I fear to love you, Sweet, because Love’s the ambassador of loss.
- Francis Thompson (1859 - 1907)
Jason tilted his head up and blew a smoke ring into the sky. Then he turned his head to look at Jude, lying next to him. She looked beautiful, the sunlight glinting off the fine sheen of sweat on her skin; her breasts rising and falling unevenly in time with the soft whisper of her ragged breathing. She was watching him, her eyes dark and smoky from the sex, her legs spread in a tangle, the picture of satiated abandonment. Reaching over, he put the cigarette between her lips and pressed his mouth to her shoulder, tasting the salty tang of her sweat on his tongue. It wasn’t unpleasant, and he nuzzled her gently, stroking his fingers down her flank, watching her skin indent and spring back with their passage, leaving a faint, almost phosphorescent trail in their wake. She squirmed a bit, and put her hand over his, laughing softly.
“That tickles,” she said, leaning over to kiss him.
She tasted like tobacco and sex, a definite turn on for him. He pulled her closer, reaching between her legs where she was still wet from the last time, but she pushed him away, laughing again, and scrambled to her feet, giving him a quick peck on the tip of his nose before she rose.
“Enough for now, Jason,” she chided, scrambling back up the rock for her underwear. “The others will be back any moment. Do you want them to find us naked?”
“I don’t mind,” he said grinning at the thought. “I want them to know you’re with me now.” The sunlight caught her lithe figure in silhouette as she lifted her legs, stepping into her panties and Jason’s chest tightened with an intense surge of feeling for her. He loved her, this wild crazy girl who somehow understood him more than anyone else.
Looking up at her as he lay there on the grass at river’s edge, he was glad she couldn’t see his face. Jude was so sensitive, and he didn’t want to scare her away by coming on too strong. Stretching his arms over his head he arched his body into a sitting position, hearing her scramble through the undergrowth near the top of the bank.
“Come on, babe, time to get back to camp.” She flung the words back over her shoulder as she disappeared over the top, and too late, he realized she had taken his clothes with her.
“Hey! Jude, come back,” he yelled, indignant now, all deeper thoughts banished by the prospect of going through the thickets naked. “No fair, baby. You’re going to regret this.”
All he got in return was her fading laughter as she disappeared over the top. Cursing and laughing, Jason followed, trying his best to avoid the prickly tall grass and other nettles that crowded the river bank. He was scratched and sore by the time he reached the top, but his good mood didn’t evaporate. He knew she would make amends tonight in his sleeping bag. The prospect aroused him again and he laughed to himself as he followed the path they had broken together on their way to the river.
The scream took him completely by surprise.
“Jason! Jason, come … no please, stop, don’t …” It was Jude’s voice, rising in intensity and cutting off so abruptly his entire body shuddered with a sudden chill.
“Jude!” he yelled, sprinting for the campsite, all thoughts of modesty lost as he strove to make his legs move faster. “Jude, hold on. I’m coming. Hold on!” Oh God, he thought as he stumbled forward. Please let her be safe.
“Jude, Jude, I’m here,” he yelled as he broke into the clearing, hunting around in panic and anger. He continued shouting her name as he searched but there was no trace of her.
Jude was gone.
The camp was a mess, their supplies overturned and everything strewn about the ground. The tents were down and the fire kicked out. After the drama of the past few minutes, the silence was eerie, punctuated only by his breathing. He found his clothes at the edge of the clearing opposite from where he had entered. There were signs of a struggle, and a trail of broken grass and twigs led away into the forest. Frantically he searched for any trace of blood and whispered feverish thanks to every deity he could think of when he found none. A cold anger filled him as he dressed. Grabbing the iron crossbar from the fire stand where the kettle had been hanging he stepped out of the clearing onto the broken trail leading out of camp.
Jason walked swiftly looking frantically for any signs that might give a lead regarding Jude’s fate. “Someone must have kidnapped her," he thought. The telltale signs pointed to that. "But who and why?”
Thoughts of a serial killers passed through Jason's mind, freezing his mind and filling him with panic. He broke into a cold sweat and sat down on the trail trying to get hold of himself. Like a vision in his mind he remembered the incident in the forest and his meeting with the strange character and the pack of wolves. His memory of what took place between him and the old man seemed very important now and he struggled to make sense of how his experience related to here and now.
The man had said that this was no ordinary forest. It was an enchanting forest, where good and evil struggled together. He had spoken about the dark ones, the unholy ones, some of them viciously anti-divine, who existed on earth as spirit beings. Then he had said that these dark ones worked through humans to achieve their unholy deeds, bringing chaos and murder upon earth. There was an order of the dark forces operating in this forest, he had said, just one of the many and he had warned Jason that if he was ever threatened by them in anyway, to avoid trying to fight them with physical violence, but use his mind instead, use the inner spirit of his ancestral power, the cult of the wolf which was his heritage. That was when the old man had handed him the pendant with the wolf image on it. Jason vividly remembered what he said then.
“This is for your protection and it comes from your tribe in Romania. It is the symbol your ancestry and the wolf is your animal of power.’’.
Jason suddenly sat up alert, his mind made up. He would go back to camp and get that pendent.
As he neared the camp his heart jumped with joy when he heard the familiar voices of Sebastian and Patricia yelling “Jason! Jude! Jason!” He ran as fast he could towards the camp seeing Sebastian and Patricia approach in the distance.
Jason was ecstatic. “Hey guys over here,” he yelled.
Patricia and Sebastian raced towards Jason and the embraced and hugged together for a long moment.
” What happened here man?" Sebastian asked. "Where is Jude?”
Jason tried to be concise. "I don’t know, man. We were at the river and Jude ran back ahead of me. I heard her scream and when I ran to the camp, she was gone and the place seems to have been ransacked.”
The three friends looked from one to the other for what Jason thought was an eternity. Finally he couldn't stand it anymore. "‘Let’s fan out and search for Jude, guys," he said. "Time is of the essence here."
"No way am I going out there on my own." Patricia sounded horrified.
"Okay, okay, Pat you stick with me and Jason could search over there," suggested Sebastian, pointing up the hillside. He gave Jason a strange look. ‘"What’s with the iron bar, man? Won't be much use against these guys. Judging by the damage they have already done, I think they mean business."
Jason gave him a tight smile but didn't say anything. He decided to keep the iron bar anyway. They walked up to the dirt road at the top of the incline. Jason went left climbing a shallow scree slope and Sebastian and Patricia went right, back towards the river. Jason wasn't sure what they hoped to achieve, but hopefully, either of them would find something and raise the alarm.
At first Jason moved along at a steady pace examining the wild brush on his left, ignoring the rocky outcrop on his right. He could hear the gravel below his feet racing to the rhythm of his speeding thoughts, "I hope she is alright, I hope she is not hurt, I hope, I hope …"
Gradually he picked up his pace. Before he knew it he was running, not sure if this was the best strategy but unable to control his emotions. All he could do was punish himself in the hope of finding Jude.
Tiring and with the roaring of his rushing blood pounding in his head like a jackhammer Jason ran on till he could no more and then collapsed by a thicket, throwing his iron bar into the middle the shrubs in anger and frustration. He felt overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. After a while he began the long trek back to the campsite, weary, fatigued and crestfallen hoping that Sebastian and Patricia would have better news of Jude.
The campsite stood shrouded in eerie silence when he returned. Half-heartedly he called out "Sebastian! Pat!" but all he got in return was silence. Sitting amidst the debris of the campsite he reviewed all that had happened. As he ran and re-ran the sequence of events through his mind he had a nagging feeling that they had missed or overlooked something very basic and fundamental, then it hit him. Jude’s cell phone!
They had never tried calling her.
Jason took out his cell phone hurriedly and punched in her number and held his breath while he waited, no reply, just her voice message. In frustration Jason re-dialed just to hear her voice again. Suddenly he realized he could faintly hear Jude’s cell phone ring tone. They had all chided Jude when she downloaded the ring tone, it was the gruff and gravelly voice of Tom Waits scatting. Jason kept punching in her number as he walked into the scrub trying to track down the growling.
Jude’s ringtone seemed to be coming from the thickest part of the shrub, where the low growth interspersed with stunted leaning windblown trees at the top of a very steep incline. It was hard going. Looking back, Jason was astonished at how quickly the camp had dwindled below him. He was near the lip of a low plateau that dominated the horizon ahead. Below, a thin snaking line of dark green in a field of uniform sage indicated the path of the river where he had spent such an idyllic morning with Jude.
A chirping sound from his phone and a blinking low battery light alerted him that he had maybe minutes left if he continued redialing as he was doing now. Cursing, he scrambled up over the edge of the plateau and found himself in a clearing that stretched back towards higher ground. He was looking at a large meadow, filled with knee high grass. A muggy yellow haze, saturated with airborne pollen floated in the air and Jason sneezed, cursing again as he looked around.
Resolutely, he stepped out, focusing on Jude’s ringtone, and came on crude circle maybe a hundred meters across where all the grass lay beaten down flat. Jude’s phone appeared to be ringing in the middle of this patch. Whooping, Jason ran towards the sound, and then he saw it, clamshell open, Tom Wait’s voice seemingly ghosting out of the very earth in front of him.
Impulsively he leaped forward, bending down to grab the phone while his instincts screamed that there was something very wrong with this setup. His mind registered the warning but his fingers were already touching the phone when the ground gave way beneath him and he slid feet first into darkness.
Jason felt his knees and elbows scrape against unseen protrusions as he tumbled headlong down a sharp slope. He was winded and sore when he finally came up short against a hard surface, his breath knocked out of him. He lay there gasping, his ears ringing, absorbing the total absence of sound and light. Old fears rose up in him, choking fear that he fought to suppress. Pushing his raw elbows against the rough floor, he ground them up and down, welcoming the pain, embracing it, willing it to fill his mind and drive out the darkness there.
Jude, he thought. Sweet Jude. I have to hold on for her.
Shutting his eyes Jason began the yoga breathing that Patricia had taught them all. Slowly the monster subsided and his heart rate steadied. Stickiness on his palms told him his fingernails had drawn blood. He had lost his phone. When he opened his eyes, they had adjusted better to the darkness but it was still varying shades of blackness. Stretching his arms out he stepped forward, taking several steps before his hands touched an obstruction. It was a wall, damp and cool to the touch but smooth. Definitely man made. The knowledge calmed him immensely. Somebody had made this chamber. Hollowed it out for a purpose, meaning that the chute he had tumbled into was also constructed and he had fallen into a trap. By the same people who had taken Jude.
Suddenly he sensed he was not alone in the chamber. He could see nothing but a sense of dread grew and the hair on the nape of his neck prickled.
“Show yourselves, you cowards,” he yelled, shuffling backwards. “Come on, face me. I’m not scared of you.”
Abruptly, something soft pressed against his face and an acrid odor filled his nostrils. Simultaneously, a sharp prick stabbed at his neck. A viselike grip pinned his arms and he felt himself lifted off his feet as he struggled madly, kicking and heaving to free himself. He tried to scream but his throat no longer worked and his limbs felt leaden. As if from a great distance, he heard a pneumatic hiss and then everything went black.
When he came too, his head ached, along with his arms and legs. His bruises were still hurting and there was a dull ache behind his eyes. Someone was cradling his head and sobbing softly. His heart leapt. He knew that voice.
“Jude,” he whispered, as she dropped her head to his, her dark hair cradling his face softly. With difficulty, he put his arms around her, and felt her body shake. Her sobs increase violently.
“Ssshh,” he whispered, “It’s okay. It’s okay babe, I’m here.”