Wild Sign (Alpha & Omega #6) - Patricia Briggs

PRELUDE

SUMMER: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Sissy Connors, PhD, checked her GPS, adjusted her backpack, and continued her trek into the mountains. Common sense told her there must have been an easier way, but none of the trails on the USGS map seemed to go exactly where she needed to travel.

She was an experienced hiker—her doctorate was in botany and her field study trips sent her to the edges of the world, looking for oddball plants that might contain the cure for Ebola or MRSA or some other disease. Elvis, her half German shepherd, half who-knows-what-except-it-was-big who trotted beside her, was experienced, too. Generally, he would trot back and forth, investigating anything he found interesting, then checking in with her before exploring again. But for the last five miles he’d stuck to her side like glue. He didn’t look nervous, precisely, but the last time he’d done this it had been because a cougar had been stalking them.

This was cougar territory. Elvis’s attitude had her paying attention to the branches of the trees she was walking under, but other than some porcupine sign, she hadn’t found any indication she and Elvis weren’t the only living things for miles.

She didn’t think it was a cougar making her dog cling to her side, because she felt it, too. The air was . . . different. In her years of wanderings, she’d explored places that were sacred, where every step forward felt like a sacrilege. She’d discovered secret meadows or caves that welcomed her presence. She’d hiked through places that made her stomach turn—even though her normal senses found nothing wrong.

This had all the hallmarks of one of those hikes. She found some comfort in trailing her fingers in the big dog’s ruff as they climbed.

It was hot and the last few miles had been uphill. She stopped in a shaded place, took out a canvas water bowl, and filled it from her canteen. She set it down for her dog and took a good swig herself. She was near her goal; she’d been circling it for a while, trying to find a negotiable path through the mountainside.

“Dad,” she told the empty air. “I know you like to be an off-grid hermit, but this is ridiculous.”

She found it an hour later—fifteen minutes after she swore she was going to turn around and start the two-day hike back to her car. She passed the rock face of yet another cliff—and stopped.

A petroglyph.

Tired, sweaty, and frustrated as she was, she couldn’t help the smile of wonder. She reached out but did not touch it. The marks were perhaps two feet square, and they formed a symbol she hadn’t seen before. Like the legs of an isosceles triangle, two lines rose from opposite edges of the petroglyph and met with their vertex angle at the top of the figure. Each of those legs was crossed by three upward slashes.

She took a step nearer—and realized there was a steep trail up the side of the cliff, tucked into a crack in the rock she hadn’t been able to see from where she’d been standing. There was no sign it was a trail to her father’s camp, but it headed in the right direction.

She crawled up the steep trail—helping Elvis up ahead of her with a hand on his rump when he couldn’t find purchase on the sheer rock. It wasn’t quite steep enough for her to use her climbing gear. She had to crawl out through a hole between a tree and a rock the size of a small house to get to the top. If the thought of getting Elvis back down in one piece hadn’t been so harrowing, she might have given up. She hoped she could find another way back once they were at the top.

Finally, she surmounted a particularly difficult bit and found herself in a small meadow surrounded by dense forest.

They had tucked the buildings in under the forest canopy so well it took her a moment to see she had reached her goal. But once she noticed the first building, her eyes started to pick out the rest of them.

There were a few tents, but most of the living spaces were actual cabins or yurts. It was more than an encampment—a whole town, really, complete with one tidy cabin marked by a small hand-painted sign that read USPS—Wild Sign.

It was much more civilized than she had expected her dad to tolerate. It took her a minute to realize it was too quiet.

“Hey!” she called. “Dad?”

She waited.