Thomas plunked himself onto the cafeteria bench. “I’m so going to get my ass kicked.”
Erick barely looked up from his sandwich at the announcement. Thomas was prone to creating drama out of nothing, but as his friend, Erick felt obliged to show interest. “How come? Did you fail your bio test?”
“Worse than that.” Thomas fingered the plastic bag holding his sandwich while his eyes darted around the crowded cafeteria as if looking for someone. Seemingly satisfied by what he saw or didn’t see as the case may be, he looked back to Erick. “I wrote down all the wrong answers and Ryan copied them. He’s going to get an F.”
Erick shrugged. “So you both get Fs. Big deal. Maybe he’ll find someone else to start cheating off of.”
“You don’t get it.” Thomas shifted on the bench, his eyes focused on his hands. “I changed all my answers to the right ones while he was turning in his test.”
Erick paused, sandwich halfway to his mouth. “What?” he finally said because he must've misheard. There was no way anyone would intentionally cross Ryan. But the look on Thomas’s face told him otherwise. Erick briefly closed his eyes while setting his sandwich down. “Why?”
Thomas scowled in response to the reproving tone. “I don’t know.” His words tumbled out. “I study for those tests, and Ryan thinks he has the right to use my answers. It’s crap.”
His shoulders slumped as he tossed his sandwich back into its paper sack. “School has really sucked since October. Figures he’d be put in half of my classes. Wish I was smarter and in the geek classes with you.”
Erick bristled. He knew he shouldn’t be so sensitive, but minus the glasses, he thought he made a pretty good poster-child of the stereotype; book smart, but not so good at normal stuff like sports, socializing, and, well, girls. “Honors classes. They’re called honors classes.”
“Yeah, yeah, honors, whatever.” Thomas brushed off Erick’s comment. “What do I do?”
The desperation in Thomas’s voice smoothed down Erick’s hackles. Thomas wasn’t this good of an actor, and had really stepped into a pile this time.
Blowing out a breath, Erick ran his hand through his hair. “When does the test usually get graded?”
“Mr. Konig usually has the grading done the next day.”
“Try to stay around as many people as you can tomorrow and Friday. I’ll meet you at the front gate right after school to walk home. Don’t let yourself be alone for any length of time.”
“That might work.” Thomas gave Erick a weak smile. “Maybe by Monday Ryan will forget.” Thomas crumpled the brown bag containing his uneaten lunch. “Maybe getting beaten up won’t hurt much. Hell, it might even be worth it to get his sorry ass expelled.”
“It’ll be okay,” Erick said, even though he had his doubts.
With his backpack slung over his shoulder and gripping the strap, Erick hurried through the deserted hallway to get to the main doors. He was late getting out of class and knew Thomas would be waiting. They’d walked home together every afternoon since fifth grade.
Erick gave his head a shake, trying to make some sense of what happened earlier. He’d often long for something to happen to liven up the day to day routine that summed up his life, but this was so not the way to do it. Of all the people Thomas could piss off, he would pick Ryan Warner. Everyone knew him. From day one his name swiftly filtered through the student body. Erick had no classes with Ryan, but that didn’t stop him from hearing the stories.
It wasn’t the pseudo anonymous attention grabbing pranks, like letting off a smoke bomb during a homecoming rally, or stopping up toilets to flood the bathroom that had students laughing in the halls. Incidents linked to Ryan were personal and usually involved pain.
Did you hear? Derek needed stitches in his head after making a crack about Ryan Warner’s hair. Kevin missed two weeks of practice because his shoulder got wrenched after taking a swipe at Ryan. Cameron got an elbow rammed in his gut just for stepping on the back of his shoe. Mess with Ryan Warner and you’ll get hurt.
Ryan was easy enough to recognize on campus and, even though Erick assumed him to be sixteen as well, hormones had obviously been unfairly kind. He was big enough to be a starting running back on the high school football team, and earn all the jock fame and cheerleader entourage to go with it.
This wasn’t the case and certainly wasn’t the reason Erick took notice of him; there were a lot of big guys wandering the halls, after all. It was Ryan’s self-assuredness, an unwavering confidence that elevated the gossipy rumors to a divine truth. The common knowledge held by everyone that Ryan was somebody to avoid was a fame all of its own, but earned none the less.
Erick was sailing by a restroom when a familiar voice stopped him cold.
“No, man, I wasn’t setting you up.”
Erick pushed open the restroom door to see Thomas backed against the wall with Ryan towering over him. Large hands placed on either side of Thomas’s shoulders formed an inescapable cage around the smaller boy.
“Then why’d I get an F and you got a B?” Ryan leaned forward bringing himself closer to Thomas. “It looked like you were changing answers, so I talked with Mr. Konig at lunch. He showed me the tests after I gave him a bullshit story about not feeling well today and how you’d helped me study.” Ryan paused, dropping his voice. “Good news — he’s giving me an extra credit assignment. Bad news — I found out what you did.”
While this exchange went on, Erick felt the temptation licking at his nerves to take a step back and let the door close. It would be easy. He hadn’t been seen and no one would know.
Did you hear? Thomas had his head stuffed into a toilet because … Erick Porter was there, but the coward just … Mess with Ryan Warner, you …
Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Erick tried to silence each thought as he crept into the restroom. He slowly shrugged off his backpack and let it come to rest silently on the floor. He didn’t know what he would do, but found the school wide conflict resolution policy sorely lacking in real world application right about now. Although he seriously wasn’t considering jumping Ryan, a distraction could be the compromise needed to buy Thomas enough time to escape.
Erick spotted two backpacks lying on the dingy linoleum floor. He recognized Thomas’s navy pack, so the black one must be Ryan’s. He scanned the backpack and noticed something electronic visible through a mesh pocket. An iPod. He took a couple of steps and reached forward with a trembling hand. You’re being a complete idiot, he thought as his fingers closed on the thin rectangle and wrenched it free.
“Now I’ve got to figure out what to do with you.” Ryan seemed to take pleasure in his cat and mouse taunting of Thomas.
“I … I won’t do it again.”
“Oh, I know you won’t after I’m done.” Ryan’s hands shifted to grab two fistfuls of Thomas’s shirt. He whirled him around only to stop short when he saw Erick.
Erick stood at the outside corner of the bathroom stall closest to the door. His right arm extended behind him at an odd angle so he wouldn’t be trapped in the stall. The iPod dangled above the toilet.
“Let him go.” Erick wanted the words to have some bite, but found his mouth dry, leaving his tongue thick and hard to maneuver.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed as they darted between Erick and his iPod. “This is none of your business.” His hands unclenched slightly on Thomas’s shirt, giving Erick a sign that somehow this would work.
“He’s my friend, so I guess it is my business.”
“You really don’t want to mess with me, so put that back where you found it and get the hell out of here.”
“I’m not messing with you. Just let Thomas go." Erick thought it came out more like a plea than a threat.
“You got it,” Ryan said, but the tone was far from conciliatory. He let go of Thomas’s shirt, then gave him a quick shove that sent him landing on his ass. Ryan’s eyes locked with Erick’s. “It’s you and me now.”
Erick stared back while his heart pounded in his ears. This was not going the way he’d envisioned only seconds before.
Thomas turned over and scrambled to get himself off the floor. In his haste, his shoes couldn’t get a grip on the worn linoleum.
Ryan took a step toward Erick just as Thomas’s foot shot out from under him, right into Ryan’s path, causing him to stumble forward.
Erick jerked back to avoid the impact, but felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder as his movement was stopped by the stall partition wall. The pain caused his fingers to relax enough for the iPod to slip through and make a dull plop as it hit the water.
One long second passed for Erick to see his empty hand, then instinct took over. He swore as he darted over Ryan’s sprawled form, wrenched open the restroom door, and ran. Clearing the door, he could hear Ryan scrambling up, cursing.
Erick sprinted down the empty corridor and slowed only enough to round the corner bringing him to the main doors. Running full speed, he banged against the doors, pushing them out of his way, and launched himself into the warm spring air. He never broke stride as he darted through the large metal gates and past the staring students still waiting for rides.
If he was thinking clearly, he would have gone into the safety of the office. His only thought was to run. He crossed the street, barely casting a look for oncoming cars, fleeing into the weed-strewn vacant lot across from the school. Erick’s eyes zeroed in on the small stand of trees beyond the edge of the lot, the last vestiges of a natural landscape overtaken by suburban sprawl, and like himself, living on borrowed time.
He ran toward the trees. If he could just make it to them, he’d be okay.
The foolish thought was extinguished when he heard the crunch of feet behind him. The fast-paced footfalls grew louder.
A masochistic curiosity drew Erick’s eyes over his shoulder. He saw Ryan swiftly closing the distance between them.
Erick’s chest burned, and blood pounded in his head as he willed himself to go faster. The effort was futile. Ryan wasn’t going to give up.
He pumped his arms harder. The edge of the wood came nearer.
Just inside the line of trees a small area shimmered in the dappled shade, like heat waves coming off blacktop in summer. Erick felt drawn to the gentle distortion that beckoned to him as if it could protect him from the mess he created. He ran toward it.
Panic grew as his strength waned, and he now could hear Ryan’s heavy breathing. He stumbled only a few yards into the quiet woods, and the strange haze engulfed him. Suddenly, he felt the hard clap of a hand coming down like a manacle on his left shoulder. Erick’s knees buckled, then he was falling.
Erick found himself lying face-down in cool, dry, matted leaves. He struggled to recall what happened when Ryan caught him. Maybe there was a punch, but he didn’t feel pain. He knew if he had blacked out he would only remember the before and after. What made this wrong was he remembered the blackness — the feeling of falling and the silent utter blackness.
He inhaled sharply. A heavy weight pressed down on him, making it difficult to breathe in the pungent earthy air. The weight groaned, shifted, and rolled to the side.
Erick raised himself and saw Ryan lying on his back, blinking rapidly and breathing deeply. He then took in their surroundings. They were new and strange.
He and Ryan sat in a woods, but clearly not the same one they’d been in moments before. The towering trees looked ancient, with massive trunks and roots as thick as his leg, extending out, clutching at the ground. The canopy formed by the giants made a dark roof which blocked out sunlight and smothered any breath of a breeze making the air feel heavy and oppressive in the gloom. The most striking thing about this place was the absolute quiet. Erick couldn’t hear any of the wildlife one might expect in nature. No sound to hear at all. The eerie silence unnerved him.
“Where the hell are we?” The sound of Ryan’s voice made him jump. The suddenness of the whispered words seemed unnaturally loud in the stillness.
Erick didn’t answer. He had no idea as to where they could be, although he thought Ryan’s use of “hell” might not be far off. He began to feel dizzy as his eyes darted around for anything familiar. In the midst of his panic he focused on the only real thing in this surreal situation. Ryan. Ryan was real.
A split second later Ryan rolled and launched himself at Erick, knocking him back onto the forest floor. The speed at which he came stunned Erick, leaving him helpless as Ryan grabbed his shirt and shook him.
“What did you do? How did we get here?” Ryan panted in his face.
Erick felt his head thud against the thick layer of leaves as he tried to make sense of the questions.
Ryan shook him harder until Erick felt his teeth begin to rattle. “Where are we?” he yelled in Erick’s face. “Tell me! Where the hell are we?”
Erick began to claw at Ryan’s hands to make him stop. Stop the questions he couldn’t answer. Stop the shaking that pounded his head against the ground. Stop making him more scared than he already was.
When he couldn’t get himself free he began hitting Ryan’s arms. “I don’t know,” he yelled over and over until his eyes and throat both burned, and the impossible questions ended.
Ryan finally released Erick and shifted away from him. He sat up, drew his knees in, and covered his head with his arms.
While catching his breath, Erick watched while Ryan rocked himself back and forth. He felt a tightness on his cheeks and reached up to wipe the tears that hadn’t evaporated yet. He hadn’t realized he’d been crying, but the worst part was knowing Ryan knew. He continued to watch Ryan, afraid if he looked away somehow he would disappear.
After a time, Ryan’s rocking subsided. He reached down, plucked a large dead leaf off the ground, and began tracing the edges with his finger. After numerous passes he unceremoniously let the leaf drop back to the ground, then stood and surveyed their surroundings. Erick noticed that he appeared calm, or at least had come to terms with the situation. Without a word, Ryan started to walk off into the gloom.
Erick scrambled up, not knowing what their plan was. He quickly took a step after Ryan, reached out and touched his shoulder. “Wait—”
Ryan wheeled around, placed his hands on Erick’s chest and shoved him back. Startled, Erick lost his footing, fell backwards, and hit the ground with a loud huff. He sat there, looking up blankly at Ryan.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I … I just think sticking together would be better.”
Ryan began to brush the dirt and leaves off himself. “You can do what you want, but I’m out of here.”
“Maybe we should stay put and wait.”
“Wait for what? Answers?” Ryan mocked. “There’s no food, no water, and this doesn’t look like the kind of place that gets visitors often. I need to find out what’s going on, and it’s not going to happen sitting on my ass.”
“We might get lost.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Erick knew how stupid they sounded.
“Lost? Take a look around you and get a clue! Lost means you started from somewhere you knew with the intention of going to a place that exists and simply didn’t make it there. In case you haven’t noticed, we had no intention of coming to this place, and now we’re nowhere!”
Erick glanced at the never-ending expanse of forest while getting to his feet. “You’re right,” he admitted grudgingly. “But we should still stick together.”
Ryan fixed Erick with a look that could melt steel, then turned and started making his way through the ancient trees. “Make sure you keep up,” he called out without looking back.
Erick hesitated for only a second before he hurried after Ryan. He hated Ryan more than ever, but hated the thought of being alone in this unknown place even more.
They trudged through the stifling gloom for what seemed like hours. Erick studied his surroundings while he hiked after Ryan. Bushes wove themselves around the massive tree trunks. Tortured branches shrouded by large dark leaves, grew right out of the ancient giants’ sprawling roots. They reminded him of parasites using a host to survive in this forbidding place.
Erick noticed the forest dimming, but wasn’t sure if it was the coming of dusk or his eyes playing tricks on him. The thick canopy didn’t allow him to see what direction the light came from, and everything seemed unchanged. They could have been going in endless circles, like rats in a maze, but Ryan’s desire for a way out kept them moving.
The silence between them became magnified in the still forest, punctuated only by the sound of their breathing and the steady swoosh of feet swiping through dead leaves. Erick followed Ryan steadily and unquestioningly. Why not? He had no more of an idea where they were going than Ryan did, and questioning him didn’t seem wise. Ryan never looked back to see if he followed, but Erick was sure he could hear him.
When darkness overtook them, Ryan came to a stop at a particularly overgrown area and sat with his back against a large fallen tree. Erick hesitated, then sat a few feet from Ryan, resting against the same tree. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt random pulses flickering through his tired legs and tried to ignore the thirst parching his throat. In all their wandering they had never once come across any type of water.
“What’s your name?”
Erick jumped slightly at the sound of Ryan’s voice, but kept his head back and eyes closed. “Erick. Erick Porter.”
A long pause followed. “I don’t remember seeing you at school.”
Erick felt like saying, It’s kind of hard to notice a white spot on a white wall, but decided to keep it simple. “We don’t have any classes together, and I don’t play sports.”
Ryan snickered. “Yeah, I can tell.”
Erick let the remark slide mainly because he was tired, and Ryan’s assessment rang true. Although nearly as tall as Ryan, he was slender and not in any way athletic.
After another long pause, Ryan broke the silence again. “Don’t you want to know my name?”
Erick opened his eyes and glared at Ryan. “I know who you are.”
Ryan gave an arrogant nod of approval. “That’s good. It’ll make things much easier between us. While we’re here, you’ll do everything I say. If you don’t like it, then you can take off any time you want. If you become a problem, I’ll ditch you without a second thought.” Ryan stretched out beside the fallen tree and turned his back to him.
Erick wasn’t surprised at Ryan’s words and knew it was a pointless waste of air to say anything back. He picked a smooth spot on the ground to spend the night, noting the still air remained comfortably warm. He was only in short sleeves, his sweatshirt left behind with his backpack.
Fear began to steal through him as he peered out into the forest. His eyes strained against the encroaching blackness slowly swallowing everything around him. Erick found himself envying his backpack. More than anything he wanted to be home with his parents where it was safe and everything known. This place offered nothing but the unknown. Alone in the silent dark, and with nothing to distract him, his unanswered questions hammered against his brain.
A chant of whispered words began to fall from Erick’s lips, weaving a calming spell. After a few moments, he realized he was praying. Actually, it was more like begging and pleading, but he didn’t care. He even threw in a few promises for extra emphasis. After his self-pitying litany ran its course, and weariness began to leave his mind numb, he decided to focus on the only good thing in this situation. Thanks for not sending me here alone.
Erick abruptly woke from his restless sleep when a hand clamped roughly over his mouth. His eyes flew open, and he tried to jerk his body away from the pressing hand, but he was pinned down by Ryan. The dim light told him morning had barely arrived. His eyes widened in fear when he saw the alarm on Ryan’s face, and his lips formed a silent Shhh.
Erick quit struggling, and Ryan moved off him. He motioned for Erick to follow, then started crawling on hands and knees, keeping close to the fallen tree. Erick followed Ryan as they made their way down the length of it. The splintered end of the log became lost in a tangled web of branches and green-black leaves of the next tree. The thick brush gave them enough cover to peer unseen into the forest spreading out before them.
Erick heard the sound. The soft plodding of a four-footed animal making its way through the layers of decaying leaves. Slowly the figures wove their way through the trees, coming into their line of sight. Two of them, each riding the strange animals like horses and covered in black hooded cloaks. The material draped in heavy folds and fell past their feet. The deep hoods were pulled up, completely obscuring their faces. Only their hands, clutching the reins of their mounts, were exposed, revealing black skin stretched tight over long gnarled bones. The fingers thinned until they resembled claws more than fingertips.
The four-legged creatures mirrored the riders’ frightening appearance. They were completely black, emaciated looking, with a moist sheen on the hairless skin. The head reminded Erick of a horse’s, though painfully elongated. Long rows of serrated teeth were set into narrow extended jaws, and the pointed snouts held large slit-like nostrils. Where eyes would have been, nothing but large hollowed sockets remained. Starting at the base of the skull, boney projections proceeded down the neck and must have continued along the back. The tail looked like vertebrae strung together and covered with tight black skin.
The two riders rode together as much as the forest growth would allow. They ambled at a casual pace, but with a sense of purpose. Within a few long agonizing moments, the closest rider plodded within four feet of the boys. Then, in the heavy oppressive air, the smell reached them. A sickening sharp scent mingled with the overpowering stench of decaying flesh turned Erick’s stomach with the first inhale.
Erick swiftly clamped his jaws together and pursed his lips to fight back a reflexive gag. Despite his effort to keep silent, a sound came from the back of his throat. The closest rider paused to glance in the general direction of the small noise. His face, shrouded by the concealing hood, didn’t allow Erick to make out any features in the darkness. But he was pretty sure, based on what the hands looked like and the putrid smell, he didn’t want to see what was hidden inside.
The second rider paused as well, and the seconds continued to stretch unbearably long. Erick could feel the panic rising, making his heart race. His muscles tensed and quivered, readying his body to bolt at first sign of discovery. The rider, though, eventually became satisfied with the silence and started to slowly move on with the second rider matching the casual pace.
Ryan and Erick remained concealed long after the riders left until certain they were out of earshot. They extricated themselves from their shelter of branches and began to run, flat out, in the opposite direction of the riders. Tripping over gnarled roots, stumbling over rocks, and pushing through grabbing branches, Erick had one thought: We’re in hell.
Erick, hunched over on hands and knees, retched violently. Not having had anything to eat nor drink for almost a day, it was more a series of dry heaves rasping against his throat. He finally collapsed, breathing deeply. He glanced to the side and saw Ryan sitting a few feet away, watching him with a slight smirk.
Erick closed his eyes, wondering how Ryan remained so calm. Hunger and thirst he could deal with, although both were tapping his strength, but those … things shook him to his core. Every nerve in his body told him they were evil, and he shuddered to think there could be more in this forest.
When his stomach stopped roiling around, Erick sat up.
“You look like shit.” Ryan’s voice held no sympathy.
“Yeah, well, I feel like it, too.” Erick’s throat hurt, and his head throbbed. With a shaky hand he tried to sweep away the strands of hair sticking to his clammy forehead. Erick found it easier to let his eyes close than trying to keep them open. Everything seemed washed out and distant anyway. Exhausted, he didn’t care if he slipped into the waiting darkness and never woke up. It couldn’t be worse than here.
“Did you hear me?”
The loud voice cut through his stupor, and Erick blinked to find Ryan’s face mere inches from his own. He tried focusing on the brown eyes boring into his, but it was just too difficult, and his lids drooped again. He heard Ryan curse, then felt fingers digging into his shoulders. The pain was enough to make Erick open his eyes again.
“We need to get going. We can’t stay here. We need to find water and get more distance between us and those things.” Ryan enunciated every word slowly and clearly, and the seriousness of his expression suggested he was more rattled than he let on.
The words and look registered. Erick nodded and tried getting his feet under him. The hands on his shoulders tightened, and Ryan pulled him up, letting go once Erick stopped swaying. Ryan turned, took a few steps, then looked back. Erick took a couple unsteady steps, then a couple more. Ryan started walking while Erick staggered behind him. Just follow. Don’t think. Just follow.
Not knowing whether mere minutes passed or lengthy hours, Erick was jarred back to awareness by a bright stabbing light. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness of the midday sun, he found he was standing on top of a bank that dropped about twenty feet to a large sparkling and tumbling river. On the opposite bank a wide grassy meadow stretched and rolled until reaching the base of mountains. High grey purple peaks jutted far into the cloudless blue sky. On their side of the bank, the forest continued without end.
Erick followed Ryan down the steep embankment, slipping every few feet, until he reached the shore. Zeroing in on the water, Erick’s strides lengthened across the sand.
“Drink only a little,” Ryan called out as Erick dropped to his knees near the water’s edge. He knew Ryan’s advice was probably wise, but when he cupped the water to his mouth and the coolness flowed down his parched throat, he found he couldn’t stop drinking. He drew more and more water to his face and sucked it in, barely stopping to breathe.
It didn’t take long before he leaned over the sand and threw up. Ryan snickered as Erick rolled over onto his back, closed his eyes, and let the sunlight wash over him. He didn’t care if Ryan laughed at him. He was just thankful they’d found water.
After a couple of minutes, he returned to the water and sipped small amounts. He glanced over to see Ryan sitting with his legs extended straight out, his upper body angled back supported by his elbows. His face, with eyes closed, tilted back while a light breeze lifted strands of his long wavy brown hair. His relaxed posture gave Erick the hope they were going to stay here awhile.
They ended up staying the rest of the afternoon resting in the warm sun and drinking the cool water. The sun began to sink lower in the sky and before it touched the horizon, Ryan stood. “You’d better take one more drink before we head back into the forest.”
Erick’s eyes grew wide upon hearing he’d have to go back into that dreaded place. “Why?”
Instantly he regretted questioning Ryan when he saw his jaw set. He glared at Erick, but paused before he spoke. “We’re out in the open here. With the noise of the river, we won’t hear anything until it’s too late.”
Erick noticed the effort Ryan made not to yell at him, so he reluctantly nodded in agreement. He didn’t like the idea of going back into the forest, but he disliked the idea of pissing off Ryan by arguing even more.
Erick took a last long drink from the river, then waited for Ryan to take the lead. They scrambled up the embankment and walked until the sound of the river was just a murmur in the stillness.
Ryan picked out a sheltered area where the branches hung low, and the ground was well padded with leaves. “How about you take the first watch tonight? You look better than you did earlier, and I think it would be a good idea if one of us stays awake while the other sleeps.”
Erick nodded. “Sure.” The request was fair, and he felt rather obligated to comply.
Ryan returned the nod, then stretched out on the ground. “When you start dropping off, wake me up.”
Soon Erick heard Ryan’s breathing become slow and deep in the silence. Time passed slowly, and he did his best to stay awake long enough for Ryan to get some rest. When he caught his head repeatedly dropping down to his chest, he gave up and woke Ryan to take over. Erick lay on his makeshift bed of leaves and, without any effort, drifted into sleep.
He was walking through the gloom of the forest again, anxiously looking for something. The longer it took to find it, the faster he went until he was stumbling and crawling through the forest. He was going too slow! Panic started to set in as he realized he’d never find him. “Wait for me! Don’t leave!”
Erick heard the muffled galloping of hooves on the forest floor. Turning his head, he could see the black rider coming fast through the trees. A scream caught in his throat, and the ground came up to meet him when his foot caught an exposed root, tripping him. The rider stopped his mount and dropped lightly to the ground. Erick frantically scrambled to get himself off the ground, but he kept slipping on the dried leaves. Striding swiftly, the black figure was almost on top of Erick. A gnarled black hand extended toward his throat. “Ryan!”
Erick struggled violently against the grip. Something was clamped over his mouth and nose, cutting off his air, while he tried to scream.
“Shut up!” Ryan hissed into his ear. Erick opened his eyes in the dim morning light to see Ryan’s furious face right next to his. One of Ryan’s hands gripped the back of his neck painfully hard and the other was still firmly over his mouth. Erick stopped struggling, and the silence resumed. Then they heard the soft galloping of hooves on the leaf-littered forest floor.
Ryan cursed repeatedly in low whispers. Erick’s eyes grew wide, and his body stiffened. Ryan quickly brought his hands down to grab the front of Erick’s shirt. He pulled Erick, seemingly without effort, to his feet and threw him behind a large bush growing next to a massive tree. Ryan grabbed a short thick branch off the ground and hid himself behind the tree. All they could do was wait. It was too late to run.
The galloping grew steadily louder. It was a lot more than two this time. The dull muffled pounding came to a stop nearby, followed by the sound of riders dismounting.
Erick had a difficult time seeing anything clearly through the mass of leaves. He adjusted his head, careful not to make any noise, so his line of sight found a small opening. He glanced at Ryan’s back and saw him poised and ready with his makeshift club. Erick wondered if Ryan realized his attempt to defend them was a futile effort given the dozen or so newcomers. He turned his head to peer through the tangled branches and felt the tension in his body lessen. They weren’t the black riders.
The new arrivals were fair-skinned and similar to each other looks-wise. They were small in stature, none taller than himself, and slender, with narrow angular features and black arched eyebrows. Long arms and legs allowed them to move in a smooth, sinuous fashion. Most wore their long black hair in ponytails.
Differences between them were subtle; height, hair texture, and some showed graying at the temples. Their clothing, consisting of long-sleeved tunic tops, leggings, and soft-looking boots, were in shades of green, brown, and tan.
Human-like, Erick determined, but definitely not human. Their eyes more than anything else gave this away. The colors were more vibrant than human eyes. Normal colors of blue, green, and brown, became absolutely striking against the pale skin and black hair. But the gold hue in some and obsidian black in others made these people look completely inhuman.
Although grateful they weren’t the black riders, Erick had no intention of approaching them. They fanned out to examine the area, and all were armed with narrow bladed swords.
While he concentrated on studying the visitors, one of them drifted in front of his hiding place. He started at the unexpected appearance. He focused his eyes to observe the passing figure and noticed this one was short, and the hair tumbled long and wavy down the back. Though thin like the others, the small waist gave the appearance of slight curves. The head and upper body turned to almost face Erick, and his breath caught. Female!
She turned away and continued to silently make her way in front of the massive tree, coming unknowingly closer to Ryan’s raised club. Although he couldn’t see nor hear her approach, Erick could see Ryan was ready to bring the club down at first sight. There were only seconds left.
Erick sprung from the brush, leaping onto Ryan’s back and thrusting them forward past the concealing trunk, causing them to tumble to the ground. In an instant, Ryan rolled, flattening Erick to the ground while straddling him. Erick saw Ryan’s face twisted in fury and his fist raised. The fist froze when a sword tip pressed against his throat. Erick glanced away from Ryan to see the female’s face cold and glaring, her hands gripping the sword tightly. Erick knew, and he was sure Ryan did, too, she wouldn’t hesitate in running the blade through.
Well … It seemed like a good idea at the time, Erick thought ruefully, looking down at his bound hands. Only a matter of seconds had passed from his jumping on Ryan until the strange people converged on them with sharp pointed swords. He and Ryan weren’t asked any questions; in fact, their captors said nothing at all as they were quickly bound and hoisted onto the back of the animals the strangers rode in on.
The unusual creatures mirrored the people they belonged to, thin and fragile. Narrow heads held large dark eyes and no manes softened their long necks. They reminded Erick of llamas with their short, thick light-colored hair, their silent nature, and their smooth gliding gait. They were a comfortable means of travel.
He thought he’d done the right thing, but now they were captured, and Ryan was beyond furious with him. Ryan hadn’t looked his way even once since being pulled off him in the clearing. Only now did Erick understand his actions nearly got them both killed.
Erick peered over his shoulder. Riding quite a few yards back, he spied the female he stopped Ryan from clubbing. He turned back before she noticed his staring. After his brief glance, he decided he’d done the right thing no matter what their present situation. He wasn’t sure if Ryan would ever agree. Thinking of Ryan caused a knot to form in the pit of his stomach.
He slumped over to rest his head against the soft neck of his mount, lulled by the smooth gliding motion of the animal. He closed his eyes, the changing scenery no longer held his interest. But finally, oppressive gloom gave way to a new lightness. The trees were younger, not as massive, and sunlight broke through the thinning canopy in wispy golden shafts. Every now and then a faint breath of a breeze touched his face, but the forest still seemed never ending.
“You look like you need to eat."
Erick’s eyes snapped open at the sound of the gentle voice. He raised his head and looked cautiously to the left. Riding next to him was the small black-haired female.
Startled by the abruptness of her approach and the surprise of hearing her speak English played havoc on Erick’s brain. He was already slow to process the things which were happening, but seeing her close up only made it worse. He couldn’t remember what she just said.
Her brows furrowed as she studied him, then her attention turned to opening a large flap on what appeared to be a saddle pack. She reached in the large brown cloth sack and withdrew a cream-colored item that resembled a biscuit.
Erick blinked, trying to focus his thoughts. Something about her eyes caught his attention, but his brain was in a fog, and he didn’t know what it was.
She looked back to him and held out the food. “You need to eat.”
Erick blinked again. Lavender. Her eyes were lavender. He never was a fan of purple nor any shade close to it, but this color was an intriguing mix of grey and blue with hints of violet he’d never seen before. He continued to stare at her eyes, still studying the unusual hue until it won him over completely.
She smiled, a small one that brought a tender curl to her lips, apparently mistaking his blank expression for apprehension.
“It’s safe. See?” She brought the biscuit up to her mouth and took a small bite. She swallowed and offered the item back to him, encouragingly.
Still staring, he reached out with his bound hands. She scowled at the cords wrapped around his wrists, and her free hand went to her belt, drawing forth a small dagger. Before the sharp object could register in his thoughts, she passed the blade between his hands. The thin ropes fell from his wrists to land silently on the forest floor. While she sheathed her dagger, his eyes glanced to her nearest companion and saw the unmistakable look of disapproval.
He looked back to see her smiling once again, and he took the biscuit from her. Erick took a bite and found it to be rather soft, but not airy like bread. It melted in his mouth as he chewed, and he enjoyed the flavors which reminded him of honey, nuts, and butter. He finished it in three more bites, feeling the fog lift from his brain.
His eyes drifted, and he found her watching him with those lavender eyes. He knew his face held an expectant look because she laughed and asked, “Would you like another?”
He nodded back, so she reached into her bag, withdrew another biscuit, and held it out to him. As he reached forward, she pulled the offering back out of his reach. Stunned, he glanced at her face and saw a playful grin.
“Do you want me to take a bite of this one, too?” she teased.
Erick smiled shyly back at her. “No, I trust you.”
She considered his response while handing him the biscuit. “You should be careful in trusting so easily.” She grinned, but Erick could sense the truth in what she said.
She continued to study him while he ate, and he became very self-conscious. He’d never been comfortable around girls, the necessary thing called conversation always tripping him up. He felt like a babbling idiot if he tried to talk to anyone he liked. Talking as little as possible seemed to be the best alternative, but it always would come across as disinterest to any girl he tried it on.
To distract himself from her staring, he shifted his focus and caught the many glaring looks being given to her by her companions. “Your friends don’t seem happy you’re talking to me.”
She surprised him by giving a short laugh. “They’re displeased I’ve chosen to trust you. They feel it unwise given the circumstances. Although, it might be safer if I knew your name.”
“Erick,” he responded with a little more confidence.
“Mine’s Shayla.” She paused as her eyes glanced over to Ryan. “Your friend doesn’t seem too pleased with you.”
“He’s not my friend.”
Her expression became puzzled. She asked a question different from the one Erick expected. “Why did you stop him from hurting me?”
Erick felt his ears and cheeks warm, and he didn’t look at her when answering. “It was the right thing to do.”
“But you didn’t know us nor our purpose. We could’ve killed you.”
Erick shrugged. He couldn’t tell her the real reason, although what he told her was true. At the time all he could think of was she was female and pretty.
“Your companion isn’t like you. I get the feeling he doesn’t trust anyone.”
The source of the knot revealed itself upon hearing her words. Erick realized he violated whatever minute amount of trust Ryan had in him. His guilt spurred him into coming to Ryan’s defense. “He’s been cautious since we saw the others.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What others?”
The image of the dark riders entered his mind. He paled as the fear of them renewed itself. “They were … black.”
“Drahuillin!” she whispered. Her voice stayed low, and she seemed to be talking more to herself than to Erick. “We came as soon as we could. Could they know?”
Erick stared at her questioningly.
She smiled at him with the same light curl of her lips, but it didn’t distract him from noticing traces of fear in her face and eyes. “I’m glad we found you, and we hope you’ll agree.”
“I’m glad you found me,” the words tumbled out, and Erick turned pink, convinced he put too much emphasis on the word “you” and wasn’t sure what she would make of it.
Her expression became unreadable, but her eyes went to his, and Erick knew she picked up on his inflection, causing his flush to deepen. He tried to drop his eyes from hers, but he couldn’t break away from the unusual color.
“I need to speak with the others about what you told me,” Shayla said.
Erick felt a pang of disappointment in hearing she’d be leaving. She was the nicest thing he experienced since coming here.
Shayla must have noticed the expression and responded quickly, “I’ll see you again soon. Promise.”
He nodded, and she left to join the riders near the front. He watched her go, then remembered parts of their conversation. Something she said puzzled him. We came as soon as we could. Were they looking for him and Ryan? Still staring after her, he began to get the feeling they hadn’t come here by accident.
After a long day of riding, darkness began to settle on the quiet group. They stopped at a large clearing in the thinning forest. Erick clumsily dismounted, his legs wobbly from the many hours of riding. He looked to see someone cut through the cords binding Ryan’s hands before he slid off the back of his mount.
One of the strangers came up to Erick and handed him a couple of blankets. The tan fabric was heavy, but soft to the touch. The male motioned for Erick to go over to Ryan. Erick cringed. He knew Ryan was still pissed and felt it too soon to approach him, but he also knew he’d have to be the one to try and set things right between them at some point. The male motioned again for him to move, leaving him no choice.
He walked toward Ryan, who already took a seat on the ground, and when he got within arm’s length of him, Erick held out one of the blankets. Ryan stared at Erick, his eyes still smoldering with the heat of his anger.
Erick took a deep breath while still holding the blanket out to him. This is going to be hard. “I’m sorry for earlier today. You know, getting us caught and —”
Ryan’s hand came down on the blanket, pulling it roughly out of Erick’s grasp and causing him to stumble forward. “Just forget it, Porter.”
Erick retreated and found a spot on the ground quite a few feet from him. He knew “forget it” was directed toward his attempted apology, not about the incident. Ryan wasn’t likely to forget anytime soon. Maybe if Ryan had punched him things would be better now.
Staring out into the clearing, Erick watched the rest of the group working to set up a makeshift camp. A small cooking fire was built, and soon the smell of food came drifting over, causing his stomach to grumble in response.
Soon food arrived in small wooden bowls with wooden spoons. It was a type of stew, although he couldn’t distinguish any recognizable vegetables. The steaming light brown mush tasted good. Very good. They wolfed it down, plus the seconds that followed, along with some of the light colored biscuits.
After they finished eating, Ryan broke the silence. “What was she telling you?”
Erick turned toward him. He noticed Ryan’s face had lost its anger, leaving him looking tired. Erick figured he could safely shift his position to face him. “Her name is Shayla. The black riders — I think she called them Drahuillin — don’t seem to be liked by these people either.” He paused to see Ryan’s reaction. He still seemed to be listening, so Erick continued. “She said something interesting. She said they were looking for us. I think they had something to do with us coming here.”
Ryan’s brows furrowed. “Why are we here?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t get to ask.”
Ryan was silent while he unfolded his blanket, preparing to spread it on the ground closer to Erick.
Erick followed suit, spreading his blanket out so it was only a couple of feet away from Ryan’s. He glanced over to read his expression, but Ryan didn’t seem to be bothered by the close proximity.
The blankets were wide enough so they could be folded in half and used like a sleeping bag. Both boys lay on their backs and peered up through the thinning canopy at the evening sky. Stars sparkled and appeared brilliant set against the deep black of the night. Ryan seemed to be studying the stars, but Erick couldn’t find any familiar patterns.
“Is this our sky?” Erick asked Ryan timidly.
Erick was rather surprised. No snickering. No sarcasm. No annoyance. Just a straight answer. He felt brave enough to ask another question. “Do you think we’ll go home?”
Ryan let out a low humorless chuckle. “I don’t have a home, so I guess I don’t really give a shit if we get back or not.”
Erick couldn’t help but turn his head to look at Ryan. “Won’t your parents worry if you don’t come home?”
Ryan still stared at the sky. “I don’t have parents.”
Erick continued to study him, curiosity starting to burn. He wanted to ask Ryan what happened to his parents, but didn’t. Instead, he asked a different question. “Isn’t someone going to be worried about you? Miss you?”
Ryan finally turned to look at Erick, his face hard and voice mocking. “Do you really think anyone would be worried about what happens to me?”
Erick knew Ryan made liking him nearly impossible. With his limited experience with Ryan, it was almost believable no one cared about him. Almost believable.
“Although,” Ryan continued while looking back up at the sky, “they’ll probably miss the checks.”
Erick’s eyes widened as understanding slowly sank in. Foster care! He didn’t say anything more and returned to gaze at the stars.
“Your parents are going to be worried.”
Erick shifted uncomfortably in response to the statement. “Yeah. Really worried. They always know where I’m at.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No, I’m an only child, which probably makes it worse for them.” Then Erick looked back to Ryan. “What about you?”
“I’m the only one.” His tone gave Erick the impression this subject was coming to a close. Erick said no more.
“Maybe tomorrow, if they decide to talk to us, we can find out why the hell we’re here.” Ryan rolled over with his back to Erick and promptly settled in to sleep.
Erick’s eyes stayed focused on Ryan’s back for awhile. His last words relieved Erick’s unspoken fear that he’d take off during the night. Escaping these people wasn’t in his immediate plans and he’d still be here in the morning.
He thought about their brief conversation. He knew he didn’t like Ryan, but after recent events, he honestly couldn’t say he hated him. It was more like a building curiosity with the numerous unasked questions circulating in his head.
Yawning, he peered back up at the twinkling lights. The mention of his parents brought on a wave of homesickness. Unlike Ryan, he wanted to get back home. If they were brought here by these people, then they could send Ryan and him back home, maybe as soon as tomorrow, but Erick doubted it. There had to be a reason these people needed them, and they probably couldn’t go home until the need was fulfilled. Erick started to drift off to sleep. As his last thoughts faded, he hoped what they had to do wouldn’t be difficult.
Erick awoke and saw Ryan was gone, but he didn’t worry. He knew he woke Ryan earlier with his returning nightmare and hoped he hadn’t bothered him too much. He’d fallen asleep feeling quite safe, trusting these people would protect them if the Drahuillin showed up, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the black images out of his dreams.
He got up, mulling over the brief conversation from last night and trying to figure out the source of his curiosity. As he wandered over to the edge of the clearing to get a drink from a water skin hanging on a low branch of a bordering tree, he thought maybe he was just being nosey. He admitted that was partly the reason, but there was something more, something not making sense about Ryan.
After taking a drink, he heard someone approaching and glanced over his shoulder. His curiosity turned to unease when he saw the cold glare on Ryan’s face and the stiffness in his posture. He ran through things he might have done to piss Ryan off. All he could think of was he woke him up too early this morning.
Ryan walked right up to the water skin next to Erick, glaring at him the whole time. Erick decided to pretend not to notice his mood. “Have you seen Shayla this morning?”
Ryan gave a snort. “You’re so pathetic.”
Erick felt the sharp jab of the words. “What?”
“I can’t believe you like that thing!” Ryan’s eyes stayed focused on his face.
Erick felt himself flush, whether out of anger or embarrassment, and he saw Ryan’s smirk grow. “She’s nice,” he muttered.
“You need to wake up and realize why she’s being nice to you. We were brought here for some reason. They need us, and she’ll do anything it takes to make you willing.” Ryan paused. “It won’t take much. We’ve already seen you in action. All you need is a tail to go with your panting tongue.”
Erick’s mouth began to open even though he had no words ready. It didn’t matter because Ryan wasn’t going to let him say anything.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking she actually likes you.” He smirked while shaking his head. “Look at yourself. You’re just someone she can easily manipulate and you were eating it up. Even if she was seriously interested, you wouldn't know the first thing to do with a girl even if you were given a map. Just give it up and stop embarrassing yourself. It's painful even for me to watch.”
Erick trembled, fists clenching. He never felt like hitting anything in his life, but now he wanted to feel his fist colliding with the side of Ryan’s face. Before he could act on the impulse, he whirled around and stalked off to get as far from Ryan as he could.
What an asshole! The farther Erick got away from Ryan, the less he felt like hitting him, although he was still angry. Just when things appeared to be alright between them, Ryan had to blow it up. Shaking his head, Erick realized something was seriously wrong with this guy, but maybe there was something wrong with himself as well. He found himself too easily sucked into Ryan’s mood swings. The smart thing to do would be to write him off and ignore him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe he was pathetic.
Erick wandered through the camp and found himself being drawn to the strange animals they rode in on. They were loosely grouped at the far edge of the clearing, staring silently at him with their large dark eyes as he approached.
He held out his hand to the closest one and stopped. The tan creature brought its narrow head forward, the nostrils widening and narrowing as the animal took in Erick’s scent. Erick moved forward and reached out to stroke the long graceful neck. He began to relax while moving his hand along the length of the neck, letting his fingers sink into the soft hair.
“They’re called ranallas.”
Erick didn’t look at Shayla, but gave a quick lift of his chin to indicate he heard her. “What are you called?” he asked at length.
“We’re Nahuil. I guess you could tell we’re not human, although we seem to be closely related.”
Shayla came over and began stroking a ranalla next to the one Erick was petting. “Does it bother you I’m not human?”
He thought about her question for a moment. “No.” He could tell she was watching him, but he wasn’t brave enough to face her. The words Ryan said were still in the forefront of his thoughts, overriding the urge to be polite. He kept his focus on the ranalla. “Does it bother you that I’m human?”
“No,” Shayla said. The bit of a lilt in her one syllable answer suggested a laugh.
Curiosity got the better of Erick and he turned his head to look at her. The soft curl of her lips and the brightness of those lavender eyes told Erick she found humor in his question. As much as the unusual color invited his attention, he shifted his eyes back to the silent animal in front of him.
“Are you alright?”
Now it was his turn to find the humor in her question. There were so many things not right, including himself. “No.” He gave a dry chuckle.
Erick was going to leave it at that. Trying to explain how he felt about making sense of everything happening recently would lead him into unknown emotional territory. Silence was the safer option but he didn’t want Shayla to leave.
He let out a deep breath. “It’s Ryan.” He was still rather pissed which would make the topic safe enough.
“What?” She sounded confused.
“The person I came here with … that’s his name.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“I don’t think he wants to like me.”
“Do you like him?”
“No.” Then Erick winced and shook his head. “I don’t know. He just makes it hard.”
“But you’re trying anyway … to like him.”
Erick shrugged. “He’s the only thing I’ve got from my world.” He decided to take another step. “Why are we here?”
The question caused her to bite her lower lip, but then she gave him a quick smile. “I’m already going to be in enough trouble for talking to you. By today’s end your question will be answered. You’re safe with us, Erick.”
It was the first time she had said his name, dividing and stressing the syllables in a unique way, making his ordinary name sound foreign and exotic. He replayed the sound in his mind a few times and it left him trusting everything she said. It left him trusting her.
Suddenly many of the Nahuil came to get the ranallas ready for riding. Shayla handed Erick two small sacks. “This is some food for our journey today. One for you and one for Ryan.”
Erick instantly tried to give the sack back to her. “I don’t think he wants to see me now.”
“I didn’t say you had to give it to him now. You decide when.” Then she smiled. “I know you won’t let him go too long without.” Walking away, she glanced over her shoulder, gauging his reaction.
Erick watched her for a moment, then surveyed the clearing. Ryan sat on top of a large boulder, staring into the forest. His first instinct was to deal with this later, confrontation not being something he normally engaged in, but he found his feet taking him to the boulder. When he got within a couple yards, he saw Ryan sit up a little more, obviously aware someone was approaching.
Erick worked to keep his tone even. “Hey, Ryan. Here’s some food for our trip today.”
Ryan turned his head, and Erick saw a look of confusion trying to override the hard glare.
He lobbed the small sack toward Ryan and tried to look at ease despite concentrating on his aim. It wasn’t half bad, and Ryan easily caught the bundle. “They’re getting the ranallas ready, so I think we’re going to be leaving soon.”
Before turning to leave, Erick saw Ryan's eyes narrow. He smiled while walking away, savoring the unsettled state he had put Ryan in, even if only briefly. Take that, Ryan Warner. Take that.