At any turn, p.1
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       At Any Turn, p.1

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey  
At Any Turn


  The First Quest

  *Findelglora has logged in to Dragon Epoch

  *Findelglora has entered the world of Yondareth

  She emerges from the city of her birth, a young elf maiden having been trained and educated by the best. With the eastern city gate at her back, Findelglora looks around her with wide-eyed wonder, anxious to take on the world and explore its many mysteries.

  But every hero needs a quest to get her started.

  While pondering what this first quest might be, her eyes land on an older man bearing an expression of pure misery, his shoulders slumped in defeat. He wears the uniform of the Old Guard of the Elves: a military-style jacket spangled with glittering medallions of service, and a kilt. Meeting her gaze, he straightens and gives Findelglora a halfhearted salute.

  “Hello there, young one. Don’t you look bright-eyed and full of hope, ready to take on this miserable, harsh world! I wish you luck. You will be a small flicker of light in the prevailing darkness. ”

  Findelglora bows to this revered man, knowing him once to have been the Captain of the Guard of the city. General SylvanWood spent his life in service to king and country. But sadly, he now passes his golden years haunting the remotest city gate, a vacant, tormented shadow of the man who once was the city’s greatest hero.

  “Sir, I’m anxious to go out into the world and follow your great example. Do you have a quest for me?” she asks.

  SylvanWood runs a trembling hand over his face. “If only I could have saved her. If only we could have shared our lives together. ”

  Findelglora grows confused. “Whom do you mean, sir? How may I help?”

  SylvanWood shakes his head. “I had a love once and she was lost to me, forever. And every day, in remembrance of her, I place a bouquet of daffodils at this gate, which is the last place I saw her on the day I kissed her goodbye. But today I’m feeling unwell and don’t know if I can make it to the meadow to pick the flowers. ”

  Findelglora’s heart aches to hear SylvanWood’s sad story. Shaking her head, she wonders what type of hero’s quest would help him. Slay a dragon? Subdue an evil wizard? She brightens and turns back to him.

  “Then let me go and pick them for you so that you can honor your love today. ”

  SylvanWood looks skeptical. “You are young and there is opposition, even in the meadows outside these walls. ”

  Findelglora stands tall, poking out her chest and brandishing the rusty sword she acquired before venturing out of the city’s gate. “I’m ready, sir. Today, as on other days, you will honor your love with a bouquet of daffodils!”

  *Findelglora has received the quest to pick ten daffodils and return them to General SylvanWood.

  *Promised reward for completion of this quest: The first piece of armor to wear on her further adventures out in the world.

  Chapter One

  Five weeks of torture. Two miles until it ended. I almost fell to my knees with that realization—or maybe it had more to do with not having eaten in two days. That and the fact that I’d spent the last five hundred miles crossing over the highest mountains in California and my feet were fucking killing me.

  It was late afternoon—approaching dinnertime. Dinner. That sounded amazing. The last thing I’d eaten was a candy bar that I’d bummed off a fellow hiker the day before. I’d nursed that thing, bite by bite until the last nub, which I’d finished off this morning for breakfast. I could use dinner. And sleep on a nice, soft bed.

  For the previous five weeks, I’d slept on the ground or in my tent hammock—whenever I could manage to find a place to hang it. But this ordeal was now almost over, thank God.

  For the thousandth time, I cursed myself for being so stubborn about following through with this crazy plan. I hadn’t allowed myself to give up the idea of a long-distance hike once I’d set my mind on it. With a long sigh I again questioned my sanity. Why had I left civilization? Why had I left her behind?

  Emilia and I had only spent a month and a half together as a couple. A week together at her mom’s ranch when we’d finally decided to start something real and then back at my house for five more weeks planning this crazy trip as my version of Superman’s visit to the Fortress of Solitude.

  And she’d fully supported me in this—thought it was a good idea for me to get away, make the final break from work, or my mistress, as she called it. But I sure as hell hadn’t been ready to take a break from Emilia.

  I was almost there. Almost there. Those two words had become my mantra for the last sixty miles of this grueling trail. The Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley—northern trailhead of the famous (and torturous, in my case) John Muir trail—were now only two miles ahead. The landscape had been beautiful for the first couple of hundred miles, but now I was just done with the High Sierra scenery. If I never saw another pine tree again, I wouldn’t be sad. Page 2

  The Merced River roared up ahead. I felt like throwing my pack down right there, as sick as I was of the weight of the damn thing. But I tried not to think about any of that. I kept my eyes pasted on the signs for the trailhead, trudging along step by aching step.

  I knew she’d be there to meet me at the trailhead. The knowledge caused me to step up my pace. I couldn’t wait to see her again, pull her into my arms…God, I missed her.

  Ahead, I sensed the presence of a southbound hiker so I tucked in toward the right side of the trail. I didn’t even look up. I was feeling far from the spry, sociable dude who’d set out on this hike last month. That idiot had been left behind somewhere on the grueling stretch between Mount Whitney and the Silver Pass.

  The hiker who approached me was a woman. I could tell by the sound of her gait. She shifted her position on the trail so that she was headed straight for me. I stepped back toward the center and she moved straight at me so that we nearly collided before I stopped. I looked up, about to unleash an angry string of epithets before I saw her beautiful, smiling face.

  She was gorgeous. Long, dark brown hair with hints of red and large amber-brown eyes that were the exact same color as her hair. She was on the tall side for a woman and she had long, curvy legs extending from the shorts she wore. And I hadn’t laid eyes on her in five weeks. Emilia.

  I heaved a sigh of relief and dropped my pack, which smacked on the ground.

  “Adam?” she said with laughter in her voice. “Is that you?”

  I pulled her into my arms. “Damn—you are a sight for sore eyes. ” I muttered, burying my face into her sweet-smelling neck. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t so sweet-smelling, but she returned the hug. I ignored the persistent ache in my muscles and tightened my hold around her.

  Her body was soft, yielding against me and pulling her into my arms felt like home. Her hair was silky on my whisker-rough face. And that peaches and vanilla smell…I could get drunk with it. I pressed my face to her neck again.

  She flinched, laughing. “You look like a mountain man!”

  I supposed that meant she didn’t want a kiss—with my thirty-five days’ growth of beard and hair? Well, tough shit, I was kissing her anyway.

  I turned and pressed my lips to hers and she returned my kiss before pulling away with a laugh. “Your kisses tickle now. ”

  I grinned. “C’mere and let me tickle you some more. ” I planted a few more kisses on her before she pulled away again.

  “How was your hike?”

  I heaved a sigh. “Long. ”

  She smiled. “That it? No deep revelations about life?”

  “I’ve decided that backpacks are evil. ”

  She bent and picked up my backpack, hefting it over one of her shoulders. “This thing’s pretty heavy. ”

  I reached for it, but she stopped me. “You’ve carried it five hundred miles. I think I can carry it for two. ”

  I looked at her grimly, about to argue, when she raised her brows at me. “Stop being stubborn. It’s a modern world. I can carry your pack for you. You can make up for it later by carrying my books to class. Come on. You look exhausted. ”

  I maintained my dour façade while admiring that stubbornness that made me love her so much. That strength. That independence that was so Emilia. It had gotten her through a lot of hard shit in her life and it had made her the amazing woman she was. Sometimes it aggravated me, but it was what made her her.

  “More starving than exhausted. ” She turned and I fell into step next to her as we continued toward the trailhead together, shoulder to shoulder.

  True concern crossed her beautiful features. “How did that happen? Did we miscalculate your food drops?”

  There were stations all along the trail where new supplies could be mailed. We’d calculated what amount I would need and where to mail it before I’d ever set foot on this exercise in insanity.

  I hesitated, wondering if I should tell the truth about why I ran out of food and risk looking like a jackass. Maybe there was another excuse I could come up with. My whisker-covered cheeks heated with embarrassment. Oh, what the hell.

  “Two nights ago, I left the bear canister too close to a hillside slope. When I woke up in the morning, it was gone—at the bottom of a steep ravine. ” Because of the strict rules to keep bears from getting into hikers’ food supplies, all backcountry hikers were required to carry their food in bear-proof canisters. There were strict rules against hanging our food in trees as well. We also weren’t supposed to leave them too close to our sleeping areas, either, lest we attract bears into our tent. But some adventurous bear had come along sometime during the night and rolled my food down into a steep ravine.

  Page 3

  I’d known better than to pull something so stupid, but in my defense, I’d been so exhausted I couldn’t even think straight. Score 1 for nature and 0 for Adam.

  “Mom and Peter are waiting at the trailhead so we have a ride. ” She smiled. “Let’s go get you something to eat. A big juicy hotdog, maybe? You are no more than a few miles away from the little restaurant in Yosemite Village. ”

  I almost drooled at the mention of a hotdog. I threw her a dirty look and she laughed. “Or maybe you’d prefer a big juicy hamburger, or—” I snaked a hand around her waist and rubbed my whiskers against her neck. She wriggled against me, dropping the backpack.

  I pulled her into another long kiss. Her lips were soft, open to me, and even through this thick beard, every contact of our skin was electric. My tongue darted out to taste her and she sighed, her hands sliding up to clamp around my neck. This close to the trailhead, the path was busy with hikers—those simply going down for an hour or two, not just dedicated idiots like me. Heads turned, but I didn’t care who saw. I cinched her to me, refusing to let her go—as if she might vanish like a mirage.

  After I fed my face I was going to have to feed a hunger of a different kind…She stepped back, breathless, flushed. “You’re going to have to lose that beard if you want to get lucky, mister. ”

  Under my beard, I smirked. She didn’t sound very committed to that. I bent and snatched up the pack before she could grab it again and she rolled her eyes at me, muttering about my muleheadedness.

  “C’mon. There’s a hamburger or three with my name on them,” I said.

  ***

  Goddamn that burger tasted like heaven—like the most delicious thing I’d ever shoved in my piehole.

  I couldn’t stop groaning about it, either, which led to Emilia and her mom, Kim, watching me with concerned frowns. Emilia had driven the four hundred miles from Southern California with her mom and my Uncle Peter to meet me at the end of my hike from hell. Much as it was nice to see them, I would have preferred to have the time alone with Emilia—once I took care of more essential needs first, like eating and bathing. And sleeping in a real bed.

  “He’s eating like a Neanderthal,” Emilia whispered to her mother. “Do men usually regress while in the wild?” Amusement danced in her golden-brown eyes. Just to mess with her, I groaned even louder and shoved the last third of the burger in my mouth all at once.

  Kim grinned. “Don’t worry. I don’t think it’s permanent. Once he’s back in his man-lair, he’ll be guzzling beer and watching Darth Vader on Star Trek in no time. ”

  Emilia and I both turned to her, aghast at her blatant error—every nerd’s nightmare. Kim held up her hands in surrender. “Kidding!”

  Peter chuckled and shook his head as I began to cram the french fries in my mouth as fast as I could. He eyed me cautiously. “Want me to get you another burger? You’ve got to be starving after Yogi stole your picnic basket. ” He glanced at my plate. “Next one’s on me. You’re looking kind of scrawny. Starting to remind me of your high school days. ”

  I glared at him. Well, that was below the belt. I didn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds in high school. Peter got up and went to the counter to make his order.

  Emilia pulled out her cell phone to look at the time. “I’m going ask the concierge at the hotel to see if I can get you an appointment with the barber. ”

  I looked at her with mock hurt. “What—you don’t like my new look?”

  She grinned. “Is that what you are calling it? You have food in your beard, Grizzly Adam. ”

  I shoved another handful of fries into my mouth and groaned. “Damn, that’s good!”

  She wrinkled her nose at me. “You’re gross. ”

  “Bo Shuda!” I cackled through my half-eaten food in my best imitation of Jabba the Hutt.

  She rolled her eyes. “Gee, now I want to kiss you…”

  My eyes went to her lush lips. I was kissing her the second I brushed my teeth. After the next burger—or maybe two. She’d just have to deal with the beard.

  After I ate, I checked into my room and collapsed onto the bed. We were staying at the Awahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley—once the playground of famous celebrities during the first part of the twentieth century. Now it was a luxury lodge for those who cared to visit the park, but who didn’t care for the inconveniences of camping. And—as I’d spent the previous five weeks either sleeping on the ground with the bugs or hanging in a tent hammock—I was ready for a little luxury.

  Page 4

  I showered, then soaked in the Jacuzzi tub and managed to soothe many of the aches, but I couldn’t do anything about my practically obliterated, blister-covered feet. I’d probably have to keep my socks on at all times for the next few weeks so I wouldn’t gross Emilia out.

  I crashed in the early evening and didn’t stir until midmorning the next day when Peter called and asked when we were going to breakfast. Food. That I didn’t have to pull out of a pack, reconstitute and cook over a propane-fueled hiking stove and choke down. Breakfast that wasn’t mushy, watery oatmeal.

  Bacon, eggs, pancakes, toast, and more bacon. I still had the shaggy look going on, but I no longer reeked of Eau de Roadkill. I was clean and I really wanted to see Emilia. I’d missed her every day of the five weeks I’d been gone. She’d stayed overnight with her mom to give me a chance to catch up with my sleep, but she’d be moving into my room today. I couldn’t wait.

  During the longest, loneliest and remotest stretches on the Pacific Crest Trail, I found a voice inside me so loud and persistent that I couldn’t drown it out—especially on days of complete solitude. I went days at a time without talking. I had hours stacked on hours to think about life, Emilia, everything.

  I’d made that journey to try and discover things about myself, to think, to pull myself away from the dangers of an addictive lifestyle that threatened my health and happiness. But I found I didn’t love being locked inside my own head as much as I’d thought I would. I’d proved I could live without my addiction. Twenty-eight days of reprogramming in a rehab worked well for drug and alcohol addicts. What better way for a work addict like me to reprogram than by unplugging himself out beyond the reach of cell phone reception, Wi-Fi and the other modern trappings of technology?

  Well, it was done. I felt satisfied and I relished the sense of accomplishment. I’d pulled myself away from creature comforts and gained a new appreciation for the things that were truly important. Or so I hoped. I’d also come up with a fantastic idea for a new game I wanted to work on—a private little project that I’d keep secret for now because…well, it was my style to reveal things in my own time frame.

  Once I’d gotten over missing my Wi-Fi and cell phone, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about Emilia and this new entity, us. My feelings had only grown stronger during my time away. And that next day, as we toured the Yosemite Valley, visited the tallest waterfall in the United States, and marveled at wonders in sheer granite cliffs like El Capitan and Half Dome, I couldn’t keep my hands off of her. Off the curve of her hips, the small of her back, her waist, her hands.

  I couldn’t stand next to her and not touch her. The five-years-ago me would be vomiting at the sight of current-me. And I found myself cherishing these little things that I never even thought about before—the way she’d turn her head toward me and lean into me whenever I touched her. The way she ran her thumb over mine when we held hands. The way she’d smile and give me a fake long-suffering sigh whenever I’d lean in to kiss her neck.

  While we stood admiring the rainbows that the late afternoon light threw across the frothy water of Bridal Veil Falls, I took a moment to study her lovely face. She looked thoughtful, a million miles away.

  I tightened my hold on her hand. “You all right?”

  She jerked her head toward me, features lighting up immediately. “Yes. I’m happy you made it safely. I worried about you every night. Kept logging in to the maps program to check where your GPS marker had you located. ”

  It was the only bit of technology I’d taken with me—that she had insisted I take. The locator showed her on a map where I was at all times.

  “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”

  “Hmm,” she said turning back to the falls, frowning. “I got rejected. ”

  I frowned. “For med school? What idiots rejected you?”

 
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