocket.
I opened the door.
I stepped inside to face my enemy.
My mother used to say I was blessed.
Her tone might have been sarcastic, and her praises might have been fake, but that didn’t change the fact that I agreed with her.
I was blessed.
I was born in the summer, I liked to learn, and I’d had a happy childhood. Well, I had until my dad passed away from a sudden stroke, leaving me and my little brother, Joshua, at the mercy of my fragile mother, who used scorn to patch up her own heavy grief.
But, because I was blessed, the minute Joshua turned eighteen and rented a place with some friends, I moved out of the house too, assuring my mother that I would always be there for her.
That I would always answer the phone and forever be her daughter, even if she couldn’t understand why life seemed, in her words, “to favor me and not her.”
By favor me, she meant that by the time I was twenty-three, I’d quit my job as a travel agent and would never have to work for someone else again.
I was free of the rat race. A self-made millionaire.
And it was all thanks to a passion that’d started in school and had morphed into a career that provided an ample income to buy my quaint lavender-painted house, squirrel away my retirement fund, and enabled a lavish lifestyle, if I chose to.
Pity that I chose simple things.
I didn’t drink or smoke. I didn’t party or favor expensive dresses or makeup. Yes, I had the latest gadgets in video recording and laptop software, but those items, along with new carabiners, rope, and chalk, were all tax deductible because of my career.
My career that my mother couldn’t understand. That friends from school rolled their eyes at, and other peers glowered at with envy.
I was one of the few women climbers who’d struck gold on YouTube.
A girl with strength in her fingers and flexibility in her body to scale complicated boulders, cliff faces, and technical mountains.
First, it was just the sponsorships. The free climbing shoes and exercise leggings as I won more local and regional contests.
Then it was the appearances. The brief reviews I was requested to give on climbing gyms around the USA led to some larger companies flying me overseas to sample their own routes and walls, quoting me in magazines who’d dubbed me as “The Girl Gravity Can’t See.”
As my notoriety increased, so too did the prize winnings. I
had the opportunity to train with elites and enter contests reserved for champions.
I enjoyed all aspects of competition. I liked indoor climbing as well as outdoor challenges. However, my personal favorite was climbing on my own. No spotter. No belayer. No one to catch me if I fell.
One afternoon, I’d left the city behind on a quest to find a waterfall I’d seen mentioned on a couple of climbing forums. For four hours, I’d climbed its treacherous rocks.
I almost fell. I made a few mistakes and triumphed on a few challenges. I truly felt as if I was the girl gravity couldn’t see.
I’d loved the experience so much, I’d created a profile online and posted the recording from my camera that I’d set at the bottom of the waterfall. Just a simple recap showing the route I’d taken, the cuts I’d endured, and the time-lapse journey of me scaling moss-covered rocks all while water drenched me.
The light had been perfect on the cascade. The rainbows had been exquisite. The colors had been magical. I’d wanted to immortalize the experience by uploading it.
I’d tagged a few climbing acquaintances, labeled the video “Swimming in the Sky,” and then gone to bed.
I woke to a viral sensation.
And the rest was history.
Now, at twenty-six, I’d hit over three million subscribers, had a nest egg that my bank manager looked at enviously, and got to do what I loved for a living.
I was blessed.
In everything but love.
With a sigh, I scanned the profile I’d just filled in for a dating site.
Active Souls promised to match like-minded sporty individuals with other successful athletes.
I’d tried dating the old-fashioned way. I’d been on a few blind dates set up by friends. I’d agreed to a few drinks with men I’d met at the gym. I’d even had dinner with a man who’d done a double take at the gas station as I fed fuel to my sand-colored Jeep Wrangler.
He’d asked if it was my boyfriend’s car, eyeing up my off-road tires, well-earned dents, and light bar. He’d been dubious when I said she was mine, followed by instant interest.
I needed such a car.
My work, my videos, required me to explore backroads in search of boulders that no one had climbed yet, of waterfalls too tricky for others to attempt.
I wasn’t afraid of crawling over riverbeds or creeping up hillsides with my Wrangler for the perfect video that would hit a million views in just a few days.
The guy at the gas station—who’d been intrigued instead of intimidated—had asked for my number.
He’d seemed sane enough, so I’d given it to him. We’d gone out. He’d said all the right things.
I hadn’t been with anyone in years, so, feeling reckless, I invited him back to my home, and we slept together. It had been okay. I got more thrills from climbing a piece of sandstone, if I was honest, but it was nice to have company.
However, the next morning, he announced he and his wife had seen my channel, and he found me hot.
Hot enough to cheat on his wife and turn me off men altogether.
Who would have thought that at twenty-six, the majority of single people came with such heavy baggage already?
Most had a child, sometimes two. Some were still living at home with their parents.
Some were embroiled in a messy divorce. Some openly sought affairs. And the majority? The majority were overweight, didn’t exercise, and their personal ambition was drinking on the weekend with their workmates.
Why are you doing this?
I rolled my eyes at my profile again.
Because I’m stupid, that’s why.
Name: Gemma Ashcroft
Appearance: Blonde, hazel eyes, curvy but athletic
Ethnicity: Half American, half Norwegian.
Looking for: A man who loves the outdoors. Single. Loves to travel. Doesn’t mind camping and exploring off the beaten track. Trustworthy. Kind. Passionate. Intelligent—
“Ugh.” I deleted it all. “Just give up, Gem. Get a dog that you can drag around the backcountry and accept that you’re successful in business, but in romance…you suck.”
Nodding at my wisdom, I went to close out of the site, but a rush of rebellion shot down my fingers, and I typed:
Looking for: A man who’s dominant and dangerous but not afraid of a woman who’s probably far more successful than he is. A man who knows how to grant pleasure without thinking he’s some gift to womankind. A man who knows how to cook and clean without needing a girlfriend for a maid. A man who doesn’t have fifteen exes, two kids, a beer belly, and can’t use a screwdriver. A man who…is a man. An old-fashioned man who is prickly but sweet. Who is gruff but kind. A man who will sweep me off my feet but allow me to fly free, all while he makes me come alive beneath his tongue.
“You are such an idiot.” I laughed under my breath as I deleted the entire thing, closed the window, and went to shut down my laptop. “No more daydreaming of fantastical men who don’t exist.”
A flashing notification caught my eye, alerting me to a new post in Climbers Anon. I opened my screen again.
I’d stalked that online group for a few years. The group’s tagline promised virgin routes, secret boulders, and untried mountains.
In the years I’d followed them, they hadn’t posted a single adventure that I hadn’t already done or heard about.
As I scanned the link and the hazy photo of a boulder cluster covered in weeds and debris, my heart rate picked up.
Found two days ago deep within Mammoth Cave National Park. Overgrown. Hidden in a ravine that seems impassable. I’ve marked the trail to get there with yellow ribbon. Didn’t climb down as had no gear. 4WD required, followed by steep descent on foot.
Whoever gets there first can name the route. Climbing grade? I’d say very difficult.
My heart pumped faster as I glanced at my dirty, well-used backpack where I’d tossed it by the front door.
I hadn’t found an exciting climb in a few months. Regardless, I kept my bag packed with food and camping necessities, and carried around a permanent tent and bedroll in the back of my Jeep, along with all my ropes, gear, and filming equipment.
I could leave in a few minutes.
I could be the first.
I could claim it.
Enlarging the photo, I squinted at the size and shape.
Fog had rolled into the valley where it was hiding, distorting the lines. Weeds made the outline of rock and plant hard to distinguish, and twilight shadows hid most of its secrets.
I couldn’t tell if it would be a worthwhile journey from just the picture. However, I could see it was big.
A looming giant rock compared to the trees below. It was untouched by human hands. It was calling to me to scale.
What else do you have planned?
I had no contests for the rest of the year.
No luncheons with girlfriends. No dinners with potential lovers.
I didn’t even have a dog to walk.
I was successful, healthy, and had ensured my future would always include financial freedom. But…I was alone, and I didn’t like the emptiness of not having a challenge to tackle.
Look at what a few days with idle hands has done to me.
I’d stooped low enough to fill out a profile for an online dating site.
I didn’t care if all my ex-school friends had found their husbands and wives that way.
I didn’t buy into the advertisement that online dating was safer and far more effective than trolling parks, bars, and coffee shops looking for that perfect other half.
It was time I accepted that my love affair included granite, quartz, and feldspar instead of someone with a heartbeat.
And you know what? That’s totally fine with me.
Stone couldn’t trick you or tease you. It couldn’t pretend to be interested because of your money or lie that they were single and sane.
Stone was clinical, cold, and didn’t care if you conquered it. Because if you didn’t, then it conquered you by throwing you into the dirt—broken bones and all.
Standing, I closed my laptop, stuffed it into its travel case, and packed the solar chargers for my phone, camera, and other tech stuff I’d take with me.
Triple checking that my backpack still held enough supplies, I grabbed my personal locator beacon from the side table by the window and strode out the front door with swift steps.
After tossing my gear into the back of the Jeep, I pulled up my brother’s number.
My life might consist of taking off on whims and chasing granite playgrounds, but it didn’t mean I was stupid.
If I ever got seriously injured and needed to be airlifted out, I had a location beacon. I had a GPS tracker on my car if it ever got stolen while I was up a cliff somewhere. And I religiously texted my brother where my next spontaneous adventure led me.
Gemma: Hey, Josh. I’m leaving. Going to Mammoth Cave National Park. I’ll have my GPS and locator. Probably won’t have reception on my phone. It’s a seven-hour drive, so I’m guessing it’ll be a few days by the time I find it, climb it, and get back to civilization. The boulder I’m hunting for is on Climbers Anon. Use my log-in to get more info if you need to. Don’t start panicking unless I go missing for five days, okay? Five days then put Operation Find Stupid Sister into play. Hope you have a great week!
He replied almost instantly.
Joshua: First, it’s midnight. Perhaps sleep first, then go driving cross-country? Second, only you would willingly go get lost in some national park and call it fun.
Gemma: You know I’m a night owl. If I leave now, I can be there for dawn and get some amazing light shots. There’ll be park rangers there. They’ll look after me if I need help.
Joshua: They’ll most likely shoot you if you’re covered in bracken and dirt, crawling monkey-style down a mountain. They’ll claim they finally caught Bigfoot.
Joshua: Be safe! Give me access to your phone location so I can track you.
Gemma: I’ll turn the mode on, but I doubt reception will be reliable enough to show where I am.
Joshua: For Christmas, I’m gonna get you that portable Wi-Fi docking station for hikers. Least then you can have your own satellite internet, and you won’t be able to use ‘off-grid’ as an excuse not to call me.
Gemma: Go back to bed and stop nagging me.
Joshua: Stop climbing rocks and messaging me at bedtime.
Gemma: Love you.
Joshua: You too.
With a smile on my face and excitement bubbling in my heart, I tossed my phone onto the passenger seat, inserted my key, and cranked the Wrangler’s grouchy engine.
My trusty Jeep yawned and growled, lurching out of my driveway, used to me waking it up in the middle of the night to go on some boulder hunt.
Switching gears, I glanced back at my house. My own slice of suburbia in the middle of Michigan.
I sighed with contentment.
God, I was so unbelievably lucky.
I wasn’t clever with gardens, so the flower beds were wild, and the lawn needed a trim, but the façade was freshly painted with lavender cheer, and I’d had the roof redone in a dark charcoal.
The privacy offered by the three-bedroom place made up for all the lonely nights I might have endured. I loved it.
I loved that it was mortgage-free and waiting for me to return. I loved that it wasn’t just a house but my confidant who sheltered and protected me.
See you in a few days, house!
If only I’d known I’d lied that night.
It wouldn’t be a few days before I saw it again.
It would be never.
I was a creature of habit.
The moment the sun rose, I was awake. Not drowsy or groggy or still half asleep.
When my eyes opened, my instincts were alert, my mind sharp, my body primed for a fight.
I didn’t know if that was a product of my existence or something genetic, but I’d never get answers to those questions.
I’d never know why, after eleven years of living on my own, I’d chosen to stay. I’d never know if the world had imploded or if humans still walked the streets.
Questions like that didn’t interest me. Partly because it didn’t make any difference to my life but mostly because I didn’t care.
As long as I was left alone, then I was content.
As long as I didn’t do anything stupid and got hurt, I could live a good life hidden away from others.
Climbing out of bed, I quickly fluffed my pillow and tucked the blankets into neat corners under the mattress. The single bed was too small these days, and the frame had sunk in the middle, but it was the only place I felt safe enough to permit unconsciousness to find me.
It didn’t matter that this place had twenty other bedrooms.
Each one was a tomb for a devil.
I’d closed the doors and did my best to forget about them. Apart from this dormitory—tucked in the back wing above the kitchen and the ten-car garage with eight empty beds identical to mine—there was nowhere else I trusted.
Nowhere else I’d fortified so strongly that every window was rigged with traps and the door groaned with locks.
Occasionally, in the past few years, I’d been tempted to claim the cavernous garage below as my own. The massive space promised a much comfier existence, and the fact that it only had one window and a bank of roller doors that could be jammed shut gave it a gold star in security.
It didn’t smell of oil or engine grease because it’d never housed a single car. It was utterly pointless to this estate. Vehicle access to this place wasn’t possible.
Helicopters weren’t welcome, boats couldn’t venture, no manmade transportation of any kind could enter.
The only way in was via the cave, and the only way to find the entrance was to be shown.
Satisfied my bed was neat, I slipped my naked body into the clothes I’d laid out the night before. Unfortunately, I’d outgrown my old clothes over a decade ago. Now, I was forced to wear what was left behind. Every few years, I’d raid another wardrobe, chase away the moths, and claim a new outfit.
I didn’t like expensive. I didn’t like embellished. I liked comfortable and practical, and the expensive gray slacks and silky taupe shirt had long since lost any attempt at being rich.
Now, the slacks were more three-quarter length than full because the bottoms had been dragged in mud and caught on debris in the garden, leaving tattered material and jagged edges. A few holes lined the thighs, and a pocket was torn.
The shirt was no better.
The taupe now resembled dirt, thanks to the silk material not washing so well. Three of the top onyx buttons were missing along with one on the bottom, leaving my chest mostly on display. The cuffs had been torn off completely after I’d gotten pissed with the tightness around my wrists.
Not that I cared what I looked like. I’d long since smashed the mirrors in this place. I couldn’t remember exactly why I’d attacked them but, good riddance.
After one last survey of my dorm, one last glance at the matching empty beds, I strode to the door and undid the numerous locks barricading me in.
Like always, hate trickled into my heart as I stepped past the comforts of my bedroom and my bare feet padded down the rough wooden staircase.
That hate only billowed as I stalked through the servant’s corridor and followed the stone wall to the kitchen.
Dawn sunlight trickled over the marble tiled floor, etching the huge bank of honey-colored cupboards, wooden bench tops, and industrial-grade ovens in gold and red light.
My eyes adjusted from the darkness, grateful that another day had found me. That I’d survived another night.
Two sparrows squabbled on the windowsill, hopping through the ivy vines and bouncing in the leaves.
Cutting across to the exterior door that led to the expansive chef gardens, I unlocked the handmade deadbolt and swung it wide.
Instantly, fresh air spilled inside.
I closed my eyes and inhaled.
Fragrant, delicious, untainted air.
Stepping outside, I crushed daisies beneath my bare feet, and the carpet of wild grass waved in the slight breeze as I left my stone prison and did what I did each morning.
Before I’d eaten a thing; before I’d drunk from the stream or done any chores, I ran.
I needed to remind myself that I was free to run.
To bolt from this place, to leave if I pleased, to return only once I was exhausted and grateful for its shelter and warmth.
I didn’t need to ask why I ran. I already knew the answer to that question. However, somehow, over the years of being alone, I’d erected a wall between my memories and my present.
I did know, somewhere deep inside me, who I was, what my name had been, and why I’d done what I did. The past could never be deleted. Always there, murky and morbid.
It waited for me in my sleep, and it slashed at me in my nightmares. And while it was dark, I belonged to those memories. I relived the past I couldn’t escape. But the moment it was light, I was free. My skills at forgetting had successfully shoved aside the shadows.
I raised my face to the sun, crisscrossed with the branch ceiling high above, blocked by leaves and secrets. I hadn’t seen the sky in its entirety in years. I hadn’t dared to venture past the cave to the wilderness beyond. Why should I? Only death and misery waited.
As long as the sun rose and my bare feet could run the familiar wooded paths, then my recollections remained painlessly blank.
I was just me.
A man who lived alone.
A man who was a stranger to himself.
I didn't get there for dawn.
In fact, the seven-hour drive turned into ten hours, thanks to the winding national park roads, uncertain backtracks, and a fear that I might not find Kentucky’s Khalessi, after all.
Noon came and went as I continued slipping off main tracks and following old forest trails that’d long since grown over.
My poor Jeep earned more scratches and a few dings as I eased it between low hanging branches and skirted past large boulders that looked as if they’d been dropped from the sky and pockmarked the earth around it.
At the beginning, the national park had been populated. The camping zones held laughing kids, bright tents, and flustered adults trying to figure out how to cook over a firepit for authenticity.
A few groups of guided tours had left on scripted adventures, and a couple of rangers, who’d been patrolling the more active areas of the park, had waved at me from their vehicles, nodding in appreciation of such a beautiful sunny day.
Now, I was alone.
My phone registered no internet, my GPS tracker on my Wrangler kept flicking with “location error,” and my bones were rattled from off-roading.
At some point, I’d had to release some air from my tires, making them softer and better at creeping over rocks and ravines, hoping to spot a sprig of yellow ribbon in the trees—the markers left behind by whoever had found this new, untouched boulder. Whoever it was certainly had an adventurous spirit or somehow had the best luck in the world.
This place was dense. Dense and wild and entirely inhospitable at finding anything, let alone a climbing route.
Stopping my Jeep in the middle of yet another narrow and chaotic path, I pulled up the last comment posted in Climbers Anon. I’d screenshot it a few hours ago before my internet blinked out, scanning for clues on the boulders location.
Turn off the main drag after you’ve passed the tree that looks like Harry Potter’s scar.
Go over the stream, up the hill, travel to the left when you find three rock formations covered in moss, then keep driving until you find the drop-off.
You’ll have to walk from there.
Well, as far as I could tell, I’d followed the instructions. I’d found a weird lightning bolt-shaped tree. I’d turned down the overgrown trail, I’d tracked over a small river, I’d crawled past three rocks that had transformed into green molehills instead of glittering granite, and now, here I was, sitting in the forest hopelessly lost.
Josh is going to kill me.
The shared app that gave him my location always sent a snooty text when it dropped out of range, tattling on me for disappearing.
Ah, well…I guess this is the end of the road.
Inhaling, I turned off the engine and narrowed my eyes, studying the green haze of the forest. Birds flittered in spiels of sunlight, butterflies fluttered past my window while enjoying their exceedingly short existence, and a peaceful, heavy silence fell, surrounding me, enveloping me, blocking out any hint that I’d just escaped from a city.
You couldn’t find this sort of silence anywhere else.
It didn’t exist if buildings were present. It didn’t deafen you in suburbia. This thick, impenetrable silence was created by the trees themselves. The rustle of their leaves was the white noise, the imposing height of their trunks the distortion of all other sounds.
This silence was both religious and rare, and goosebumps sprang down my arms as I opened my door and stepped out.
Bird song interrupted the silence. I found their twills and chirps better than any music on the radio.
I stepped forward, entranced.
Mud squelched over my hiking boots as I stood in the middle of nowhere and breathed.
All that was missing was the sharp scent of stone and the powdery smell of climbing chalk.
Time to go deeper.
As I turned to open the back door to grab my gear, a flutter of yellow caught my eye.
Dashing forward, I grabbed the satin. I’d expected bright yellow—something new and fresh. Instead, this marker was weathered. Sun-bleached and rain-splotched, it was more cream than yellow.
Whoever had posted in the forum had made it sound like it had been a recent discovery, yet this ribbon spoke of history and waiting.
I frowned, running the ribbon through my fingers, wincing as it tore from being so brittle.
A chill scattered down my spine despite the hot sun. A sense of adventure and uncertainty tingled in my belly.
Looking up, I spotted another frayed ribbon hanging despondently deeper in the undergrowth. Just as old, just as impatient to be found.
Stupidly, the faded ribbons affected me. It made me sad to think of them being left to rot in the middle of nowhere, their only job to guide someone to a climb that had somehow come to mean more to me than just a YouTube video and speared me right in my heart.
I didn’t know if it was from the podcast I’d listened to on Mammoth Cave National Park on the long drive over here. If the stories of vast interconnected cave systems, historic landmarks, ghost warnings, and fantastical folklore had infiltrated my blood instead of my business brain, but I needed to climb this boulder.
Not for likes or subscribers, not for ad revenue or fame.
But because I felt a kindred spirit to something hidden away, happy in its seclusion, harboring a loneliness despite its wild perfection.
Turning my back on the ribbon, an urgency crackled in my legs.
I need to go.
I have to see what’s out there.
Rushing to slip deeper into this new world, I dragged my backpack from the Jeep and placed it on the little hill out of the muck.
Leaning into the back seat, I pulled out my bedroll, sleeping bag, and tent, followed by long lengths of rope, a mess of carabiners, cams, and quickdraws. I never knew what sort of terrain I’d find. Sometimes, the boulder was straight forward after a good clean and assessment of its crags. Other times, a boulder turned out to be a cliff face, requiring spring-loaded cams and ropes to keep me safe.
The ropes and carabiners were heavy, but they were my lifeline, and I wouldn’t leave necessary gear behind. My climbing shoes and chalk bag were tucked inside a spare set of clothes, which completed my basic staples.
Opening the large container in the tailgate, I grabbed enough granola bars, packet pastas, Fruit Roll-Ups, chocolate bars, and electrolytes to last two days. The rest of my rations I left. If I couldn’t hike to the boulder and back in a couple of days, then I always had more supplies here.
I never went into the wilderness without at least a week’s worth of food, plus reserves. I had eighty litres of water in containers, and I had a medical bag full of needles, antibiotics, and bandages that I’d taken a course on how to use. The knowledge of how to set a bone, stitch a wound, and self-treat to stay alive until I could find a doctor was a skill I was glad to have.
Taking my stash, I diligently strapped, stuffed, and tied everything to my backpack before hoisting the heavy weight onto my back.
Carabiners clanked together, rope cord flopped over my shoulder, and my water bottle hung from the front strap. It was cumbersome and top-heavy, but better to take precautions now than be sorry later.
My last task before I left my trusty steed was to pull up the hood and unhook the car battery. I’d learned that the hard way. Nothing worse than returning after a week of exploring only to find your battery had died.
Choosing the tree with the first ribbon tied to it, I dug a shallow hole beneath and placed my keys into it, covering it with a small rock that I scratched with my penknife for visibility.
I didn’t like climbing with my keys. Taking them with me might mean I lost them. Leaving them at the base of a climb might mean they’d get stolen. This way, I knew where they were. Safe and waiting for my return.
Is that everything?
My receptionless phone was in one legging pocket. My PLB—personal locator beacon—was in another.
The cumbersome size stretched my Lycra, but it’d been grilled into me to always, always have the PLB on your person and not in your backpack. You never knew when you might need it or what sort of injury could occur.
Tapping the bottom of my backpack, where my recording devices were packed and protected by clothing, I took a deep breath.
I would carry substantial weight on my adventure, but at least I would be prepared.
Running over my mental checklist again, I buckled the backpack around my waist and strode happily into the thicket.
* * * * *
You have to admit defeat. For tonight at least.
I sighed as I unbuckled my backpack and allowed it to slip from my aching shoulders. It crashed against the earth, sounding almost disappointed in me.
How did this happen?
I’d followed the ribbon. I’d kept going until all scraps of faded yellow were gone, pushing onward in the hopes of finding the path again. I’d doubled back. I’d stopped and looked at my compass. I’d swept the landscape for any sign of a valley holding a boulder that some stranger had posted in an anonymous forum.
I’d taken their word.
I’d gone on a wild goose chase that ended with me alone, in the middle of nowhere, utterly vulnerable to anyone who thought they’d have a joke.
Perhaps they were laughing at me in the bushes, rolling their eyes at my gullibility to have followed a ribboned trail into an uninhabited national park.
You really aren’t very smart, Gem.
I huffed, running grubby hands over my face and wiping away the sweat from my seven-hour hike.
Scanning the darkening trees, I hoped whoever’d posted about the boulder hadn’t planned to ambush whoever was stupid enough to fall for it.
Am I safe?
I’d gone so far off the trail, I’d put a few miles between me and the last ribbon, but still. Anything was possible in such a wild place.
Unfortunately—and I never admitted this lightly—I was lost.
I’d been lost before on other expeditions, but this time? I had no sense of direction on how to get back.
I’d been so stupidly focused on those damn ribbons, allowing them to tug me forward and not paying much attention to my surroundings, that I’d gotten turned around, confused, and now had the enjoyable task of admitting to myself that tonight, I wouldn’t be climbing a virgin rock, but setting up a lonely camp for one and hoping my brain rebooted so I could figure out how to get back to my Jeep in the morning.
Hopefully, you’re alive in the morning.
I rolled my eyes, angry with myself. Frustrated at my predicament and short-tempered because I was tired. So, so tired.
Exhaustion buckled my legs, and I plummeted to the ground. My toes hurt from my hiking boots. I was thirsty, hungry, and my eyes stung from being awake for over twenty-four hours.
That’s probably why you’re lost, you know.
I shouldn’t have set out on a fool’s quest without a nap first.
I should’ve taken my time.
It wasn’t like I had deadlines or pressure from someone to post videos at certain times.
All of this was my fault, and I had no one else to blame.
So, you better stop feeling sorry for yourself and get organized before it’s blacker than death out here.
I half-heartedly tried to summon energy into my feeble body, willing my legs to stand and my arms to unpack my tent. However…just ten minutes.
A ten-minute rest, and then I’ll set up camp.
Checking there were no branches or predators behind me, I flopped onto my back and groaned in relief.
Good God, that feels amazing.
The sensation of going from vertical with a heavy weight pulling on my shoulders to blessedly free and horizontal was almost enough for me not to care about setting up my tent at all.
Ten minutes only and then you’re being smart.
I groaned again, arguing with common sense.
The earth had never felt so comfortable. The air cooled the heat from my exertion. My muscles relaxed until I was a puddle of hiking boots and dirty leggings.
After ten minutes passed—to be honest, it could have been seconds with how quickly it came and went—I did the responsible thing and sat up.
I couldn’t stop the heavy groan or the stiffness as I clambered to my feet and stretched out the worst of my tied-up and overworked muscles.
My body existed in an annoying realm of what my fellow climbers called “climbing fit.” To usual humans who didn’t put their lives on the line by ascending vast piles of rock, I had more tone and strength than any gym bunny was allowed.
But to other climbers? The YouTube idols and the free climbing gods, I was a couch potato who ate far too much caramel fudge.
Right now, I felt exactly like an unfit pudding and stumbled about very inelegantly as I shook out my tent, secured the poles, tightened the guy ropes, shoved my sleeping bag into the one-person orange and teal sleeping pod, and kicked off my hiking boots before crawling inside.
Darkness fell in a heavy cloak of nothingness, almost as if it had been waiting for me to have a roof before clicking out the lights.
No stars tonight. No moon.
Just me and my solar torch, which turned into a lantern by untwisting the middle and hanging it from the hook I’d sewn into the ceiling.
I didn’t bother changing.
I didn’t bother setting up other creature comforts such as chargers, water bottles, or a tripod for my video diary.
I was spent.
I used what little energy I had left to eat two granola bars, clean my teeth, then burrowed into my sleeping bag and crashed.
* * * * *
I woke panting.
I jack-knifed up.
I hit my head on my lantern swinging from the tent’s ceiling.
I froze and clamped both hands over my mouth to stop my heavy breathing.
What the hell was that?
My ears twitched for the bloodcurdling howl that’d woken me.
It’d reached into my dreams and yanked me out with bloody claws.
Slowly, I dropped my hands from my mouth and clenched my sleeping bag.
Instinct made me reach for my windbreaker that I’d tossed in the corner, grabbing the knife that’d helped me more than once.
A simple switchblade with a mother-of-pearl handle, it’d cut away vines that I’d stumbled into, carved firewood, and skinned fish for dinner.
It was as familiar in my fingers as stone was, but I’d never used it in self-defense.
I’d taken a quick course when I’d started off-roading into deeper, more desolate places, but I’d never left myself so open to violence before.
The noise came again.
I ducked involuntarily as if the howl could reach through the material of my tent and pluck me from my sleeping bag.
It echoed in the ravine I’d camped above, ripped up the hillsides, banged morbid drums on the rock faces, and tangled with the trees that both absorbed the snarl and amplified it.
Not a bear. Not a bobcat or coyote.
Then…what is it?
I’d never heard such wretchedness. Never had a noise stop my heart and scratch itself over every inch of my skin, leaving me shaking and out of breath.
Leaving me desperate to know what it was.
It came again.
A lament as well as a roar.
A thundering shockwave of pure suffering.
An instinctual part welled deep inside me.
My hand curled around my knife, not in self-defense this time, but in preparation to do what was necessary and put such a broken creature out of its misery.
The sound came again.
Haunted and low, dismembered by the slight breeze and carried away before I could determine if it was animal, human, or otherworldly.
Crawling from my temporary bedroom, I climbed to my feet, swaying in the bracken, my socks catching on leaf debris, my hand raised with my knife.
Still no moon, no stars. Without my lantern, I couldn’t see two steps in front of me.
If I went exploring, I might fall down the cliff not far from where I’d set up camp. I could break a leg and never get out of this place.
I could die here.
The howl came a final time, echoing with grief and the undeniable moan for help.
It sounded like fury melted with sadness, throbbing with terror and torment.
It made me ache.
Made me desperate to help.
And then, it was gone.
And no matter how long I stood outside, a single girl exposed to the elements with every instinct straining to find such a creature, only silence and leaves existed.