The recent storms wreathing the slopes of Smokeytop Mountain had been rumbling overhead for nearly a week in the wettest, stormiest April in the memory of the town of Cameron. That Friday night, a dam break temporarily stranded Nate Wilson and the rest of the leadership of the hiking club with Iris Davenport and her parents at their lodge. Iris tried to make the best of the situation. Her boyfriend housebound in her home for the foreseeable future--not so bad. However, adding in three friends and her parents in the house turned the situation both reassuring and frustrating. After all, Nate had managed to steal a grand total of five kisses so far in the three months they had been dating. It was high time he raised those numbers. At least, Iris thought so.
If only those thunderstorms didn't keep rolling across the top of the mountain as if someone high above the clouds was trying to flatten it. Or maybe just the occupants of Davenport Lodge.
"Hey, you keep rubbing like that, you won't have any hair left on your arms," Cody Hawkins said.
Iris turned from her spot in front of the huge panorama windows looking out over the valley and opened her mouth to retort. Nate beat her to it.
"Yeah, you try feeling like somebody attached sparking wires all over your arms," he snarled, his lip curled in anger, but teasing laughter in his eyes.
Iris flinched. That was exactly how she felt, but most of the sensation was focused on the scars ringing her wrists. She wondered what her high school friends would do if they could see the blue sparks dancing over the white, jagged lines in her flesh. Not that any of them could see the sparks, even if she wanted them to see.
Which she didn't. She saw few benefits in being a member of the Hunt, and the awful sensation that maybe someone was arriving in that storm was definitely not one of them. More like the last thing she wanted to happen--whether it was now, or fifty years in the future.
"Now is not a good time," she whispered, and turned to stare out the window again.
Could anyone else see the electric blue streaks in the sky, like visible echoes or negative images of the lightning flashes?
"Let's try to get as much work done as we can," Pandora Tuttle said. "Then we won't have to have any more meetings until May."
"Sorry." Iris mentally pushed herself away from her post at the window and tried to stroll casually across the greatroom to the couches gathered around the fire pit. "Not such a great idea to meet out here after all, huh?"
"Sounded like the perfect place to me," Cody offered. "I mean, half our hikes start right here. And with your folks offering to host whatever we plan to do..."
He shrugged and gave her that adorable, floppy puppy grin that had made her feel welcome on her first day of school nine years ago, after the Davenports decided to foster her. Sometimes Iris wondered what her life would be like if Cody hadn't taken her under his wing from the moment she crossed the threshold of the school, with only a minimal grasp of the English language. Would she have been so eager to stay with the Davenports? It never occurred to her to that it might not be smart to stay on the mountainside where the Hound had left her ten years ago, until she was in high school and started to have dreams about the Hunt coming to take her away from her home and parents.
The dichotomy that filled her life for the last two years made her feel as if she were two people. She loved the mountain where her parents ran a lodge that serviced hikers and camping groups. It wasn't just her gift for land and water, the sense of the life energies flowing through stone and soil and trees. This was her home, the place she wanted to stay for the rest of her life. Yet the dreams, the realization that eventually the Hunt would call her away, made her hate the mountain. Not because staying here made her easy to find. Because the mountain--and now the blue-tinged storms ringing it--reminded her of the terror that had thrown her from her homeworld, through the vortex of time and space. It frustrated her. It wasn't fair. When she didn't remember, when she didn't have nightmares about the journey, when her scars didn't prickle and sting and burn, she loved the mountainside, she loved her adopted parents, she loved everything about her life.
Especially since Nate came to Cameron with his foster family, the Hancocks. Life had been just about perfect, from the moment Cody reached out to the new kid who showed up halfway through their sophomore year of high school. Iris had been friends with Nate from the start because Cody made Nate his friend, and she and Cody had been inseparable since her first day of school, like brother and sister.
"Hey, Earth to Iris," Pandora said, waving her hand in front of Iris's eyes.
"Sorry. A million miles away." She shrugged and settled back in the deep cushions of the couch. She glanced over at Nate, who was feeding another log into the fire in the pit in the center of the room. One corner of his mouth quirked up and he nodded as his gaze met hers. He understood what she was feeling, even if she couldn't express herself.
"Sorry," Cody said. He scooted forward and held his palms out to the blaze that grew brighter and louder with the new wood.
"Sorry for what?" She managed a nearly normal chuckle.
"I forgot--this killer storm is too much like the one when you got found. Memories are pretty rotten, huh?"
Iris shrugged again, caught in the new intensity of Nate's gaze. She couldn't imagine him being jealous, mostly because he was such good friends with Cody and they both knew he was too honorable to try to "steal" his friend's girlfriend. But obviously he felt at least a little odd about this conversation, these pieces of a shared past that he didn't know about.
"What the hey-ha are you talking about?" Seth Zimmerman, the normally silent member of the committee asked.
"Well, since he asked, yeah," Pandora said. "'Fess up. Give us something to talk about, since no one wants to work."
"How can anyone work, with the sky tearing itself into little pieces overhead?" Nate scooted up off the lip of the fire pit and settled down on the couch next to Iris. "So, what's the Code-man talking about?"
"You tell it," Iris said, gesturing at Cody. She surprised herself, giving in. Maybe because it was inevitable. Nate wouldn't pester her, wouldn't nag, but the question would hang in the air between them. "You were there, too," she hurried to add. Just because the story had to come out didn't mean she had to tell it. "I was kind of out of it."
"Like--duh." Cody grinned and shook his shaggy head. "Okay, this was ten, so Iris and me, we were both six. We were having killer storms like this, but not so many all together, so it seemed like one storm. Things would quiet down, the rain would slow. People would think the storms were over and go up the mountain to camp or whatever, and then another one would hit without any warning. Mom had night shift at the hospital, so Dad took me with him when he got called up with the park service to look for some lost campers. He left me at the base camp, about halfway up the mountain, east of here. I was in charge of making sure there was hot coffee and lots of blankets, and to keep the radio going no matter what." He gave them his trademark grin. "Yeah, I know--put a six-year-old in charge of making coffee? Recipe for disaster. Well, I was used to helping Dad and the other rangers, so they were pretty sure I wouldn't burn the place down. I felt important enough not to have a hissy about being left behind."
"Knew you were crazy," Seth muttered. "Who'd want to go out in weather that bad, if it was anything like this?" The others chuckled.
"Hey, I got to play with the radio and pretend I was working a radio station for the Underground in World War II. What kid can resist that?"
Iris settled back a little more in the cushions, feeling a flicker of the pride in Cody's crooked grin. He had always been good with gizmos, able to keep radios and computers functioning when other people were ready to give up on them. If he didn't love nature as much as she did, being outdoors and exploring, he might have taken advantage of the offers for military training or go into engineering. He was smart enough to get scholarship offers, and recruiters had even pestered him at school a few times, until he made himself clear--he was staying on the mountain and joining the park service like his father.
"Anyway, Iris's folks came up that night to help. They've always known the mountain better than anyone, and with all the reports of washouts and mudslides from the search team, they were trying to find other ways up the mountain to the spots that hadn't been searched yet."
"And make sure they could get whoever they rescued back down the mountain in one piece," Iris offered.
"That too." Cody nodded, flinching when an especially bright and loud flash-boom seemed to enclose the entire lodge. "Think that was bad? There was this one lightning strike that you swore tore the sky open and kept it open for a couple seconds. I was dumb enough to be standing on the porch of the cabin. The rain was spilling off the roof thick enough it was like a solid sheet of water, but the light was so bright you could see through it. Then everything went black and the thunder rumbled for at least an hour afterwards, and there was this electric smell in the air."
Iris fought not to close her eyes, or she would fall into the memory. Beside her, Nate rubbed his arms again. She let go of her wrists, which she had been clasping tightly in the opposite hand to fight the prickling, and she rested her hand on his bare arm. For a few seconds, her palm tingled, as if that electricity Cody spoke of did indeed dance over Nate's flesh.
"Anyway, the Davenports found Iris holding onto the roots of the granddaddy pine up on Husker's Point. She was soaked and half passed out, and it was so rough climbing down the mountain with her, they took turns carrying her. When they got to the base camp, I was the only one there. She wouldn't let go of them, so they stayed and took care of her. I bet you don't even remember me," he added.
"You say that every time you tell the story," Iris said, putting an exasperated growl into her voice--it was expected of her. "And every time, I tell you, I do remember. You spilled hot chocolate on me."
The other four laughed.
"When Dad and the other searchers showed up about twenty minutes later," Cody continued, "with the lost hikers, nobody knew who Iris was. She didn't belong with anyone who was supposed to be up on the mountain. When the storm finally passed, they searched again, but they didn't find any cars that got swept away, no signs of camps. Not even a crashed airplane."
"That's because I fell out of the sky, like I keep telling you," Iris said, staring into the leaping flames of the fire. She flinched when Nate twitched his arm free of her grasp. Before she could react, he caught hold of her hands. "What this totally awful storyteller forgets is that I didn't speak English, didn't write English, and nobody ever reported me missing. I hit it off with my folks--mostly because it was a couple more days until anyone could get down off the mountain without being airlifted. Kind of like now." She winced, momentarily stunned by the words she wouldn't have let out of her mouth if she had realized what she had been thinking. "By the time they were supposed to turn me over to the child welfare people, they decided they wanted to foster me. Then a year later they adopted me, when nobody showed up to claim me."
"So, like, do you keep going up the mountain to find some clues?" Pandora asked.
"After all this time, I don't really care." She shrugged. "I don't have any clear memories of my life before coming here, so what does it matter?" she lied.
"Other than you hating storms like this just as bad as I do," Nate said.
"Why do you?" Seth asked. "Are you a lost kid, too?"
"Nah. My folks died in a house fire on a night like this, that's all." He offered a stiff smile and scooted forward to put another piece of wood on the fire, though Iris knew it didn't need any more.
"That's all?" Pandora whispered.
"Okay, enough psychoanalyzing or whatever you want to call it," Seth said, lurching up out of the deep cushions of his couch that he had all to himself. "Pandora's right. We should get as much work done as we can. We aren't going to get any sleep while all that is going on out there."
The lights went out about half an hour later. That didn't bother them, because of the fire pit, but Iris left her friends to keep arguing over the best method of advertising their fundraising hike-a-thon while she went through the lodge, turning off lights and unplugging equipment that might be harmed by the first surge of electricity when the power came back on. Then she headed down into the basement, where her father was checking the sump pump. Normally the lodge didn't have any trouble with drainage, being built on bedrock with channels and drains to carry away excess moisture. However, with the freak weather the area had been having lately, it was better to be over-prepared.
Iris felt a little chill when Jack Davenport turned off the pump and they could hear the faint sound of running water below the basement floor.
"Nothing to worry about," he said, and slung his arm around her shoulders. "This place can take ten times as much water flow without thinking about it. The battery's fresh, the backup generator is clean and fueled up. We'll stay high and dry while the valleys on either side of us are hip-deep in mud."
"Lovely mental image." She felt a little better when her comment earned a bark of laughter from him.
"Ready, kid?" He waited for her nod, then strolled across the room to the generator. Together, they checked all the gauges and connections, especially the exhaust pipe leading outside. It wouldn't do to have enough energy to keep the entire lodge going, only to kill themselves with carbon monoxide poisoning.
After they made sure the generator was set for the first level of power output--enough to feed the absolute necessities, such as the refrigerator, the phone system, the satellite dish and computer, they headed upstairs. Ellie Davenport was just coming down to the main room after checking all the windows and inserting the reinforcements, in case the wind caused any damage or flying debris broke windows. Standard procedure was to leave the lights and other non-essential systems off until the normal power resumed. There had been a few snowstorms where power had been knocked out for more than a week, and it was always better to conserve the gas required to run the generators. The lodge was heated by the many fireplaces that filled it, and rooms not used by hikers or for emergency shelters were kept sealed. All in all, Davenport Lodge was solid and dry and warm, and prepared for a month of isolation, if necessary.
"Sounds like fun," Seth said, when Iris and her parents came back into the main room with hot chocolate and the popcorn popper, and her father gave his assessment of their situation. "Unfortunately, I have to take my SATs next week."
"Don't worry," Jack said. "I've never known any flood to last longer than two days before we could get into town. It's not like the bridge has been washed out or even covered--the roads are just shut down for safety reasons. Better safe than sorry."
"My Dad'll stop here on his way down," Cody offered. "The park service has trucks that can get through anything. He can take us both home, if you're in a hurry."
That seemed to take care of Seth's concerns. Their group wrapped up their hiking club work that had brought them to the lodge in the first place, and they spent the rest of the evening relaxing by firelight and lantern light, talking or playing games. When it was time for bed, Iris had Pandora share her room, while the boys were given some beds in the first floor guest rooms.
A Hound came in the night, between the flashes of lightning. Iris felt the tingle of energy building up in the air and wished she were dreaming. She slowly opened her eyes and rolled over. The Hound stood near the foot of her bed, in the three-foot gap between the twin beds.
At least it stood there alone. Lately, under the influence of the storms and the memories they dredged up, she feared that the next time a Hound arrived it would be with another member of the Hunt. Iris wished she had told the Hound to go away the last time it came for her--maybe if she told the Hounds to go away from now on, they would eventually forget she was there?
What good would that do? The scars on her wrists were reminders of a vow she had made without knowing what she promised.
"What was that?" Pandora mumbled, and rolled over, nearly falling out of the bed before she opened her eyes and sat up.
For two seconds, Iris thought her friend looked straight at the Hound. She thought Pandora could see the Hound, black fur wreathed in electric blue fire, its silver eyes glowing like fiery moonlight. Her heart stuttered, and she couldn't breathe for a second under the pressure of the sudden, frightening theory--maybe there were other members of the Hunt all around her, but they had never identified themselves to each other because the others didn't remember?
Then Pandora looked around the room and flinched as another flash of lightning penetrated the thick curtains. She grimaced and lay back down.
"How can you stand living so high up?" she mumbled as she scooted around in the bed until she lay on her side facing Iris. "I mean, so much closer to the lightning and all that. Doesn't lightning hit the highest points?"
"Yeah, but we have a lot of mountain above us." Iris grinned, feeling a little giddy at the relief that flooded through her like a dose of extra oxygen. Pandora couldn't see the Hound. She wasn't a member of the Hunt.
She waited until her friend closed her eyes and her breathing steadied and slowed, then Iris slid out of bed. The Hound would stand there all night, watching her, if she didn't respond in some way. It wanted something from her, or wanted to show her something--Hamin forbid that it would ever show up just to let her know it was there to protect her.
"All right," she whispered, "what is it this time?" She rested her hand on the Hound's neck, letting her fingers sink into the thick fur. Energy prickled against her fingertips and sparks danced up her arm.
When the Hound turned to leave the room, she went with it. She concentrated on the creaky hinges of the door to silence them. Just because she was feeling jumpy, she pulled with the force of her will and opened the door without physically touching it. Barefoot, she went down the hall with the Hound, down the stairs, into the main room of the lodge where guests rested and talked and compared stories after long days spent hiking the mountains. No guests had come into the lodge except her friends for the last week or two, thanks to the long-lived storm. Iris liked the peace and quiet, even though most people would look at her strangely if she said that. Certainly with the constantly rumbling of thunder, roar of rain and flashes of lightning, it wasn't exactly peaceful or quiet.
The Hound led her to the big double doors that opened onto the porch wrapping around the front and sides of the lodge. Fifteen feet deep, only near-horizontal rain could penetrate to the windows. Tonight the puddles were only two feet away from the wall. Iris stood with her bare toes touching the edge of the closest puddle and looked out on the mountainside.
"What is it? What's out there?" She swallowed hard, fighting not to say the words, but they came out anyway. "Is it Gahlmorag? Is that what the storm means? He's finally followed us through?" She snorted. "Us. I seriously doubt you and me counts as an 'us'. Fat lot of good it'll do Gahlmorag to come all this way and find just me, a third-level Firstborn." She shivered at a cold that had nothing to do with the air and dampness. Even for a third-level, Iris knew she was strong. She used her ultra-sharp senses constantly in her search-and-rescue duties on the mountain, almost as much as she called on her sensitivity to land and water. It helped enormously that she had a tentative rapport with almost any wild animal. Not that she could make them do what she wanted--her cousins, the heir and his brother, had strong enough talent to control animals--but she could sometimes look through their eyes to spy on terrain up to a mile away, and when the animals were used to her mental presence, she could sometimes ask them to perform tasks, even bring her things that were out of her reach.
"What if I'm the only one left?" she whispered, and dug her fingers a little deeper into the Hound's fur. "What if all the others died on the journey?"
Not that she would wish it, but it explained why she had been alone all this time.
She shook her head and glared at the flash of lightning that lit up the sky for such a distance, it seemed like a dome of white hovering above the mountain peak directly above her and stretching to touch the peaks on either side. Cody's words from a few hours before filled her mind. It didn't quite look like the sky had been ripped open--as in, someone coming through the dimensional vortex from another world, perhaps her homeworld--but Iris really didn't have a clear memory of the trip to Earth.
"What do you want? What's going on out there?" she whispered. Despite knowing the Hounds would only appear to protect her or guide her, or help in a rescue, as they had done dozens of times in the last six years since she joined her parents in search-and-rescue, Iris wanted this one to go away. The older she got, the bigger the chance that one of these storms would be the storm that changed her life, when either the dimensional vortex opened and another member of the Hunt came through, or it opened and she would be expected to go through.
She was a third-level Firstborn. What did it matter if she joined the battle against Gahlmorag or not? Why couldn't she stay here, with parents who loved her and thought she was wonderful and didn't expect her to save an entire world she hardly remembered?
The door opened and Nate leaned out, looking sleepy and confused. His eyes widened and for a second it seemed as if the blue glow of energy that had enfolded the Hound reflected in his eyes. He took a step out onto the porch. He reached out a hand. Then stopped, frowning. Iris looked down, mouth opening to explain--how, she wasn't sure--but the Hound was gone.
No need to lie to her boyfriend.
That was the biggest reason of all to want the Hounds to go away and not come back. Iris didn't want to have to spend her life coming up with explanations for the inexplicable.