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Ryan’s Story – The Aftermath

waiting-for-his-forgiveness1“Try it a little higher,” Ryan said holding the punching bag, “and don’t bend the wrist.”

“Like this?” Ben asked lightly tapping the bag.

Ryan nodded. “That’s it; if you bend your wrist when you punch you could do it in.” The younger boy repeated the movement several times, alternating between his left and right fists. After a few practice punches, Ryan told him to put some force behind the blows. Ben paused and punched the bag hard twice. “Try putting your whole body into the punch.” Ben nodded and threw all of his weight into one punch, shoving the bag back hard. Ryan lost his grip on the bag as it swung freely, almost knocking him over. “I think you got it,” he said laughing, “let’s try some kicks.”

It was a warm Sunday afternoon, just after lunch. After falling asleep watching the DVD with Trey, Ryan had slept soundly, sleeping through until late morning. Ben had called sometime before midday and invited him around to his to hang out for the day. Ryan wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go, but Susan had been in full-on mother mode and told him to go, saying, “It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.” Pulling on his hoodie that he had worn last night, a folded piece of scrap paper fell out of the front pouch. He picked it up and opened it, reading the words written on the paper. “Call me, if you need to talk.” It was signed “Daniel” and had a mobile number written along the top. Ryan had recognised the man that had saved him last night was the same man that had fought the demon during his out-of-body-experience after the car crash two months ago. Daniel must have placed the note in his pocket when he was checking him over with a first aid kit just after they had arrived back in Cliffport. Ryan didn’t remember him doing it, but he had been in shock most of the way home so it wasn’t surprising that he hadn’t noticed. Twice the man had come out of nowhere and saved his life. Ryan wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or creeped out, this man seemed to be spending a lot of time watching him. Ryan had placed the folded paper in a drawer and gone over to Ben’s house on the far side of town.

The two boys were in the garage where Ben’s father kept his old weight training equipment. Somehow they had ended up here, both stripped to the waist as Ryan showed Ben some simple fighting moves. Ryan went slowly so Ben could watch and follow his movements as went through a series of basic kicks. After several minutes, Ryan told Ben to combine the punches and the kicks and try to hit him. Ben was a quick learner and naturally stronger than Ryan. He had to be told on more than one occasion to pull his blows. Although a good three inches shorter than Ryan, he had the edge when it came to body strength being stronger than he looked. Ben, after all, was on the town’s Under-17s rugby team for a reason. Ryan’s greater experience and skill meant that Ben was only able to land a few blows, the older boy’s speed compensating for his lack of strength.

“Where did you learn how to do all this?” Ben asked at one point between attacks.

“About two years ago I was at a care home in Plymouth,” Ryan said ducking below one of Ben’s swings, “one of the care workers took an interest in me. Saw that I was getting bullied by some of the older kids and saw that I wasn’t really putting up much of a fight.”

Ben managed to get a kick through Ryan’s defences and lightly tapped the side of Ryan’s leg. “Why not?”

“I was still screwed up big time back then,” Ryan said returning the blow with a quick one-two jab, “big time emo depression and all that, not that I still don’t have my bad days. That was a good kick by the way. Anyway, he took me down to a local gym and started teaching me some basic self-defence.”

“You got good pretty quickly then,” Ben said almost managing to avoid one of Ryan’s punches. It was a calculated and deliberate error however, the boy twisted as Ryan’s fist hit his shoulder, deflecting and dissipating most of the strike’s energy. He grabbed Ryan’s fist to immobilise it as he had been shown. Before he could do anything with the fist, Ryan brought his other fist swinging around, the heel of his palm stopping less than an inch from the nose.

“I’m not that good really,” Ryan said as the two boys separated a few steps before continuing. Ben gave him a sidelong glance before realising that Ryan wasn’t just being modest, he was genuinely underestimating his own level of skill. “The guy had a saying though. ‘Learn quickly or get smacked in the face’.”

“That sounds pretty harsh,” Ben said in surprise.

“No, it actually makes sense when you think about. If you don’t learn to block properly, you’ll end up getting hit.”

“I suppose.”

After an hour of sparring, both boys were glistening with sweat and exhausted. They decided to take a break, heading for the kitchen. As they entered the kitchen, Ben’s eighteen-year-old sister was sitting at the counter, talking on her mobile. She looked up as they walked through the side door, but quickly looked away, continuing her conversation.

“What do you want to drink?” Ben asked going to the fridge.

“Umm,” Ryan said looking at one of the photo’s stuck to a notice board with a pin, “what’ve you got?” A holiday photo taken at Disneyland, a younger Ben grinned as his parents stood behind him and his older sister stood next to him, a sheepish smile on her face as if she was embarrassed to be seen out in public with him. They looked happy together.

“Oh, that’s just my dorky little brother and one of his friends,” Ben’s sister said to the person on the other end of the phone, “no, the other one … walks around town with that cute little lost boy look on his face half the time … Eww that’s gross, he’s like fourteen or something … that was different, he was hot.” Ryan had turned scarlet with embarrassment by this point; Ben looked mortified by what his sister was saying. She saw this and looked evilly at the two boys. “Saying that, they’re both walking around with their shirts off, and I have to say, he doesn’t look half bad like. His muscles glistening with sweat.”

“Jessi,” Ben half-yelled, “knock it off!” She laughed and left the room, still talking on her phone. On her way out, she slapped Ryan on the bottom as she passed him. The boy yelped in surprise as he started hurriedly putting his t-shirt back on. “God, I’m sorry about that,” Ben said as he closed the door behind his sister, “she can be a real bitch sometimes.” He took two bottles of beer from the fridge, opening them with bottle opener attached to his key ring, and handed one of the opened bottles to Ryan.

“Erm, are you sure you’re parents are okay with this?” Ryan asked looking at the bottle dubiously.

Ben swallowed a mouthful of the beer. “Nah, they’re in France for the weekend. If they ask, I’ll just blame the missing beer on Jessi and her boyfriend.” The younger boy grabbed two more bottles from the fridge and a tube of Pringles from one of the kitchen cupboards. He didn’t seem to notice Ryan looking at his bottle uncertainly. Ben took Ryan upstairs to his room. The boy’s clothes and belongings were strewn everywhere but where they were supposed to be, a typical teenage boy’s room. The room itself was just below the roof of the bungalow in a converted attic. As Ryan entered the room, Ben opened one of the skylights and pushed a stepped stool to the window, climbing out onto the roof.

Ben lived in a bungalow on the edge of town on a narrow strip of land between the sea and steep cliffs. The back garden jutted up against a low sea wall and between that and the sea was a thin beach. Sitting on the shallow roof, they watched as a yacht leisurely glided across the water of the English Channel, the sea sparkling in the May sunshine. It was an exceptionally fine day and they sat there enjoying the view as they talked. Ryan was sipping gingerly at his beer, not entirely sure whether he liked the taste of it or not. It was his first beer; in fact, it was his first alcoholic drink. When he was younger, he had always avoided alcohol, especially after seeing the older kids getting drunk and what it did to them. Alcohol abuse often led them on a downward spiral ending in violence, exploitation or prison time. “Still, as long as I’m careful, what harm could one do?” He thought to himself as he drank the beer slowly.

“So,” Ben said at one point, “what’s her name?”

“Who?” Ryan said taking some crisps from the tube.

“The girl from the comic book store. You seem to know her pretty well.”

“Her name’s Melissa. When I was at that care home in Plymouth,” Ryan explained munching messily on some crisps, “I went to a local high school for a while. Me and Melissa were in the same class. She was the only one that actually talked to me. The rest were the usual jerks; she was nice.” Ben noticed that as he spoke, Ryan seemed happier, smiling slightly.

“Interesting,” Ben thought to himself.

Their conversation flitted from topic to topic; school, comics, TV. However, it was obvious to both of them that they were dancing around one topic in particular. Eventually, Ben had enough. “Are we going to talk about last night or am I going to have to get you drunk first?” Ryan just stared at him for an uncomfortable few seconds before taking a long swig from his bottle. “Look, forget I said…”

“My brother wants me dead,” Ryan said eventually, “and it’s not the first time he’s tried to kill me.” As he said this, his hand unconsciously strayed towards the scar across his neck. “Four years ago, together with another guy, he killed my mum and dad before trying to kill me.” He went on to explain how he’d spent the last four years constantly looking over his shoulder, how he did everything he could to ensure that he never stood out at school, the way he had cut himself off from those around him so that he’d never get betrayed again by someone he trusted. It all came out, the words tumbling over each other. Ben reached over, lightly grasping Ryan’s arm. His friend was staring off into the distance as he talked, as if he was stuck in his memories.

“You don’t have to tell everything if you don’t want to.”

Ryan turned to face him. “Yes I do,” he said, “you risked you life to help me last night, you deserve to know why.” They sat in silence as Ryan finished off his beer. “There’s one other thing.”

“What?” Ben asked, not sure if he was ready to hear any more at this point.

Ryan turned to face him again, a serious expression on his face. “Jake knows some of what I’ve told you, but he doesn’t know the whole story. The only people who do are Susan and Anthony. You have to swear to me that you’ll never tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.”

“Of course,” Ben said sincerely. Ryan reached into his pocket and pulled out a flick knife, extending the blade. Ben looked at the blade and then at Ryan. “Where’d you get a knife?” He said, although what Ben really wanted to know was what Ryan intended to do with it.

Ryan pressed the edge of the blade to the skin of his thumb, wincing as it drew blood. He held the knife out to Ben, blade first. “Not good enough, you have to swear. Blood swear.” The younger boy opened his mouth to protest. That was until he saw the look on Ryan’s face. He was deadly serious.

Ben took the knife and made a cut on his thumb as Ryan had. He pressed his thumb against Ryan’s. “I swear that I will never tell anyone any of this.” The boy said solemnly handing the knife back.

Satisfied, Ryan opened a second bottle and took a long swig, gulping down the beer. “Before he tried to kill me the first time, he did something else.” Ben, already shocked by what he had heard, listened in horror as Ryan told him of his brother’s act of sexual assault. Now he understood why his friend had such a hard time trusting anyone. He had been betrayed in the worst way imaginable by one of the few people he should’ve been able trust with his life.

They sat in silence for several long minutes before Ben spoke. When he did, his voice was barely above a whisper. “Why did he do all that?”

Ryan thought hard about what he was going to say next. He wasn’t sure how Ben would take what he was about to say. There was only one way to find out. “He was performing an occult ritual, a type of human sacrifice called a ‘Soul Pledge’,” Ryan said quietly as Ben listened. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve been studying the ritual; learning how it works and how it’s performed … and how to reverse it.”

“And…”

“So far, nothing I’ve read gives me any clue how to break the pledge on either my soul or my parents.” Ryan said dejectedly.

“So what are you going to do now?” Ben asked.

Ryan looked out to sea. “I don’t know. But after what happened last night, I hope I’ve got enough time to think of something.”

—-

Mark stood at the apartment’s window looking out over London’s skyline. Night had fallen but the lights of the city strove to drive back the darkness as its inhabitants sought to shield themselves from what the night may conceal. The moon was high in the cloudless sky as people scurried through the streets below the apartment building, unaware for the most part, what really went bump in the night. There was a dull whump and Mark suddenly felt a presence, he was no longer alone in the apartment. “My master’s patience with you is wearing thin,” a voice said angrily.

“You know,” Mark said turning to face the collector demon, “I don’t know why I warded this place.” Standing by the fire, Azarin was formed completely of smoke and mist. Despite the demon’s intangible form, his anger and frustration was clearly visible. “What do you want?”

“Three times you have failed to deliver your brother. Three times,” Azarin said holding up three fingers. “I hope you have an explanation for your failures.”

Mark walked across the room and sat down in one of the black leather armchairs. “I don’t believe in making excuses. Four years ago, I underestimated Ryan and last night it appears that he had help.”

Azarin folded his arms and looked down at Mark. “They sound like excuses to me, and that doesn’t explain why you didn’t take the opportunity to kill him two months ago when body-swapped with the Bennet kid.”

Mark smiled and got up from the chair. “Because my plan at the time did not include killing him but using him to obtain this.” He walked over to a cupboard and pulled out a small fist sized object wrapped in cloth. Peeling back the layers of fabric, he revealed a large red gem that glowed with its own inner light.

“A Seer Stone,” Azarin said with a measure of awe, “I thought they were all destroyed. Where on Earth did you find one?” The demon stared at the gemstone. Seer Stones were an ancient and powerful source of magic capable of being used for immense sorcery. Some of the most powerful rituals consumed a Seer Stone completely, depleting its magical power. Lost for centuries, it was believed they had all been destroyed or depleted. Yet, on a table in an upscale city apartment, sat one of the lost stones, possibly one of the last.

“Believe or not,” Mark said setting the gemstone down on a glass table, “in a burial mound less than two miles from where my brother is living.”

“So,” the demon asked, “I take it you have a plan to use it.”

Mark leaned back on the chair and smiled. “This time it won’t matter how tough the little shit is, who is friends are or how careful he is. He’ll walk into the trap blindly because he won’t even see it coming.”

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Ryan’s Story – The Runaway

 “Jake Matthews please report to the principal’s office.” Jake looked up from his workbook as the message came over the PA. Suddenly everyone in the class was looking at him.

“Dude,” Spud whispered sitting next to him, “whatever you did you are so busted for it.”

“There’s no way they could’ve found out about that,” Jake whispered out of the side of his mouth.

“Well, you heard the disembodied voice,” the teacher said at the front of the class with little enthusiasm, “better take your things in case you’re not back before the end of the lesson.” Jake quickly packed away his workbook and pen, picked up his school bag and walked the dead-man’s walk across the classroom, every pair of eyes in the room following him as he walked through the door.

As he jogged across the quad separating the classroom blocks with the main building, keeping to the trees in a vain attempt to stay dry despite the rain, Jake mentally ticked off a list of things that he had done recently. He shrugged of the raindrops as he entered the main building and arrived at the principal’s office. Ms Cunningham, the principal’s secretary showed him into the office. Sitting there, waiting for him was the principal and a policeman.

“Relax; you’re not in any trouble.” Was that a hint of sarcasm Jake was detecting? “Officer Ballard here just wants to ask you a few questions.” Jake nervously sat down in the other chair.

“Good afternoon son,” Ballard said by way of greeting, “I understand from Mr and Mrs Johnson that you’re friends with one of their foster children, Ryan. Is that correct?”

Jake nodded, “uh huh.”

“When did you last see him?”

“Erm, I think it was on the boat after school yesterday.”

“Are you sure,” Jake nodded, “how was he.”

“Well, he was a little distant, like he was preoccupied with something. We usually meet up at lunch but I couldn’t find him.”

Officer Ballard jotted some notes on his notepad. “And what about before yesterday?”

“What’s with all the questions about Ryan, he’s not in any trouble is he.” Jake was more than a little concerned now. He had only known Ryan for two months and only been friends with him for half that time. There was still a lot he didn’t know about the younger boy but he did know one thing. Ryan had a strong moral compass and he knew right from wrong. Jake found it hard to believe that Ryan had done anything worthy of police attention. A look passed between Ballard and the principal.

“Ryan’s gone missing.”

—-

Early last night…

As Trey and his friends continued their game, Ryan watched from the bedroom window. In one respect at least, Mark had kept his word, Trey had no memory what Ryan’s older brother had done to him. Turning away from the window, he went back to his bed and pulled a large bag from underneath it. Scared that his brother might one day find him, he had always kept an “emergency bag” packed in case he ever needed to leave in a hurry. The events of the last 24 hours had shown Ryan that Mark knew where he was living. It was only a matter of time before Mark showed up in one form or another to finish the job he started four years ago. It was because of this that he had made his decision to leave.

He knew that leaving would be dangerous, he had no childish illusions that it would turn out to be a Grand Adventure like it always was in the storybooks and movies. However, if he stayed, he would be putting the people he had come to care about at risk. Mark had already proven once with Trey that he was perfectly willing to get at Ryan using those around him.

Ryan opened up the bag and checked the contents. As always, the clothes were packed tightly in the bottom of the bag. Tough, hard wearing and weather proof, with luck they should be warm enough. On top of the clothes sat an envelope inside of which was nearly two hundred pounds in cash that he had saved over the years. As well as the money, there were several leaflets; timetables for the local train and bus services which he had gathered shortly after arriving in Cliffport. Everything was set, as it had been for the past two months. He popped off the PC’s side cover and took out the antistatic bag. He had a feeling that he might need the book within so he carefully packed it in the bag. With everything packed and ready, he stowed the bag back under the bed, hidden behind a roll of spare blankets.

He sat down on his bed, wondering whether he should write a note to his foster parents. When he suddenly disappears during the night, Ryan knew that they would worry. Lying back on the bed, mentally composing a hypothetical note, he felt a lump under the bedcovers. It was the flick knife that Mark had used when threatening to cut Trey’s wrist. Attached to the knife was a note. It read, “See you soon” and it was signed “Mark.” Obviously, a parting gift left behind by Mark before he released the possession on Trey’s body. Ryan picked up the knife and the note. “Not if I have anything to say about it,” he said looking at the knife thoughtfully.

That night Ryan slept lightly, pretending to be ill so he could go to bed early wearing his street clothes before Trey turned in. At around two in the morning, he was woken by his watch’s vibrating alarm and he quietly slipped out of bed. Carefully picking up the bag, Ryan tiptoed across the bedroom carrying his trainers, making sure not to wake Trey as he opened the bedroom door. Only when he got downstairs did he stop to pull on his trainers. Before he did so, he took out the flick knife he had hidden in the left shoe. After he put his shoes on, he tucked the knife into his sock, hiding it under the bottom of his trousers. Ryan had never carried a knife before, he was all too intimately aware of the type of injury that they could inflict. However, tonight was different. He knew from the other children that he had met in the children’s home or in foster care that the streets were not a safe place for kids. Somehow, he knew the he was probably going to need some protection.

The night sky outside was clear and cloudless, the moon shining brightly amongst the twinkling stars. Closing the front door quietly, Ryan stepped out into the cold night air. There was no traffic on the walls and the only sound that could be heard was the surf washing against the base of the cliffs. Ryan hopped over the front gate, avoiding the horrendous squeal of its rusty hinges, stood on the pavement looking back at the darkened house. After a few moments of contemplation, Ryan set off towards the main road.

—-

Next morning…

The alarm clock buzzed incessantly, rousing Trey from a dreamless sleep. “Ryan, shut off the damn alarm clock!” When there was no answer, the boy lifted his head and looked across the bedroom. The bedcovers of Ryan’s bed were thrown aside but there was no sign of the bed’s former occupant. Glancing around the room, Trey could see that Ryan’s shoes were gone as was his coat. Assuming that Ryan was up and had already gotten ready for school, a reasonable assumption given that the older boy was often up before him, he grumpily got out of bed and began to get ready. As he pulled on a sweatshirt, he noticed a folded piece of paper on his desk with his name on it written in Ryan’s handwriting. Curious, he picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. As he read the note, his eyes widened in shock and bolted out of the room.

Trey thundered down the stairs and skidded into the kitchen, narrowly avoiding Susan. “Trey, what have I told you about running in the house?” She said, almost dropping the cup of tea she was carrying.

“Ryan’s gone!” Trey blurted out.

“What do you mean gone?” She asked slightly confused, “has he left for school already?”

“No, he’s run away and he says he’s not coming back!” He cried, shoving the note into Susan’s hand.

—-

During morning lessons…

“What do you mean he’s gone missing?” Jake said, only just resisting the urge to jump to his feet.

The Principal cleared his throat, “The indications are that he has run away. Of course we’re very concerned for his safety.”

Jake slumped back into the chair. “I knew he’d been a little depressed lately, and he was acting funny yesterday but I didn’t think he’d do something like this.” Ballard jotted something down in his notepad as Jake spoke.

“Do you know if he was depressed about something in particular?” Before Jake could respond, Ballard’s radio squawked.

“Control to two-six-zero, come in.”

“Two-six-zero to control, go ahead.”

“Bill, we’ve just had a report forwarded to us from Liskeard saying that a youth matching the description of the Henderson boy was seen hitchhiking on the A38 earlier this morning.”

“Do we have any indication where he might be going?”

“No, the sighting was a couple of hours old by the time it was reported and he was already gone by the time a patrol car arrived but according to the report, he was by the westbound lane.”

—-

At that moment…

“Thanks mister,” Ryan said closing the car door and waving as it drove off down the road. He pulled up his hood and started walking into Truro, his hometown and the smallest city in the UK. This was where he had been born and lived up until that night four years ago. As he walked through the town, memories rose unbidden to the surface. He had bought his first skateboard from that sports shop. The restaurant over there had been where he had had his ninth birthday party. His friends had used to play in that playground. Now it was a block of luxury apartments.

After walking almost all the way across the town through the rain, he reached his destination, Truro’s cemetery. With some apprehension, he walked through the gate and began to make his way through the cemetery. It took nearly an hour of searching but he eventually found what he was looking for. Sitting down in front of the grave, he traced his fingers across the engraving on the tombstone. “In loving memory of Paul and Tracy Henderson, died 14th March 2004, along with their son Mark aged 16.” As his fingers crossed his brother’s name, Ryan felt the anger rise in him. Taking out the flick knife, he spent several minutes obliterating his brother’s name. The body buried in the grave was not his brother like everyone believed. Even if it was, after what Mark had done, he did not deserve to be buried with the parents he had murdered.

“Hi mum, dad, it’s been a long time. I should’ve come sooner, I know, but they wouldn’t let me out of hospital to come to the funeral and afterwards they moved me out of the area. I could’ve asked to visit, but I could never bring myself too. Guess I couldn’t face it you know? As long as I didn’t have to see a grave, I guess I could pretend, at least to myself that what happened that night didn’t really happen. But it did happen; I have to accept that because nothing is going to change it.” Ryan shivered and pulled his coat tighter around him in an attempt to ward off the rain. “I came here to say goodbye, I’ve got to go away and I don’t think I’ll ever have a chance to come here again. Mark’s found me and it’s only a matter of time before he comes for me. If it was just me it’d be bad enough but the people I’m staying with are good people. They’re the closest I’ve had to a family since, well, you know. Mark’s already used one of them to get to me. He didn’t hurt him but I can’t take the chance that he won’t next time. I’m going to head to London. It’s big enough that he won’t be able to find me there. It’s not going to be easy, but I have to do it.” He stood up, wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve and wiped away a few tears that had mixed with the raindrops on his face. “I’d ask you to watch over me, but if what I’ve learned over the last month is true, then you’re probably not in a position to help.” He picked up his backpack and fastened the waist strap. “I swear I will find out what Mark did and I’ll find a way to reverse it, that’s a promise.” Ryan turned to leave but he stopped himself. He turned back to the grave and knelt down. “And you,” he whispered addressing the body of his brother’s anonymous accomplice, “when I find a way to lift the pledge, I’m gonna make sure that you’re left burning in hell where you belong.”

—-

After leaving the cemetery, Ryan was walking through town with his head down on his way towards the bus station when a hooded teenage boy riding a BMX careened out of an alleyway, almost colliding with him. “Watch where you’re going dickhead,” the boy spat as he righted his bike.

“You watch it, you almost ran me over,” Ryan retorted stepping back. Anger briefly flashed across the other boy’s face, but it was quickly displaced by a quizzical expression, eyes narrowed.

“Ryan? Ryan Henderson?”

Ryan leaned forward, “Do I know … wait a minute, Doug?”

Doug jumped of his bike staring at Ryan incredulously, “Jesus, Ryan, I can’t believe it’s you!” Douglas Roberts had been Ryan’s best friend at primary school; the two boys had grown up together living on the same street. Ryan was the oldest of the pair by four months.

Ten minutes later they were sitting in a fast food restaurant. The man behind the counter had sneered disapprovingly at the two boys as they entered but had said nothing. “So where’ve you been? It’s been like four years.”

Ryan crammed a handful of fries into his mouth. “After the fire, social services thought it would be best if they moved me out of the area. Been bouncing around the foster care system ever since.” He pointed at Doug’s half-eaten box of chicken strips. “You gonna finish them?”

“Err, no, help yourself,” Doug said shrugging and pushing the box over to Ryan’s side of the table. “That sucks…” he paused as he leaned forward across the table and pushed the collar of Ryan’s jacket aside, ignoring the boy’s protest. Seeing the scar on Ryan’s neck, Doug whistled. “Whoa, that is an awesome looking scar. Did you get that from the guy that killed your family? Looks like he tried to take you head clean off!”

Ryan grimaced at his friend’s lack of tact. “Yes, the person that killed my parents gave me this scar. Now, can we change the subject?”

“Um sorry,” Doug said realising that he had broached a taboo subject, “So where’re you living now then?”

“A small town just down the coast from Plymouth called Cliffport.”

Doug snorted, “Cliffport, that boring little shit hole? Hang on; if you’re supposed to be in Cliffport what’re you doing here?”

“Erm…” Ryan began, as he struggled to come up with a believable excuse. Doug’s eyes strayed towards the oversized backpack on the seat next to Ryan. He suddenly understood the situation and started laughing.

“No way, you’ve pulled a runner haven’t you!” Ryan tried to quieten Doug down whose loud voice had started to draw unwanted attention. “So what’re you planning to do now?”

“Haven’t decided yet,” Ryan lied, “just had to hit the road for a while. I got some stuff I need to sort out in my head and I need some space to do it.”

“You need a place to crash or something ‘cos mine’s free?” Doug offered.

“What about your parents?”

“Nah, they’re not a problem. My old man split couple of years back, and mum works nights. She’d never notice. She don’t notice anything anymore.”

Ryan thought about the offer, it was tempting. “Sorry, but I’m not planning on being in town that long. You caught me on the way to the bus station.”

They eventually left the fast food restaurant; Ryan was getting uncomfortable at the looks they were getting from the few staff and customers. The two boys walked through the town catching and reminiscing about all the scrapes they used to get into. Talking to Doug, he was almost able to forget his problems.

As they were walking down a street, Doug suddenly shoved Ryan into an alleyway, a hand clamped over his mouth. Surprised by the sudden movement, yelled a muffled protest from behind Doug’s hand. “Shhh!” Doug hissed, indicated with a nod of his head towards the street. A police car leisurely cruised past the alleyway. When it disappeared from view, Doug removed his hand and breathed a sigh of relief.

“What the hell was all that about?” Ryan asked angrily.

“You finally fried that oversized brain of yours or something?” Doug responded, “The police have probably got your description already.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Dude, you’re the like the poster child for a ‘vulnerable youth’ what with your history and everything. Cliffport plod probably sent your picture out as soon as they realised you’d gone.” Doug’s words caused Ryan to pause; he had assumed that he would have at least 24 hours grace before the police officially considered him missing.

“You think so?” Ryan asked, then a thought struck him, “and the fact that you should be in school had nothing to do with us ducking into an alley?”

Doug grinned. “School’s for muppets or brainiacs like you.”

Ryan’s face became serious and he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Look Doug, I gotta go. I don’t wanna miss the last bus.”

“Take care of yourself buddy, ok,” Doug said pulling Ryan into an awkward adolescent hug, “see you around someday.”

“You too Doug, and stay out of trouble,” he said playfully pointing an accusatory finger, “I know you.”

—-

By the time Ryan had arrived at the bus station, the last National Express coach to London and the South East had already left. The next coach was not due to leave until the morning and it appeared that Ryan was stuck in Truro overnight.

Wandering through the town, he looked for somewhere to stay the night. Obviously commercial accommodation was out of the question. What kind of hotel or bed and breakfast would rent a room to an unaccompanied fourteen-year-old who paid in cash? His meandering route through Truro’s streets eventually brought him to a small industrial estate on the outskirts of town. In one corner of the estate, lying forgotten and fronted by a weed-ridden car park was a vacant warehouse. The company that used to own the industrial unit had gone bankrupt years before Ryan had moved away leaving behind an empty warehouse.

Ryan climbed through a hole in the chain-link fence surrounding the warehouse and quickly jogged across the cracked concrete heading for the loading dock. The fire door next to the dock was ajar, its lock still broken even after all these years. Slowly he walked inside, waiting a moment as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The fire door led into a warren of corridors and partitioned offices that had once housed the company’s non-warehouse staff. Apart from the extra graffiti, the interior was just as he remembered it had been that one summer he and Doug had explored the derelict warehouse.

He ventured further into the offices, eventually reaching the former manager’s office. The room was dry and its roof was intact. It wasn’t much but it would have to do. Unrolling his sleeping bag under the abandoned desk, Ryan prepared to settle down for the night.

That night, his dreams were disturbed by images of fire and blood. A sinister hooded figure dominated the nightmare, its inhuman size and proportions causing the ground to tremble with every one of its steps. Ryan woke drenched in sweat still feeling the heat of the flames. “It’s just a dream,” he told himself, “get a grip.” He lay there, tossing and turning, unable to get back to sleep.

Not long after his watch beeped midnight, Ryan began to hear voices coming from nearby. The voices were punctuated by a scream, a high-pitched and desperate cry for help. She sounded young, probably not much older than Ryan. Her cry was cut short by the sound of flesh striking flesh. “Shut it bitch,” an angry male voice yelled. A door somewhere in the complex of offices slammed open and harsh laughter could be heard. From the noise they were making, Ryan could tell that there were at least three people with the girl.

With a cold feeling growing in his stomach, he realised that he was probably about to hear the girl being raped. He had to do something but charging in there like some sort of hero would be virtual suicide, it would be three against one and he was no Jackie Chan. There was a voice in the back of his mind. The same voice he had ignored four years ago, telling him to be quiet, stay hidden, to play it safe. As he stood up, he realised that just as before, he was going to ignore it.

“Told you this place was perfect,” one of the voices said, “no one knows about this place but me.” Ryan froze at the sound of Doug’s voice. He could not believe it, there was no way that his old friend would be involved in something like this. Maybe he did not know him as well as he had thought. After all, people can change a lot in four years.

The voices were getting nearer, heading towards the back office. Ryan reached down to take the knife out from under his sock when he stopped himself. “No,” he thought to himself, “using this is the sort of thing that Mark would do.” He instead put the knife into one of his pockets and looked around the room. Picking up a length of metal pipe, he took up position against the wall beside the door.

The door crashed open, kicked with such force that it almost broke the doorstop embedded in the floor. Any harder and it would have smashed into Ryan. Hidden behind the open door, Ryan watched as the girl was pushed into the room. Three thugs burst into the office behind her, two of them carrying flashlights. Two of them were teenagers in their late teens but the third, the one without a flashlight, was around Ryan’s age. All of them had the faces hidden behind hoods and bandanas but Ryan didn’t need to see his face to recognise his old friend. As one of the older boys held the girl down, Doug hurriedly unfastened his pants, egged on by his two friends. “Come on D,” the other older boy said, “if you want in, you gotta make her scream.” He was holding a mobile phone recording the scene using the phone’s camera as he addressed Doug who was now straddling the girl and struggling to undress her.

With everyone’s attention focused on the girl, Ryan decided that now was the best time to act. Stepping out from his hiding place, the pipe held above his head, he approached the group. With his back to Ryan, the impromptu cameraman didn’t see Ryan approach him, the pipe held above his head. He brought the pipe crashing down on the thug’s back. With a grunt, he dropped the cameraphone and stumbled forward, crashing into Doug. Before they had a chance to react to his sudden appearance, Ryan had slid across the top of the desk kicking the other older boy in the chest. Channelling his favourite freerunning comic book superhero, he used his momentum to carry him off the desk, rolling into a crouch spinning the pipe like a martial arts staff. “Ryan, what the fuck!” Doug yelled as he scrambled off the girl pulling his pants up.

His two friends quickly recovered from Ryan’s surprise attack. “Get him!” one of them yelled, Ryan couldn’t tell which, and the two older boys charged at him. He swung the pipe like a baseball bat, striking the arm of one of the boys when he tried to block it. The sound of bone cracking reverberated through the room and the attacker fell to the floor, cradling his now broken forearm and screaming in pain. The other boy charged into Ryan, knocking the pipe out of his hand and pushing him on to the floor. Sitting across Ryan’s waist and pinning the smaller boy to the floor, he punched Ryan several times in the face. Ryan grunted as the older boy hit him, the punches dazing him with their sledgehammer-like impacts. He started to panic; he was already starting to feel woozy from the first few blows, any more and he would be in serious danger of being knocked unconscious.

“Kill him Chris!” someone yelled. To his horror, he realised it was Doug.

“Little bastard broke my fucking arm,” the wounded teenager muttered.

Ryan saw the teenager sitting across his waist reach into his pocket and pull out a slotted screwdriver. As the teenager attempted to stab him, Ryan wrestled with him, desperately trying to disarm the screwdriver-wielding thug. For several tense seconds, the blade of the screwdriver hovered over his chest. Slowly, Ryan forced the screwdriver back, wrenching it out of the boy’s grip. Still holding the shaft, Ryan slammed the screwdriver handle first into the boy’s eye. The boy squealed in pain, tumbling off Ryan clutching his eye. Ryan wasted no time, springing to his feet and delivering a vicious kick to the boy’s side. He was relieved when the two injured boys scrambled to their feet and fled the room leaving Doug behind. His plan had not exactly been thorough, he didn’t know what he would have done if they hadn’t ran.

There was a scream from across the room. Doug had drawn a knife and was holding it to her throat, using her as a human shield.

“Jesus Christ Doug,” he yelled in frustration, “give it up already.”

“Shut the fuck up, get away from me!” Doug yelled backing in to a wall, still holding the girl.

Ryan placed the screwdriver on the desk and stepped away, his hands held out in what he hoped was a placating gesture. “Come on Doug, just let her go.” In the light from the discarded flashlights, Ryan could see Doug’s eyes, wide with panic, dart from side to side looking for an escape route. He deliberately took several steps away from the door, hoping that his former friend would take the opportunity to flee but he didn’t. “You don’t want to do this…”

“Shut up; don’t tell me what to do!”

“This isn’t you, you’re not like this,” Ryan pleaded although he knew at the back of his mind that he wasn’t getting through.

“And how would you know!”

“You’re right, people change. But you’re better than this; the Doug I knew would never be involved in something like this.”

“Fuck you Ryan! You disappeared for four years, don’t you dare think you got the right to judge me!”

“My parents were murdered, it’s not like I had a choice!” Ryan snapped. The two boys stared at each other across the room, each waiting for the other to make the next move. “Fine, if that’s what you want,” he said reaching down and picking up the mobile phone dropped by one of the thugs and forgotten, “we’ll just let the police sort this out.”

“You wouldn’t,” Doug said, his voice not as confident or arrogant as before.

“Abduction, attempted rape, possession of a weapon with intent to wound, you want me to add any more? Even at 13, they’ll bang you up for crap like that for sure.” Ryan pressed a few buttons on the phone and turned it around so Doug could see the screen. “Especially when they’ve got video evidence. Face it, you’re finished.”

The fight seemed to drain out of Doug as he watched the video footage. It was blurry but unmistakably him. “But,” he said pathetically, “we’re friends.”

“We were. I might not have many friends after moving around so much, but ones that yell ‘Kill him Chris’ are ones I can do without.” As Ryan’s words sank in, his grip on the girl faltered and the knife moved away from her neck. Taking advantage of Doug’s inattention, she grabbed his hand and bit down on it hard. He yelped and dropped the knife. Ryan surged forwards, slamming his fist into Doug’s face. Doug reeled backwards with the force of the punch, blood pouring from his nose. He stumbled against the wall next to a closet. “Open the door,” he yelled at the girl. She opened the door and Ryan shoved a stunned Doug into the closet slamming to the door shut and jamming it closed with a chair.

Ryan slid down the wall in to a sitting position as Doug banged on the door cursing at Ryan. He rubbed his aching jaw. His face was already starting to swell up. By tomorrow morning, he would probably have an impressive set of bruises.

He got up and crouched in front of the girl. She was bleeding slightly from the neck where Doug’s knife had nicked the skin. Apart from that and a few cuts and bruises, she appeared physically unharmed. Slowly, he put her coat around the shivering girl’s shoulders. He moved carefully, not wanting to frighten her; she’d already been through enough tonight. “It’s alright,” he said trying to reassure her, “they’ve gone and no one’s going to be able to hurt you. My name’s Ryan, what’s yours?”

“Megan,” she said in a very small voice.

“Okay Megan, I’m going to phone the cops so that they can arrest this bastard,” he said banging the closet door with his fist, “and an ambulance so they can make sure you’re alright.” She nodded weakly in response, still in shock. Ryan dialled 999 on the mobile and was quickly connected to the emergency operator. He gave the operator their location and told her what had happened before hanging up. Turning his back on the girl, he retrieved his things from where he had hidden them, quickly repacking the sleeping bag.

“Will you stay with me until they arrive?”

Ryan turned around and looking at her, found that he couldn’t say no even if it meant having to answer awkward questions. Making sure that the closet door was securely jammed; he picked up his backpack and led the girl outside to the car park. It didn’t take long for the sound of police sirens to be heard. They screeched to halt in front of the hole in the fence, an ambulance following close behind. A policewoman approached the two teenagers; she guided Megan towards the waiting ambulance while her colleague came over to Ryan. Two other officers went in to the warehouse He looked up at the policeman. When he asked Ryan to come over to the police car so that he could take a statement, Ryan knew that he was in trouble.

The policeman took one look at the nervous boy in the passenger seat next to him, glanced at the bag Ryan was holding in his lap and asked the question Ryan had been dreading. “Is your name Ryan Henderson?” Ryan nodded. “You do know that there’s quite a few people worried about you back in Cliffport?” Ryan looked at the floor, unwilling to look at the policeman or answer him. A shout from outside attracted his attention and he watched as two officers dragged a handcuffed Doug out of the warehouse and into a waiting police car. “So, do you want to tell me what happened tonight?”

After handing over the mobile phone to the officer and describing what he had seen, Ryan had been taken to the police station. He sat opposite the officer as he phoned Ryan’s foster parents. Half asleep, Ryan only paid the vaguest attention to the conversation whilst stifling his yawns. When the officer put phone down, he looked at the bleary-eyed boy.

“Was he … was he angry?” Ryan asked tentatively.

“Of course, but he was also worried.” Ryan could not hold it in any longer. He let out a long, exhausted yawn followed by a muffled apology. “Someone will take you home in the morning. Until then,” the officer continued, “you can wait in the first aid room and get some rest.”

Within minutes of him lying down on the hard bed, he was fast asleep.

—-

Later next morning…

A sullen Ryan got out of the police car. Shouldering his backpack, he followed the police officer towards the house. Anthony answered the door and he looked at Ryan. “Get inside,” Anthony said tersely. Ryan did as he was told, not meeting his eyes. “Wait for me in the kitchen.”

Ryan sat down at the kitchen table, his heart racing and a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t hear what was being said between Anthony and the police officer. After a few minutes, the police officer left and Anthony came into the kitchen.

“Sorry,” Ryan said, “for making you worry.” Anthony remained silent. “Guess I screwed everything up. You’ll be phoning social services tomorrow to get them to take me back.”

“That depends,” Anthony said after a moment’s further silence.

“On what?” Ryan asked looking at him for the first time.

“On what the hell you were thinking,” he said looking at the fresh bruises on Ryan’s face. “You were lucky you didn’t get yourself seriously hurt, or worse.”

Ryan looked down at the table, gazing at his own reflection in the shiny surface. His eyes drifted to the scar on his neck. “How much did they tell you about what happened to my parents?”

Anthony glanced at the top of the boy’s head. Ryan had never spoken a word about his family before. “Just the basics, that there was a home invasion, a fire and that you were the only one that survived. They never caught the people responsible.”

“That’s mostly true,” Ryan said quietly, barely above a whisper.

“What do you mean?” Anthony asked, sitting down opposite Ryan. He had the feeling that this was going to be one of those conversations.

Still looking down at the table, his finger traced along the line of scar tissue. “He didn’t die in the fire.”

“Who didn’t?”

“Mark.”

Anthony thought for a moment, thinking back to what the social worker had told them before they had agreed to take Ryan on as a foster child. “Wasn’t Mark your brother?”

Ryan shot out of the chair, glaring across the table at his foster father. “He’s not my fucking brother, not after what he did,” Ryan yelled. Anthony jumped back slightly, shocked at the sudden outburst. “He killed mum, he killed dad, he cut my throat and he … he…” his voice faltered and he stormed out of the room, thundering up the stairs and slamming his bedroom door. Anthony sat there stunned, he’d known that talking about his past had always been a touchy subject for Ryan, but there had never been anything in the information given to them by social services that his brother had been responsible for the deaths of his parents.

After a moment, he got up from the table and slowly walked up the stairs. Carefully he opened the door to the boys’ bedroom. Ryan was sitting on the floor with his back to the wall hugging his knees and hiding his face. Anthony sat down next to Ryan. “Do you want to talk?” Ryan shook his head.

“I can’t,” said a muffled voice.

“You have too,” Anthony said softly, “it’s obviously eating you up inside.”

“No,” he said.

“Look, I promise whatever you say stays between us. If it’s affecting you this much, then you HAVE to tell someone.”

“You won’t believe me; no one did about what he did to mum and dad.”

Anthony laid a hand on Ryan’s shoulder and simply said, “Trust me.” Ryan looked up at him, his eyes red and puffy. Anthony realised that Ryan had been crying.

“I couldn’t stop him; I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough. I could’ve fought back but I ran to my room. He chased and caught me. As he tied me up, I can remember wishing that Mark would come and save me.” Tears were beginning to spill down Ryan’s face. “I didn’t know that my brother was the one… the one who was… he raped me.” Ryan once again buried his head against his knees.

“It’s wasn’t your fault,” Anthony began pulling Ryan into a hug, “you were only ten years old, there was nothing you could have done.” Ryan broke down, sobbing uncontrollably against Anthony’s chest. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

Hero’s Journey Chapter Six – Trapped

Mid-morning, Madraday the 10th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Somewhere east of Sandown

As Kiba looked up nervously from his upside-down position, the wolf cub padded forward and stopped growling. The cub cocked its head and sniffed at Kiba. Apparently liking what it smelled, it yipped happily and began to lick Kiba’s face. “Eww cut it out!” Kiba said chuckling as the tongue tickled his face.

“Patsu!” The girl cried in exasperation. “You’re supposed to be an attack dog, not a lick ’em in the face dog!” Sighing, she relaxed her grip on the spear and held out a hand to Kiba. “Come on,” she said as she helped him up, “nobody as clumsy as you could possibly be dangerous.”

“Thanks … I think.” He grunted as we wiped the wolf drool off his face.

“Don’t think,” the girl said fixing Kiba with a disapproving glare, “that this means that I’ve forgiven you for spying on me … pervert.” She accentuated her point by shoving Kiba softly in the chest. As she did so, Kiba hissed in pain and stepped back clutching his chest. Wincing, Kiba reached under his shirt and felt the reopened cuts across his abdomen. When he pulled his hand back out, its palm was covered in blood. The girl stared at the blood smeared on his palm. “Where’d all that blood come from?”

“It’s er, nothing,” Kiba said as he unsuccessfully attempted to wipe off the blood using the bottom of his shirt, “I just got … attacked by … um … an animal last night is all.”

“Don’t be stupid, you’re bleeding!” The girl exclaimed pulling Kiba by an arm towards the boulder she had been lounging on earlier and sitting him down. “Take off your shirt and let me have a look.”

“What? No!” He yelled standing up. With surprising force, she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back down onto the boulder.

“Stop fussing,” the girl said as she tried to take Kiba’s shirt off, “it’s not as if I’m trying to get you naked.” Kiba turned scarlet and spluttered a protest but words failed him and all that come out was a string of gibberish. As he clamped down on the shirt, the girl sighed and decided to try a different tactic. “Let’s try this again, my name’s Lylah and I know a little about healing,” she explained, “if you don’t get that wound seen to properly it’ll probably get infected.”

Reluctantly Kiba slowly pulled the shirt off over his head to reveal the four cuts, blood now seeping through the cloth strips. Lylah quickly appraised the wound as she picked up a small leather pouch that had been hidden behind the boulder. “That looks deep; you say an animal did it?” Lylah asked as she moistened a flannel cloth that she pulled from the pouch in the pool around the base of the boulder.

“Uh huh.”

Lylah removed the cloth strips from the wound and gently wiped the cuts with the damp cloth, cleaning out the dirt and remains of the yellow ointment that Kiba had applied earlier. Kiba resisted the urge to breathe in sharply as the cool water stung inside the cuts and he stiffened against the pain. When Lylah noticed Kiba’s obvious discomfort, she suppressed a smirk at his attempts to hide it. “Those cloth strips were next to useless,” Lylah commented as she placed her hand less than an inch away from his skin just above the cuts, “this should close those cuts quickly.” Closing her eyes in concentration, Lylah’s hand began to glow emanating a soft white light. Particles of light danced around her hand and streamed into the wound causing the skin of Kiba’s chest to also glow. Within seconds, the light particles had almost been completely absorbed into his skin and the cuts already looked shallower. Looking at the wound thoughtfully, the cuts already beginning to rapidly heal, she looked up at Kiba. “I might need some petra flower extract to treat any infection that might have already set in. I think there’s a patch growing just at the top of the cliff.” Kiba was barely listening, still looking at the now healed wound with an impressed expression. She turned towards the narrow path behind Kiba that lead up and out of the sinkhole. As she started to leave, Patsu jumped into Kiba’s lap and yapped in Lylah’s direction. Turning back, she scratched Patsu behind one ear and the small wolf cub made quiet contented noises. “Hey Kiba, could you watch Patsu for me? He hates being left alone, even for a moment.”

“Yeah sure,” Kiba said as he picked up Patsu and scratched him under the chin while Lylah picked up her spear and headed towards the path. Suddenly, Kiba turned to face Lylah’s back with a confused expression on his face. “Hang on, how do you know my name? I never told you it!”

“Oops.” Lylah stopped, her back and posture betraying no emotion except perhaps for the tensing of her shoulders. For a few long seconds neither of them moved or said anything, the silence only broken by the sound of water and wind. Kiba was the first to make a move, dropping Patsu and reaching to draw his short sword. When his hand grasped at thin air, he looked around cursing and spotted the sword lying at the base of the gravel slope on the far side of the sinkhole where he had fallen earlier. In desperation, he grabbed for the hunting knife still strapped to his thigh. Even though he knew that wielding a weapon with such a short reach against someone armed with a spear would put him at a serious disadvantage, it was his only defence. Before he had a chance to draw it and defend himself Lylah span around, picked up a small rock, and smashed it on the side of his head. Sent reeling by the blow, Kiba stumbled backwards over the boulder and fell sprawling on to the ground, white sparks dancing across his vision. He struggled to pick himself up and failed, a black fog closed in as he felt himself loosing consciousness. Collapsing back to the ground, the last thing he saw before falling into unconsciousness was Lylah standing next to him, spear in hand.

With the blunt end of the spear’s shaft, Lylah prodded Kiba’s unconscious form that was laying face down, his lower half submerged in the cold water. “Cute, but so naive.” Lylah said with a cruel smile as her skin began to change texture. Her soft flesh began to toughen and take on a distinct yellowish hue while her hair became dirty and ragged, matted with grime. Her skin, now the texture of tough leather, split and formed scales covering her entire body except for her face that remained clear. Finally, the pupils of her eyes changed from an oval shape to a crossed slit.

Patsu jumped down from boulder and landed next to Kiba. Whining softly, Patsu started nudging the side of Kiba’s face with his nose in a futile attempt to wake him. As Lylah reached down, the wolf club turned to her and assumed a crouched posture, his teeth bared in a snarling growl. Patsu lunged forward at Lylah’s hand threateningly as she tried to grab Kiba by the hair. Pulling her hand back quickly enough to avoid Patsu’s snapping jaws, Lylah swiped at the cub and struck it hard with the shaft of the spear. Patsu was sent tumbling nearly a dozen yards across the sinkhole’s rocky floor before coming to a stop. Whimpering in pain, he cowered as Lylah turned towards him with her spear raised. “Stupid mutt,” Lylah snapped angrily, “what’s gotten into you? Do you want to end up on some hunter’s wall?” Lylah turned back to Kiba, continuing to address Patsu over her shoulder. “If you every try that again, I’ll skin you myself.” Reaching down, she grabbed Kiba by his hair and began to drag him toward a cave entrance that had been hidden behind a dense group of bushes. A few minutes after she had disappeared into the darkness with her catch, Patsu began sniffing at Kiba’s discarded shirt.

—-

Several miles away Jiro bent down to examine a scrap of torn fabric snagged on a branch next to a riverbank. On its own, the black piece of cloth would mean little, but along with the faint but distinctive boot print in the soil beside the bush, it told him that Kiba had passed through here. It was lucky that Jiro had found the scrap at all. Kiba’s trail had met the river a short distance upstream and when it hadn’t continued on the opposite bank, Jiro had concluded that Kiba must have waded along the shallow river in an attempt to mask his trail. Luckily, Jiro had decided to head downstream to try to pick up the trail again and out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted the scrap of fabric.

Jiro estimated that he was still a good few hours behind the boy. Despite the relatively simple trick with the river, Kiba seemed more intent on putting as much distance behind him than on covering his tracks. Thankfully, this meant that it was easy to track him. Why Kiba was doing this was a question that Jiro was still unable to answer and the more he thought about, the more worried he became. At first, he thought the Kiba had foolishly gone after the soldiers that were tracking the survivors of Sandown. That would be a futile quest for revenge at best and didn’t explain why Kiba had felt it necessary to knock him out. As Jiro had tracked him it became clear that, whatever his reasons, Kiba was heading south and not following the survivors north.

He was about to follow the dirt path that Kiba had taken when he heard voices from upstream carried in on the wind. The voices had distinct Eldalan accents and from the brief snippets of conversation he was able to discern, they appeared to be trackers of some sort. Jiro reasoned that if someone were following them, any scrap of information that they had would be vital. Carefully, and silently, he waded back across the river and crept towards the source of the voices.

—-

Soti sat down heavily on a fallen log, his muscles aching from the overnight travel while one of his soldiers filled his canteen from the river. Above them, a trio of sparrows sang at the gathering clouds. At Lars’s insistence, they had continued tracking their quarry through the night and even though it had been a dark night, somehow the Ranger had been able to follow the tracks in the darkness. After reaching the river the trail had gone cold and they had faced a choice whether to go upstream or down in order to pick it up again. Soti had decided to defer making that decision until after the men had rested. Travelling through the night had taken a lot out of them, especially after yesterday’s exertions and although he hid it well, privately Soti knew he needed to rest himself. Only Lars seemed immune from exhaustion.

“What’s eating you?” Lars asked as he leaned against a tree next to Soti. “You’ve been more pensive than a priest since that mage left.”

Chewing on a hardtack biscuit, Soti waited until his men were out of earshot before answering quietly. “This isn’t why I joined the army. What kind of war are we fighting? You’d never describe Arcadia and Eldala as allies or even friends but relations were always cordial. Suddenly, a people we wouldn’t have thought twice about trading with before are a deadly threat to the Empire. Where did that come from? I just don’t get why we’re even here.”

Lars sat down next to Soti, politely refusing a bite of the dry biscuit. “The Emperor said to attack, so we attack. It’s not our place to question orders that may be based on information we don’t have.”

“How can a people barely able to fight back be a threat us? With these new portal stones, we were able to overwhelm their defences in a single day but where is the honour in the indiscriminate massacre of every man, woman and child?”

Lars turned to Soti, a strange expression on his face. “The mistake you’ve made is to keep thinking of this as just a war.” For a moment, neither man spoke; both were lost in their own thoughts.

“Lars, what exactly is going on? Why are we even out here looking for this kid?” Soti asked.

“What makes you think I know more than you?” Lars answered evasively.

“For one thing,” Soti began, “the Rangers always know more about what’s going on with the Empire than anyone else.”

Lars looked surreptitiously at the three soldiers resting by the riverbank. None of them showed any signs of being aware of their superior’s conversation. Satisfied, he turned back to Soti and began speaking in a low whisper. “Arcadia, Galtea, the Broken Kingdoms; this whole region used to be part of an ancient empire known as the Geldren Domain. It was massive, one of the most powerful nations before the Godswar. Even Eldala began life as a colonial province of it. Not much of it remains today except a few ruins and the common language that we all share. Before the Godswar, the Domain was dedicated to the worship of the Titans who, before the Usurper Gods started the Godswar, were the highest divine authority in existence. Ultimately, the Titans were defeated and were cast out of the heavens and their mortal supporters punished. The Gods devastated the Domain in retribution, almost wiping out this entire continent. Eldala was spared only because we had rebelled against the Domain and sided with the Gods, but even then we lost much.”

Frustrated, Soti interrupted the Ranger. “I went to school just like you Lars, what’s this got to do with what’s happening now?”

“Everything. Do you know what a titan spawn is?”

“It’s the half-demon offspring of a Titan and a human isn’t it? But they’ve not been seen in generations.”

“Not exactly. While they haven’t been seen in Eldala for some time, over here they are much more common.” Lars held up a hand to forestall Soti’s question. “Remember, that the home provinces of the Geldren Domain never abandoned the Titan’s. Even after the God’s victory, conversion was a slow process. Many continued to worship the Titan’s in secret, which led to the formation of the Titan Cults that plague the region to this day. Not long after, the Titan’s, who never completely abandoned the mortal world, rewarded the cults for their loyalty. They gave them a ritual that allowed them to tap into a fraction of the power of Titan and use it to impregnate a human woman. A few weeks later she would give birth to a child that would outwardly appear to be human but it’s soul would be that of a Titan. This child would grow up to be a powerful member of the cult, more often than not assuming its leadership.”

“So, you’re saying that this kid was, is, one of these titan spawns?” Soti asked. Lars however was not listening.

“Damn it, it all makes sense now! THAT’S why we attacked here in the first place. The invasion, the rumours, even that kid. It all fits, Gods how could we have missed this!”

Soti was confused; his friend seemed to be jumping from subject to subject. “Lars you’re not making much sense.” Lars grabbed Soti’s shoulders, the light of epiphany burning behind his eyes.

“Ask yourself this, why did we commit resources to taking out such a small village? It’s isolated, has no resources worth speaking of and has no strategic potential whatsoever. Even the Arcadians didn’t see the need to garrison it. What tactical advantage could we possible gain by committing troops here that could’ve been used to strengthen the attack on a larger target elsewhere? None, that’s what, and what made this village different from a hundred others just like it that are supposed to be dealt with by the second wave? Only one thing. The Toshiko kid, that’s what. The entire reason why we attacked that village is him!”

“That doesn’t…”

“No, listen. Before the Rangers were sent to infiltrate Arcadia, we started hearing rumours, both from some of the officers in charge of the invasion and from within the Imperial Court itself. Allegedly, the Emperor had been consulting priests and diviners for months prior to signing the order to launch the invasion. As cliché as it may sound, somehow His Highness had got his hands on some prophecy that spurred him into action. From the few fragments we are able to acquire, it claimed that a titan spawn born fifteen years ago here in Arcadia would be a future threat to the Empire.”

Soti’s eyebrow raised in scepticism as he responded. “Uh huh, a prophecy foretelling of some future threat. You’re right, that does sound cliché.”

“And it’s complete bullshit. In over 800 years of recorded history, there hasn’t been a single instance of a prophecy coming true. The myth of the prophecy handed down by the Gods is just that, a myth. That doesn’t stop some taking advantage of people’s gullibility however. Ever heard of the Order of Taran Kur?” Soti shook his head. “I’m not surprised, the Rangers have been investigating them for several years and we’ve got little more than a name and a list of some the individuals involved. Mostly high-ranking mages. We believe that they’ve been manipulating the Imperial Court for sometime and may be behind the fabrication of the prophecy. All in an attempt to get their hands on…”

“…the titan spawn.” Soti said, interrupting Lars and finishing his sentence. “But to start a war over it, that just seems insane. Whatever the reason is, I think it’s important if that’s the case, that we need to prevent this titan spawn from falling into their hands. Especially considering that bitch of a mage lied in an attempt to throw us of his scent. With green hair and orange eyes, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this kid.”

“Aye,” Lars agreed, “but first we should let the men rest. We’ll stop here for an hour and then head upstream.”

—-

Opening his eyes, Jiro broke the mental link with the sparrow above the Eldalan men. As he slowly crawled away from the group, he inwardly cursed. The conversation he had eavesdropped upon confirmed what Jiro had learned from the solider that he had interrogated the day before. Jiro had hoped that the soldier’s testimony, which had been based on rumour, would prove to be false despite the use of the Confessor’s Chain. However, given what he had just heard, he now had to admit the truth, if only to himself. The Eldalans, believing a prophecy, were here to eliminate a threat but since they had not known the exact identity of the threat, they had taken the coldly logical decision to ensure its destruction by wiping out every last Arcadian. “If I had just done my duty fifteen years ago like I was supposed to,” he started to think to himself before he clamped down on the thought. Whatever the present situation, he had made the right decision all those years ago. At least that’s what he hoped.

A few minutes later, he was back at the site where he had discovered part of Kiba’s shirt. With a group of Eldalan soldiers’ right behind him, he had to move fast and find Kiba. With his concern growing by the minute, he set off down the trail in pursuit of the boy.

—-

Kiba came to slowly groaning; cracking open one eye at a time, his head pounded and there was a ringing in his ears. Blood covered the side of his face where Lylah had struck him and the hair near the wound was matted with it. It was dark and he was still groggy from the blow so it took him a moment to realise the full nature of his predicament. Chained to the wall by wrist manacles above and behind his head, Kiba was in a sitting position with his ankles shackled and bolted to the floor. Locked around his neck was an iron collar fastened to the wall by a short length of chain, further restricting his range of movement. The chains chinked loudly against the stone as Kiba tugged at them but it was no use, they seemed fixed fast to the stone and no amount effort would dislodge them. Not that Kiba had any strength in him, since waking up he had felt weak and slightly nauseous. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he began to make out the stone walls of a cave. He appeared to be in a small chamber at the end of tunnel, a grate made of crudely constructed metal bars blocking the exit. What little illumination there was came from a dimly flickering torch, its light reflecting from around the corner on the damp cave walls. In the darkness at the back of the chamber, Kiba could now see the rough outline of a figure slumped against the far wall, partially hidden behind a natural column. “Hey mister, where…” he called out, but as he did so, something about the way the figure was sitting caused him to stop. Straining against the chains and the neck collar, Kiba shuffled sideways in an attempt to get a better view of the figure. When Kiba saw the bloated and decayed flesh of the corpse, he jumped back uttering a cry of shock. Although seeing a dead body similarly chained up was chilling enough, the expression on its face was force. Fixed on to its face was a terrifying visage, either a frozen expression of fear and pain or the result of decomposition on the muscles of the face. Considering his present situation, Kiba would put money on it being the former.

The sound of the metal grate being raised and slammed back down pulled Kiba’s attention away from the decayed corpse and back to the entrance of the chamber. Standing just inside the bars and leaning casually against the wall was Lylah. She smiled as Kiba glared at her, not the friendly smile she had shown earlier by the pool, an arrogant smug smile with a faint hint of hunger. “Well, look who’s finally awake.”

“What the fuck is going on?” Kiba yelled at her angrily as he tugged at the chains yet again. Lylah chuckled as she walked slowly across the chamber towards him, amused it seemed at his futile anger. As she did so, a burnt out torch fixed to the column in the centre of the chamber suddenly reignited.

Kneeling down next to Kiba, Lylah traced a finger through the blood on his face, causing him to suppress a wince as the finger crossed the still oozing wound. “Chained to a wall, no hope of escape or rescue and yet you’re still defiant. But then you’ve always been rather strong willed haven’t you?”

“Unchain me you crazy bitch and I’ll show you just how ‘defiant’ I can be.”

“Actually,” Lylah said as she straddled his legs, “I like you just where you are.” Placing her finger in her mouth, she licked off Kiba’s blood. As she did so, a shiver ran down her spine and every nerve ending tingled. For a brief moment as she savoured the taste, the colour of her eyes changed from blue to yellow and the pupils quickly changed from circular to cross-shaped. A ripple of scales flashed across her body as she swallowed the blood.

Kiba gulped nervously as he saw the momentary change in Lylah, the first pangs of fear beginning to gnaw at his thoughts. “What the hell are you?”

“I could ask you the same question,” she said lightly brushing his hair with her hand, “there’s three voices inside your head where there should only be one. One of those voices is so full of anger and malice that I can almost taste its rage. It’s practically screaming.” Lylah was now leaning quite close and Kiba was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable at the close proximity. “Then there’s your’s, so confused and alone. In the last few days you’ve seen your entire world thrown upside down and you’re still trying to make sense of it all.”

“Wait,” Kiba said interrupted, “how do you know all this?” Then the answer suddenly hit him. “That’s how you knew my name without being told isn’t it? You’re reading my mind!”

Lylah smiled as she leaned even close, whispering into his ear. “It’s just a little trick, not even that hard really. I use it to peek inside a person’s head and see what their weakness is, what’s most likely to draw them in and make it easy to catch them off guard. Adolescent males are the easiest, show ’em a pretty girl and they’ll all but bare their throats.”

Gritting his teeth and cursing his own stupidity, Kiba realised how easily he had let his guard down been sucked into Lylah’s deception. He recoiled, as much as he could, as Lylah abruptly licked at the blood oozing from his head wound. “What the hell are you doing!?” As her hand drifted down across his naked torso to his waist where it slipped into his pants, Kiba started to panic. “Hey wait,” he cried out as Lylah’s hand began to work its way down to his groin, “stop!”

Lylah ignored his struggles and continued regardless of his protests. “Gods, your spirit’s aura is so strong,” she said as she began to caress a suddenly very uncomfortable Kiba. “The old guy barely saw the week out, I bet you’d last for months.” Her free hand hovered just an inch above his chest and Kiba could something from deep within being sucked out of him and into the hand. Along with Lylah’s activities inside his pants, the sensation was not entirely unpleasant. However, this made him struggle and protest even more, unwilling to submit to it. “Stop struggling, this was the first thing you thought of when you laid eyes on me.”

“I SAID STOP!” Kiba yelled as he twisted violently, throwing Lylah off him. As she landed roughly, she reverted to her scaled form and slapped hard him across the face, her claws leaving three furrows across his check. Snarling in anger, she planted one hand on his chest, pinning him firmly to the floor while the other grabbed his hair and painfully pulled his head back.

“I don’t think you get it,” she said quietly, “either way, you’re dying down here. The only choice you get is whether you go screaming in pain or groaning in pleasure.” In answer, Kiba spat in her face. “Pain it is then.”

The claws on the hand pinning him to the floor began to grow, gaining an extra three inches. The tips of each claw pierced the skin as it grew, drawing blood. Kiba gasped at the sudden sharp pain as the claws embedded themselves in his flesh. Lylah’s smile however told him that much worse was to come. Seconds after the claws ceased growing, Kiba again felt the same sensation of something being sucked out of him. This time however, it was not a pleasant feeling as the pain grew by magnitudes. Despite himself, Kiba screamed as the white-hot pain flooded his body. As he writhed in agony, Lylah laughed softly as his spirit flowed out of his body and into hers. “Had enough yet?”

Kiba did not hear her however; all thoughts other than the pain had been overwhelmed. The pain was the worse than he had ever felt, worse even than when the Eldalan soldiers had stabbed him the day before. Yet in the midst of this, at the back of his mind, a voice cut through the pain. “Let me out you idiot before she kills both of us!” Kiba immediately recognised Dace’s harsh tone. A pressure, the feeling of him trying to break through, accompanied his voice. Kiba would rather die then let Dace loose on the world. Between the pain inflicted by Lylah, the draining of his spirit, and Dace railing at him to give in, Kiba could feel himself slipping away bit by bit and Dace getting ever nearer to freedom. Just as he reached the point where he could not struggle any longer, a new voice cut was heard in his mind.

“Don’t give in to him Kiba, you’re stronger than he is and he knows it!”

Dace seemed to yell back at the newcomer, but the damage had already been done. The newcomer’s voice had bolstered Kiba’s resolve, and despite the pain, chuckled to himself. Focusing on the flickering torch behind Lylah, Kiba forced a smile. “You gonna have to try harder than that,” he said to Dace.

“Brave, but stupid.” Lylah, of course, could not hear the voice in Kiba’s head as she fed on his spirit so she assumed that he had been speaking to her. “If that’s how you want it.” Kiba screamed as she increased the rate at which she fed multiplying the amount of pain she inflicted. This time, the boy was unable to take it and mercifully passed into unconsciousness.

Lylah withdrew her claws and looked down at Kiba as she stood up. His skin was pale, covered in sweat and the claw marks on his chest had become small tears, the flesh ripped as he had struggled with the pain. She had taken more than she had intended, loosing her herself in anger when he had resisted. Still, she thought to herself, Kiba had more than enough spirit to give.

Suddenly curious, she left the chamber and made her way through the poorly lit tunnels to another chamber some distance away. In one corner, there was a small bed buried beneath a pile of blankets and rags and against another wall was a table. On this table was the pack that had been ripped from Kiba’s back when he had fallen into the sinkhole. Lylah had retrieved it after she locked him up in her “pantry”; she used the belongings and valuables of her victims for barter and trade. Emptying the contents of the pack onto the table, she discarded the clothes and other supplies and picked out a small leather pouch. Carefully opening it, she took out the small pile of coins and an envelope. There must be at least 60 or 70 coins in the pile, quite a haul for a boy to be carrying around. Even though the coins would prove to be useful, her attention was fixed on the envelope.

The paper was old and yellowed; the back was sealed with a drop of wax indicating that it had probably never been opened. When she had been inside his mind earlier, she had seen an image of this envelope and received the strong impression that somehow it was important. Carefully she broke the seal, took out the letter within and started reading.

Ten minutes later, Lylah found herself standing over the still unconscious Kiba. “So that’s what you are,” she said to herself quietly as she watched his shallow breathing. “The letter explained a lot, too bad you’ll never get to read it.”

—-

The first few drops of rain were starting to fall when Jiro slid to a stop. Ahead of him on the dirt path sat a small grey wolf cub. On the ground in front of Patsu’s paws lay Kiba’s bloodstained shirt. Jiro’s heart skipped a beat when he saw it, even from where he was standing; Jiro could see that some of the blood was still wet. Taking a step forward, he bent down to pick it up but before he could do so, Patsu snatched it up and jumped back out of his reach. Perplexed, Jiro took another step forward and attempted to retrieve the shirt but again, Patsu jumped out of his reach. After a third try, the cub ran a dozen feet down the path and turned, as if waiting for Jiro.

Jiro stood back and sighed, you did not need to be a Royal Guard to understand what was going on. “Ok, I get the message. You want me to follow you is that it?” In response, Patsu yapped and hopped back a couple of steps. “All right then, lead the way.” The cub turned and ran down the path, Jiro chasing close behind. After a few hundred yards, Patsu darted off the path and into the trees. For a brief moment, Jiro wondered whether he was doing the right thing, leaving behind the trail he had been tracking and following the cub. However, he reminded himself that there was only one way the cub could have got hold of the shirt, Kiba must be in serious trouble.

The cub eventually stopped on top of a small hillock, treeless and with limestone rocks protruding from its grassy surface. As Jiro reached the top, he was able to see down the far side and see that it was broken up by boulders and crevasses. Probably the result of countless centuries of erosion and subsidence. Nestled in the shadows at the base of one of the deeper crevasses was the small mouth of a cave. It was to this opening that the cub bounded to and waited patiently for Jiro to catch up. Jiro clambered down into the crevasse and stood before the cave entrance. Rivulets of rainwater dribbled down the rough walls and into the cave, disappearing into the dank darkness. With one his short swords in hand, he pulled a large crystal the size of a chicken egg from a waistcoat pocket. The crystal was a sunstone, a type of crystal known for its ability to soak up light and then release it when the sunstone was in darkness and squeezed. Gently holding the sunstone, the quartz-like crystal emitted a soft white light that illuminated the descending passage. Not knowing precisely what he would find, Jiro carefully entered the cave and made his way down the slippery slope.

Twisting back itself a number of times as it descended, after several hundred yards the tunnel opened up on to a large cavern. Easily large enough to fire an arrow across without striking the far wall, the cavern’s floor was smooth rock whose shape reminded Jiro of gently undulating sand dunes. The effect was only pierced by stalagmites, stalactites, columns and a large pit in the far corner. One-half of the cavern’s floor was occupied by a small lake fed a cascade of clear water flowing out shaft on the cavern’s roof. In the light provided by the sunstone, Jiro could discern a series of worn markings in the cavern floor, the sign of a frequently trodden path. Following the path, Jiro could see that it ran from the lake to a series of hewn stairs near the pit. Moving towards the stairs, as he passed the pit the faint smell of decay assaulted Jiro’s senses. Apprehensively, he crept up the edge of the pit and peered down. Its base was hidden in darkness, beyond the sunstone’s light but the walls of the pit were riddled with ledges. The ledges were covered with bones and, in some cases, partially decomposed body parts. Jiro was no stranger to scenes of carnage, he had seen friends and comrades killed in battle before, but there was something about the charnel pit that bothered even him.

Patsu dropped the shirt and bit at the cuff of Jiro’s pants, tugging him towards the stairs. Leaving the pit behind, Jiro followed the cub up the slippery stairs and into a tunnel that sloped upwards. After five minutes of negotiating a maze-like warren of tunnels and chambers, the pup stopped and dropped into a defensive posture, growling lightly. Up ahead, the flicking glow from a torch could be seen approaching from around the bend. Quickly scooping up the wolf club, Jiro ducked into a side passage and crouched behind a stalagmite. Placing the sunstone on the floor, it ceased emitting its light and the passage was engulfed by darkness again. Jiro did not have to wait long as a yellow scaled, female humanoid, walked past heading in the direction of the cavern. One hand she carried a torch and the other was dragging a body. To Jiro’s immense relief, the body was that of an adult in an early state of decomposition. As soon as she had passed around another corner and the flickering torchlight could no longer be seen, Jiro picked up the sunstone and continued down the corridor, Patsu trailing just behind.

When Jiro came to a fork in the tunnel, he bent down and examined the floor. There was blood on the floor, from the angle and direction of the smears Jiro could tell that someone had been dragged down the right tunnel. Patsu ran down the tunnel and through the barred grate at the end into the chamber beyond. The chamber was lit by a single torch and, by its light, Jiro could see Kiba slumped against and chained to the wall.

He quickly broke the lock securing the grate and rushed over to the boy. Kiba was unconscious but thankfully still alive. Using a dagger, Jiro snapped several rusted links freeing Kiba from the wall and floor before gently laying him down. For the time being he could do nothing about the neck collar or the shackles around Kiba’s wrists and ankles, they would have to wait until later. Jiro took a canteen of water and poured some of its contents onto Kiba’s face. Spluttering, the boy regained consciousness but it took several moments for his eyes to focus. “Are you okay to walk? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.” Jiro asked quickly, concerned that the creature could return at any time.

Kiba, for his part, seemed to have trouble concentrating and for a brief second seemed unable to recognise Jiro. Weakly, he tried to push Jiro away before responding, his speech slurred. “Piss off; I’m not falling for it again.”

Jiro grabbed the boy’s chin and forced him to look the older man in the eye. “Kiba, I need you to focus.” It was no use; Kiba did not seem to hear him.

“You’re in my mind again, showing me what I want to see.” As he spoke, his eyes began to flutter as he started to loose consciousness again. In response, Jiro reached into another pocket and pulled out a small vial of clear liquid. Popping the waxed cork stopper with his thumb, he forcibly opened Kiba’s mouth, poured the liquid into the boy’s mouth, and then held the mouth closed. He had to act quickly, the moment the liquid was exposed to the air and came into contact with the heat of the body; it evaporated becoming an odourless, invisible gas that acted as a powerful stimulant. It took effect as soon as Kiba breathed it in, increasing his heart rate, breathing and the flow of blood to his brain. Almost instantly, his eyes snapped open showing much more alertness than before. “Jiro? What the hell are you doing here?”

“You with me?” Jiro asked as he helped Kiba up. The boy nodded, still unsteady on his feet and needing Jiro’s help to stand. “Good, because we need to get out of here fast. Afterwards, you can fill me in on what you’re doing down here and then you can explain why you thought it necessary to bean me on the back of the head.”

Kiba smiled weakly at Jiro’s attempt at humour. “Oh … that.”

“Yes ‘That.’” Jiro said as he lifted up the grate and helped Kiba underneath it.

“How did you find me?”

“He showed me,” nodding towards Patsu who followed the pair close behind.

“Patsu!”

“So the little fella has a name them, looks like you made a friend.”

As Jiro helped Kiba down the tunnel, he knew that if they did not move faster they would be caught. But as he looked over at the boy’s pained and slightly woozy expression, he realised that it was probably a miracle that he was on his feet at all.

Suddenly Kiba stopped, his hand flying to his neck as if searching for something. “Shit,” Kiba cried, “where is it?” Kiba had just realised that his pendant was missing. Panicking, he frantically tried to go back to the chamber to search for it but was stopped when Jiro grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.

“Where’s what?” Jiro asked confused.

Kiba opened his mouth as if to say something but instead looked down at his feet. “Nothing,” he mumbled.

—-

Lylah dumped the body of the hunter over the side of the pit and watched as it tumbled into the darkness and vanished. She was about to turn and head back to the stairs when she noticed something lying on the floor on the far side of the pit. Picking it up, Lylah quickly realised that it was the shirt belonging to Kiba that he had taken off while in the sinkhole earlier. There was no reason why it should be down here. Inspecting the shirt, she noticed a damp patch surrounding a cluster of small holes. They were bite marks and the dampness had been caused by saliva. “Patsu,” she cursed as she saw a series of boot and paw prints heading towards the stairs.

—-

Leaning on Jiro for support, Kiba followed Patsu as he lead them up the left hand fork to what he hoped was the surface. They passed a number of side tunnels and chambers, one of which was lit by torches. As they hurried past it, Kiba stole a glance inside. He saw the contents of his pack emptied on the table inside along with his other equipment. Pulling away from Jiro, he stumbled inside and began to frantically search through the pile.

Jiro followed him into the chamber and tried to pull him away from the table. “We haven’t got time for this!”

“I’m not leaving without it!” Kiba snapped back, a determined look on his face.

“Without what?” Jiro asked exasperatedly.

“My pendant!” Jiro immediately knew what Kiba was talking about; after all, he had been the one that gave Ren the pendant to give to the boy. He could understand how much that pendant might mean to him, as it was the only link between him and his mother. “Found it,” a relieved Kiba said as he plucked the steel chain from the pile of clothes. Putting it on, he held the crystal as he closed his eyes as if in silent prayer.

Sweeping the rest of the items into the pack since they might as well take everything with them, Jiro noticed the silver disk hanging on the chain next to the pendant. “Where did you get that?” He asked pointing at the disk.

“This?” Kiba said quietly holding the disk, “I found it in a box under dad’s bed. I … think it belonged to him.” Kiba swayed as he said this, almost falling to the floor. The stimulant was starting to wear off.

Picking up the pack and Kiba’s weapons, he put an arm around the boy and guided him out of the chamber. “Time to go.”

Following Patsu, they soon felt fresh air on their faces and could see sunlight filtering into the cave from an opening ahead.

—-

Lylah slammed the bars of the grate in anger, screaming a curse. Somehow, the boy had got loose, probably with help. Running down the passageway, she slid into her sleeping chamber. As she expected, the boy’s things were gone from the table. Picking up a crossbow from a wall rack, she checked the tension of the bowstring before picking up a quiver containing a number of bolts. Each of the bolts had a leather cap covering the head of the bolt. When Lylah locked the bowstring in place and loaded one of the bolts, she removed its leather cap. When she did so, the metal of the head glistened as it was covered by a sticky substance.

Careful to prick herself with the bolt head, she set off down the passageway towards the sinkhole entrance.

—-

As Jiro and Kiba left the cave, the rain had now become heavy, falling from the oppressively low grey clouds and striking the ground in great moving sheets. “Good,” Jiro said as they stepped into the torrential downpour, “the rain should mask our trail somewhat, making it harder for those following us to track us.”

“Silver lining huh?” Kiba asked weakly.

“You got it kiddo, come on, stay with me.”

Kiba managed a laugh, “I thought I told you I’m not a kid any more.”

Jiro cried out in pain, stiffened and fell forward taking Kiba with him. Looking over at Jiro, Kiba saw a crossbow bolt sticking out of his back. For a brief, panicky second, Kiba feared the worst but he saw the Jiro was still breathing and his eyes were open. Meanwhile Patsu had turned to face the cave and was growling, aggressively. Kiba turned and looked in the direction that Patsu was growling.

Lylah stood there calmly loading another bolt. “Interesting thing about petra flowers, crushing the stamens produces a powerful paralysing toxin.” Kiba drew one of Jiro’s short swords and attempted to get to his feet, falling back down. “The toxin is short lived but extremely fast acting. It starts breaking down in the blood almost immediately and within a few minutes, it has almost completely dissipated. What was on the bolt is just enough to cause instantaneous and near total paralysis of the voluntary muscles.” Lylah began to walk slowly forward, aiming the crossbow at Jiro. “A second bolt will unfortunately cause paralysis in the autonomic muscles such as the heart and lungs. Death follows within minutes and I’ve been told it’s quite painful.” Taking aim, she pulled the trigger and fired the bolt at Jiro’s prone back. Kiba lunged forward, interposing himself between the bolt and Jiro. Raising the short sword, Kiba just managed to bring it up in time, sending the bolt ricocheting harmlessly to the sinkhole’s wall. The sword was knocked out of his hand by the force of the impact. “Impressive, but that won’t stop be from killing that man and dragging you back to you cell.

Pulling out her third and final bolt, she locked the bowstring and loaded the bolt. Lylah decided to shoot Kiba, slit Jiro’s throat and drag the paralysed boy back to the cell. When she lifted the crossbow and aimed at Kiba, she was surprised to see that he had managed to get to his feet. He still looked unsteady, and his head was down looking at the floor, his hair hiding his face. Regardless, she fired the bolt.

In a display of blurred movement, Kiba’s hand whipped up and grabbed the bolt out of the air. In an effortless display of strength, he snapped the bolt snapped in his hand, dropping the two broken halves to the ground.

“How the…” Lylah whispered.

“In the last 24 hours,” Kiba began without looking up, “I’ve been shot at, stabbed, chased, beaten and nearly raped by some shape changing freak.” Kiba looked up at her, brushing his hair out of his face. “I’m through playing the victim.”

Hero’s Journey Chapter 5 – Revelations

A few hours before dawn, Madraday the 10th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Several miles east of Sandown

Kiba scrambled to his feet and began to back away from Dace. “What’s going on? What the fuck are you?” He asked in a shaky voice as Dace got up and faced him. The small boy began to grow in size as he fixed a disturbing grin upon his face. His hair grew longer and wilder, like Kiba’s and he slowly filled out the shirt that Kiba had given him until he resembled Kiba in both size and appearance. For all purposes, he was a mirror image of Kiba, albeit with the additional monstrous features of fangs, claws, pointed ears and a row of spikes down his spine.

“Fifteen years,” Dace said quietly, menacingly, “for fifteen damned years I’ve been stuck here, watching you play happy families with that old man.”

“Just stay back, whatever you are,” cried Kiba was he picked up a branch and tried to ward off the thing in front of him. Dace swiped at the branch with an open claw, splintering the wood into fragments. Kiba stumbled back from the splintering branch and backed into the trunk of a large tree. As he tried to dodge around the tree, Dace darted forward and slashed at Kiba’s bare chest with his other claw, slicing the flesh. Before Kiba had a chance to respond, Dace gave a him a powerful two-handed shove that sent him to the floor.

“Shut it,” Dace spat as he picked Kiba up by the neck, holding him against tree, “if it wasn’t for me, we’d be dead right now. You’re just a pathetic weakling and without me, those soldiers would have butchered you like a farm animal.”

“What are you talking about?” Kiba croaked as he struggled for breath. Dace was gently squeezing his throat in a calculated show of strength and dominance, restricting the flow of air into his lungs but not cutting it off entirely as Kiba beat ineffectually at his arms. Dace leaned forward until their faces were just a few inches apart.

“Let me refresh that memory of yours blackout boy. Remember back at the farm when you tried to take on those soldiers by yourself? Remember how they kicked your arse and how one of them sliced open your gut while the other stabbed you in the back?”

Kiba did remember, he remembered passing out from the wounds only to wake up to find them miraculously healed and the three surviving soldiers dead. Although he had been more concerned about his father at the time, afterwards the incident had bothered him more than he had cared to admit. None of it made any sense and by rights, it should have been him who was dead, not the soldiers. However, as Dace spoke, he started to recall things that he hadn’t remembered before. The look of sheer terror on the soldiers faces, their screams as they were torn apart and the nauseating taste of their blood. “It was you,” Kiba whispered, “you killed them. The soldiers, somehow you tore them apart like some sort of animal.”

Dace laughed sharply grinning a fanged smile. “You really have no idea what you are, do you?” He lifted Kiba off the floor with both hands and began to strangle the boy. “Not that it matters anyway, you’ll be dead in a couple of minutes and then I’ll be free. I guess the first thing I’ll do is do some finger painting with Jiro’s intestines. Of course,” Dace giggled, “removing them is liable to be a little painful. For him at least.” As Dace gloated, Kiba’s vision began to fade but as Dace made his threat towards Jiro Kiba’s eyes snapped back into sharp focus. Red mist began to creep into the edges of his vision and his stare at Dace was so intense that Dace’s speech faltered.

“You. Stay. Away. From. Him.” Kiba growled and the pupils in his eyes starting to glow. He grabbed Dace’s arms with a pair of clawed hands and slowly pushed them apart, forcing Dace to release his grip on Kiba’s neck. Dace’s smug, confident demeanour began to crack in the face of Kiba’s unexpected resistance. He strained against Kiba’s grip but the boy’s hands were locked tight and Dace could not move his arms even an inch from where Kiba wanted them. Suddenly Kiba’s head lunged forward, his forehead smashing into Dace’s nose. With a crunch, the nose broke spraying blood everywhere. Dace staggered backwards clutching his nose and tripped over a tree root landing unceremoniously on his arse.

“Bastard,” he cursed, “you broke my fucking nose!”

“I don’t care what the fuck you are any more,” Kiba yelled as the kicked Dace in the head knocking him onto his side where Kiba continued to repeatedly kick his side, “I’m gonna kill you!” As Dace lay on the floor Kiba picked up a rock and prepared to bring it smashing down on to Dace’s head.

Dace laughed painfully, coughing up blood. “You can’t kill me, not here anyway. When you were nine and you fought back against that bully despite the fact that he was twice your age and nearly twice your size, I’m the part of you that broke both his arms and continued to beat on him even after he begged for mercy. That little runt that followed you around the village all the time? Busa or something? I’m the part that would have readily wrung his scrawny neck to make him stop bugging you. When those soldiers caught up with him, I would have happily sat there and listened to his screams. Every dark impulse, every violent thought, that’s me. I’m the part of you that you inherited from your true father, not that weak human whore of a mother. I’m part of you and I always will be.” As Dace spoke, Kiba’s resolve wavered, he started to lower the rock, his claws retracted, and his eyes stopped glowing. “The funny thing is, if it wasn’t for the farm, we’d never have met. In that moment when you were dying, all your hate and anger, all that frustration at being unable to save Ren, it opened a doorway. And for a short while, I was free in the waking world. But the thing about that doorway is, once opened, it’s impossible to close all the way again. Eventually, you’ll let your guard down, you’ll slip up. When that happens, next time I’ll make sure my stay is permanent. I’ll even let you watch from in here as I destroy everything you hold dear starting with that bastard Jiro.”

“You may be right,” Kiba said quietly, “I might not be able to kill. But that won’t stop me from doing this.” He raised the rock above him and smashed it down onto Dace’s head. It took three strikes for Dace to stop twitching. When he was done, he dropped the rock and looked at Dace’s body for a few seconds without emotion before turning and walking off towards the trees.

Dace cracked upon an eye and coughed up a glob of blood. “You think this changes anything spawn breath?” Kiba paused without turning as Dace spoke.

“What did you call me?” Kiba asked, speaking barely above a whisper.

“You heard me. You’re a daemon, an abomination, a creature of pure evil, a plague on mankind, a Titan Spawn. Half human, half titan, on your father’s side. You’re blood father that is.” Dace laughed coughing up a bit more blood as Kiba clenched his fists and hunched his shoulders. “Oops, I guess it looks like Daddy never told you who your parents were did he … no wait, that’s not it is it? Ren didn’t just not tell you, he lied to you didn’t he?” Unable and unwilling to hear any more, Kiba ran off into the trees, Dace’s pained laughter ringing in his ears.

As soon as Kiba was out of sight, a figure stepped out from the opposite direction. He was the same age as Kiba and like Dace, resembled him physically except unlike Dace he appeared completely human and had short black hair and piercing blue eyes. Around his neck hung a small blue crystal on a steel chain, identical to Kiba’s.

“Dace,” the newcomer admonished, “you are such a jerk sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Dace retorted as he slowly picked himself up off the floor, “what you gonna do about it normal boy.” The newcomer backed away as Dace approached. “Yeah, thought so. Now piss off before I drop kick you to the face again.”

—-

Jiro looked over at Kiba’s sleeping form, the boy had tossed and turned throughout the night. Occasionally mumbling or groaning in his sleep. Bad dreams, Jiro mused, but who could blame him. The day had been rough for everyone but thankfully, the night had been quiet.

As the first vestiges of light began to show on the eastern horizon, it Kiba’s turn to be on watch. Jiro got up, walked around the smouldering remains of the campfire, knelt over the boy, and began to gently shake him awake. Kiba’s eyes snapped open and as quick as a blur, he reached under his pack that he was using as a pillow and grasped the handle of the hunting knife. Faster than he Jiro’s eyes could follow, Kiba brought the knife slashing upward, stopping just less than an inch from Jiro’s throat.

“Whoa, easy! It’s just me,” said Jiro as he gently moved the knife away.

With a sheepish grin, and now fully awake, Kiba sheathed the knife. “Sorry, bad dream.”

“Ah-huh,” nodded Jiro, “remind me never to wake you in the morning without putting armour on first. Anyway, time to get up squirt it’s your turn on watch.” Jiro was weary from exhaustion and as he picked up a blanket and turned to make part of the ground comfortable to sleep on, he didn’t notice that Kiba watched him closely, intently. With his back turned he didn’t see the boy silently pick up a heavy and unburned piece of firewood. Stealthily, Kiba crept up behind Jiro and brought the makeshift club smashing down hard onto the back of Jiro’s head. The man’s eyes rolled upwards and he crumpled to the floor unconscious. Kiba stood over the defenceless form for several seconds holding his breath before dropping the makeshift club and kneeling down next to Jiro. He gingerly felt for a pulse and having found one, released a relieved gasp of breath. Kiba silently thanked the gods that the blow had only stunned him as he had intended as he quickly attempted to make Jiro comfortable.

“Sorry,” he said quietly as he picked up his pack, a few supplies and his weapons, “I wish there was another way, but I hope you take the hint. Where I’m going, you can’t follow.” He checked Jiro one last time, tenderly placing both blankets over him. “Goodbye, uncle.” Kiba avoided looking back as he left, running through the woods in the early dawn light holding back tears. If he had, he might have had second thoughts about what he was doing but for Jiro’s sake, he needed to put as much distance between the two of them. He had no destination in mind; Kiba hadn’t thought that far ahead, he just knew that he had to get away.

When Jiro regained consciousness some time later, he groaned and clutched the back of his head, cursing in several colourful languages. It took him a few minutes to realise what had happened and when he looked around and saw that Kiba was gone, his cursing reached new levels of vulgarity. The sun had just begun to climb into the sky, Jiro saw as he quickly packed up his gear, he couldn’t be more than an hour or two behind the boy, whatever that idiot was thinking. Whatever Kiba’s reason for attacking him, Jiro thought as he set off in pursuit, it had better be good.

—-

Kiba had been running through the woods for a couple of hours when he finally had to rest. He stopped at the bottom of a wooded scar-like ravine. A brook cascaded over the steep sides forming a waterfall that plunged into a pool of crystalline waters before continuing down the ravine. Shrugging off his pack, Kiba cupped his hands in the water, splashing some of it onto his face before refilling his canteen and taking a long drink of the cold water. When he stretched out over the water again to refill the canteen a second time, he winced in pain, his hand moving to his chest. Kiba put the canteen down gently on the grass and proceeded to take his shirt off. When he did so, he could clearly see four ragged and red tears across the skin of his abdomen. A wound identical to one that Dace had inflicted on him last night. Although that had only been a dream, Kiba was sure that somehow, it wasn’t just an identical wound, it was the exact same wound.

Whatever its origin it was starting to sting like sin and the skin around the cuts was beginning to turn an angry shade of red. He reached behind him for his pack pulled out a small vial and a bundle of cloth strips. Kiba held his breath as he applied the yellow ointment to the cuts, he didn’t know exactly what it was made of but it smelt of cow urine and he suspected that that might be its chief ingredient. Gently he placed cloth strips along the length of the cuts and the ointments adhesive properties held them firm against the skin.

When he placed the vial back into his pack, his hand brushed against a small leather pouch. Hesitating slightly, he pulled it out, opened it and looked at the contents. It contained the gold coins and the envelope that he had retrieved from the box under Ren’s bed. Also inside was the small silver disc with Ren’s name inscribed upon it. As he held the disc in his hand, it was warm to the touch and the metal felt slick and wet even though it was dry. Kiba held the disc up to the morning sun, letting the soft light play across the gold etched symbol on one side. He had seen that symbol before, he would swear to it but for the life of him, he could not remember where. It was the only thing that he had left that belonged to his father, Ren and as the wind gently rustled the leaves on the trees around him; Kiba undid the chain he wore around his neck. He threaded the steel chain through the eye and let the disk slide down the chain and chink gently against the blue crystal.

Apart from the gold coins, the only thing left in the pouch now was the letter. Since leaving the farm yesterday, Kiba had not had a chance to open and read it. Since he needed to rest for a few minutes to catch his breath, he decided that now was a good time. However, he was hesitant to open it. Regardless of what Dace had said, Ren was the only father he had ever known even if he wasn’t his blood father. All the same, Ren had literally used the last moments of his life trying to tell Kiba the truth about them. With that in mind, Kiba broke the seal and opened the envelope. He was about to take out the letter, when he heard the sound of singing drifting in on the wind.

Quickly he stuffed the envelope back into the pouch, picked up his pack, donned his shirt and slung his quiver and scabbard. Scrambling up the steep side of the ravine, he stopped and turned towards the source of the singing. The voice was gentle and soft, most likely that of a woman. Although Kiba couldn’t understand the words, the singing itself was beautiful and extremely soothing. Against his better judgement, Kiba climbed back down the slope and began to creep downstream towards the voice. The brook followed the course of the ravine, bending around a blind corner before tumbling down into a small sinkhole before descending further into the depths. Almost as if he was stalking some game animal, Kiba slowly crawled on his belly towards the edge of the 30ft drop into the sinkhole. Hiding behind and amongst a group of bushes, he peeked over the edge.

Below him, by a pool that covered half of the base of the sinkhole, was a girl that was roughly Kiba’s age, perhaps a little older. She was lying back on a rock that jutted out into the pool letting her feet dangle lazily into the cool, clear waters. Her voice resonated perfectly with the natural acoustics of the sinkhole creating an almost ethereal quality to the song she was singing. The girls long brown hair was splayed out haphazardly on the surface of the rock. Shimmering in the sunlight, it created a halo-like effect around her head that framed her face. Her clothing, a pair of rough cloth pants and matching shirt was wet and next to her was a collection of small fishes drying on the rock. A small grey wolf cub lounged on her chest, baring its fangs in a lazy yawn as she stroked its back, singing to it.

Kiba lay on his front as he watched the girl below, barely daring to breath. There had been a few girls his age in Benbridge but none of them had been as beautiful as her. The way the sunlight highlighted her hair, her heavenly voice, the way the cub nestled snugly between her … Kiba sighed, as if a girl like her would ever give him the time of day. He lingered for a few moments watching her before realising that he should probably go. Shifting his weight, he began to shuffle back while crouching on all fours. As he did so, the ground beneath him gave way pitching him over the edge into the sinkhole. For a few seconds, he fell through the air his arms flailing as he cried out. Halfway down the cliff was a nest of branches and as he fell through them, one of the thicker branches hooked itself onto the straps of his pack. Kiba’s fall was momentarily arrested but the sudden tug by the branch turned him upside down and tore the pack and quiver from his back. His fall resumed and he struck a slope at the base of the cliff, sliding down the steep gravel slope head first for the final few feet before coming to an unceremonious stop sitting on his head, his shirt flopping down to cover his face.

As the dust settled, Kiba heard a low growl and slowly lifted up the flap of his shirt. From his upside down perspective, he saw the small wolf club crouched and growling in front of him, its fangs bared. It would’ve been cute if it wasn’t standing at the feet of the girl who was now scowling and brandishing a spear whose point was only inches from his neck.

Kiba grinned nervously, his cheeks burning. “Er … Hi?”

Hero’s Journey Chapter 4 – Secrets

Late Afternoon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge

Her travelling robes splattered with mud from the walk through the village, Imperial Legate Yrsa Baugsdottir held a cloth to her nose and mouth as she surveyed the carnage. Next to her, Strike Captain Soti Serksson appraised his companion. With her braided blond hair, flawless fair skin and deep blue eyes, she appeared to be in her mid to late twenties. However, Soti mused, her status as a mage could put her real age anywhere between 20 and 120. Some said that the High Archon himself was over 200 years old. “What in the name of the gods happened here captain?” Yrsa asked Soti, breaking the hushed silence in the field.

“I was hoping you would tell me,” Soti responded sighing in exasperation, “that is after all why I summoned a diviner.”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” Yrsa blushed as she stammered her reply. “Forgive me; this is my first time on the battlefield.” Soti grunted as Yrsa got to work marking the divination circle on the ground near the dismembered bodies of the Eldalan soldiers. Bloody mages, he though to himself, ready to make all the decisions but lacking the stomach to see the effects for themselves.

One of the soldiers in the farmyard down the dirt track called out to Soti. “Captain Serksson, we’ve found something you should see.” Leaving Yrsa under the watchful eye of two of his subordinates, Soti began to jog back down the track towards the farmyard. Two soldiers were busy digging up a shallow grave that had been located next to an apple tree in the centre of the yard. The soldier that had called out to him was standing in front of the farmhouse and was part of a group that had been ordered to search the house. Four soldiers sent to get rid of the inhabitants of this farm had turned up dead, three of them torn limb from limb. This was a great cause of concern since little resistance from this village had been expected. Next to him, sitting on a small wooden bench and drinking from a waterskin, was a man dressed in the clothes of an Eldalan Ranger. Soti saw that the soldier was holding something five feet long and wrapped in cloth.

“What’ve you found soldier.” Barked Soti as he approached the young soldier who was barely out of his teens.

“It’s just like what Master Asbosson said,” the soldier began, “looks like just two people lived here. A farmer and his son. Didn’t find anything out of the ordinary until we checked the loft then we found this.” The soldier removed the cloth wrappings to reveal a gleaming sword and he handed it to his captain. Soti held the sword and began to examine it closely. Its silver blade had an iridescent finish with a faint yellow sheen wherever the blade caught the sunlight. The blade itself seemed to have whorl-like markings ingrained into the metal. Unusually, the sword did not have a hilt guard where the blade joined the hilt. Instead, it had a large circular inset made of something that looked like red obsidian only it seemed much tougher. Etched in yellow into the inset was the crest of the Kingdom of Arcadia. When Soti saw the inset his eyes widened in a mixture of awe and respect.

Speaking in a hushed voice, he turned to the soldier. “This sword, the blade is made of Sun Steel. A metal forged from a type of iron ore found only in the Desert of Geb and this inset is made from Blood Stone. Incredibly rare, it’s said to be made from the crystallised blood of the last dragon to fly above the forests of Northern Arcadia who died over a century ago.”

“So, it’s worth a lot then?” The soldier asked ignorantly prompting a laugh from Master Ranger Lars Asbosson who got up and joined Soti and the soldier.

“Is it worth a lot? This sword is crafted by master artisans,” explained Lars, “by special request of the King of Arcadia himself. It is only given to those people who have served with distinction with the Royal Guards. It’s a crime for anyone other than them or their descendants to possess such a sword.” The three men looked at the sword, a newfound respect on their faces.

“What’s it doing here then?” The young soldier asked to no one in particular.

“That’s a very good question,” Said Soti, “Lars; your orders were to investigate anything unusual in the target area prior to the attack. I think you will agree that this definitely qualifies as unusual.”

Lars passed the waterskin to Soti as he pulled out a small notebook from an inside pocket. “Let’s see,” he began as he flipped through the pages before finding the right one, “the Toshiko farm. According to my information an old farmer named Ren and his teenage son were the only inhabitants.” Lars pointed over to the apple tree. “I’d venture that the initials T and R on that tree are a makeshift grave marker for the father.”

Soti took a swig from the waterskin, quenching his dry throat before responding. “Anything odd about either of them?”

“No, not really,” Lars replied after thinking about it for a few seconds.

“That wasn’t exactly a resounding no.”

“Well, the kid and the father weren’t related by blood. According to the village gossip, the old man adopted him about 15 years ago as an infant. I saw the kid once walking through the village. He didn’t look like a local either with that green hair of his.

“Green?” Soti asked with a raised eyebrow. Lars’s response was pre-empted by a cough from behind them. The three men had failed to notice her as she approached and quietly eavesdropped on their conversation. Soti was about to ask her how long she had been standing there when Yrsa spoke first.

“Strike Captain Serksson, Master Ranger Asbosson,” she began accompanied by a respectful slight bow, “I have completed my divinations and am ready to make my report.”

“Well?” Soti asked impatiently.

“Oh, well, it appears your men arrived at the farmhouse as planned. They found one person, a late middle-aged man, in the kitchen. They searched the house for any other occupants and finding none took him outside and despatched him. At this point a boy, probably no more than 14 or 15 ran down from the tree line waving a sword about. I get the impression that the man might have been his father. His anger might have given him courage but it sadly did not impart any skill with a blade and he was outmatched and quickly over powered. Unfortunately for your men before they would deal a killing blow, a mounted huntsman arrived shooting the squad leader in the neck with his bow before …” at this point Yrsa went pale and her handkerchief again went to her mouth as she seemed to experience the divination a second time “… setting his hunting hounds on your men, tearing them apart. Afterwards they buried the body of the farmer and escaped on horseback heading north together.” Yrsa pointed in the direction in which the unsaddled horses had charged off in her vision, conveniently leaving a set of tracks to follow.

“Is that all?” asked Soti to which Yrsa simply nodded. “Very well then, thank you for your assistance, the soldier here will escort you back to the village to see that you get to the portal safely.”

“Pleasure to be of service Captain Serksson, your quarry should only be a half-days ride away at most. Good luck.” And with that, the young soldier saluted and followed Yrsa back towards the village. After she had entered the trees and was out of sight and earshot, Lars motioned to Soti to follow him and the two men walked far enough away from the farmyard to ensure that they were not overheard but their men.

“She’s lying.” Lars stated without ceremony.

“I’m not a Ranger like you Lars, but even I can tell that there were no animal tracks around the bodies.” Soti agreed. “She’s too smart to get it wrong so the question is why did she lie?”

“I don’t know, but I do know that those horse tracks she told us to follow were made by riderless horses. I did find two sets of fresh footprints heading away from the farm to the east. I suggest that we send the bulk of the men to follow the phantom horse tracks while you, me and three of your best men follow the real tracks to the east.”

Soti thought about the plan before responding. “Sounds good, meet back here in one hour. I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to this Toshiko kid than Yrsa was letting on.”

—-

Yrsa knocked smartly on the door to the chambers belonging to the head of her order, The Circle of Tarun Kar, and waited until permission was given to enter. The chamber was silent save for the crackling fire in the fireplace and the scratching of quill on parchment. The master, a middle-aged 6-foot tall man with blond hair and blue eyes, the archetypal Eldalan, sat behind the desk in his voluminous studying a series of ledgers. The man was Baug Jokulsson and he was Yrsa’s father.

“I swear Yrsa, how is that the most secret society in all of the Empire produces more paperwork than the entire Imperial Bureaucracy?” He asked no one in particular as he sighed and pushed his chair back from the desk. Baug walked around the desk and stood in front of Yrsa. She looked up into her father’s face and smiled.

“It’s good to see you too father,” she said as father and daughter embraced warmly, “although I’d take an Arcadian spring over one of ours any day. It’s freezing in here.” Her father laughed and waved a hand towards the crackling fire in the hearth. As his fingers traced a series of motions in the air, the flames erupted upwards, roaring with a heat that filled the room.

“Sorry, sometimes it’s easy to forget how cold it can get without these damnable robes of office,” he apologised, “speaking of Arcadia, how was your mission?”

Yrsa walked over to the desk and picked up a juicy looking apple from a bowl. Biting into it, she savoured every crunch as she spoke. “It is just as we thought; the presence we detected in Benbridge was that of the titan spawn. It seems the reason why we were unable to determine its exact identity and location was that it is an immature specimen barely aware of its true potential.”

Baug opened a locked desk drawer and withdrew a scroll case. Within which was a detailed map of Arcadia will all its towns, villages and border settlements marked on it. A small number of these, less than half a dozen, had been highlighted. One of these highlighted locations was Benbridge and that village was the only highlighted location that hadn’t been recently crossed out. “Considering you are referring to it in the present tense, I can assume that it is still alive then.” Yrsa nodded her confirmation. “Good, if we’re lucky we might be able to find it before it gets itself killed.”

“There’s more, it seems that the immature spawn was under the care of a former member of Arcadia’s Royal Guards and is now under the protection of another of their number.” Yrsa commented as she finished her apple.

Baug’s head snapped up, mild surprise evident in his eyes. “Are you sure? The Arcadians had a kill on sight policy towards titan spawn last time I checked.”

“Although I’m not sure if the spawn is aware of his true nature yet, I got the distinct impression that both the guardian that was killed by the troops and the protector that left with the spawn both were aware.”

As Yrsa described the full flow of events that she had seen in her vision, Baug sat down at the desk absorbing all she said. “Interesting, an immature spawn completely unaware of his nature and raised as a normal human. Very interesting indeed. If his sire truly is Hrinruuk, as his mark suggests, then we may have finally found the key that we have been searching for. To think, the culmination of centuries of planning depends on a mere child. It is imperative that we locate him before the Emperor’s Finest catch him.” He got up and walked over to the fire where Yrsa joined him as he looked into the flames. “Does this Serksson suspect anything?”

“No father,” she replied, “I spun him some line about hunting dogs and sent them north instead of east. It’ll take that man weeks to figure out he’s going in the wrong direction.”

Baug looked at his daughter reproachfully as he summoned a servant from the corridor outside, “Yrsa dear, I’ve told you before about assuming stupidity amongst those not gifted with magic.” In response, Yrsa merely rolled her eyes.

The servant entered unobtrusively as she was trained to do, moving with agility and purpose despite the sightless white orbs where her eyes should be. She knelt in one knee, awaiting a command from her master.

“Assemble the Talon’s,” Baug instructed the servant without acknowledging her presence, “it seems they have a hunt on their hands.”

After the servant had left the room, Yrsa turned to her father. “Father, given what our soldiers have done to his home, the spawn’s cooperation will be hard to secure and it is unlikely it will come quietly.”

“We do not need his consent, just his blood.”

Hero’s Journey Chapter Three – Dace

Just Past Noon, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
The Toshiko Farm on the outskirts of Benbridge

As Jiro paid his respects at Ren’s makeshift grave, led a trio of horses out into the yard. Jiro watched with some confusion as Kiba gently stroked the sides of the unsaddled horses heads, whispering quietly. The three horses took off, charging in a circle around the yard before galloping off into the woods. After Kiba had picked up his pack and joined Jiro, he turned to the boy. “What was all that about?”

“Nothing,” he responded as he adjusted the straps on his pack, “I just told them to run as fast as they could and not come back because it wasn’t safe here any more.”

Jiro raised an eyebrow quizzically, “And they understood that?”

“Of course, horses aren’t stupid, they’re very intelligent animals,” Kiba answered with an indignant expression on his face.

“Have you got everything you need?” asked Jiro. Kiba nodded reluctantly. “Then we better get going.” Jiro turned towards the dirt track out of the yard and began to walk towards the gate. He stopped as he realised that Kiba was not following him. The boy was looking back towards the house, a nervous and apprehensive expression on face.

“I’ve lived in this house all my life,” Kiba began, “Gods, I’ve never been further out of the village than Sandown.” Jiro walked over to him, stopping alongside. He put a hand on Kiba’s shoulder and turned him so that the two were facing each other. Looking down at Kiba, and seeing the fear and worry in the boy’s eye’s, he was suddenly reminded that, whatever the manner of his birth Kiba was still half-human. That human side could feel fear just as much as any full-blooded human. However, right now there was precious little time to reassure the boy. Any minute now, Eldalan troops could arrive looking for their missing patrol.

“Kiba, we have to go. It’s just not safe to stay here for much longer,” The boy nodded his understanding, his eyes lingering on the mound of disturbed earth by the apple tree for second before he turned his back on his home and followed Jiro down the dirt track.

They walked in silence through the woods as they left Benbridge behind. Only the occasional word passed between the two as they skirted around the main road out of the village and kept to the little used dirt tracks and paths. Although they could have travelled faster on horseback, it’s easier to follow horse tracks than footprints and they would have had to keep to the better maintained roads. This way, they could sneak past any patrols without being spotted or heard. Jiro had not been happy about parting with his horse, they had been together for many years but every mote of his training told them they would have a better chance on foot. Kiba had grown up in these woods hunting with by himself and with his father and he knew every track and every path through these woods. Armed with that knowledge they managed to evade the patrols and leave Benbridge far behind.

—-

When the sun began to dip below the horizon later that evening, Jiro decided to call a halt and hunker down for the night. They made camp in a small hollow surrounded on all sides by dense woodland and nestled between several small hills far from the nearest track or road. While Jiro crawled through the undergrowth around the clearing laying down trip lines, Kiba set to work gathering firewood as the temperature started to drop. Jiro returned to the clearing to find the boy sitting next to a crackling fire, wrapped in a blanket and staring into the flames.

Kiba had been quiet since they had passed Sandown earlier that afternoon. The town seemed to have faced a similar fate as Benbridge, several buildings were burning and a number of fires had coalesced into a conflagration that threatened to raze the town to the ground. No movement could be seen and no attempt appeared to have been made to put out the fires. From their vantage point in the hills above town they had a seen a number of bodies lying in the streets and as they had circled around the town they had crossed the boot tracks of heavily armed soldiers. Jiro had surmised that they were probably left by Eldalan troops chasing after survivors that had escaped the massacre at Sandown. Kiba had wanted to go after them but Jiro had stopped him, arguing that it would be suicide to charge after them. Heated words had been exchanged between the two but Kiba had reluctantly agreed in the end. Since that incident, Kiba had hardly spoken a word to Jiro and as they sat around the fire sharing a pack of trail rations, the silence was uncomfortable but it was Kiba that broke it first.

“Where are we going?” Kiba suddenly asked.

Jiro looked up before answering. “I’ve got some friends in Galtea, if Eldala is on the warpath it should be safe there.”

Kiba’s brow furrowed in confusion and he looked up from the fire. “Galtea? But we’re heading east, Galtea is to the south.”

“That’s true,” Jiro said as he put his plate down, “but Eldala has the largest navy in existence. While we remain in northern Arcadia, their airships have a hard time spotting us under the trees. But if we follow the roads through the plains of southern Arcadia we’ll be sitting ducks. Even if we get across the plains, between Arcadia and Galtea lies the Desert of Geb and I’m not going to chance crossing it with … well it’s probably impassable this time of year anyway.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question uncle.” Kiba answered giving Jiro the look that all children give to adults when they know they are trying to avoid giving a straight answer.

“Heh, uncle, you haven’t called me that…” Jiro began before Kiba interrupted him.

“Don’t change the subject. And don’t treat me like a kid; we’re not heading towards Galtea, so where are we going?”

Jiro paused for a second before answering. “We’re heading to Freeport, it’s a coastal city state in the Sundered Kingdoms on the eastern side of the Hornspires. I’m hoping we can book passage to Galtea on a boat or airship from there.” Kiba thought about this for a moment before speaking again.

“But the only way across the mountains is the Daikenee Pass in the northern tip. Anyone planning to cross the Hornspires into the Sundered Kingdoms would have to go through there. The Eldalans would know this and would be watching it.”

Jiro nodded, slightly impressed at the boy’s surprisingly sound analysis. “True, true, but Freeport is directly due east of Benbridge. If we keep heading east, we’ll eventually get there.” As soon as Jiro had finished, Kiba jumped up in a shock.

“Whoa, hold on there. Ignoring for a second that the only way across the Hornspires is the Daikenee Pass in the north or through the desert in the south, between Arcadia and the Hornspires is the Deep Wood. If crossing over the top of the Hornspires is impossible, then crossing the Deep Wood is suicide. People say that elves live in the heart of the forest and kill anyone who intrudes. No one who enters the Deep Wood has ever returned.”

Jiro simply smiled. “Ok, there’s two things wrong with that statement. First, elves are just a story told to scare little boys into being good and as you said earlier, you’re not a kid any more. Secondly, if no one has ever returned then where do all the stories come from?” Slightly embarrassed now at his outburst, Kiba sat back down. “Look, do you trust me?” Kiba nodded, “then trust me when I say that I know what I’m doing. Anyway, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. Get some shut eye, I’ll take first watch.” He passed Kiba a couple of blankets and, using his pack as a pillow, the boy lay down and tried to get to sleep. A few minutes later, he rolled over, looked at Jiro, and asked the one question that had been foremost in his mind since this morning.

“Why are the Eldalans attacking? Why are they doing this?”

Jiro found that he couldn’t look him in the eye as he lied and said he had no idea. Kiba rolled back over and was soon fast asleep.

—-

There was a light mist hanging low to the ground, rolling in great sheets along the forest floor. Above the treetops, the stars of the moonless night where hidden behind by the unbroken clouds, casting the woods below in near total darkness. When he had woken, Jiro was nowhere to be seen and the campfire was nothing more than glowing embers. Along with Jiro, their packs and weapons had also vanished as well as the supplies they had gathered. There had been little time to worry about this as somewhere in the forest, Kiba could hear the sound of a child whimpering along with something else, something animal.

Although he was armed only with a stout branch, he forged ahead regardless until be broke through the trees into clearing inside which was scene from a nightmare. In the centre of the clearing, bound tightly to an old and gnarled oak, was a small boy. No more than seven or eight, he resembled a younger version of Kiba with a splash of unruly green hair and brilliant orange eyes. Naked from the waist up, there were angry red welts under the ropes binding his arms behind the tree and across his chest where he had struggled in vain to free himself and his eyes were wide in terror. Circling around the tree was a pack of three animals composed entirely of shadows. Their form resembled that of giant wolves but no features, save eyes that glowed a hellish red, could be discerned. A row of horns or spikes ran down the length of their spines and every foul breath condensed into vapour, seeming to replenish the mist around them. When the boy noticed Kiba’s arrival, from behind a cloth gag he screamed a wordless cry for help.

Spurred into action, Kiba charged into the clearing swinging the branch like a club. Snarling, the wolf things leapt at him, fangs bared and claws primed to strike. Kiba’s branch connected with the head of one of the wolf things with a sickening crunch despite the wolf thing’s incorporeal nature. Its head dissolved into a cloud of fine black dust, its body soon following. Another wolf thing leapt onto him, its weight driving him to the ground and causing him to drop the branch. Kiba tried to throw it off but found himself trapped beneath it as he tried to hold its jaws away from his face while straining to reach the branch with his free hand. A second wolf thing came into view as Kiba struggled with the one on his chest and Kiba was certain that it was smiling as it approached. Its foul breath smelt sulphurous and in a sharp motion, its jaw darted forward and bit at Kiba’s arm. The shock of the bite caused Kiba to lose his grip on the other wolf thing’s head and it lunged forward, clamping its jaws around his unprotected neck. As it jerked its head side to side, Kiba was surprised that instead of the sharp pain and the tearing of flesh you would expect to receive when your throat is being torn out be a monstrous wolf, he instead felt a curious draining sensation. A deep coldness spread throughout his body as the other wolf thing started chewing on his arm and soon a heavy tiredness began to envelop him. His struggles seemed useless, soon there was no strength left in his body, and he just lay there, unable to move as the creatures sucked the life out of him. Eventually his eyes fluttered closed as his body began to surrender to the blackness.

A scream from the child bound to the tree brought him back to his senses and his eyes snapped open. The wolf thing on his arm released it hold and lifted its head to howl at the child. In that instant, with renewed strength Kiba whipped his arms up, grasped the head of wolf thing that was gnawing on his neck and plunged his thumbs deep into its eyes. The wolf thing howled in pain and tore free. It staggered for a few steps before collapsing to the floor, writhing and convulsing like a fish with its head cut off, whimpering in agony before dissolving. The remaining wolf thing span ran to face Kiba who had rolled over into a crouch and was reaching for the branch. Kiba managed to grab the branch just in time as it leapt at him through the air and he brought it up to impale the wolf thing on it like a spear, using its own momentum to carry its body over his head as he rolled on to his back.

As the last wolf thing dissolved, Kiba lay for several seconds on his back panting heavily before remembering why had charged in to the clearing in the first place. Despite the savagery of the battle, Kiba had no physical injuries, something he was very thankful for. He crouched in front of the boy and carefully removed the gag. Speaking quietly, he tried to reassure the boy as he attempted to untie the ropes.

“It’s going to be Ok, what’s your name?”

“D-Dace,” the boy stammered between ragged breaths, “hurry, they’ll come back. They always come back.”

As if on cue, in the darkness something howled, the same unearthly howl that the wolf things had issued only louder and deeper. Dace began to panic as the sounds of something crashing through the trees got louder and closer. He was pleading with Kiba who was cursing the fact that he had no knife and that the knots securing the ropes across Dace’s chest were tied too tightly to be undone. In desperation, he braced himself with his left foot against the trunk of the tree and pulled at the ropes across Dace’s chest with all his strength.

“Come on,” he pleaded through gritted teeth, “please gods, give me a break.” With a great heave, the ropes snapped and Dace fell forward into Kiba’s arms. He was shivering from the cold night air so Kiba took his shirt off and put in on Dace. It wasn’t much but hopefully it would keep the edge off the cold. He was about to ask Dace if he could walk but from the other side of the clearing, the sound of splintering wood heralded the arrival of the thing crashing through the woods. Picking up the branch, Kiba told Dace to stay behind him and turned to face the sound. A pair of trees crashed aside as a two headed, 20ft tall version of the wolf things from earlier forced its way into the clearing. Its howl painfully loud and echoing in the otherwise still night. Kiba took one look at the monster and dropped the branch. “Oh screw that!” he muttered as he lifted Dace onto his back and started running. With a howl, the monster gave chase, ploughing through the trees behind the two boys.

With the low-lying mist and the darkness, it was a miracle that Kiba didn’t trip on some hidden piece of undergrowth as they made their headlong flight through the night. Even so, Kiba’s skin soon became cut in numerous places as he forced their way through the woods, branches and bushes scratching him in the process. However, the constant sound of the thing chasing them drove any thought of pain or discomfort from his mind. After several minutes of blind flight through the woods, nature threw a barrier into their path. A wide, slow flowing river stood in their way and they had no choice but to cross it, the wolf thing was only seconds behind them. Making sure that he had a good grip on Dace on his back, he jumped into the water. The water was ice cold and it caused Kiba to breath in sharply as he began to wade across but thankfully it only came up to his waist at its deepest point. It was slow going and took nearly a minute to wade across it and when they finally made to the opposite shore, Kiba nearly collapsed on to the grassy bank. Shivering violently from the cold, he turned and looked back towards the other side where the wolf thing was pacing back and forth along the opposite bank, unwilling to enter the water.

Taking advantage of the lucky break, Dace helped Kiba to his feet and they half ran, half stumbled down a dirt track away from the river through farmland. Eventually, they had to stop as Dace could run no further and Kiba was too tired to carry him. As they rested against a tree, sitting close to share body heat, Kiba looked down at Kiba. “Who tied you to that tree?”

Dace turned and looked up at Kiba, a feral gleam in his eyes. As he smiled, Kiba saw fangs where none had been before. “You did,” Dace answered as he poked Kiba in the chest with a clawed finger.

Hero’s Journey Chapter Two – Country’s Fall

Morning, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Several miles outside of the village of Benbridge, home to the Toshiko’s

At just over 6ft in height, Yamasaka Jiro was a powerfully built man that rode his horse with confidence. His black hair was tied back into a ponytail that reached down to the base of his neck. Jiro had always considered his striking blue eyes his best feature and even though he was now in his 40’s, they still had that boyish twinkle about them. He was dressed in a white short-sleeved tunic over the top of which was worn a dark green pocketed waistcoat made of tough fabric. His tan pants were made of the same material as the waistcoat and he had metal knee guards strapped over the top of them. Jiro had similar protection over his elbows, shoulders and metal plates were fixed to the backs of his gloves. A pair of horizontal scabbards at the base of his back held a pair of matched short swords and on his left forearm he wore a leather bracer with a silvery jewel embedded in its centre.

Although his appearance suggested that he was a somewhat roguish adventurer he was in fact an experienced warrior having been a member of the Royal Guards since the age of 22. He had been the youngest individual to be accepted into its ranks for generations, a fact that he was very proud of. Jiro thought that the achievement was due in no small part to the training he had received from his instructor Toshiko Ren. He had taken the nervous young squire and moulded him into a capable soldier.

Jiro whistled as he rode his horse through the woods to the east of Benbridge. So far, the start of spring had been glorious and today was no exception and Jiro was looking forward to seeing his old friend and mentor again. It had been over a year and a half since he had last seen him and he had planned to visit last month but his duties had kept him away. In the left saddlebag pouch was a tightly wrapped parcel. A belated birthday present for Ren’s son. Kiba had a keen interest in hunting and according to Ren’s letters, was “a devil with that home-made bow of his”. When he was in Galtea several months ago, he had seen an item that Jiro thought would make a perfect present. Obtaining it was difficult to say they least, but he thought it was worth it. Fifteen years ago, he had left the newborn boy with Ren and had kept a close watch on him as he grew. He had feared that one day, his decision to disregard the law and let the child live would prove to be an ill-advised one. That one day, the boy’s titan-nature would prove too strong to resist and on that day, Jiro would be the one that would have to put him down. Thankfully, as Kiba grew it became clear that the decision Jiro had made was the correct one and that Ren had been the right choice as surrogate father. Ren had raised the boy well and instilled within him a strong sense of right and wrong. As far as Jiro could sense, the boy did not have one evil bone in his body, regardless of the blasphemous circumstances of his birth. Of course, Jiro admitted to himself, he had lost his objectivity on this matter years ago.

Although he appeared to be casually ignorant of his surroundings, Jiro was paying close attention to the bushes that ran either side of the dirt road. A few minutes earlier he had heard the sound of movement from with the bushes which alerted him to the presence of at least four individuals. They appeared to be shadowing him from within the undergrowth and if he was not mistaken an ambush would take place any moment. He was not disappointed for soon enough his keen ears heard the sound of bowstrings being released.

Four arrows, two from each side, whistled through the air passing each other exactly where Jiro had been a fraction of a second earlier. Jiro had dismounted in one fluid motion, leaning back and rolling to the side, landing in a crouch grasping the hilts of his two swords. His horse had galloped off down the track and out of sight, just as she was trained to. She would return when Jiro called for her, meanwhile he had the men in the bushes to deal with. From out of the undergrowth stepped four grubby men in bandit attire, each wielding a bow with sword strapped to their belts. Slowly the arranged themselves in a circle around Jiro.

“So it’s to be four against one, I appear to have the advantage then.” Jiro taunted confidently, if not a little arrogantly.

One bandit, slightly cleaner than the rest, took a small step forward. “We got you surrounded mate, if you haven’t noticed,” he retorted. Jiro mentally marked him as their “leader”.

“No, I’ve got you precisely where I need you to be.” Jiro looked into the leader’s narrowed eyes and smiled.

The bandit leader scowled, “And just what use do you think those nice shiny swords are going to be, you take one step and you’ll become a human porcupine before you get close enough to use them.” Jiro had to admit that he had a point. One of these day’s his overconfidence is going to get him killed. “Kill him.”

On their leader’s command, three of the bandits loosed their arrows. Jiro turned side on to one arrow letting it pass by and embed itself harmlessly into the trunk of a tree. He swept his twin swords upwards, the sun glinting of their blades as he intercepted the two remaining arrows. The arrows ricocheted off the parrying blades into the chest of the bandit leader. As Jiro span to face the archers, the bandit leader looked down at the arrows embedded in his chest in confusion as he dropped to his knees before limply slumping forward. “Captain Hakisson!” screamed one bandit as he dropped his bow, drew his sword and charged at Jiro. He easily rolled under the bandit’s wild swing and thrust one of his swords into his back. Spinning round the hapless bandit, he back thrust his other sword into the man’s neck nearly decapitating him. Jiro turned towards another bandit and flung his sword at him. The blade struck him in the stomach, embedding itself up to the hilt. After the seeing his comrades dispatched so effortlessly, the final bandit nervously stumbled backwards, turned and fled. Jiro sighed and raised his left arm. The jewel embedded in the bracer glowed softly and an ethereal light flowed upwards from its silvery surface. The light coalesced into a spectral form in the shape of a small crossbow, complete with a ghostly bolt already loaded. With a mental command, the crossbow fired and the bolt flew across the space between Jiro and the fleeing bandit leaving a white streak in the air behind it. The bolt struck the man square in the back, exploding in a burst of energy that surged throughout the man’s body and sending him crashing head first into a tree.

When the bandit regained consciousness several minutes later he found himself naked and tied tightly to a tree. Next to him were piled the stripped corpses of his comrades and next to them was a neat pile of their possessions. Jiro sat on a log across from the man eating an apple, peeling it with a small dagger. “Packs a hell of a punch doesn’t it?” he asked between bites.

“I ain’t saying nothing,” spat out the bandit.

“You know what you are,” said Jiro as he pointed to the bandit with his knife, “you’re a question. And I hate a question without an answer. Let’s start at the top shall we.” He got up and crouched next to the bodies of the bandits. “This man,” he said prodding the nearly headless bandit, “called this man,” pointing at the leader’s body, “Hakisson. That’s not a local name is it? Then there’s the matter of your accent. I’ve been to every province in this Kingdom and none of them have an accent quite like yours.” He turned to the pile of weapons. “Usually in this region its crossbows, but bandits with bows I can accept. What I can’t accept is this sword. See the design of the blade, the distinctive markings and patterns in the metal, this shows it was forged somewhere in the Eastern regions of Eldala.” The man watched Jiro through gritted teeth, beads of sweat beginning to form on his brow. “Almost every aspect of you screams bandit … except this sword, your accents, your names, and the fact that each of you have had a shoulder tattoo obliterated with a hot blade. All that says that you are not bandits at all, but Eldalan troops. So here’s the question, and it’s strictly pass fail, what are a group of soldiers from the Empire of Eldala doing in the woods of west Arcadia?”

Jiro waited for an answer but the man just stared at him defiantly. He shook his head and went over to his horse that was tied to a nearby tree. Taking a canteen out of one of saddlebags, he took several large gulps. There is more than one way, he thought, to pry the truth from unwilling lips. Jiro put the canteen down and reached back into the saddlebag. Down at the bottom, there was a small pocket and from within that he pulled out a small silver chain. A small ivory hammer, no larger than a thumb was attached to the chain. It was the symbol of the Hedrada, the god of justice and knowledge. Tossing the chain back and forth from hand to hand, we went back to his prisoner and knelt in front of him.

“This,” Jiro said as he started to place the chain around the man’s neck, “is called a Confessors Chain. Anyone who wears it is compelled to speak nothing but the truth.” The prisoner tried to twist out of his grip   but Jiro smacked the back of his head against the tree, stunning him, and finished fastening the chain. “Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name?”

“Gelir Idmundsson,” answered the man without hesitation.

“Good, where were you born?”

“Stockdon.” Jiro nodded, he knew Stockdon. It was a coastal city in eastern Eldala.

“Now, what were you doing here?”

“We’re attached to the 2nd Battalion. Our orders were to infiltrate Arcadia along with the 1st and make our way to our assigned targets.”

“And then what?” Jiro prompted sternly.

Ten minutes later Jiro had the information he required and was galloping through the woods towards Benbridge. He was still several miles away and it took him nearly an hour to close the distance, all the time praying that he was not too late.

What he had been told chilled him to the bone. The man had explained the Eldalan plan. How hundreds of soldiers had crossed the border secretly and took up positions around the towns and cities posing as bandits or travellers. Eldalan Rangers had gone ahead disguised as merchants and infiltrated the towns. As he talked, a dawning sense of realisation had overcome Jiro. The Royal Guards had been receiving reports over the last several months of massive troop movements within Eldala and a build up of forces in their northern coastal cities. It had been presumed that they were preparing for an attack on the Calastian Hegemony. The two countries had been enemies for generations so it had been a fairly safe bet. But surely, Jiro asked, any troop movement that size towards Arcadia would’ve been seen weeks in advance. The man’s answer was frighteningly simple. Each of the Rangers carried a simple staff that had a special headpiece, an enchanted crystal. When used, it created a portal between the Ranger and the attack staging grounds in Eldala. Suddenly it all became clear; the Empire would be able to ‘port legions of troops directly into the hearts of Arcadian towns and cities. There would be no warning, the Empire would have complete surprise and it would be a complete rout. It was already too late to warn the capital; according to the man, the attack was already under way. With him being under the control of the Confessor’s Chain, Jiro had no reason to doubt this. When the man had explained the intent behind the attack, Jiro felt sick to his stomach break. This was no invasion, this was genocide. The Empire of Eldala intended to wipe out every last Arcadian and lay the entire country to waste. Worse still, if what the man had been told was true, all this might be Jiro’s fault. Just before he had left the man to the forest’s mercy, he had told him that if any harm had come to Ren or Kiba, he would track the man’s soul down in the afterlife and make him suffer for all eternity.

As he approached the outskirts of the village, Jiro heard shouting and the sounds of fighting from a clearing ahead. Charging into the clearing, he saw three Eldalan soldiers facing off against a single youth wielding nothing more than a broken staff. Behind him stood a woman armed with a small dagger shielding a small girl, probably her daughter, from the men. The boy was badly injured; sporting numerous cuts and bruises, yet still, he held his ground. Standing between the soldiers and his family, waving his staff like a club. Clearly, the soldiers had been toying with him for their own amusement.

Using the element of surprise, Jiro charged his horse straight at a soldier that appeared to be moving in for the kill. With a downward slash, he struck the soldier’s neck cleaving the head cleanly from the body, a spray of blood in the air marking his death. Jiro dismounted and landed with both swords drawn between the family and the remaining two soldiers. Unlike the last group he had faced, this time he was in no mood for banter and he immediately advanced on his enemy. Jiro’s sudden appearance had stunned both of the soldiers but one of them, an archer, recovered quickly enough to let loose an arrow at the new arrival. Jiro was so intent on the soldier in front of him that he failed to notice the approaching arrow. Yet when it struck him square in the shoulder blade, he didn’t show any sign of noticing the impact. Ignoring the pain, he leapt forward and attacked the soldier in front of him, his blades forming a whirling windmill of death ahead of him. The man tried in vain to block Jiro’s blows, but there was too many and the blades moved too fast. Within a few brief seconds, the man’s chest became criss-crossed with slash marks and the blood flowed freely. As a killing blow, as the man staggered backwards under the onslaught Jiro opened his stomach with a single slash to his abdomen and he was dead before his body hit the floor. The remaining soldier was still attempting to knock another arrow when a barrage of spectral bolts from Jiro’s bracer struck him in the face. He screamed and clutched his face, sinking to his knees, as the flesh burned and sizzled. Jiro finished him off with a double stab to the back of the neck.

“Ichiro!” cried the woman behind him as she rushed forward to catch the boy as the collapsed backwards. Jiro ran over to her as she cradled her son, up close Jiro could see that although the wounds were serious they were not fatal. The woman begged him to help as he reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a small leather pouch. Inside were some bandages, several vials and small metal flask. “Take this and give him three cap-fulls,” he said giving her the flask. “It should help dull the pain and speed up the body’s natural healing process.” She did as she was told as Jiro took one of the vials and began to apply the yellow ointment from within to the boy’s injuries. “This should staunch the bleeding and ensure that the wounds do not get infected.” The boy tried to cough up the foul tasting potion but his mother held his nose and forced him to swallow it, obviously used to giving medicine to a reluctant child. Jiro reached behind him and pulled out the arrow from his shoulder, wincing with the sudden pain, and discarded it. “Peno isn’t it?” he asked as he began to dress the boy’s wounds with bandages, “Kyojima Peno, you’re Yuji’s wife right?”

“Yes,” she said nodding looking at Jiro slightly confused, “do I know you?”

“Probably not, I’m an old friend of Ren’s.”

“Old Man Toshiko? You must be Jiro, he talks about you often.” Jiro smiled, he knew how much Ren hated that nickname.

“Can you walk lad?” He asked as he helped the boy up. Ichiro took a step forward gingerly and after feeling no pain nodded. “What’s happening in the village?”

She told him how suddenly, soldiers started pouring out of a hole in the air in the village square. When they started torching everything and cutting down anyone they came across, they had tried flee but a group of soldiers had started chasing them.

“They just started killing everyone,” Ichiro began, “then they came after us. Dad and Piro stayed behind to hold them off.” His eyes were red as he held back tears. They appeared far older than they should be and gave the impression of having seen things no child should have to see.

Jiro knelt in front of him. “Take it,” he said pressing one of the soldier’s swords into his hand, “you keep protecting your family.” He turned to Peno, “Keep to the woods. They have patrols watching the roads looking for anyone trying to escape. Try to avoid the towns and cities, the same is happening there. Make for the border.” As he climbed up onto the saddle of his horse, Peno grasped his good shoulder.

“You’re going after Ren and his boy aren’t you,” Jiro nodded, “be careful, we saw soldiers heading in that direction before we left sight of the village.” Jiro thanked her, mounted the horse and rode off.

Riding in a circuitous route around the outskirts of the village, he kept inside the tree line to remain hidden. On one occasion, he got a clear view down the valley into the Benbridge and could see the burning buildings and the carnage that had taken place in its streets. He finally made it to the flat plateau to the south of the Benbridge where the farms were located. As he rode past the burning farms with the butchered remains of those that had lived there, he urged his horse on, anxious to get to the Toshiko farm and dreading what he might find there. When he arrived in the hollow, he was confronted by a sight that shocked even him. On the dirt track leading down to the farm through the fields, he saw the remains of four soldiers. Only one of them was intact, apparently killed by a single arrow to the neck. The others appeared to have been torn apart and blood was soaking into the ground in all directions. Not even one seemed to have all their limbs still attached and each of them had a look of abject terror frozen on their faces. As Jiro looked at the bodies, one of them even seemed to have been beaten to death with his own severed limbs. For a moment Jiro was at a loss to understand what could have happened to the soldiers, the brutality displayed was inhuman. In that instant he realised that there was one thing that would have the strength and ability to do this, and potentially it lived right in this hollow.

Gathering the reins, he charged his horse down the track into the farmyard. There was blood soaking into the dirt and there were signs of a struggle. Drawing his sword, he tentatively called out.

“Ren! Kiba! It’s Jiro, are you still here?”

For a minute the only answer Jiro received was silence but then he heard the sound of the farmhouse door opening behind him. He turned his horse and readied his sword, preparing himself for whomever or whatever came out. As Kiba stepped out, Jiro nearly collapsed with relief. Lowering his sword, Jiro slid out of the saddle as the boy dropped the pack he was carrying. From the look on his face, he didn’t need to ask Kiba about his father. Jiro walked over and embraced him, Kiba was filthy, his clothes were covered in blood but he was very much alive.

Hero’s Journey Chapter One – Fifteen Years Later

Morning, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
A small village on the western coast of the Kingdom of Arcadia

The spring sunshine shone lightly on the small sheltered cove, filtering through the trees that spread out from the top of the cliffs bordering it on three sides and casting dappled shadows on the sandy beach. 15-year-old Toshiko Kiba lay on his back on the wooden dock, his bare feet dangling in the cool water, lazily watching the clouds pass overhead. High above, an airship soared between the puffy clouds. It was most likely a Galtaen ship carrying cargo, a few high-paying passengers and important diplomatic messages to the Arcadian capital of Comer some 100 miles to the north. Kiba watched its passage until it was hidden behind a bank of low clouds while absent-mindedly chewing on a blade of grass.

Corday was one of the few days that he got to relax. Most of the week was spent helping his father on their small farm except on the odd days that he fell asleep during class at the small village school. Most of the village would probably already be at church engrossed in their weekly ritual of morning prayer. Although it was only the ninth day of spring, it was an exceptionally fine day and he planned to enjoy every minute of it by doing absolutely nothing.

Kiba stood a little over 5’5” and had a strong build thanks to the many years of working the farm alongside his father. With bright orange eyes and forest green hair, he stood out from the others in the village and consequently had few friends his age. He was rather plainly dressed with a black sleeveless shirt and a pair of his fathers old brown work pants with the legs cut short. The legs had originally trailed on the floor when he first started wearing them several years ago. Now they resembled knee-length shorts more than pants thanks to his growth over the last couple of summers. They still needed to be held up by a leather belt however and he had a new hunting knife strapped to his thigh, a birthday gift from his father last month. A pair of boots and socks lay discarded next to a water canteen, a red bandanna and a pack beside him. Tucked under his shirt was a pendent made up of a blue crystal 3/4 of inch long on a steel chain. The pendant was the only thing the Kiba had that belonged to his birth parents. Kiba also had a black tattoo on his right arm just under his shoulder of a four-pointed star. It had been there for as long as he could remember and his father had told him that it had been there when he had been left on his doorstep as a baby 15 years ago.

He closed his eyes and let the light ocean breeze ruffle his hair as he listened to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore and the calls of the gulls overhead. Slowly, he dozed off.

—-

The soldier, dressed in bandit clothes, slowly crept up to the edge of the cliff and peered down onto the cove below. He saw a boy, no older than his own son, sleeping on the wooden dock jutting out into the water. Readying his bow he hesitated, but only for a second, his orders were clear. The future of the Empire was at stake and all threats to the Empire must be eliminated even if that meant the complete annihilation of Arcadia. Taking a deep breath, he knocked an arrow and took aim. At least, he thought, I can make it a quick death.

—-

Kiba awoke with a start. Shielding his eyes, and without getting up, he looked up at the sun. It was still not at its zenith so Kiba supposed that it was still morning. Realising that his throat felt dry he rolled onto his side and reached for the canteen. No sooner had he done so did he hear a sharp thud and feel the impact of something strike the wood behind him. Sitting up he turned to look at the source of the noise and saw an arrow sticking out of the wood. Kiba looked at the arrow dumbfounded, his brain refused to think of anything other than the thought that if he had rolled a moment later or if the arrow had arrived a moment earlier it would’ve struck him in the chest.

He was still staring at the arrow when a second streaked down from the top of the cliffs and sliced across the top of his left arm. Kiba hissed in pain and shock as he grabbed the wound and looked up at the cliffs. He saw a man stand up, ready another arrow and begin to take aim. Looking frantically left and right, and suddenly feeling very exposed, Kiba dived into the water and ducked under the dock. Arrows peppered the water where he entered but as soon as he was under the dock, he was safe under cover, for now at least.

Staying as still as possible under the dock, he heard the clatter of stones as the man scrambled down the cliff face. Soon Kiba could hear the clomp of footsteps on the wooden planks of the docks as the man began to walk slowly down its length. Kiba held his breath, shivering in the cold water. “Come on boy, let’s not make this any harder than it has to be,” said a low gruff voice as the footsteps came to a stop above Kiba’s head. A sword was thrust the gap between planks narrowly missing Kiba’s face. In panic, he thrashed backwards in the water and began to swim for all his worth the few dozen feet to the shore. Behind him, he heard the pounding footsteps as the man ran back down the dock towards the shore.

Swimming diagonally away from the dock, Kiba hit the beach running and headed towards the path back to the village, arms and legs pumping furiously. He only got a few yards before he was shoulder-barged from behind and sent sprawling to the floor. As he tried to get up, a savage kick to the side forced him back down, this time onto his back. The man planted his right foot on Kiba’s chest pressing down and forcing all the air out of his lungs. Gasping for breath he watched as the man raised his sword above his head, point down, and prepared to bring it down onto his neck. Kiba grabbed the hunting knife strapped to his side and, perhaps for the first time in his life, uttered a silent prayer to Corean, Arcadia’s patron god, before slashing at the man’s right leg. The man howled in pain and stumbled as Kiba scrambled to get up, both of them tripping the other in the sudden tangle of legs. The man fell forward, crashing down on top of Kiba, grunting with the impact.

For a moment neither of them moved, then Kiba pushed the man off him to his side. Sitting up, Kiba realised that there was blood on his hands and chest. Apart from the arrow wound on his arm he didn’t seem to be injured, looking to the man still lying face up next to him, he saw his hunting knife sticking out of his chest. He leant over him cautiously and prodded him in the side. Getting no response, he grasped the hilt of the knife and pulled. It needed both hands to pull it out and as he did so, he felt the blade grating against bone and as it came out, a spurt of blood followed. Kiba looked at the blood soaked knife, the blood on his hands and the wound on the dead man’s chest. He tried to stand but found that his legs suddenly seemed to lack all strength and collapsed back to the ground. Kiba doubled over and vomited the remains of his breakfast onto the sand until there was nothing left but dry heaves.

After a few minutes, Kiba staggered away from the body and over the dock. In an attempt to get rid of the acrid taste of bile in his mouth, he picked up his canteen, swilled some water, and spat it out. A spasm of pain from his arm reminded him of the arrow cut and he picked up the bandanna from next to his boots and tied it tightly around the wound stopping the bleeding. His mind was racing, it may have been an accident, and the man might have been trying to kill him, but he’d killed someone. This brought up the question of why. Who was the man and why did he try to kill him? Kiba put on his boots and socks, picked up his pack, walked back to the body, and knelt down next to it.

He looked like a bandit, the clothes certainly fit the part, but Kiba supposed that bandit swords wouldn’t be in such good condition. It looked relatively new and from the stories he’d heard from merchants, the local bandits usually used crossbows and not bows. He was still trying to make sense of everything when something in the corner of his eye attracted his attention. It was a thick column of smoke rising above the treetops. As he watched, he realised what he was actually seeing was several small columns coalescing into one as they rose into the sky and they were coming from direction of the village.

Kiba jumped to his feet, if he could see the smoke from here, a fire in the village would have to be a huge one. He set off running down the beach towards the path back to the village but when he got to the foot of the cliff, he stopped. Something was wrong, apart from what had just happened. Deep down, he couldn’t explain it, but he knew that something very bad was going to happen. He went back to the body and picked up the sword and bow. Something told him that he might need more protection than what his knife could provide. Now wearing the dead man’s scabbard and quiver, he set off back to the village unsure of what he would find.

The village was a couple of miles down the coast on the other side of the headland. It took Kiba nearly half an hour to hustle down the forest path but he eventually reached the top of the valley looking down on to the natural harbour the village was built around. Several buildings were burning, most noticeably the church and the inn, and even from here, he could see large numbers of armoured men setting fire to houses and cutting down anyone they came across. In the village square, Kiba could make out a group of men in more elaborate armour standing guard around an individual dressed in plain traveller’s clothes. He was holding a staff from which a blue light emanated from a crystal on the top. Behind them stood what could only be described as a ripple in mid air. Kiba assumed this was some sort of magical portal as every so often a soldier would walk into the ripple and vanish or would appear out of the ripple as if he had just strode off the parade ground.

He began to make his way down the slope, carefully picking a route between the trees and to the rear of the village in order to minimise the chance of being seen. Since most of the soldiers seemed to be concentrated at the harbour and the houses on the valley floor, Kiba decided to cut through the church yard and as he crept between the rows of gravestones he saw a small boy running down the path parallel to the yard. He recognised him as the eight-year old son of the innkeeper, Busamaru. Little Busa, as people in the village tended to call him, was a good kid that often followed Kiba around the village. To his parent’s annoyance, and Kiba’s amusement, he had started to imitate Kiba. He was about to call out to the boy when he heard shouts from further down the road and several arrows flew through the air striking Busamaru in the back. Busa fell to the floor screaming and Kiba could only watch helplessly from behind a gravestone as two soldiers caught up with Busa and repeatedly stabbed the boy with their swords, cutting his pleas for mercy short.

Kiba slumped behind the gravestone biting on his lip hard enough to draw blood and fighting back tears. He was scared, confused and more than a little angry. Kiba couldn’t understand what was happening and why. Arcadia had been at peace for over a century and although it was a small kingdom, it didn’t really have any enemies. Why would someone attack his village and in this way? They weren’t important, just a small fishing and farming village. The smoke from the church was drifting across the graveyard and underneath the smell of burning wood, he could smell the grotesque stench of burning meat. What had they done to deserve such butchery?

Behind him, the soldiers were laughing and joking. Kiba could feel his blood starting to boil and his heart was beating so loudly that surely they could hear it. “I wish more of them had put up such a fight as this brat, it wouldn’t have been so boring otherwise.”

“I know what you mean,” answered the second, “why should we get stuck with this pissant little village.” Their accents were definitely foreign and Kiba couldn’t place it.

“I think this kid was the last,” the first one speculated. Kiba’s grip tightened on the sword, his pulse racing and a red mist beginning to encroach on the edge of his vision. He was seconds away from getting up and charging them when the first soldier continued. “Once Sergeant Leifsson and his patrol gets back from sweeping the farms to the south we should be able to get out of here.” His anger vanished in an instant and was replaced by a cold dread. His home was to the south and most likely his father would still be there.

Using the smoke as cover, he crawled along the ground away from the soldiers and over the wall around the graveyard. Now hidden from the soldiers, Kiba sprinted into the woods on the southern slope of the valley, weaving between trees and vaulting over undergrowth. The village’s farms were located in a series of cleared fields on the forested flats to the south of the valley and it took Kiba only a few minutes to run up the slope and down the path that led to the Toshiko farm.

When he got to the edge of the hollow the farm was situated in he skidded to a stop. In front of the farmhouse were four soldiers, two of whom held Kiba’s struggling father tightly by the arms and forcing him to his knees. As he watched in horror, a third soldier drew his sword back and stabbed him in the stomach. Kiba screamed out as his father slumped to the floor clutching his stomach. The soldiers turned, momentarily surprised, readied their swords and began to charge towards the boy. Kiba reached behind him pulling out the bow he had taken, he knocked an arrow and fired without thinking or even taking the time to aim. The arrow streaked through the air striking the soldier who had stabbed his father in the neck. He went down instantly in a spray of arterial blood accompanied by a gurgling scream. Kiba knew that he wouldn’t have time to ready another arrow so he dropped the bow on the ground and drew his sword. With a wordless battle cry of rage, he charged towards the soldiers, his sword raised above his head.

Although the only sword training he had ever received was listening to the bedtime stories of great knights and epic battles told to him by his father, Kiba seemed able to hold his own even against three trained soldiers. He parried the first attack, twisting around and ducking under the second bringing him face to face with the third soldier. Kiba swung his sword at the soldiers midriff but the soldier deftly stepped to the side and parried the blow sending Kiba stumbling. He recovered quickly enough to block two simultaneous blows that nearly forced him to the ground. Somehow, he found reserves of strength he didn’t know he had and pushed the blades back with enough force to send one of the soldiers sprawling in the dirt. The third soldier, who had forced him to stumble earlier, turned around bringing his sword smashing down in an overhead strike. Kiba parried the blow one handed, holding the sword in his right hand while punching the second soldier in the stomach, winding him. Kiba was so focused on the second and third soldiers, he forgot about the first soldier that he had knocked to the ground. The first soldier kicked the side of Kiba’s legs knocking him to the floor. Kiba rolled over almost instantly into a combat crouch just in time to receive a pommel bash to the side of the head. He brought his sword up as he staggered backwards, stunned by the blow. He never saw the third soldier swing his sword but he felt the blade as it sliced across his chest. Kiba lost the grip on his sword as he collapsed to the floor, his fall helped by a second sword blow to the back. His vision faded and he lay motionless on the ground, his blood soaking into the dirt.

The soldiers, panting heavily, gathered around the boy’s body. One of them kicked him in the side but received no response. Believing him to be dead, one of them picked up the sword that Kiba was using and examined it. “Hey, this is one of ours! How did this little bastard get a hold of it?”

The third soldier took the blade. “That’s Gunnasson’s; I’d recognise that pommel design anywhere.”

“It belongs to Kiba now,” said the boy, his voice deeper and more guttural than before “and he’d like it back.”

The three soldiers turned back to the boy who was rising to his feet. As they watched, the blood from the vicious cut across his chest stopped flowing and the sides of the wound closed together and healed. What was more disturbing was the boy’s face. His orange eyes seemed to burn and glow with an inner fire that wasn’t there before and appeared more animal now than human. His incisor teeth had become actual fangs and two-inch claws grew from the tips of his fingers and thumbs. A row of spines pierced the back of his shirt and a six-inch spike grew out of each of his elbows. The boy growled and took a step forward and the soldiers fell back, suddenly afraid. One of them hissed “titan-spawn” lowering his sword and turned to flee. The boy leapt through the air, over the heads of the two soldiers that had held their ground, and landed on the fleeing soldier’s back driving him to the ground. Ignoring his screams, the boy grabbed both the man’s arms and pulled. With a wet and visceral sounding tear, they ripped free. He turned to face the two surviving soldiers, whose faces were white with terror, and charged at them while screaming in a language not heard in the mortal world for nearly 700 years.

A few minutes later, Kiba’s vision cleared and he sat up and was presented with a scene of absolute carnage. Around him lay the “bodies” of the three soldiers that had attacked him. They appeared to have been torn limb from limb and a wide swath of the ground around them was sprayed with blood. Kiba himself was covered in blood, but even though he vividly remembered his stomach being cut open and being stabbed in the back he didn’t seem injured at all. Even the arrow cut on his arm from earlier seemed to have healed. Rather than trying to explain all this, Kiba picked up his sword and bow and raced down the dirt track to where his father was lying.

As Kiba knelt down next to his father, his eyes fluttered and he coughed up blood. He ripped the bandanna off his arm and pressed it onto his father’s wound hoping to stop the bleeding. “Kiba…” his father spluttered.

“Don’t talk, we need to get you to a healer.” Kiba wasn’t listening as he ran into the farmhouse and came out carrying some rags to use as bandages and a small vial. “Sandown is only eight miles inland. If we leave now we can make it before nightfall.”

“Kiba…”

“We’ll need to use the wagon,” Kiba continued as he hastily applied a yellow ointment from the vial to the wound and dressed it with the cloth rags, “that wound is too deep to ride with.” He was about to run to the barn to get horse hitched to the wagon when his father gripped his arm and stopped him.

“It’s too late for me son…”

“I’ll ride ahead then and bring the healer here, without the wagon I can be back in a quarter of the time.” He tried to pull away but his father’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“Kiba,” he said softly, “even if you tried, I’d be gone long before you even got there.” Kiba slumped to the floor feeling helpless. “Listen to me…”

Kiba slammed his fist on the ground, “If I weren’t goofing off like usual, if only I’d been here…”

“Then they would’ve killed you too.” His father interrupted. Tears welled up in Kiba’s eyes as he began to accept the inevitable. “There was nothing you could’ve done.”

“I could’ve tried.” Kiba said quietly, barely a whisper.

Ren tried to laugh but instead could only manage cough up more blood. Kiba used one of the cloth rags to wipe the blood away. He helped his father up and leant him carefully against a hay bale to make more comfortable. “Kiba, you may be many things but you are not a killer.” Kiba looked away when his father said that. “Listen to me; there are things I should’ve told you years ago. Things about your real mother and father. The time just never seemed right and you never asked about them.” Ren’s eyes unfocused and he seemed to look off into the distance as if remembering something. “How was I supposed to tell him, no child should ever have to shoulder this burden.”

“Tell me what?”

Ren’s attention turned back to his son, “It doesn’t matter. Under my bed there’s a box, inside it there is an envelope. The letter within explains everything.” Kiba had to lean in close as his father’s voice grew faint. “Regardless of what it says inside I want you to know this. I have never once regretted adopting you. Even if I was your birth father I would not love you more. You have a good head on those shoulders and a strong heart. You’ve been the best son a father could ask for and I’m proud of you.” His eyes unfocused and his entire body stilled.

“Father, wake up,” Kiba shook his father in desperation, tears now streaming freely down his face. “nonononono you can’t die,” he held his father close to his chest and rocked back and forth sobbing for some time.

Eventually he laid the body of his father carefully on the ground and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He knew there wasn’t much time, eventually someone would come looking for the missing soldiers. Kiba picked up a shovel, walked over to the apple tree in the middle of the yard and began to dig. It didn’t take him long to dig a hole big enough and deep enough for Kiba to gently lay his father in and bury him. He had no stone to mark the grave with so he took out his knife and carved his father’s initials in the bark of the apple tree.

Still in a daze he walked into the farmhouse and went upstairs. He grabbed some random clothes from his room stuffed them into his father’s old backpack along with some food and supplies from the kitchen. Remembering his father’s words, he went back upstairs and looked under his father’s bed. Sure enough, there was a small wooden box hidden underneath some spare blankets. Sitting on the bed he cautiously opened it. Inside there was a pouch containing more than a dozen gold coins, more than Kiba could remember seeing in his entire life. There was also silver disk about an inch and a half across with a small hole at the top, possibly to thread a chain through. One side was a design etched in gold of three swords arranged point to pommel in a triangle. On the back was an engraving that read “Toshiko Ren” and then something in Old Arcadian, a language that Kiba couldn’t read let alone speak. At the bottom of the box was envelope addressed “For The Child”. Kiba looked at the envelope for several minutes, wondering whether he should open it.

The decision was made for him when he heard the sound of a galloping horse approaching. Kiba stuffed the contents of the box into his pocket and picked up the backpack. Making sure he had all his weapons he crept to the window to peer out. In the yard there was a man with bloodstained clothes wielding a sword on horseback, his back to the window.

“Ren! Kiba! It’s Jiro, are you still here?”

Ryan’s Story – The Jewel

Ryan and TreyThe morning after the accident, before he had been released from hospital, Ryan had an unexpected visitor, Jake Matthews. To say that Ryan was suspicious about Jake’s visit would be an understatement.

“Err … hi,” said Jake nervously standing at the foot of the bed clutching his bag.

Ryan looked at Jake through narrowed eyes. “What do you want, Jake?” He head was still a little sore and he wasn’t really in the mood to deal with whatever the older boy wanted. He expected Jake was here to try to intimidate him into keeping quiet over what had happened just prior to the accident.

“I thought you might want this back,” Jake replied reaching into his bag. He pulled out Ryan’s skateboard and handed it to him. “You left it at the top of the cliffs.” Ryan took the skateboard and grunted a thank you. An awkward silence hung between the two boys, neither knowing what to say.

“So,” Ryan said breaking the silence, “how’d you get in anyway? Visitor hours don’t start until two and you don’t exactly count as a friend or family member.”

“My dad’s a sarge in the police back at Cliffport; he pulled a couple of strings when I asked him for a favour.” Jake sat down in the chair by his bed, idly glancing at the comics.

“Uh-huh, you came all this way just to return my skateboard.”

“Actually,” Jake said uncertainly, “I was hoping I could do something about what just said.”

“About what,” Ryan said, slightly confused and impatient.

“About not being a friend. Look, you saved my life. If it weren’t for you that car would have hit me.”

“You’re serious,” Ryan said, realising that Jake wasn’t joking. “The way I heard it; you were the one that saved mine. Sounds like we’re even to me.”

“Yeah, but you were right what you said. We’ve been real jerks to you since you got here, especially me. Honestly, I’d have understood it if you’d just jumped out of the way and let the car hit me. But you didn’t. Despite all the crap that we’ve done to you, you still risked your life to save mine. I don’t know about you, but I don’t forget stuff like that.”

“Look, I don’t need anyone watching my back. I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, I can see that. My jaw still hurts from that punch you gave me,” Jake said, grimacing in mock pain as he rubbed the side of his face.

Ryan was dubious, he had gotten used to expecting an ulterior motive when someone tried to “help him” or be his “friend.” Yet after four years of shutting everyone out, he was getting tired of always being isolated and alone. The Johnson’s were nice, they genuinely seemed to care; Trey was annoying, but he couldn’t deny that sometimes it was fun to be around him. Maybe it was time to start trusting people again.

“All right,” Ryan said taking a deep breath, “but no promises ok?”

“That’s cool.” Jake reached back into his bag once again and this time pulled out something wrapped in a supermarket carrier bag. He handed it to Ryan who looked inside, revealing a pair swimming shorts.

“What’s this?” he asked confused. “I’m not a house-elf you know.”

Jake laughed, betraying a passing familiarity with the Harry Potter books. “That’s for when you get out. As soon as you’re up for it, I’m dragging your ass to the sports centre and teaching you how to swim. The next time you fall into the harbour, I ain’t jumping in to save you.”

By the time Susan and Anthony had arrived an hour later to take him home, the two boys were still laughing and talking. Over the next month, Jake kept his word and tried to teach Ryan how to swim with mixed results.

—-

In between schoolwork and learning how to swim, Ryan had set himself another task. The memories of what he had experienced after he had passed out underwater were fuzzy, almost dreamlike in quality. Yet he was sure that what he had experienced was no hallucination, that it was real. The heat from the flames had felt real, a bruise from the strong grip had been left on his arm and no one had told him that Jake had been the person who had pulled him out of the water. He had seen that for himself during the out of body experience.

The demon, if the other man had been addressing him literally, had referred to his brother and a ritual. Despite the best efforts of psychologists and counsellors, Ryan had never completely come to terms with what Mark had done. What had happened on that night four years ago still gave him frequent nightmares and he had never told anyone the full story of what his brother had done to him. One of the things he had never told anyone was that his brother had also mentioned a ritual right before he killed his unsuspecting accomplice. Ryan had never thought too hard on what his brother had meant, although Mark’s last words to him were indelibly burned into his memories. His instincts told him that he needed to find out what Mark had been trying to do. Something told him that his life might quite literally depend on it.

Deciding to research the ritual was the easy part. Finding a place to start wasn’t. Using the internet was out of the question, the Johnson’s PC had parental controls blocking any website that could be useful. He didn’t know enough about computers to disable the controls and he didn’t want to ask his foster parents to remove them, as that would have raised too many awkward questions. Cliffport’s public library wasn’t much help either. Apart from a few books on theology and ancient mythology, the library had nothing that came even close to books on the occult.

After finding that no useful information could be found in Cliffport, Ryan decided that perhaps Plymouth would be better place to look. So a week after the accident, he took the 40-minute bus ride across the county line into Devon. Armed with a map and a printout from yell.com, he eventually found himself in Plymouth’s Barbican district standing at the door to a dark basement bookstore.

As he opened the door, ringing the bell, he had to squint in order to see in the dim lighting. The air smelled stuffy, reeking of old books and other strange odours. Bookshelves crammed with books lined the walls of the small room interspaced with glass cabinets housing numerous strange looking items. Ryan peered through the dusty glass of one cabinet at what appeared to be a human skull decorated with a strange red metal inset into its surface. The books on the shelves next to it were old and leather-bound. He reached out to take one from the shelf when the sound of a throat being cleared made him jump and spin around.

An old man standing at the door to a back room peered at him over the rim of his spectacles. “Please do not touch the books,” he said as he appraised the youth before him, “and I don’t like school children poking through my shop. So unless you are looking from something in particular, please leave.”

“I’m err,” Ryan said nervously. The man’s stare was piercing and it made him very uncomfortable. “I’m um looking for…”

“Spit it out boy, I haven’t got all day.”

Ryan swallowed, “it’s now or never,” he thought to himself. “I’m l looking for books on soul pledging.” He said quickly, almost stumbling over the words. The man took a couple steps towards him, fixing him with a suspicious look and standing uncomfortably close to Ryan. Ryan stepped back at the sudden movement, backing into the bookcase behind. Adjusting his glasses, the old man leaned forward looking down at Ryan.

“That’s a very dangerous subject,” he said quietly, “and not something you should be playing around with at your age.” The old man adjusted his glasses and peered at Ryan’s neck, seeing the scar there for the first time. He stepped back, examining the line of scar tissue. He could tell just by looking at it that it was a knife wound and judging by its location, it was a miracle it hadn’t been fatal. “That’s a nasty looking scar you have there son. Where did you get it?”

“I got attacked by a dog when I was little,” lied Ryan automatically, “look mister, do you have any books or not?”

The old man folded his arms and looked at the boy. Ryan muttered under his breath and turned to leave. “Wait,” the old man said as Ryan reached the door, “I might have something for you.” The old man went into in to the backroom, leaving Ryan alone in the front. As the sounds of rummaging filtered in from the back, Ryan wandered over to the bookcase again, reading the book titles; Myths and Monsters of Devon and Cornwall, The Four Ancient Gods, Infiernoboca de la Mundo. “Found it,” the old man said as he walked back into the front holding a leather-bound book. He walked over to Ryan, handing it to him.

“A Primer in Animus Spondeo, Everto quod suum Ritus,” Ryan said reading the title aloud, “A Primer on Soul Pledging, Demons and their Rituals.”

“You read Latin,” the man said with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, a little,” Ryan said carefully flicking through the pages, “my last foster parents were ultra-strict religious types and they made learn us Latin and stuff. You know, trying to save our heathen souls or something.” The old man nodded. “So, how much?”

The old man scratched his head. “For you, thirty pounds.” Ryan grimaced as he fished out a handful of notes from his pocket; this was all he had. Reluctantly he handed over the money as the old man wrapped the book in brown paper and twine. “Pleasure doing business with you son,” the old man said coldly. Ryan took the package from him and placed it gently at the bottom of his backpack. As he left the store, Ryan could feel the eyes of the old man on his back, following him all the way to the door. He felt relieved when he was finally outside in the bright sunlight.

As soon as the boy was out of sight, the old man was joined by a young man from the backroom. Daniel reached into a pocket and pulled out his wallet. He handed the old man a roll of notes. “£1’000 as agreed. That should cover the rest of the book’s cost.”

The old man counted the money. “Humph,” he grunted, “I should hope so. That boy got a bargain; I could have sold that book for over £800 at auction.” Daniel picked up an old kitbag from under the counter, shook the old man’s hand, and made for the door. “Mr Reese?” the old man asked, “one question if you will. Why was it so important for the boy to receive that book? Soul Pledging is not a game for children.”

“You saw the scar on his neck, he’s already been pledged. He just doesn’t know what that means yet.”

—-

A month passed, and Ryan had found reading the book hard going. The Latin prose was dense and poorly organised. In some places, the age of the book worked against him as the ink had faded rendering the text unreadable. Still, it was all he had to work with.

On the morning of the 19th, Ryan groaned and rolled out of bed, contemplating an act of brutal violence against the alarm clock. It was a Monday. Ryan was not a morning person, especially on Monday mornings. He glanced across the bedroom at Trey’s sleeping form. The younger boy was snoring blissfully, lost to dreamland. “Get up squirt,” he grunted throwing a pillow at Trey and waking him, “time for school.” As Trey rolled out of bed, landing roughly on the bedroom floor, Ryan staggered across the landing into the bathroom and “deposited his morning business.” After several minutes, he left the bathroom and went back into the bedroom. Trey was still sitting on the floor, wrapped bleary-eyed in his bedcovers. “Breakfast in five,” he said over his shoulder as he rummaged through the chest of drawers looking for something to wear, “leaving for the boat in fifteen with or without you.” He pulled on relatively clean t-shirt and hopped into his pants before heading downstairs.

His foster parents were already up and dressed. Anthony looked up from his cereal has Ryan popped a pair of pop tarts into the toaster, strawberry for him and chocolate for Trey. “Morning, ready for school?”

“Yeah,” he answered opening the fridge and reaching for the orange juice.

“Have done your homework?”

“Yes sir,” Ryan said playfully.

“Is Trey up yet?” Susan asked him.

Ryan glanced at the stairs. “He better be,” he growled in mock-menace, “I’m not being late again because of him.” The toaster dinged as the pop-tarts sprang up. Ryan carefully plucked the hot breakfast treats out of the toaster and put them on separate plates. As if on cue, a grumpy twelve-year-old clomped down the stairs and into the kitchen. Trey sat down at the table and greedily began to munch on his pop tart. He grunted unintelligibly to a question about homework. Anthony looked over to Ryan who nodded slightly confirming that he had made sure that the younger boy had completed his homework the night before. Trey hated school and, like most children, hated homework.

True to his word, ten minutes later Ryan was half-dragging a half-awake Trey out of the front door. Walking down the cliff top road down towards the harbour, Ryan looked out across the bay towards St Piran’s Island. Just a mile offshore, it was the unusual home to Cliffport’s school. Named after Cornwall’s patron saint, the island used to be home to a family of wealthy landowners. However, in the late 1930s, the family had donated the island to the local community with the stipulation that the grounds and buildings be used to house a school for the village’s children. Cliffport Community School was opened the following year. Despite the growth of the town, the school was still small, having only 400 students. Although during low tide it was possible to reach the island by walking across the sand, access to the island was generally provided by two boats owned by the school. “Racing the tide” were also grounds for detention if caught which didn’t stop children from trying it.

The two boys reached the harbour with ample time to spare, boarding the boat with the rest of the upper school students. The boat’s worked in shifts, first transporting the upper school students to the island before returning for the junior school students and any upper school stragglers. Three members of staff once again performed the daily struggle of reminding all the children to put on their life vests. Trey immediately ran off to join his friends at the bow while Ryan looked for somewhere to sit down. With his father in prison on drugs charges and his mother declared an unfit parent by the courts, Trey had been in care for just under a year. Being a local boy, he had been very lucky that social services had found a foster placement within the community allowing him to keep in contact with his friends.

Just before the boat loosed its moorings, a late arrival ran up the walkway and jumped onboard, stumbling his way through the crowd to sit next to Ryan. “Morning Jake, you look terrible,” Ryan said looking up at the older boy. He had dark circles around his eyes and he looked like he hadn’t had much sleep. Jake grunted, shielding his eyes under his hood.

“God must be a teetotaller,” he mumbled, “’cos if he were an alky, he’d have never made the sun so bright in the mornings.”

“Your dad’s a cop; if he catches you drinking you know he’ll kick your ass.” Jake gave him a sidelong glance but as the boat started to pull away from the dock, its diesel engine roaring, something on the dock attracted his attention.

“Whoa, did you see that?” He said pointing towards the dock. Ryan turned and looked at where he was pointing.

“See what?”

“That dog.” Standing at the end of the dock was a large black dog, watching the boat depart.

“What about it?”

Jake was sure that, just for a second, its eyes had shone red. “Must’ve been seeing things,” he thought to himself. “Nothing … he’s just huge.” Jake said turning his back on the dog.

“Uh huh,” Ryan said sceptically, rolling his eyes. Unseen by the two boys, the wolf-like hound walked behind a sign out of sight from any onlookers and vanished.

It took the boat about twenty minutes to cross the small channel and slowly the students disembarked, filtering towards their various classrooms.

Morning lessons always dragged on a Monday. First period was English literature, and the class took turns reading out passages from Macbeth. It was a snore-inducing lesson, especially first thing on a Monday morning and Ryan wasn’t exactly sure what they were supposed to be learning while reciting Shakespeare. When the teacher called on him to recite a section, he did as he was told even though he had hidden a comic inside the book. Sat on his own at the back of the class, he was able to recite the required passage from memory, visualising the pages in his mind. In the corridors between classes, Ryan noticed a girl looking at him strangely. For a brief second, their eyes met across the crowded corridor. It was this point that Ryan recognised her, with her eyes different colours, Celeste was the only other person at school considered weirder than Ryan. French was marginally more interesting, if only because he actually had to think a couple of times. He was glad when lunch finally rolled around.

Idly pushing peas around on his plate with a fork while reading his comic, Ryan was soon joined by two others, Jake and Jake’s classmate Spud. In between mouthfuls of chips, the two older boys were desperately trying to finish their science homework before it was due in after lunch. Ryan was only half-listening as they argued over the answers to some of the questions.

“Gravitation, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force,” Ryan said quietly as Defender threw the Gargoyle across the room, taking out Rampage just as he was about to body tackle The Eye.

“What was that?” Jake said looking up from his workbook.

“Question 12, what are the four fundamental forces in Physics? Gravitation, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force,” he repeated slightly louder.

Spud looked at Ryan, a sneer on his face. “Like you’d know something like that, dumbass.”

“Hey,” Jake said punching Spud on the arm, “there’s no need for that.”

“Oh come on, he’s a ‘tard. My sister’s in the same class as him and she says he never gets a question right and he’s at the bottom of the class.”

“That may be true,” Jake said turning the text book towards Spud, “but he’s right.” Behind the comic book, Ryan smiled covertly.

“Humph, lucky guess. Question 5, what element has the atomic number of 45?”

“Rhodium.”

Scowling, Spud flipped through the textbook looking for another question. “Ok, what element is directly to the right of Argon on the Table of Elements?”

Ryan put the comic down and looked Spud casually in the eyes. “Trick question, Argon is in the rightmost group. But to the left of it is Chlorine with an atomic number of 17. Used as a bleaching and disinfectant agent it’s also part of the compound Sodium Chloride, better known as table salt.”

“Alright alright,” Spud interrupted holding his hands up in defeat, “so you’re not a complete ‘tard after all.”

“You’re welcome,” Ryan said rolling his eyes. Ignoring him, Spud gathered up his books and jogged over to join his girlfriend Samantha at another table. Shaking his head, Ryan went back to reading his comic. After a few moments, he noticed that Jake was looking at him with a quizzical expression. “What?”

“What the hell was all that about?” Jake asked closing the textbook. “No offense, but Spud’s right. Everyone knows you’re supposed to be stupid.”

Ryan’s eyes flashed with anger as he glared at Jake over the top of the comic. “Gee thanks, none taken.”

“Whoa, it don’t matter nothing to me. Einstein or Forest Gump, we’d still be cool. But if you’re a freaking genius, then why are you at the bottom of the class?”

“I’m not at the bottom,” Ryan mumbled bitterly, his mouth full of chips; “if you’re at the bottom you get special help.” Ryan emphasised the word special with air quotes. “If you get every question right you’re the teacher’s pet. Average and they push you to try harder. But if you’re just stupid, then no one pays you any attention.”

Jake leaned forward and closed Ryan’s comic, forcing the younger boy to look at him. “You always sit by yourself, or at the back. Anyone tries to get close, you brush em off, and you’re failing every class on purpose so that none of the teachers bother trying to teach you anything. Mate, what’s up with you? It’s like your hiding from the world.”

Ryan looked at Jake, his mouth wobbling as if he was trying to find the words to respond. Then, abruptly, he scooped up his bag and the comic and got up from the table and left. Jake stood up, ready to go after him but his uncompleted homework beckoned. With a resigned sigh, he sat back down and started writing. As he did so, he realised that he didn’t really know anything about Ryan, no one did. Ryan never talked about himself and always seemed to deflect any questions. Jake had of course asked the obvious question, about the origins of Ryan’s scar. He’d gotten an answer, an animal attack when he was younger, but Jake had a feeling that there was more to it than that.

The conversation left Ryan in a bad mood for the rest of the day. He narrowly avoided detention when he argued with the RE teacher during a lesson on Intelligent Design Theory. Despite the fact that he was now convinced the supernatural existed, he still found it hard to accept certain things on faith alone. Luckily, the teacher had a sense of humour and had been surprised at the reasoned and well thought out arguments. He was glad though when 3:45 rolled around and it was time to go home.

—-

Later that evening, Ryan was busy doing his homework in his room when Anthony called up the stairs that dinner was ready. Making sure his history essay was saved on the computer, headed downstairs to the dining room. Sitting down at the table, savouring the smell of Susan’s beef stew, he picked up the cutlery and froze. Opposite Ryan sat Trey. He sat there; acting like nothing was wrong eating his dinner with his eyes missing. There was only a pair of empty sockets where his eyes should be. Glancing at Susan and Anthony, they were acting normally, as if they hadn’t noticed that an eyeless child was sitting at their table eating dinner.

“What’s wrong?” Asked Trey, “looking” across the table at Ryan.

“Nuh … Nothing,” he stammered. “Could you pass the salt?” Trey passed him the saltshaker and Ryan tried his best to act natural as he ate his dinner. He avoided looking directly at Trey as they ate and wild thoughts began to race through his mind. “The shrinks were right,” he thought to himself silently, “I’ve gone crazy.”

Hurriedly finishing his dinner, Ryan excused himself from the table and retreated to his bedroom as fast as he could without making a scene. He yanked open the desk drawer and grabbed the small toolkit he used to fiddle with his skateboard. Using the screwdriver, he popped the access panel off the side of the PC and reached inside. Sitting on top of the hard drive inside an anti-static bag was the leather bound occult book. He’d had the idea to hide book there after seeing someone hide a gun in a similar place on an episode of CSI. Flicking through book, jumping from chapter to chapter, Ryan desperately scanned the Latin text for any mention of missing eyes but there was nothing even remotely close. When the door opened behind him, he quickly covered the book with a skating magazine as Trey entered.

“Hello Ryan, it’s been a long time.” Ryan froze at the sound of the voice coming out of Trey’s mouth. A voice that he had not heard in person for nearly four years but one that he heard every night in his nightmares. The voice of his brother Mark.

His heart began racing as fear and confusion gripped him. After four years of hiding, his brother had finally found him. As Trey sneered at him, Ryan realised that more than just him was in trouble. “What have you done to Trey?” He asked through gritted teeth.

“Who?” Trey asked flopping down onto his bed, “Oh, the brat. Don’t worry, he’s not been harmed. Just a simple body swap; he won’t even remember it.”

“Why, what do you want?”

“Actually, I need your help,” Trey said picking at his teeth with his fingernail.

“Christ, you want my help after what you did to me?” Ryan said angrily getting to his feet, “I’d … you … Go to hell! I aint helping you.”

Trey smiled at Ryan’s outburst, getting up off the bed and taking a step toward him. From a pocket, the younger boy pulled out a black handled flick knife. A button on its side caused its five-inch blade to spring out. Ryan stiffened at the sight of the knife blade. “Has he been depressed lately?”

“Huh?” Ryan was confused at the sudden change of subject.

“Is he being bullied at school, missing mummy and daddy, being mistreated by his foster parents?” Trey asked grinning.

“What? No. What the hell are you talking about?”

“Well,” Trey said slowly, bringing the knife to his wrist, “they’ll be asking questions about what drove a twelve-year-old boy to commit suicide.” The blade hovered just above the boy’s bare wrist. Ryan knew that he’d never be able to stop Mark from cutting Trey’s wrist. He might be able to wrestle the knife away from him and he would probably be able to stem the bleeding but he couldn’t watch Trey all the time. Ryan fell back down onto the chair, his head in his hands.

“Fine,” Ryan said dejectedly, “you win.”

Trey put the knife away and lay back down on the bed smiling. “Excellent, you know that old burial mound outside town? I need you to go there at sunset tomorrow and retrieve a very special jewel from inside.”

“Do I look like Indiana Jones?” He said giving Trey a sarcastic glance.

“No,” Trey answered looking at him sternly, “you look like my bitch. Now get some sleep, you’re gonna need it.”

Ryan did not sleep well that night, he felt exposed, trapped. Mark was essentially just across the room from him. If he wanted to, he could’ve done whatever he wanted while Ryan slept. He was also worried about Trey. Mark had already made it clear that was capable of killing Trey if Ryan didn’t do was he wanted. Whether Mark could be trusted to leave Trey alone once Ryan had obtained the Jewel was another question. With all these thoughts racing through his head, it was a wonder he got any sleep at all.

The next day passed quickly, the morning classes blurring together. Ryan was too preoccupied to concentrate on class work. Something that only furthered the perception that he was a poor student. He spent lunch in the school’s small library looking for information on the burial mound but couldn’t find any books on local history. At the end of the school day, Ryan snuck off to Cliffport’s public library. That morning, Ryan had told his foster parents that he had a history report to write and that he would be going to the library straight from school.

Waiting for sunset, he searched through books for any information on the burial mound. Despite local lore, no one knew who or what was buried inside. Theories ranged the serious to the downright bizarre but none of them seemed to have any shred of proof behind them. No archaeological study had ever been performed and it was entirely possible that the mound was a natural geological feature. Yet, Mark was effectively holding Trey hostage over some jewel he believed was inside the mound. Ryan was of no doubt that if his brother was prepared to go to those lengths, then there indeed was something inside the mound after all.

As the sun began to dip towards the horizon and the shadows started to lengthen, Ryan packed away his things, put the books back on the shelves, and left the library. The sun was beginning to set, the wispy cirrocumulus clouds reflecting the orange sunlight and taking on the appearance of streamers of fire, lancing across the sky. Lounging opposite the steps up to the library was a large black dog, curled up beneath a bench. As Ryan jogged down the steps to the street, it lifted its head to watch him. Passing the bench, Ryan glanced at the wolf-like hound. The dog’s eyes flashed red for just a second presumably, Ryan thought, reflecting the evening sunlight. Quickly putting the moment out of his mind, Ryan hopped on his skateboard and began to skate across town.

The burial mound was in the hills that rose behind East Cliffport. Surrounded by farmland, and providing a spectacular view of the town below, only a small dirt track lead up from the town. Huffing up the track, his skateboard strapped to his backpack, Ryan was more than a little surprised to see Celeste sitting on a rock in front of the mound, sketching the sunset. “This is just too coincidental to be a coincidence,” he muttered. Circling around the mound, he kept a wary eye on the girl as he looked for a way inside. Too many strange things had happened over the last couple of days.

“Can I help you?” Celeste asked putting her sketchbook away as Ryan circled back around to the front.

Ryan shrugged. “Worth a shot,” he thought to himself. “You wouldn’t happen to know if there is a way in to the mound would you.” Celeste got up and walked over to where Ryan was standing.

“Of course I do silly,” she said flashing him with a smile, “under the bushes.” Ryan looked over to the row of bushes she pointed to and turned back to say something when he noticed she had already left, skipping down the dirt track.

“Wiee-erd,” he said, “and what sort of person skips nowadays?” Ryan went over to the bushes and began to search for a hole or passageway, anything that could be an entrance into the mound. All he found was a rusted horseshoe lying beneath one of the bushes. When he reached down to touch it, he suddenly fell through the ground as if passing incorporeally through the dirt, landing roughly.

Rubbing his sore bottom, he found himself sitting on the floor of a tunnel. The floor was made of smooth stone and the walls and ceiling were constructed of compacted earth. Small crystals embedded near the top of the walls cast a gentle blue glow, illuminating the tunnel. Behind him was a bare wall and ahead of him the tunnel sloped gently downwards. Ryan looked up at the ceiling, as he feared there was no sign of a way out. “Well if no one was buried in here before,” he said to no one in particular, “there is now.”

Apprehensively, he began to make his way down the tunnel. After several long minutes, the tunnel eventually opened up into a small chamber. Opposite the tunnel was a small archway, through which Ryan could see another dimly lit tunnel with a chamber at its end. A tantalising glint from inside the distant chamber drew Ryan forward. As he approached the archway, a large stone block slammed down sealing the archway. When he took a step back, the block grated open slowly. A step forward and it slammed shut again. Examining the floor, Ryan looked for the pressure switch he assumed was triggering the stone block. The floor was smooth an unbroken, almost like a solid carved piece of stone. Whatever was triggering it couldn’t be on the floor. Thinking carefully, he took a step towards the archway again, timing the block’s descent. It took a just a few seconds for the block to crash down. Even at a full run, he’d never be able to safely cross the distance between the “trigger point” and the archway. Unless…

Ryan jogged back up the tunnel and unclipped the skateboard from his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he hopped on and began to accelerate down the tunnel. “It’s just physics and maths; vectors, velocities, friction and acceleration; I can do this,” he said to himself as he rushed towards the chamber. Screaming in terror, he crouched down on the board as he shot through the opening, the stone block skimming the back of his head as it slammed shut. The front wheel of the skateboard struck a rut in the stone floor and Ryan was sent tumbling to floor. He lay there, scuffed and bruised by the fall and whopping in triumph, the danger and the reason he was here momentarily forgotten. Behind him, the stone block slowly grated upwards again and locked back into place.

He picked himself up off the floor walked slowly towards the distant chamber, wary in case of other traps. At the back of the chamber was an altar-like pedestal on top of which was a gleaming red gemstone. “This is too easy,” he said stepping into the chamber. A series of holes ran in front of the alter. As he cautiously approached, he was proven right as jets of flame erupted from the holes. The blast of heat and fire caused him to jump back yelping in fear, stumbling backwards to the floor. He scrambled backwards away from the jets and as he did so, the jets ceased. Ryan’s heart was racing, his breaths coming fast. He closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths in an attempt to calm down. “Come on Ryan,” he said to himself, “suck it up. Trey’s counting on you.”

Swallowing his pyrophobia, he picked up his skateboard and threw it at the jewel. The board pin wheeled through the air, trigging the flame jets, striking the jewel and knocking it behind the altar where it clattered across the floor to a safe distance. When the flame jets subsided, Ryan edged around the altar to the rear of the chamber, hugging the walls. The skateboard was warm but undamaged by its passage through the flame jets. He picked up the jewel and examined it. It was tingly to the touch and its blood red surface seemed slimy and slick even though it was bone dry. Sparkles of light danced just beneath the surface.

As Ryan stood up, a dull rumbling began to reverberate around the chamber. “What now?” Water started gushing up out of the holes in the floor rapidly pooling and beginning to flood the chamber. From up the tunnel, Ryan could hear the stone block beginning to close. He started running up the tunnel, the water already lapping at his ankles and gushing faster and faster out of the floor with each passing second. By the time he reached the archway the stone block was already halfway down. Diving under the block, he just made it under before it slammed shut. Sealing the archway didn’t stop the flow of water. It forced its way through channels and cracks and cascaded into the first chamber. His legs pumping furiously, Ryan desperately ran up the tunnel only to end up at the dead end where he had landed earlier. There was no way out, he was trapped. The water was rising up the tunnel fast; already the lower chambers were flooded to their roofs. In just a few short minutes, the water would reach him. Ryan didn’t know what made him do it, but he took the jewel out of his pocket and pushed it into the ceiling. The dirt melted away forming a shaft that lead to the surface. Rocks and stones pushed their way through the shaft walls creating handholds. Wasting no time he climbed up the shaft, not daring to look down as the water started to fill the shaft. Eventually he reached the surface, the shaft collapsing behind him.

Ryan lay there panting, covered in dirt from the shaft. A cool evening breeze blew gently across the mound and in contrast to the chaos below, the scene above the mound was serene and calm. The jewel was still in his hand and he held it up the sky, holding it in front of the full moon and letting the moonlight filter through it. Off to the side, he heard a growl. Ryan sat up and saw the black dog crouched a short distance away in an attack position, its teeth bare and ready to pounce. “Er, good doggie?” The hound’s eyes glowed red and it leapt at Ryan. He screamed did not feel the dog’s teeth on his neck like he expected. Instead, it grabbed the jewel out of his hand with its teeth and bounded off into the darkness, fading from view.

At that point, he realised that the hound must have been sent by Mark to retrieve the jewel. Ryan knew that he’d had no choice to retrieve the jewel if he wanted Trey back, but still, he wondered if giving the jewel to Mark had been a wise decision. Ryan bolted upright. “Trey,” he thought to himself, “please let him be ok.” He got up off the ground and raced down the track, jumping onto his board the moment he got to the road. If it were possible to break the speed limit on a skateboard, then Ryan would have done it. As it was, he probably broke a number of laws as he recklessly skated across town.

As he pulled into Candlewick Close, he skidded to a stop. In the driveway, under the light of a security flood, Trey was playing basketball with his friends. Laughing and joking, complete with eyes, he was acting as if nothing had happened. Mark had kept his word. Trey saw Ryan approached and tossed him the basketball. Ryan took the ball, bounced it a couple of time, and without another word joined the game.

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Ryan’s Story – The Accident

It had been nearly four years since his parents had been killed, murdered by his then 17-year-old brother Mark. Ryan had been left for dead, his throat cut and soaked in petrol as his older brother torched the family home. Luckily, he had escaped the fire, releasing himself from his bonds and climbing out of a bedroom window. A neighbour had found the ten-year-old, lying burned and near death from blood loss in the front garden. He had been rushed to hospital where he eventually recovered. The burns had healed but the cut to his throat had left a vicious looking scar. The mental damage however would take much longer to heal. When he tried to tell the police and the doctors that the third body they had found was not his brother, but that it was the body of his brother’s accomplice murdered to make it look like Mark had died, no one believed him. Eventually he stopped trying and pretended to accept the “official” version of events. Deep down however, he never stopped believing what had been burned into his memories on that night. Having no living relatives, Ryan had spent the next four years bouncing between foster families and children’s homes. All the time knowing his brother was out there.

Ryan was of average height for his age, his scruffy brown hair and green eyes often poking out from under his favourite red baseball cap. Both his ears were pierced. He kept a low profile, trying his best not to stand out from the crowd. The scar on his neck made this difficult; it was often the first thing people noticed about him. Consequently, he often tried to hide it by wearing a scarf, bandana or wearing the hood up on his hooded sweatshirts.

Today was his fourteenth birthday but since no else seemed to know or care, Ryan did not feel like celebrating. With his headphones on and his head down, Ryan was trying his best to ignore the group following him as he trudged up the steep cliff path. The loud music drowned out their jibes but he still knew they were there. At least they weren’t throwing things at him this time. He had been living with the Johnson’s for just over a month now. A new set of foster parents meant a new town and a new school. Yet again, he was the freaky new kid that sat at the back of the class that some of his so-called classmates had decided was an easy target. There had been a couple of scuffles but nothing major and it was nothing he hadn’t had to deal with before.

The path that Ryan was taking was a shortcut from the lower town where the local school was located up to West Cliffport where his foster parents lived. It led from the harbour up the side of the cliffs to the road that ran along their top. Cliffport had once been a bustling fishing village. However, as the twentieth century rolled around, fishing gave way to tourism and over successive decades, the village had expanded outside the steep-sided valley. Now new residential developments had begun to sprawl up the sides of the hills surrounding the town and its enclosed bay.

He had just reached the top of the path and was about to jump skateboard when the gang made their move, knocking into him from behind. Jake, an older boy a year above him, snatched the skateboard from out of Ryan’s grip while his two partners in crime grabbed his arms. “Hey, give that back!” Ryan demanded shaking himself loose of the grip of the two other boys.

“Not unless you beg for it freak!” Jake taunted.

“I don’t beg for nothing,” said Ryan as he glared angrily at Jake, “especially from dickless morons like you.” On any other day, Ryan would never be so confrontational but at that moment, something inside him had snapped. Today was different; he had been experiencing this kind of aggravation for the last four years and normally he would have endured it, unwilling to get into trouble or make a scene. As Jake held his skateboard out, daring him to take it, Ryan realised that he just could not stand by and let people treat him like crap any longer. Balling his fists, his face became red with adrenaline-laced anger and he took a step towards Jake.

“You want this back, you better be prepared to fight for it.” Jake grinned menacingly, confident in the belief that Ryan would back down as usual. “You fucking…” He never finished the sentence because the smaller boy’s right fist slammed into his midriff winding him. Ryan’s left fist followed up with a sharp jab that connected with the side of Jake’s face. Jake staggered back surprised more by the fact that Ryan had actually attacked him than by the force of the blows. “You punched me, you bastard!” The other two boys were similarly shocked by the act and were stunned into inaction as Ryan caught the skateboard when Jake dropped it.

“I’ve been taking shit from you and the other’s since I got here,” Ryan yelled as Jake rubbed his cheek, “You think that just because I’m the new kid, that means it’s open season on me. That ends here, any of you wanna mess with me and I’ll beat the crap out of you. I don’t care if they kick me out of school and move me to another foster family. I ‘aint taking shit from any of you anymore.”

Red-faced, Jake pulled back his fist to launch a punch at Ryan’s face but the sudden sound of a car horn and the screech of tires from further up the road interrupted the brewing fight. Careening out-of-control down the steep and slippery road, the car swerved onto a collision course with the group, the desperate driver wrestling with the steering wheel. Jake’s two lackeys leapt out of the way of the approaching car but as Ryan was about to dive to the side, he saw that Jake was frozen with fear in the vehicle’s path. Without hesitation, he grabbed Jake and shoved him to the side at the last moment. The car slammed into Ryan and its impact forced him up over the bonnet, his head striking the windscreen. As the car crashed into the wall, it broke through its dry stone construction coming to a rest with its front wheels hanging precariously over the edge. Ryan slid down the wet bonnet, sent over the edge of the cliff by the momentum of the impact. Semi-conscious, he plummeted into the water seventy feet below.

The shock of hitting the cold water roused him from his stupor. Disorientated by the impact with the car’s windscreen and the fall into the water, his arms and legs flailed about in a desperate and uncoordinated attempt to keep afloat. Coughing and spluttering, his head repeatedly sank beneath the waves as the strong current pulled him away from the shore.

Back up at the top of the cliff Jake picked himself up off the tarmac, staring incredulously at the wrecked car as the driver staggered out. “Dude, that car almost pasted you!” One of his friends said as he grabbed Jake’s arm to pull him away from the scene.

“Uh, yeah,” he said vacantly, “I thought I was a goner until…” Jake stopped when he saw a school bag pinned crushed underneath the car. “Wait, where’s Ryan?”

“He um, pushed you out of the way and then the car hit him and I think he fell.”

Jake ran over to the wall and looked over the side. He could see Ryan struggling in the water, his panicked attempts to keep afloat already becoming weak. “Christ,” he said quietly, “I don’t think he can swim.”

Ryan was beginning to tire, fatigue from the exertion and lack of oxygen starting to set in. As his strength began to give out, he sank under the surface. Panicking, he thrashed wildly in a desperate attempt to get back to the surface but the more he tried, the faster he tired. Soon, his struggles weakened to the point where he was barely able to move and white sparkles of light were starting to flash across his vision as he ran out of air. “I’m not going to make it,” he realised dimly, his thoughts becoming as sluggish as his attempts to claw his way through the water. Eventually, he could hold his breath no longer and he involuntarily opened his mouth, breathing in the seawater and passing into unconsciousness.

Jake watched as Ryan disappeared under the choppy water, as the seconds dragged on and he did not resurface, a black hole opened in his stomach as he realised that he was watching someone drown. Unwilling to just stand by and watch it happen, he tore down the cliff path. H he knew that jumping from the cliff top would be potential suicide, there were numerous rocks hidden just below the surface of the water at the foot of the cliff. It had been a miracle that Ryan had missed them when he fell. Less than a minute after Ryan had gone under, Jake reached the point where the path turned onto a footbridge that crossed the river before it joined the sea at the harbour entrance. Taking a deep breath, vaulted over the guardrail and dived into the water. Jake was a strong swimmer and he quickly breaststroked to the point where he had seen Ryan go under. Frantically, he ducked under and searched the murky water for Ryan. It took several attempts before he finally located the smaller boy and pulled him to the surface. After making sure the Ryan’s head was above the water, Jake swam towards the quayside where the few fishing remaining fishing boats were moored alongside tour boats and private vessels. He headed towards the stairs that led down to the water, the nearest point where he could exit the water.

When he finally reached the stairs, people were already beginning to crowd the quayside and Jake hoped that one of them had had the foresight to dial 999. A man who looked like a tourist rather than a local helped him up the stairs. “Sarah,” he called out in an American accent, “get the blankets from the trunk.” The man took Ryan’s still form and carried him up the stairs to the quayside. Jake was met at the top of the stairs by blond-haired woman who wrapped the shivering boy in a blanket. Ryan was set down on the concrete floor, his eyes were closed and he was not breathing.

—-

Unseen to anyone, a figure watched the commotion from a distance. It was neither his nondescript attire nor his plain and average features that made him invisible to those around him. He was invisible because he chose to be. Azarin was a Collector, a minion that served one of the many demon lords that ruled the hell dimensions. His role, as his title suggested, was to collect the souls pledged to his lord regardless of whether they had been pledged willingly or not. The demon smiled. Collecting the souls of children was one thing but when they happened to be innocent too; that was just delicious. Scanning the growing crowd, he located his target watching the futile attempts at resuscitation in disbelief. This one had already escaped him once four years ago. This time, he would not be so lucky.

Unlike his physical body, Ryan’s spirit form was bone dry. At first, he couldn’t remember how he had come to be standing on the quayside but watching in horror as his own body was pulled out of the water, the accident and the events that had followed had come flooding back. He suddenly felt light headed, all strength left his knees and it felt like the whole world was spinning rapidly around him. As he bent over the railing, heaving up the contents of his stomach into the harbour water below, he was startled by a voice behind.

“Tough break kid,” it said conversationally, “of all the ways to go; drowning has to rank as one of the worst.” Ryan looked up at the man standing behind him. He was 6 feet in height, almost a full head taller than Ryan’s five-foot-five height and his powerful build made the fourteen-year-old look even smaller in comparison. The man appeared to be in his 30s and had short black hair.

“Are … are you talking to me?” Ryan asked the man, his voice still shaking.

Azarin looked down at him, smiling. “Do you see any other spirits around here?” Ryan looked at him confused.

“Am I dead?” Ryan asked, unsure if he really wanted to know the answer.

The man laughed. “Of course you are. Do you think that being able to look down on your own body while invisible and incorporeal is something a living person could do?” Azarin took the boy by the arm and lifted him to his feet. “Come on, time to go.”

“Go, go where?”

“Where do you think? The afterlife,” Azarin replied beginning to guide Ryan over towards the breakwater on the far side of the quay.

“Hold up,” a suddenly suspicious Ryan said, “just who the hell are you?”

Azarin smiled at the use of H word, “if only he knew,” he thought to himself. “I’m kind of like a guide sent to make sure you go to the right place.”

“Which is where exactly?”

“I suppose you could call it heaven,” Azarin lied, “it’s not quite how the scriptures describe but the idea is essentially the same. Besides, there are some people waiting for you there. Your mother and father I believe.” Ahead of them, a soft white glow had started to coalesce.

Looking up, Ryan saw only an honest face with kind eyes but Ryan had learned the hard way that people couldn’t be trusted, especially the honest looking ones. There was something about the man that made him uneasy. It was almost as if he was trying too hard to convince him. As they walked away from the crowd, Ryan looked back. “If I’m already dead, why is that man still using CPR?”

“Because humans have a hard time accepting death,” Azarin said tersely, “now hurry up, heaven won’t wait forever.”

“But,” Ryan said stopping and stepping away from Azarin, “he says I’ve got a pulse! How can I be dead if my heart is still beating?”

Azarin stopped and glared at the boy, his face smouldering. He grabbed the boy’s arm and dragged him roughly towards the swirling light on the breakwater. Screaming for help, he tried to pull away but Azarin was too strong and his grip tight enough to leave a bruise. “I fucking hate kids,” he snapped, “especially smart fuckers. You bastards never make it easy.”

“Help!” Ryan screamed in panic as he stumbled.

“Can it,” Azarin yelled half-pulling, half-dragging Ryan to his feet. “You’ll have plenty of time to scream where you’re going. That plane makes the sanitized place you call Hell look like Disney Land.” He stopped short of the glow and waved his free hand towards it. The soft light flared and erupted into fire. Angry red flames forming an oval ring of fire surrounding a black void, rippling like liquid as the light breeze blew across it.

When Ryan saw the flames, he froze in fear, forgetting his current situation. After the night when he had nearly burned to death four years ago, Ryan had been terrified of fire. Azarin picked up the petrified boy by the scruff of his neck and prepared to throw him into the portal. As he stood there, poised to throw, a white streak swept in front of him. It sliced across the portal, extinguishing the flames and dissipating the black void. The demon howled in rage and span around seeking the source of the streak.

Standing a short distance away was another man. The newcomer brushed his long chestnut hair out his face with one hand and caught a boomerang-like double-bladed weapon with the other. The weapon crackled with white liquid energy. He was younger than Azarin, probably not much older than 20. “Put the kid down demon,” he said with a cocky smirk.

“Who’s going to make me? A runt like you?” Azarin asked contemptuously.

“The name’s Daniel,” the newcomer said with a slight sarcastic bow, “and yeah, I’ll make you.”

Azarin sneered and threw Ryan to the floor. He landed roughly, smacking against the metal railings. Before he could recover, a wall of fire erupted around him cutting across the entire width of the breakwater. With fire in front and deep water behind, Ryan was trapped with no route of escape. “The boy belongs to my lord, he is soul pledged to him and there is nothing you can do about it. His blood was spilled with a blessed knife and by the terms of the deal his brother struck with my lord; this boy’s soul is forfeit upon his death.” Azarin flicked his wrists and two large swords appeared in his hands, their blades were wreathed in flames.

Daniel slowly walked towards Azarin, his boomerang splitting into two knifes, each crackling with liquid energy. “This boy is an innocent and you’re not taking him.” He charged forward, leaping at Azarin. The demon took a step back, crossing his swords in front of him as Daniel struck. Their blades connected and sent streamers of energy and sparks flying. Azarin pressed forward, his superior size and strength a clear advantage in the battle. Daniel was forced back, straining to hold his ground. His heart was racing, fear surging through him. He knew that he was no match for the demon, his training had not been completed but he had little choice but to fight. The demon thrusted forward, his left sword batting aside Daniel’s blades while his right slashed at Daniel’s chest. The younger man may not have been as strong as Azarin but he was faster. He saw the strike coming and twisted around the flaming blade. Azarin’s move had left his left side open to attack and Daniel seized the opportunity, raking the demon’s side with his blades. Hissing at the sudden pain, Azarin lashed out with his fist, striking the side of Daniels head. He rolled with the punch, moving swiftly around the demon and leaping onto his back. Azarin reached behind him, grabbed Daniel by the head, and flung him to the floor in front of him. Daniel grunted as he struck the ground and was unable to roll away when Azarin kicked him in the chest forcing him to drop his blades. The demon kicked him several times before picking him up and staring him in the face.

“In what world, did you ever think you had a hope in defeating me?” The demon sneered.

Daniel laughed painfully. “What makes you think I was trying to beat you?” He spat a glob of blood onto the pavement. “Crap, even in the spirit world this shit still hurts. I was just hoping to distract you long enough.”

Azarin looked at him confused. Then his eyes widened in realisation and he looked over to where he had left Ryan only to find the boy gone. “Dammit!” He yelled and turned back to Daniel to deal a killing blow. Daniel, however, merely smiled and waved goodbye as he faded from view, leaving Azarin holding nothing but air. The demon cursed, ranting and raving. Glancing around, he could see no sign of the Ryan’s spirit. Fuming, he reopened the portal. The boy had again avoided his fate; his master would not be in a good mood.

By now, paramedics had arrived and begun treating Ryan. His eye’s briefly fluttered open for a second before lapsed back into unconsciousness. Wasting no time, they loaded him into an ambulance for the 16-mile drive to Derriford, the nearest hospital with an A&E department. As the ambulance left, its sirens blaring, a policeman walked over to where Jake was sitting on a bench, shivering in his damp clothes. He sat down next to Jake and pulled him into a hug. “Let’s get you home and out of those wet clothes son.”

Jake smiled weakly and nodded. “Dad, I need a favour.”

—-

It had been over an hour since Susan and Anthony Johnson had arrived at the hospital. Over an hour since the police had turned up on their doorstep with the news that one of their foster children had been rushed to hospital. They had dropped everything, got in the car, and driven down to the hospital with their other foster child, twelve-year-old Trey Bennet in the back seat. The drive had taken nearly half-an-hour on the twisty Cornish roads but eventually they had reached Derriford.

They had been sitting in the relatives’ room since they had arrived waiting for a doctor. Trey was sitting in a chair, hugging his hitched up knees. Susan was next to him, her arm around his shoulder. The two boys had only known each other for a month, but in sharing a bedroom, they had both discovered each other’s love of comic books. A connection had been forged between them as they had argued over who made the best comics, Marvel or DC.

A doctor entered the room and looked over at the couple. “Mr and Mrs Johnson?” He asked.

They nodded in response and Anthony got up, walking over to the doctor. “Yes, how’s Ryan doctor? No one seems able to tell us anything.”

“Ryan was in a serious accident,” he explained sitting down in chair he pulled over to the couple, “he took a nasty blow to the head when the car hit him and was unconscious when he was pulled from the water. He briefly regained consciousness when the paramedics arrived but lost consciousness soon after. Ryan’s a lucky boy, if hadn’t received first aid when he did, things could have been a lot worse.” He didn’t need to say just how bad it could have been. “As it is, apart from a few cuts and bruises he’s in good shape.”

“So he’s gonna be ok?” Trey asked.

The doctor looked over at the boy and nodded. “He woke up a few minutes ago, he’s still a little woozy but that’s to be expected. We’ll be keeping him in overnight for observation but I see no reason why he shouldn’t be able to go home tomorrow.”

“Can we go in and see him doctor?”

“Sure, follow me.” The doctor led them through the hospital corridors to the room where Ryan was lying in bed. There was a bandage across his forehead and the doctor explained that he’d needed a few stitches.

As they entered the room, Ryan’s eyes flicked over to the door and he smiled weakly. Trey ran over to the side of the bed with a concerned look. “You look terrible.” Ryan laughed, wincing slightly at the unexpected pain in produced.

Ryan’s foster parents joined Trey by the bed looking relieved that he appeared to be ok. “Hey champ, how do you feel?” Asked Anthony.

“Like I went five rounds with Hatton.”

Susan brushed a few stray hairs out of his face. “We’re glad you’re ok, you had us worried.”

“I brought you this,” Trey said holding out a small package, crudely wrapped in wrapping paper. “Happy birthday,” he said as Ryan took it.

“I … I thought no one remembered,” he answered.

“Of course we remembered, we wouldn’t forget something like that.” Susan said.

“But I…”

Anthony put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “You were up so early this morning and in such a hurry that you left before we could say anything.”

“You gonna open it or what?” Trey asked impatiently. Ryan ripped off the wrapping paper to reveal a stack of comic books. Flicking through them, he realised that they were all issues of his favourite comics that he was missing.

“Thanks, I mean it.” He reached over and ruffled the younger boy’s hair, something he knew Trey hated. Trey batted and slapped at Ryan’s arm who laughed warmly.

“Ow, hit a man when he’s down why don’t you.”