Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

- Democritus of Thrace (460 – 370 BCE)


Chapter One

 A strange Experience


Fifteen minutes after leaving the stream, Jason Lupescu knew he was lost. Lowering the water cans from his aching shoulders he cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Hey guys! Tom? Roger? Hey! Hello there!” he yelled. Silence answered him. The forest seemed to deaden and absorb his voice. His smart idea to cut through the woods and shorten the five minute hike to the stream didn’t look so hot anymore. Around him, the trees leaned closer, listening to him think. They were numerous, large and somehow creepy, with an old and untouched air about them.

Probably been here for centuries, he thought.

Overhead, the sky was rapidly fading from a purple twilight to a deepening black. Night was falling, and quickly. No gentle transitions here in the back country. He cursed himself again for taking such a foolhardy risk. Even though it was still October, the crisp autumn air raised goose bumps on his forearms, making him uncomfortably aware of his changing surroundings. The damp and dank from the rain of the last few days was pervasive, the wet undergrowth exuding a musty earthy smell that might have been tolerable in a clearing. Here, with the trees closing in around him, the odor was unpleasant, almost grating.

Vaguely his mind registered the strange absence of sound as darkness folded in around him. In Jason’s memory, the woods always came alive at night, full of the sounds of birds and insects and rodents looking for food or settling down for the night. Right now, they were either absent or being oddly quiet. He thought of the bear precautions back at camp and the two known wolf packs in the region, feeling panic stirring in him. He knew he was miles from the park boundary but all this area was true wilderness, no place to be lost in at night.

Should’ve brought the damn flashlight.

Desperate for some sense of where he was, Jason leaned back against a gnarled tree trunk and squinted up, hoping for a sight of some stars.

Nothing. Just shades of blackness.

No way to tell where the treetops ended and the sky began. No choice but to trust his instincts and hope they proved right. He didn’t feel too confident about his instincts right now. Squaring his shoulders, he pointed himself in what he thought was the right direction and stepped out briskly, not looking directly at the shifting shadows at the edges of his vision. It was hard going. With every forward step, fresh trees materialized in his path, apparently intent on tripping him up.

“What the hell was I thinking?’ Jason muttered to himself as he tripped over a root for the third time. Mental images of campers lost in dense woods, surviving on berries and leaves, rescue by volunteer search parties and death by dehydration flickered through his mind like in a crazy kaleidoscopic slide show. Around him the darkness descended quickly, blindfolding him in a dark shroud. Jason felt around with the toe of his sneakers as he stepped forwards. The heavy water cans weren’t helping.

It seemed like days had passed since Tom had suggested the trip back at the house. Jason didn’t really feel like going but Tom steamrollered over all objections in his usual fashion.

“Come on Jase pack up your troubles in a kit bag and let’s go man, high times, high times old buddy.” He’d laughed uproariously at Jason’s sour face. There was no gainsaying Tom’s enthusiasm, and none of the others seemed to object, so Jason agreed, grinning in spite of himself.

‘What the…!’ Jason yelled as he stumbled and careened headlong into the darkness. He lost his hold of the water cans and crashed to the decaying compost of the forest floor, the force of his fall making him black out for a moment. When he got his breath back, Jason examined himself for signs of serious damage.

“Thank God, just a few grazes and cuts.”

He got to his feet gingerly, reaching out with outstretched hands as he stood up. He couldn’t see anything in the dark, and his movements seemed confined to earthen walls a mere five or six feet from where he stood. As he tilted his head up he caught a glimpse of a pale ascending moon framed in a small square of lighter darkness. Even as he watched the lunar disk was suddenly obscured by a vast shadow. Terrified without really knowing why, he screamed involuntarily, the sound dissipating into the mists above his head as if absorbed by a blanket. Nothing answered his voice, not a whisper or a rustle to indicate the presence of any living breathing thing. Silence reigned, towering over him like a brooding presence. Old memories of being trapped in a dark well rose up unbidden and his mind shut down to absorb the panic. Jason felt himself receding into a cloud of comfortable nothingness and, crumpling to the floor he passed out again.

It was the light that roused him. Jason had no idea how long he’d been out, but he was no longer in a hole or trap as he had feared. Instead he was out in the forest, watching a streak of light flash across the sky reaching out towards the shrouded moon. As he watched, the light surrounded the shrouding darkness and tore it away, revealing a gibbous globe that bathed the surroundings with silvery light. Immediately the forest seemed to come alive with sound and a great weight lifted from him, as if some impending danger had passed. Jason was not a spiritual man but he mouthed a silent prayer of thanks to the deities that watched over him. Around him the trees no longer appeared menacing. Bathed in moonlight, they displayed the majesty of their natural glory. Jason wasn’t afraid anymore and felt ashamed of his earlier breakdown.

Pull yourself together, man, he thought to himself. Just a bad memory.

The old well incident passed through his mind again and he pushed the image down resolutely. He knew where his hatred of dark closed spaces came from. He looked around for the water cans and found them neatly arranged by a nearby boulder. Determined not to let anything upset him now he picked them up and looked around. From his left came the gurgle of running water. It sounded like a small stream.

Great, he thought. Must be the same stream where I filled up earlier. I’ll just follow it and end up at camp eventually.

When he reached the stream Jason washed his cuts and bruises and debated continuing on or staying put until morning. He was tired and one adventure was enough for one night. He had matches in his pocket for a fire and there seemed to be plenty of dry wood lying around. A cluster of boulders rising maybe eight feet from the bank of the stream caught his eye. It seemed a dry enough spot and from the top he could check out his surroundings with ease. He scouted to top of the boulders and found a shallow niche, perfect for his needs. He could see up and down the stream for a distance and the woods behind him seemed blurred safely into the background.

I’ll stay here tonight, he decided. Better wait for morning. I can see where I’m going then.

He surveyed the spot with satisfaction. If the others were out looking for him and came downstream searching for some sign of his whereabouts, his location would provide a perfect lookout. He soon had a little fire going and as the dry twigs snapped and crackled in the warm blaze Jason felt around in his pockets and found a half smoked roach from earlier at camp. He was hungry, but there was no food, and the weed was all he had, so he set his back to the largest boulder, lit the roach with a twig from the fire and inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill his lungs. As he exhaled, the tiredness and desperation of the past hour seeped out of him and he relaxed, stretching out his legs and making himself comfortable.

A while later, something disturbed his reverie. Turning his head, he peered over the edge of his boulder aerie and was startled to see a majestic looking wolf standing a short distance out from the edge of the nearby forest. The animal stood alert, his dark grey coat shimmering in the moonlight, and behind him a vague blur of other shapes indicated the presence of a wolf pack. The lone wolf was clearly the leader and he seemed to be looking right at Jason, but there was no sense of menace in the sight, just the astonishing vision of a forest being supremely comfortable in his surroundings. Somehow, Jason thought it must be a he, although he had no way of knowing this. As he stared in amazement, wondering what he should do next, the sound of whistling floated up from the stream ahead and a human figure walked up from the bank towards him. Jason had felt no sense of any other presence in the area when he sat down, but here was someone, just a few meters away, and approaching as if he owned the place. As the figure drew near Jason discerned that it was a man, older but well built, with the features of a native Indian. He wore a loin cloth and carried an animal skin sack slung over his shoulder. The man held a staff in his right hand although he appeared to need no assistance in walking. His hair was braided in two plaits and caught behind his ears with a strip of cloth that banded his forehead.

Stopping at the foot of the rocks, where Jason could still see him, the man made a curious gesture towards the wolves, almost a salutation, and without a sound the grey leader turned aside and disappeared back into the forest, taking the other amorphous shapes with him. Without a word, the Indian climbed up to Jason’s location and sat down by the glowing embers of the now dying fire. He stretched out a hand towards the coals and the fire sprang up again, crackling merrily in spite of the fact there was no wood burning. Still without speaking, the man took a long curiously carved pipe out of his sack and stuffed it with an herbal mix of some sort, fixing his gaze on Jason as he did so. His eyes were the deepest blue, clear and deep like a glacial pool and they held Jason transfixed against the rock, mesmerized but still strangely unafraid. When the pipe was filled to the man’s satisfaction, he gestured over the bowl with his hand and the pipe came alight, just as the fire had earlier. Putting the stem to his mouth the man inhaled deeply and released a fragrant cloud of smoke into the air. The smell was nothing Jason knew, certainly not the cheap weed he had been smoking earlier. It reminded him faintly of incense, although he had never heard of anyone actually smoking the stuff. The man smiled, revealing perfect teeth and motioning to Jason to share the pipe, he spoke for the first time, his voice rich and sonorous. The tone was warm and friendly like that of an old intimate friend.

“So, why are you here, in this part of the forest?”

Emerging from his stupor, Jason reached for the pipe and puffed deeply, feeling a warm glow spread though his insides as he inhaled. With no surprise he found himself recounting his adventure in detail to the man, who appeared quite unsurprised.

“This is no ordinary forest,” he said seriously. “I’m surprised to see you here, but you have been brought here for a purpose. We were meant to meet today.”

He took the pipe back from Jason and inhaled a few more times before tapping it out on his palm. He stared at Jason as he refilled the bowl.

“I have a story to tell. Listen, if you have ears to hear.”

Jason woke up much later, with the waning moon already in the western sky, its light throwing long shadows across the little clearing. The shadows reached back to the tree line, where the black of the forest turned back the pale moonlight. He could make out the outline of the rise he had come over, and beyond that the low hills where he had emerged. Around him small tussocks of tightly knit wild grass and the occasional shrub dotted the ground. The soft gurgle of water on pebbles sounded very comfortable, and he stretched his limbs, realizing how stiff he was.

He must have been lying here for some time.

He remembered the man with the pipe and stood up looking around for some sign of his presence, but there was none. The fire had burned down to ashes, cold now, and there was no sign of any living presence nearby or away by the trees. He thought of relighting the fire, put his hand into his pocket for the matches and froze. His groping fingers encountered something hard and smooth, and when he drew it out, he saw that it was a pendant, made out of some grey shiny metal with a wolf head embossed on the face. Surrounding the wolf head was a serpent swallowing its tail. There was a chain attached and the whole thing fit comfortably in his palm.

Where the hell did this come from? He stared at the object. I don’t recognize this, and I sure didn’t bring it with me. Who gave it to me?

He had no answers to his questions. The fading night was still and silent. Around him the stream seemed to chuckle at his fears. He remembered falling into a hole and checked his body carefully. His ankle felt sore and there were scrapes on his shins and elbows, but his injuries were minor. The water cans lay a short distance from where he had woken up, reminding him of the reason for his presence here. He couldn’t remember climbing out of any hole, or why he had felt so scared when he fell in. Feeling a little foolish, he put the pendant back in his pocket and stared upstream trying to see if he could follow the water back towards the campsite. The others must be looking for him now. He looked back towards the tree line and averted his eyes. No way was he going back in the forest again. Maybe he had dreamed it all, but the way upstream was definitely preferable. Picking up the water cans, he started walking along the water’s edge, keeping his eyes down to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

He hadn’t gone more than ten meters when he saw something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. There at the edge of a small eddy pool, in the soft mud of the bank, were a complete set of pug marks, large and distinct, the prints of a large wolf. A little behind them a mass of other prints confirmed his guess. A wolf pack had been here, not more that fifteen meters from where he had fallen asleep. The lone prints belonged to an alpha male, the leader of the pack. He remembered his dream of the wolf pack and the old man who had dismissed them so casually, and unconsciously his fingers stroked the pendant in his pocket. He desperately wanted to reject all this as a figment of his imagination but the pieces fitted together too neatly to ignore.

What to do next?

Jason stood irresolute, debating the question in his mind. He really didn’t want to go on with a wolf pack nearby, but he wasn’t going to wait on the riverbank either in case they came back. Finally, deciding that moving on would be the lesser of two evils, he shouldered the cans and continued on, keeping his eye on the forest edge that advanced and retreated as he made his way upstream. His ears were alert for any sound out of the ordinary, the howl of a wolf, the soft patter of paws in his rear. He kept spinning around frequently to make sure nothing was stalking him, but strangely, he didn’t feel terrified. If the wolves had wanted him, they could have had him anytime, and if the strange man really existed and had saved him once, maybe he would save him again if the threat returned. Less than an hour later, tired and sore from stepping on pebbles as he went, he heard a halloo in the trees to his right. Here the forest was much closer and in the quiet of the night, sound carried sharply. He yelled back in return and his heart rose when he heard an answer. Leaving the river bank he started walking towards the sound and a few minutes later glimpsed the twinkle of a light among the trees. He cried out with relief as Tom and Pat emerged from the tree line waving flashlights and shouting in return.

Jason’s legs suddenly felt weak, and would no longer support him. He sank to his knees, feeling his eyes fill up as Pat ran towards him and flung her arms around his neck.

“Where the hell have you been, Jason”, she cried, giving him a little shake. “We were scared silly, you stupid idiot.”

Jason looked over her shoulder at Tom grinning behind her and winced as Tom slapped him on the back, harder than necessary it seemed.

“Man, you had us all worried,” he said, the serious tone of his voice belying the broad smile on his face. “You owe us dinner big time, dude.”

Mingled music and garbled voices rode the dark in waves, rising and falling as the trio approached the campsite. The lantern on the tent post gleamed like a beacon as Jason followed Tom and Pat along a gradual incline. Just before entering camp he glanced over his shoulder at the river they had just left and was surprised by its proximity. He shook his head in puzzlement wondering how he had managed to get lost. Bracing himself for the barrage of the sarcasm he knew was coming his way, he stepped into the clearing.

“What the fuck! Jase, good thing we were not depending on your water for survival, where have you been man, Timbuktu?’ That was Roger of course.

Sheepishly he shuffled through the impromptu circle and placed the cans of water near the fire, noticing that there was still some food in the pans stacked nearby; rice, mixed beans and the remnants of a limp salad in a plastic bowl.

“What happened, Jason, are you okay?” Jude sounded genuinely concerned and Jason was pleased though he didn’t show it.

“I am alright, Jude. Just got a little confused in the dark, I guess.”

“You better be. Don’t want you going all wishy washy on us, you hear?”

Jude’s tone was scolding but Jason could hear the anxiousness in her voice. Somebody cared what happened to him, and it made him feel good.

Dear sweet Jude, always looking out for him.

Grinning he walked over to her and threw himself on the ground beside her. She reached over and hugged him impulsively and he hugged back, laughing softly. He was back with his friends and everything was all right. He pulled his sleeping bag over next to Jude and tried to salvage the rest of the night along with the others, sure that he would never fall asleep after his experience. Surprisingly, he fell asleep almost immediately, dreaming nothing and knowing nothing until he woke up to a deafening din ringing out in the quiet dawn.

It was Tom of course, holding aloft a large metal cooking pot and beating it with a ladle as he whooped around the campsite.

“Okay guys. Breakfast is ready. Come and get it. We have stuff to do today.”

In short order, everyone was up and ready, and the cooking stuff washed and put away, with the garbage buried in a shallow pit and tamped down to avoid scavengers. Jason’s ankle still felt sore and he elected to stay back and guard the camp.

“I’ll cook a great meal for you guys when you get back. Promise,” he said, and the rest were happy to take him up on his offer. Apparently nobody thought much of Tom’s cooking the previous night.

“I’ll stay back too,” Jude offered. “Jason will need help with his leg and all.”

That made Jason feel even better, and shortly Tom led the others out of camp away from the river, promising to be back by evening for a gourmet meal. After Tom’s boisterous rowdiness, the camp was quiet as Jason and Jude stacked their gear in the tent and went outside. The sun shone brightly into the clearing and the smell of the leaves together with the incessant bird chatter cloudless blue sky combined to make a peaceful and bucolic scene as the two friends lounged around in the shade of an enormous birch. Lying there in the grass after smoking a joint together, Jason felt strangely content.

“Jude,” he said, turning on his side and looking at her, “I want to tell you something about last night.”

Jude rolled over and Jason could see her brown eyes looking earnestly at him as she regarded him solemnly.

“Go ahead, Jason,” she said. “I knew something was up last night, but you didn’t want to bring it up in front of Tom.”

“You’re not going to believe this, but I didn’t just get lost last night, Jude.” Jason closed his hand around the object in his pocket and began. He spoke for a long time, and he didn’t leave anything out. Jude never interrupted, but Jason could see from her expression that she was skeptical.

“Maybe you hit you head or something, Jase,” she said gently. “You could have been concussed, disoriented, oh, I don’t know. There are so many reasons for you to imagine all this stuff.”

“Well, what do you make of this then?” Jason pulled his hand out of his pocket and extended his arm, palm open, to Jude. The pendant lying there glittered in the sun, and the light revealed the raised images of the wolf head and the snake in stunningly intricate detail. Jason heard Jude’s indrawn breath as she picked it up.

“Jason, it’s beautiful.” She turned it over in her hands and let it dangle from her fingers on the attached chain. “Where did you get it?”

“The man I was telling you about, he gave it to me before I fell asleep.” Jason pointed out the intricately carved lines on the back of the pendent. “He said these lines mean something. They point to something, kind of like a map, but I don’t know how to read it.”

“I don’t know what to say, Jason.” Jude was plainly confused. “I know you won’t lie to me, and I know you don’t have anything like this in your stuff. You would have shown it to us a long time ago.”

“I’m not lying, Jude. I only got it last night, and I didn’t really believe it either until I woke up this morning and found it in my pocket.”

“But why did he give it to you?” Jude was searching for answers. “What does it mean?”

“He said it was an ancient gypsy pendant and I would know how to use it when the time was right.” Jude stroked the lines absently, wondering how he would know when the time was right. “Something about the wolf being the herald of my ancestry and a source of power for me.”

“But you don’t follow any of that stuff, Jason.” Jude was pleading now. “It’s all ancient history and your grandparents moved here from Rumania years ago.” She held out the pendant to him as if suddenly afraid to hold it any longer. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I don’t know, Jude, but I think I will when I need to.” He looked at her and saw that she was flustered. “I’m sorry Jude. I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s leave it for the moment, okay? But please don’t tell the others.”

She stared at him for a long moment, then smiled and took his hand in hers. He could feel the tension leaving her body.

“I trust you, Jason. Your secret’s safe with me.” Rising to her feet, she pulled him up with her, laughing as they stumbled into each other. “C’mon, let’s make use of the morning. What say we go skinny dipping in the river before the guys come back?”