Authors: Frankie Robertson
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #fullybook
Cele clutched and scrabbled at the rock. She tried to cling to the cliff, but the ledge slipped from her outstretched fingers. Her stomach lurched as she fell, suddenly weightless.
The granite walls disappeared. A rainbow arc rolled out beneath her. Surrounded by shimmering color, she slid down the bow into the dark.
She fell in silence; even her scream made no sound.
Small rocks and sand bit sharply into Cele’s cheek. She opened her eyes on the desert ravine, viewed from the odd angle of being face down in the dirt.
She pushed up to her hands and knees, and then sat and checked herself over.
No blood, no broken bones, no dizziness. So far, so good
. She licked her dry lips and took a long drag from her water bottle. Light glared over the edge of the ridge, making her squint.
How long was I out
? It must have been hours. The sun had traveled far to the west, casting most of the narrow cut in shadow. Berto would be long gone and Elaine would be frantic. Her roommate might even have called Search and Rescue.
I hope not. I’d never live it down: a rescue operator being rescued
She dug out her cell phone. No signal.
Of course. I’m in a narrow canyon. Duh
. She’d have to hustle to keep things from getting out of hand.
Cele picked up her hat, stood, then stared.
No prickly pear cactus with their flat pads sporting inch long spines studded the hills. And interspersed with the prickly pear there should have been tall saguaros stretching their arms for the sky. But there wasn’t a cactus in sight. A chill crept over her, despite the heat.
Cele turned, examining the rock walls rising on three sides of her. Etchings covered the shadowed rock faces all around her, from the ground up to the top.
Then she realized it wasn’t.
The cliffs were darker and the images were different. No figures crawled up either side of the cleft. There were no handholds, either.
Instead of cactus, thorny bushes grew six feet tall and just as wide, dense with small leaves and long thorns. The other plants were different, too. A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature shivered down her spine.
This isn’t right
. She drew in a steadying breath, but the spicy, intertwining scents were unfamiliar. This was all wrong.
Cele groped for an explanation. She’d taken a tumble. Had she hit her head? Wandered off in a fog of confusion? But that wouldn’t explain the change in vegetation. And her memory was clear right up to the moment when she’d fallen.
I didn’t fall
! She hadn’t lost her balance, or slipped. Someone had yanked her off the rock face–but there’d been no one around.
And that rainbow
. She looked up at the clear blue sky.
There’s no way I could have seen a rainbow
Nothing made sense. Her pulse pounded.
Another raven–or was it the same one?–landed on the lip of the defile, sunlight flashing off his blue-black wings.
“I have to get out of here,” she told the bird. “I’ll figure it out when I get home.” She started to climb.
The raven watched as Cele tested each toehold carefully before trusting it not to crumble beneath her. Her arms quivered. Her muscles burned. The bird stepped aside as she pulled herself up to sit on the edge, but it didn’t go far. Her shoulders burned from exertion and she glared at the corvid. “Don’t look so smug. You have wings.” Then she looked behind her.
The path was gone.
The ground was unbroken desert–in both directions. The trail should be there. It had to be.
But it wasn’t.
Cele scrambled to her feet. The mountains rising behind her were wrong, too. Her heart lurched, skipping a beat. She turned and turned again, looking for some familiar thing, but there was nothing.
!” Her scream echoed off the cliffs.
Everything was different. Everything. It couldn’t be. But it was.
Her breath came in short gasps as her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest.
This can’t be happening
The world doesn’t change in the blink of an eye
She scrambled up the hill. Maybe at the top she’d see something she recognized. Loose rock rolled from under her feet as she bent forward, half climbing, half crawling on all fours. At the top, she stared desperately across the valley. No glint of sun on windows, no buildings stood tall, no cars moving on long roads that ran straight for miles. No roads. Nothing.
Icy fear raced down Cele’s back and she covered her face.
This isn’t happening. It’s not real. I must have hit my head. I’m hallucinating
. But her head didn’t hurt. She wasn’t dizzy. She dropped her hands and stared again.
Where she’d hoped to see a sprawling city of a million people, she saw only desert scrub. No city glittered in the valley; it wasn’t even the same valley.
Where the hell am I
Her legs wobbled and she sat down hard on a nearby rock. Her mouth ached, parched from fear and exertion. She gulped several swallows from her squeeze bottle. The container was light when she slipped it back into its holster. Then she froze. Her other bottle was already empty. She hadn’t planned on a long hike. She had almost no water left. Fear choked her as she remembered briefings at work about dehydration and desperate victims dying in the desert.
She was in deep, deep trouble.
Cele sucked in a shuddering breath, then another, trying to steady her frantic pulse. She was an emergency services dispatcher. She’d responded to difficult situations before. She knew how to function under stress.
I need to stay calm and think
. But her mind kept racing like a hamster on a wheel.
Everything she knew told her to stay put so Search and Rescue could find her quickly. But Search and Rescue would never find her here. She was nowhere near where she’d told Elaine she’d be. She checked her phone again. Still no signal. And the little GPS icon was missing.
What am I going to do
Water. She had to find water.
The raven cawed and flew east, along the base of the hills.
Birds need open water too
. Maybe if she followed it, she’d find a stream flowing out to the valley. It wasn’t likely, but it was the only chance she had. She started walking.
Cele kept on searching even after the sun set. The raven was long gone. A full moon rose before her in the cloudless sky, huge and yellow as it topped the mountains, casting long shadows toward her. She kept walking, hoping to find a stream, unwilling to stop, unwilling to accept that she was lost in an alien landscape.
The moon was high when she stumbled and fell, too exhausted to rise. She allowed herself two tiny sips of water from the bottle, swishing the liquid around her mouth before swallowing. The tepid water didn’t come anywhere near close to satisfying her thirst, but she had to make her water last.
Her stomach cramped with hunger and she tried to ignore its empty complaint.
I’ll just close my eyes for a second. Then I’ll go on
Cele startled awake, heart thumping, hands clutching the earth. She wasn’t falling.
It was just a nightmare. Just a replay
. Except her hair had been black in the dream, instead of blond. She laughed sourly.
Why should I expect my dreams to make more sense than reality
Insects churred in the dark, and something rustled in the bushes to her right. She’d been too tired to worry about scorpions, snakes, or mountain lions before. Now she looked around nervously. Moonlight silvered the desert, cutting sharp shadows on the sand. She struggled to her feet, shivering. As hot as it was during the day, the desert temperature had dropped during the night without the concrete and asphalt of the city to hold the heat. She rubbed her arms and stared with amazement at the sky.
She’d never seen so many stars. Even with a full moon, the panoply of light was breathtaking. And strange. Where was the Big Dipper? Where was Scorpio? She searched the heavens until the stars seemed to spin.
I’m not in Kansas anymore. Or Tucson
. Her stomach tightened painfully at yet more proof she was far from home.
If only I hadn’t insisted on seeing those petroglyphs
. But second-guessing the past wouldn’t help now. She pulled out her phone. She wasn’t surprised to find no signal. Resigned, she gathered her things. Something was missing. She looked around. Her camera! It must have come free of its strap when she’d fallen.
The loss felt like a blow. It wasn’t the most up-to-date model, but it was the last camera her mother had bought before she’d gotten sick. She’d been so proud of it. Cele blinked back tears. Her mother was gone. Her camera was gone. She was lost. But she was still her mother’s daughter and she wasn’t going to just lie down and die. Cele put on her hat and resumed her search for water.
She tried to be methodical. She walked back up into each cleft, between hills where the plants grew thicker, hoping to scent moisture or hear the distinctive burble of running water. Thorny branches clawed her legs and arms as she edged past shadowed thickets. Each time she worked her way into a new defile, a peculiar certainty warned her she was wasting her time and energy. Water wasn’t there. But she had no foundation for that surety, so she continued to search in the logical places.
When the first graying of the eastern sky announced the coming dawn, she drank a small swig of water, cool and chilled by the desert night. Cele had never tasted anything so sweet. There was only a tiny bit left. Should she drink it now or save it? Did it matter? She stared at the squeeze bottle, her mouth aching. Then she up-ended the container and swallowed the precious liquid. That was it, the last of it. If she didn’t find water soon, she wouldn’t have the strength to keep looking. She would die, desperate and delirious. Ruthlessly, Cele pushed away the ugly thoughts.
The sun and the heat rose higher as Cele’s spirits and strength dropped lower. Her mouth itched and tickled and ached for moisture. She tucked a pebble in her cheek to suck on. It helped a little, but not enough. She finally took shelter beneath the low hanging branches of a scrubby tree between two hills. She was so tired. Her eyelids drooped and she didn’t try to resist.
The sun was again sinking when Cele awoke. Her head ached and her scratches stung. She didn’t want to move, but she made herself crawl out from under the tree. Once again, she checked her cell. Not only was there no signal, the battery icon was empty.
! She flung the phone against a nearby boulder. It shattered. Her head swam with the sudden effort and she steadied herself against a rock. She had to get out from between the hills to where the air was moving.
The sun glowed bloody behind her on the western horizon as she rounded yet another hill, looking for dense vegetation that might be a promise of open water. The growth here appeared a little greener than in the open desert, so once again she hiked into the cleft between the hills.
Once again, that feeling, that damn
, told her she’d be disappointed.
There’s no water here
. Cele shook her head and was struck with a wave of dizziness. She was becoming delirious, imagining things. She had to examine every possibility. What if she died because an irrational hunch had kept her from checking the right spot?
The heat weighed upon her like a lead apron in a dentist’s chair. Cele slumped on a shaded rock to rest, trying to dredge up enough hope to go on. Two rocks over, a lizard postured as if doing his push-ups.
She’d stopped trying to figure out what had happened to her. She didn’t care anymore. Water was the one thing, the only thing that mattered. That feeling, that stupid
, still nagged at her. There was water somewhere not too far ahead. She had maybe another hour of light left, and she wasn’t going to waste it feeling sorry for herself.
She stood, and what she saw brought her up short. Heart hammering, Cele blinked and rubbed her gritty eyes, wondering if she’d begun to hallucinate. About fifty yards away, two oddly dressed men rounded the edge of the hill.
Cele’s heart jumped as a jolt of adrenaline hit her. Search and Rescue had found her! She took a step and waved her hat. “Hey!” she tried to shout, but it came out as a croak.
The men saw her and stopped abruptly, eyes wide. One of them turned and whistled two sharp, high notes, followed by a third, lower tone.
Quickly, seven more men rounded the hill. The tall, powerfully built hikers wore long-sleeved, rough-spun shirts and scuffed leather pants tucked into high boots. Broad-brimmed hats shaded their bearded faces, and they carried leather packs and blanket rolls on their backs. They were armed with spears, knives, swords, and bows.
This isn’t Search and Rescue
They weren’t here to save her. They looked dangerous.
She didn’t care. They had water. Without it, she was dead. She waved and stumbled toward them. “I need help,” she croaked. “I need water.”
One of the men spoke softly and gestured; immediately, all but two of the band fanned out, moving quickly into the hills. When she stopped in front of the remaining men, one of them grabbed her arm and pulled her under an overhanging rock, knocking her hat to the ground.
A calloused hand clamped over her mouth and a rough whisper sounded close to her ear. “Be silent woman, or I will ensure it.”
Her self-defense training almost kicked in, but the flood of adrenaline had cleared her mind. Even if she overcame this man, there were eight others, and without water she couldn’t escape them for long. She stood, tense and quiet, watching the other man.