A round of clicking noises dragged me back to consciousness, dissolving the blackness that kept me under. My mind felt fuzzy, and I could not will my eyes to open.
What was that noise? I need to sleep.
Kardia, wake up. You aren’t safe. Apollo’s voice sifted through the cloudiness.
Just a few minutes more, love, I’m tired. And it’s our vacation, I begged.
No. No. Not our trip. I’m not with you. You were on the cruise with the others…the accident… Apollo explained.
The ship. The explosion.
No response. His voice disappeared.
The world came into focus bit by bit. Salty sea air filled my nostrils at the same time I heard the underlying roll of waves. Trying to move, I winced. Every inch of my body ached, and my head felt like a watermelon being struck with a mallet. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The accident. Something happened on the cruise. I remembered an explosion and things going dark on the ship. Chaos reigned and then nothing.
Dear gods, I hope everyone is okay.
Something fast scuttled across my arm. Forgetting my pain, I flung myself up into a sitting position out of fear. A crab the size of a drachma ran for cover beneath a smooth stone near my hip, his claws flexing in a threat as he burrowed.
Another series of clicks sounded around me. After seeing the little crab, I worried that the sounds might come from the pincers of his much larger relatives. I surveyed the area and could see nothing on the beach.
Where is everyone?
Standing, I tried to brush the sand from my skin. Apollo’s t-shirt and the shorts I’d worn to bed on the cruise ship were still damp and filthy. My hair was in knots from the sea. Attempts to rake my fingers through were unsuccessful, so I picked out a few pieces of kelp and walked down the beach in search of the others.
The lush flora drew my attention away from the waterline. Goosebumps appeared on my arms, stirred by the sensation that someone was watching me.
“Artemis?” I called out. “Morpheus?”
A slight rustle came from tall grass up the beach, but no one was visible. I turned and looked behind me, hoping to see one of the others in the distance. No luck.
Feeling conspicuous, I headed away from the beach, toward the trees and shrubs. I tried to remember the accident…to remember what or who I saw…how I got here…but I couldn’t.
Nearing the brush, I heard what sounded like someone clucking their tongue to my left. I spun to look but saw nothing. A rush of air came from my right, and something struck behind my knees. My legs buckled, and I fell to the ground, arms flailing, trying to protect myself. I struck a clump of matted orange fur with one fist. A wolflike creature, nearly the size of a man, pounced on me, a rough paw digging into my abdomen.
What the hell?
I yelled as his heavy claws poked the soft flesh beneath Apollo’s t-shirt. A thick, wet dog smell filled my lungs and caused me to gag. I scrambled backward, like the crab from the beach, trying to stay ahead of the animal’s snarling jowls.
The teeth snapped again, and I raised my foot, giving him a swift kick just below his jaw, connecting with a dull thud against his thick hide. He reeled back on his haunches, grabbing my foot between his front paws. He yanked me toward his torso, my body falling back onto the path. A second orange creature came from the left side and put his giant paws onto my shoulders, pinning me down as the first pulled me flat. I screamed, squirming with all of my strength as they slid me toward the brush. They worked together, less like animals, and more like humans. That fact registered in me with alarm. The first wolf used his paws like hands and pulled my feet again as he disappeared down in a hole beneath the bush, my foot sliding in behind him. I grabbed at the branches and roots to hold on. The other beast pushed me with his upper body, his broad muscles straining from the tension. Knee-deep in the hole, I shouted in frustration as I lost my grip, twigs and leaves coming off in my hands.
With a different tactic, I went limp for a moment, relaxing and allowing the pull. The lack of resistance caught the maniac in the hole off-guard, and he stumbled backward, loosening his grip. I retracted my legs in a move that would have made Terpsichore proud. Using the reverse force, along with my elbow, I pummelled the topside wolf in the eye socket. He howled in pain, and I jumped and ran. I knew I didn’t have much chance of outpacing him, but I had to give it a shot. This was one time that I was thankful to have competitively athletic siblings who always challenged each other in races. I could run. If I had to. And I did.
I ran back the way I came, away from the brush, toward the beach, terrified of encountering other creatures. After more than a hundred yards, I didn’t hear them behind me. I slowed, grabbing my side from the sharp pain I felt after the sprint.
As I regulated my breathing, images flashed inside my head. I could see a version of myself: me running, me standing on the beach. Me catching my breath, an image of the two orange wolves sniffing my trail, trying to track me down. They hadn’t given up, but they were hesitant to come to the beach. Next, a symbol filled my mind with the color red and the feeling of anger. Finally, an image registered DANGER. Not the word, but the feeling of peril. It felt as if someone had reached inside my head and scraped things out to create room to hold these new images. They felt foreign and strange. Dizziness flooded my mind, and I felt like I would vomit. I staggered down the beach looking for a place to hide until I could compose myself.
A trio of palm trees stood several yards down the beach, one growing at an angle that caused me to believe I could climb it and be safe for the time being. When I reached it, I doubted my ability, but the thought of those animals attacking me again provided me with a surprising amount of inspiration. I climbed up and only scraped myself raw in three spots. My perch gave me the ability to watch for anyone approaching, which was appreciated.
After the adrenalin wore off, I spent a few minutes crying. I missed Apollo. He booked the cruise for me as a surprise and told me it would be good for me to have a break, a mini-vacation with some of the family, while he stayed behind to oversee the final construction of the art therapy unit. It startled me to realize how dependent on Apollo I’d become in a few short months. How he changed my entire life. How I wished he was with me to help get out of this situation. But I was stuck and alone.
Before I got too far into my well of self-pity, the scraping in my head started again. I raised my hands, pressing against my temples, hoping the awful feeling would stop. Images flashed again behind my eyes. They were of me, doing all the random things I’d done since I washed up on the island. Then a different image flashed: one with a purple-skinned wolverine, much like the orange wolves I’d encountered earlier. I could feel that this one was female, and that she intended no harm.
But why was this happening? Did I get a head injury in the accident? Was this all some sort of illusion?
I heard clicking again to the south of me and felt a slight buzz vibrate across my skin. The images returned. The first orange wolf starred in this reel of pictures floating through my mind. Pirates tortured him in the past. They took his pup and killed his bitch. They left him for dead, but he managed to survive. Now he hunts for revenge. He hunted me and would try again. Saliva turned to foam and dripped from his jowls as he waited for me to go back toward the brush. His eyes narrowed and his blistered tongue snaked out to lick his maw.
Lost in the frightening images, I barely registered that now I could hear words beneath the clicks. “Danger. Fezwig eat. Bad. Bad. Bad. No Fezwig. Away.”
Fezwig was the first orange wolf.
I trained my eyes back toward the foliage but could see no movement.
Minutes passed, and I caught a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye. A deep purple she-wolf stepped out of the brush about fifty feet away from my tree perch, and when I say stepped out, I mean, she walked out…on her hind legs…like a human. I rubbed my hand over my eyes, certain that I was imagining things. As she walked down to the beach, the images started again, and it was then that I realized she was communicating with me and her name was Brujala.
I have lost my mind.
“I am one who sees,” Brujala explained as we sat inside her underground den. She’d convinced me to come down from the tree and follow her, assuring me I’d be safe. I worried about claustrophobia, but her space measured about 15 feet long by 8 feet wide. Unfurled roots held treasures along the dirt walls: an ancient fork, a chipped china teacup, necklaces, doubloons, a sword. Etchings with depictions of tribal history served as an artistic backdrop opposite the display. Several small cushion-like pads of woven lavender lined one end of the burrow, and a small stump jutted out, creating a makeshift table.
Brujala passed me a rustic wooden cup filled with water, and I drank, timid at first, but then taking greedy gulps. She refilled my drink, and I smiled at her graciousness. She pushed a leaf full of berries toward me and encouraged me to eat as she continued.
“A vision. You in the sea. Then beach. No danger from you. Duszans fear all.” She flashed me a mental picture of Fezwig and the orange wolf tribesmen. Her language came in fits and bursts. She explained that they could communicate telepathically by image and once the images were understood, the language followed. “I am Splinta. An elder. Our tribe is peaceful.”
“Can you see others? People I was with?” I tried to flash her mental images of others from the cruise.
She nodded. “Artemis is near.” Then, instead of a name, she flashed me a picture of writhing snakes.
She nodded again and her jowls pulled back in what I hoped was an attempt at a smile. I popped a berry in my mouth and savored the sharp tang of the fruit as it exploded against my tongue. As I ate, she regaled me with tales of her tribe’s history, sharing triumphs as well as tragedies. When she stopped short, I was surprised. The hair around her neck stood on end and she tilted her head up, sniffing the air. After a moment, she closed her eyes.
Seconds later, her brown eyes opened wide. “Go,” she stated. She sent me frantic bursts of images. “Scouts from the Zarvar and Omaksa tribes are coming.” Brujala ushered me up and out of the burrow. “I see them from the south,” she pointed a large paw.
We stepped into the sun, and I shielded my eyes to adjust to the light.
Moments later we heard a rustle in the brush to the north. I looked at Brujala. Her eyes dropped, and she sent me messages of apology. Several silver-grey and deep blue wolves stepped out and surrounded us. She let me know they had cloaked themselves from her vision.
She barked and snarled in anger and frustration. They responded. I had a hard time understanding them and could only pick out bits and pieces, but she assured them I was no threat. They didn’t care. They ignored her and warned that she needed to stand down. One of them spoke of Fezwig and took great delight in placing a set of shackles on my wrists and ankles. The metal was nearly invisible, but it pinched and weighed heavy against my joints as they drug me back to their encampment.
Terror left me lightheaded, but I didn’t dare lose consciousness. The thought of that was even more frightening.