There was something invigorating about the trail becoming less defined. Between what he was able to get out of Lankin and a topo map of Gaia’s Backbone, it was quite plain there was no real trail to reach Phantom Peak. Of course, the way both he and Grizz talked, it wasn’t like one would really want to go up there. Trace, however, was determined. After all, those were only stories and unfortunate accidents. The mountain wasn’t really cursed or haunted or both.
It was a steady uphill climb. Not a steep grade, but enough to remind him he was gaining elevation. On occasion, he thought back to that night at Magpie Jack’s and the stories he was told. Some smacked of not being prepared or just simple bad luck. There were a few other tales that were not so easy to dismiss logically; like those of hearing a voice or two almost out of range, or seeing something out of the peripheries that was gone in a blink, but left the uneasy feeling of being watched, if not followed. In an attempt to not spook himself, Trace chuckled, thinking of Grizz and Lankin as mountain yokels, backwoods hicks. It was a given they’d be superstitious.
Somewhere close to tree-line he began to get that feeling of being watched. It chilled him and he tried to tell himself he was letting his mind play tricks on him. There was nothing malign on Phantom Peak, despite what the locals might believe. Still, as he walked, the sensation stayed with him, nagging, causing him to subconsciously look over his shoulder once or twice. There would never be anything, which aggravated his self-annoyance. With a curse under his breath, he pushed on.
The summit was just above the krummholtz. Just a little over eleven-thousand feet. It was barren and rock-strewn. He could see the Death’s Head and Hell’s Watchtower in the distance. The sky was remarkably clear and the air was warm. The sensation of being watched slipped to the back of his mind as he took a moment to be satisfied with his accomplishment.
Removing his back, he leaned against a fairly large boulder and pulled out an energy bar. He figured he’d grab his camera and take some pictures to show those rednecks down in Marrakech that there was nothing to be frightened of. They could start telling a new story; the tale of the man who came up and down Phantom Peak one fine September day without the slightest bit of trouble or terror.
The sound of laughter made him jump. It was innocent, carefree, and decidedly feminine. Trace looked around and saw no one. He was about to dismiss it as the wind when it came again. Whoever it was seemed to be having a wonderful time. Stashing his pack in a cut in the boulder, he began to follow the sound.
Coming upon some loose scree, he caught sight of something below him, what looked like perhaps blond hair and pale skin moving in the early autumn breeze. Another giggle, slightly louder this time, echoed in his ears. With a smile, Trace picked his way along the scree to get a better look. At one point, he thought he heard a man’s voice as well. Just a little ways from the blond was some red and slightly darker color. Young lovers, perhaps, having a little tryst out in the backcountry.
Halfway down the scree, the laughing and voices stopped. Something changed with figures Trace had been observing as he scrambled closer. They no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to people. They were trees. Two sets of aspens showing their fall colors in the golden afternoon light.
This was perplexing; Trace had better than twenty-twenty vision. He couldn’t imagine being fooled so easily. Although at first he was willing to think it might have been the wind, there were distinct voices. Human voices. It was all very strange. His mind struggled to make sense of it as he took his next step.
That’s when his foot slipped and all his questions became irrelevant. The world gave out from under him. He was falling, the sound of sliding scree replacing that of laughter in his ears.