Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
“Oh yeah?” said Cam, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “The last time we met, you told me that the reason why those wolfspawn had attacked and killed my friends was because of me. I was just twelve years old, I’d just seen my best friends brutally torn apart and I was still in shock. You dumped a crap load of blame on me, convincing me that it was my fault they were dead. Do you have any idea what that did to me?”
Folding his arms, Ares fixed his son with a hard and calculating look. “Wolfspawn are attracted to the divine essence given off by Scions and they’re used by the enemies of the Gods to track down and eliminate Scions who haven’t yet come into their powers. Those wolfspawn were hunting you, so what I said was true. If it wasn’t for you, those four people would still be alive today.”
Orin suddenly felt a shiver, causing him to back away from the table involuntarily. Waves of anger were flowing out of Cam, his father seemingly oblivious to them. The boy’s eyes positively burned with barely suppressed rage. The spirit had never seen his charge look like this. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” Cam said through gritted teeth. “You knew those things were in the area, you told me yourself back then that you’d been tracking them. But for some reason, you were just a little too late save my friends, a little too late to stop me from getting this,” Cam lifted up his hoody to show the scar across the chest, “but just in time to save my life by playing the big damn hero.”
“What are you saying?” Ares asked quietly.
“Cam…” Orin said carefully, worried about what the boy was going to say next.
“I’m saying that you could’ve stopped the wolfspawn if you wanted to but you didn’t. You wanted Andy, Ben, Toby and Mr Harris to die. You as good as killed them yourself. For all I know, you probably planned the whole thing!” By the end, Cam was on his feet yelling at Ares.
The god slammed his fist down on the table, the force of the blow reducing it to splinters. “Boy,” he roared, spittle flying from his mouth, “I could crush you like an insect. I am your father and you will treat me with respect or by Zeus, what I do to you will make Prometheus’s punishment look like a reward.”
“Just because you banged my mom fifteen years ago, don’t give the right to call yourself my father!” Cam yelled back. “I’ve known junkies that made better dead beat dads than you.”
“INSOLENT WHELP!” Ares jumped out of his seat and struck Cam across the face. The force of the god’s blow knocked the boy off his feet and sent him flying across the room. He crashed through the front window, landing in the car park and startling the gang members sitting on the bonnet of their car. They drew their guns, unsure of what was going on, but preparing for trouble all the same. Ares climbed through the window carrying his sword, the metal tip scraping across the concrete.
Cam lay dazed on the ground, blood dribbling from his mouth and missing a tooth. He opened his eyes to find his father standing over him, the features of his face distorted by a ferocious rage. “Dumbass,” he thought to himself, “you had to go and anger a war god didn’t you.”
At the broken window, Orin watched on, conflicted. Ares was his lord and master and he was honour bound to obey his orders and wishes. One of those orders was to stay with Cam and watch over him, protect the boy from harm. Now, Ares himself was threatening to harm Orin’s charge. If Orin did nothing, he would be disobeying an order to protect Cam. If he intervened, then he would be violating his oath to his master. The guardian spirit didn’t know what to do; then he remembered what Cam had said to him less than an hour earlier.
Ares raised his sword above his head, poised to strike at his son lying prone at his feet. “This is it,” Cam thought, his eyes closed and his arms shielding his face. The expected blow, however, never came. He opened his eyes to see Orin standing over his body, the wolf spirit’s fangs bared and growling at Ares. For a moment, no one moved. Then the expression on his father’s face softened. He lowered his sword and stepped back.
“Lord Ares,” one of the gang members said, “is everything okay?” The god waved his hand dismissively and the gang members stood down.
“Lord Ares? Since when did bangers talk like that?” A confused Cam asked, looking between Ares and what he had assumed were just simple gang members.
“Einherjar,” Ares said by way of explanation, an explanation that didn’t really explain anything as far as Cam was concerned. “A gift from my Norse counterpart. Wonderful warriors, loyal to a fault. Bit too fond of mead for my tastes but that’s Vikings for you.”
“They don’t look like Vikings,” Cam said glancing at the Hispanic-looking gang members.
“You don’t look Greek,” Ares replied with a raised eyebrow. Father and son watched other warily until Ares sighed and held out a hand. “It’s been a while since one of my children got me that mad, well done.”
“So,” Cam said cautiously before accepting the hand, “you’re not going to kill me then?”
“Heh, not today.” The god helped him to his feet and led the limping Cam back into the motel room. He sat him down on a chair as behind them the shattered window that Cam had been thrown through repaired itself. Orin padded over and sat at Cam’s side, keeping both eyes warily on the god. Ares sighed, “Let me have a look at that face.” He reached towards Cam, and just for a second, the boy flinched away before wincing in pain and finally allowing Ares to touch his face.
Cam sat in silence as “father” healed the wounds that he had inflicted and the tension between the two of them was palpable. Even though they were face to face, Cam refused to meet Ares eye to eye. It was Ares that finally broke the awkward quiet. “Do you really believe what you said before?”
Ares sat back and faced Cam, his expression unreadable. “You said that you believed I was responsible for the wolf spawn attack three years ago, that I had planned it.”
The boy settled back in the chair and sighed, suddenly very tired. “I don’t know, not any more anyway.” Cam yawned. “I don’t wanna get whacked in the face again, but was there something you wanted because I’m really tired.” His father reached over to the newly reconstructed table and grabbed a freshly chilled beer bottle, snapping the cap off on the side of the table. He offered a second bottle to his son. Cam shook his head. “It’s two AM, I gotta spend all day tomorrow finding a goblin market and I don’t fancy having to do it with another hangover.”
Ares roared with laughter. “With your constitution, you could drink an entire crate of these and not feel the effects!” The boy just folded his arms and fixed his father with a tired look. “Very well. There are things we should talk about; things I need to tell you but first, you hunted and killed a wolfspawn today didn’t you?” Cam nodded and the god allowed himself a brief smile. “Very good, you’ve certainly come a long way from that young boy I met three years ago.” There was just a hint of pride in his voice as he spoke but Cam was too tired to notice. “That wolfspawn you killed tonight, was it hunting you?”
“No,” Cam said after a moment’s thought, “Orin caught its scent a couple of nights ago not long after we arrived in town. It weren’t tracking me at that point; Orin has taught me to suppress my divine essence. I needed it to get my scent so I stopped suppressing it. After that, it was pretty easy to get him to come after me.”
“Not without incident I see,” Ares said gesturing to the bandage around his arm.
“Meh,” Cam said dismissively, “as I said to Orin earlier, I heal quickly and you know I’ve had worse. Plus I needed to look weak to lure it in.”
“Interesting strategy,” Ares glanced down at Orin and gave the wolf spirit a withering glare, displeased that he hadn’t put a stop to Cam’s reckless plan, “but anyway, the wolfspawn wasn’t tracking you, it was on the hunt for someone else.”
“You mean someone like me, another scion, except this one hasn’t learned to suppress its essence yet,” Cam said, remembering what Ares had said earlier.
“Bingo, as you kids say” Ares said snapping his fingers. Cam smirked, hiding his smile under the pretext of yawning. He’d never heard anyone his age say that, or anyone under the age of thirty for that matter. “Turns out this young Scion has ran into a spot of bother. I owe his father a favour so I said I’d get you to help.”
Cam sat up, this sounded serious. “Why me, and why can’t this guy’s dad help him out?”
“Fair question I suppose. There are rules about directly interfering in the lives of our children, ancient rules. I think Nezha is still doing the paperwork on the last time he ‘helped’ his son.” Cam laughed at the mention of paperwork. “I know, but Nezha is one of the Shen, an ancient Chinese pantheon. They don’t call them the ‘Celestial Bureaucracy’ for nothing. Anyway, he apparently doesn’t want to get in trouble again with his superiors. He mentioned something about having to spend time in the ‘hell for those who do not use block capitals on forms’ if he does. I swear, those Chinese have a hell for everything. Anyway, his kid’s in trouble and as much as he wants to help, his hands are tied. He sensed another Scion in the neighbourhood, you, and he called in a favour to get me to get you to help.” Ares’ eyes rolled in mock frustration. “Never play poker with a god of trickery.”
Sitting back in his chair again, Cam took a moment to think things over. He still didn’t see how this was problem and he wasn’t the type to snap to attention just because “daddy” said jump. Plus, things hadn’t exactly gone well the last time he had met another Scion. However, despite all that, was he okay with ignoring the fact that this kid needed help and that apparently he was the only person in the position to do something. Cam glanced down at Orin who had remained quiet throughout all of this. The wolf-spirit nodded; whatever Cam decided, Orin would back him. “So,” Cam said, his mind made up, “what sort of trouble is this kid in?”
Three Years Ago…
“Dylan, what on earth are you doing up in that tree?” The man said, looking up at the twelve-year-old boy sitting up in the tree’s branches, holding the map. Three other boys stood at the base of the tree, also looking up.
“I’m trying to see if I can find out where we are,” Dylan called back down.
“And you think you can do that in a tree, thirty feet above the ground?” The four boys were part of a seventh grade field trip from the nearby town of Altamont to Crater Lake National Park. Twenty five eleven to twelve-year-old kids spending a week camping and hiking in the woods; learning about geology, ecology and the natural world. Today was their last day and the children had been split into teams of four, driven to the other side of the park and given the challenge of finding their way back to camp using what they had learned over the week. To help them, they had been given a map and compass and in order to make sure they stayed out of trouble, an adult would accompany them with a radio and a GPS unit in case they needed to call for help.
“Don’t worry about DS Mr Harris,” one of the boys said, “he was like an eagle scout or something in a past life.” The three boys laughed.
“Laugh it up scuzz buckets,” Dylan said in mock indignation, “if it weren’t for Toby’s sucky map reading, we’d’ve been back at camp an hour ago.”
“Be that as it may, you better come down from there. You’ve already got a black eye from that fight the other day; I don’t want to have to explain to your parents when we get back how you broke your leg on a simple orienteering exercise as well.” The laughing stopped, and there was an awkward silence as Dylan reluctantly climbed down from the tree. “What?” Mr Harris asked, confused by the sudden change in the attitude from the four boys.
“DS ‘aint got no folks,” Toby said quietly to Mr Harris, “he’s an orphan.”
Mr Harris inhaled sharply. “Yikes, open mouth and insert foot.”
Dylan jumped down from the lower branches, wobbling slightly as he landed but remaining on his feet. “Christ Toby, you make it sound like I got a terminal disease for something.” He said rolling his eyes.
“Did ya see where we are?” Another boy, Andy, asked.
Dylan laid out the map on the ground. “We should be here, about five miles west of the Witch’s Tit.” His friends giggled at the name of the rocky formation as he pointed to it on the map. “Oh grow up. Anyway, we must’ve got totally lost because the mountains are on the wrong side, at least that’s what I think. The compass is playing up again.” He took the compass out from around his neck and showed it to his friends. The needle was spinning erratically, not settling on a specific direction for longer than a second. “I ‘aint got a clue where we are.”
The four boys looked over at Mr Harris expectantly. He knew what they wanted but he could only shrug. “Sorry guys, can’t help you there.” Taking the GPS out of his pocket, he switched it on and handed it to the boys. The screen was flickering, fritzing in and out before dying completely. “The radio’s dead too.” That little detail worried him; he had made a point of double-checking the batteries were fully charged and that both devices were working properly before setting out.
“So what now?” Dylan asked.
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
Cam scowled and threw his backpack on to the bed. “Actually, yeah, I think it might.” Orin padded over to Ares and licked his outstretched hand. The god leaned down and scratched the wolf-spirit behind the ear.
“Hey there boy, you still taking care of the runt?”
“He can be handful sometimes m’lord,” Orin admitted whilst giving a Cam a glance letting the boy know he was just humouring the god, “but he shows promise.”
Ares laughed and looked over at Cam who was leaning against a wall, glaring at him with his arms crossed defensively in front of him. “Dylan, why don’t you sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair across the table from him, “I brought pizza.” With a snap of his fingers, a pizza box appeared on the table. The logo on the box was of a pizza delivery restaurant that Cam used to visit back where he had lived before his life had turned upside down. Almost as soon as it appeared, the smell of pepperoni, shredded beef, extra cheese and barbeque sauce filled the room, all his son’s favourite pizza toppings.
Cam’s stomach rumbled and although and he was sorely tempted to give in and sit down. Instead, he just glared at Ares. “Dylan Smith died three years ago at Crater Lake, along with his friends. Don’t you watch the news on Olympus, or are you just too busy screwing with the lives of mortals.”
“Funny,” Ares said smiling, “because you’re the spitting image of young Dylan. Either you’re his twin or the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.”
Three years ago…
They had been walking through woods now for several hours. With the boys thoroughly lost, Harris had decided to take charge. Dylan and others had no problem with the experienced outdoorsman taking over; they were all getting tired and hungry. Harris had decided to take the group uphill, climbing the mountain trails up the extinct volcanic peak towards Crater Lake itself. Lake View Drive ran around the rim of the crater, once they found the road, they could use it to find the camp. It would be taking the long way around, but at least they would eventually find it.
Harris was starting to get worried. It was only six in the afternoon and it was already getting dark; sunset this time of year wasn’t for another two hours. They also should have reached the caldera rim hours ago but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. However, he didn’t let those worries show, trying to keep the boys spirits up.
He stopped to take a swig from his water bottle and noticed Dylan lagging behind the group, limping slightly. He waited for the boy to catch up. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Dylan said, shrugging. “My ankle’s a little sore,” he added when he saw Harris’s questioning look.
“Are you okay to walk on it?” Harris asked looking down at Dylan’s feet. The boy was wearing beat-up trainers, definitely the wrong type of footwear for hiking. He mentally cursed the school that had organised the trip; they should have made sure that every child had a pair of strong hiking boots.
Dylan nodded, “I’ll be fine.”
The two of them started walking again, catching up with Toby, Andy and Ben. As they walked, Harris looked down at Dylan again and noticed the black eye he was sporting. “So,” he asked, “what were you and that boy ‘Spud’ fighting about the other day anyway.”
“He … er …” Dylan began uncertainly, “he said some stuff about my mom.”
“Ah,” he could understand how that could be a touchy subject and one that bullies would easily choose to exploit; children, after all, were amongst the cruellest creatures in creation.
“It shouldn’t bother me,” Dylan went on to say, “but I never knew my mom, she died when I was born and no one knew who my dad was. It’s bad enough at that school being an Applegate Kid, but when Spud found out about my mom, he starting saying that I killed her; that it was my fault mom died giving birth to me.”
Harris whistled. “I’m surprised you didn’t punch his lights out for saying that.”
Dylan grinned and looked up, pointing to his eye. “How do you think I got this?”
He knew how Dylan must feel, having lost his own parents as a boy himself. “So you live at the Applegate Care Home?” Harris asked after walking in silence for a few minutes, “Is Mrs Sanders still an old battleaxe?” Before Dylan could reply though, a howl echoed through the forest.
The group froze. “Was … was that a wolf?” Toby asked, the fear evident in his voice.
“There aren’t any wolves in Crater Lake,” Harris said, suddenly questioning everything he knew about the area’s wildlife. Another howl sounded in the night.
A strange look passed over Dylan’s face, his eyes glazing over for a second. “That’s no wolf,” he said quietly, almost inaudibly, “it’s too big to be a wolf.” In his mind, he could sense a presence in the woods, something large and evil. It was watching them, stalking them; and it was hungry. Dylan was rooted to the spot; the sense of the presence was overwhelming. He had never felt anything like this before, he couldn’t move, he could barely breathe.
“What are you…” Andy started to ask, turning to face Dylan. However, he stopped when he saw his friend’s terror-stricken face. In all the years he had known him, he had never seen Dylan show any fear. Andy supposed that his friend’s “tough guy” attitude was a consequence of growing up in a care home environment, always having to prove himself to tougher, older, more messed-up kids. Because of that, Dylan had always been the tough kid in their little circle; always eager to show how brave he was. He never backed down from a fight, getting himself suspended from school a number of times for fighting with Spud and his cronies. What could scare him so much that he was struck white with terror?
It didn’t take long for Andy’s question to be answered. With a flash of fur and claws, something leapt into the clearing. It was massive, much larger than a wolf but it moved too fast for anyone to get a good look at it. The wolfspawn charged into Harris, dragging the man into the bushes on the other side of the clearing as the four boys watched in horror. There was a scream, quickly choked off to a gurgled cry, then the sound of flesh and born being torn. It was silent for several long seconds and then, one by one, four sets of red eyes slowly appeared in the darkness around them.
“Mr … Mr Harris?” Ben asked meekly.
An object the size of a soccer ball rolled into the clearing, bouncing along the uneven ground before coming to a stop at Dylan’s feet; it was the severed head of Mr Harris. The four boys screamed in terror and this seemed to be a signal for the wolfspawn, who charged into the clearing.
Ben was the first die, the spawn tearing out his throat. Screaming in terror, Andy made a break for the trees. Two of the spawn gave chase. One of them jumped on Andy’s back, driving him to the ground, while the other sank its teeth into his arm. “Help me,” he screamed, his eyes screwed shut in pain. The wolfspawn locked its jaws and pulled, ripping Andy’s arm from its socket. Andy shrieked, long and loud, and the other spawn bent down and tore off the remaining arm. Piece by piece, they tore him apart and somewhere between his left and right legs, the boy stopped his struggles and became still.
“Don’t just stand there Dylan!” Toby yelled as he picked up a stout branch. However, Dylan was frozen in terror, a wet patch spreading from his groin and could only watch as his friends fought for their lives and were torn apart in front of him. A wolfspawn, Harris’s blood dripping from its jaws leapt at Toby. The boy got a lucky swing in, the branch connecting with the side of the wolfspawn’s head with a crunch. If he thought that would save him, he was sorely mistaken. The other three wolfspawn converged on him, making short work of the young boy.
The first wolfspawn began slowly walking towards Dylan, growling and baring its fangs. “Run little scion, it’s not a hunt without chase.” Hearing the creature speak was too much and Dylan turned and fled, running into the woods.
Stumbling in the undergrowth, which seemed to conspire against him, Dylan ran in pure panic. His clothes became torn and his skin scratched and bloodied by branches and thorns. The wolfspawn were never far behind him, darting to forward to strike at him with fang and claw only to miss by a matter of inches. Dylan knew that they could easily catch up with him if they wanted too. They were herding him, toying with him, taunting him. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, Dylan was nearing complete exhaustion and could barely take another step.
That was the moment the wolfspawn decided to end their game. The pack leader charged into Dylan, sending him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled to his feet just as another wolfspawn slashed at his chest. Dylan fell back against a tree, screaming in pain. He looked down, the front of his hoody and t-short and been ripped open and three tears in his flesh across his chest and belly were gushing blood.
The wolfspawn began to close in for the kill and as his blood drained out of him, Dylan could only lie there and wait for the end to come, either from the claws of the wolfspawn or the horrific injury to his chest.
However, just as the wolfspawn were poised to strike, fate intervened. The spectral form of a wolf leapt through the tree that Dylan was leaning against, passing through it like a ghost, and tackled the lead wolfspawn. Just as he finally passed out from the blood loss, a man stepped into the clearing; dual-wielding a sawn-off shotgun in one hand and a two-meter long sword, he laid into the wolfspawn, hacking and blasting at them.
The pair made short work of the wolfspawn. Once they were all dead, Ares stood over the unconscious boy. “Humph,” he grunted as he bent down to inspect the wound, “I would’ve thought he would’ve put up more of a fight than that.” The wound was deep; even if by some miracle he lived long enough to get to hospital, it would prove fatal. Thankfully, being a god had its perks; one of which was not having to rely on mortal medicine. He picked the boy up, throwing him over his shoulder. “Come on Orin, we should leave while the veil is still shielding this area from mortal eyes.”
Yawning, Cam gave in and walked over to the table. He reluctantly took one of the slices of pizza and crammed it hungrily into his mouth. “It’s one in morning, I’m starving, exhausted, and I’m not in the mood for this shit,” he said through a mouthful of pizza, “what are you doing here?”
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
Ryan slowly opened his eyes, a dull throbbing ache reverberating through his head. It was dark and it took a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the surroundings. He was lying on his side and his hands were tied behind his back with a pair of cable tie like plasticuffs. His ankles were similarly bound together and a cloth rag had been stuffed into his mouth with another tied around his head to keep it in place. Looking around, he realised that he was lying in the back of a van, the sudden lurches telling him they were travelling down country roads at high speed. Bound and gagged in the back of a van, kidnapped by two men, he was alone and helpless; just like he was all those years ago. Ryan lay back down on the cold metal floor as the tears began to run down his cheek despite his attempts to hold them back.
Sitting in the front of the van, Jared noticed the movement in the back. He nudged Seth with his elbow and nodded towards the boy. The vampire unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed into the back of the van. He sat down opposite Ryan and looked down at the boy. Ryan looked back up at him through red eyes. “Not so tough now, eh?” The vampire sneered.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Ben said staring out of the windscreen as they drove through the evening dusk. Daniel looked over at him as the boy continued. “I mean, my friend’s been kidnapped and rather than call the cops, I get in to a car with a complete stranger who wields glowing knives.”
“What was that you just said?” Daniel said suddenly.
“I said I must be crazy. What am I going to do next, take sweets off a stranger?” Daniel looked at Ben a little closer. There was no way that anyone should have been able to see the chi flowing through his knives. Outside of the spirit realm, the energy flow should be invisible. As they paused at a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the lights to change, Daniel concentrated on the boy sitting next to him. Focusing his abilities, he sensed the boy’s aura. It was strange, different somehow but Daniel couldn’t figure out how. “God, I hope he’s alright.” Ben said sighing.
It was at that point that Daniel finally recognised the boy. “Your name’s Ben right?” He asked as they accelerated down the road away from the centre of town.
“How do you know my name?” Ben asked suspiciously, inadvertently confirming his name. Daniel reached behind him to the back seat, picked up a file and tossed it over to Ben.
“I found that in a hotel room rented by the two men who took Ryan.” Ben opened the file and looked at the contents. There were pictures of him and his friends inside but most of the information in the file was about Ryan; school reports, medical records, a newspaper clipping, care home placements and even psychiatric evaluations. Before he could read any of it, Daniel had grabbed the file out of his hands and tossed it back on the back seat. “There’s some pretty private stuff in there about Ryan and if he hasn’t felt able to confide in you; it’s not my place to tell.” Daniel pulled the car over to the side of the road. Ahead of them, the road forked as it left town. Although both of them lead to Plymouth and from there to the motorway, Ryan’s kidnappers could have taken either route. It was crucial that they chose the right one; otherwise, they could miss their chance to catch up with Ryan and his kidnappers. “Ok, this could be a problem.”
“What now?” Ben asked.
“Now,” Daniel said reaching over to the glove compartment, “I break the laws of science.” Ben watched as rooted through its contents. It was full of papers, maps and tools. Eventually he pulled out a compass.
“What do you mean?”
“Just watch.” Daniel held the compass in one hand and cupped his other over it, concealing the compass within. He closed his eyes and as he did so, a pale white glow emanated from between his hands. “Ostendo mihi via ut puer.” When he removed his hand, Ben could see the needle of the compass spinning wildly. As he watched, the needle started to glow and stopped spinning. Rather than pointing due north, it was now pointing to the northeast, lining up with the right hand road. Daniel gunned engine and turned towards the indicated road. “Last chance to get out kid,” he said turning to the boy, “it might get dangerous from here.”
Ben swallowed audibly, a look of resolve replacing the worried expression on his face. “No way, Ryan saved my life. The least I can do is return the favour.”
“Good answer,” Daniel said as they drove off, “but there are a couple of things you need to know.”
Ryan glared back as the vampire looked down at him. The way the vampire seemed to be studying him made him uncomfortable. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” Seth asked. Ryan mumbled something behind the gag. “What was that?” Seth said cupping his hand to his ear. Again, Ryan said something that was muffled by the gag. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you to not to speak with your mouth full.” Seth reached forward, pulled Ryan into a sitting position and loosened his gag.
“I said ‘fuck you’, you blood sucking leech.” Ryan said spitting in Seth’s face, the glob hitting the vampire’s cheek.
The vampire wiped the spittle from the side of his face. “Good aim.” He punched Ryan harshly in the face, the boy grunting in pain as the fist connected with his nose.
“Why are you doing this?” Ryan asked, sniffing slightly as blood started dribble out of his nose.
“Because,” Seth said leaning closer, “for some reason your brother is willing to pay an obscene amount to get his hands on you.” At the mention of his brother, Seth heard Ryan’s heart begin to race.
“Please,” Ryan begged, “he wants to kill me! You can’t hand me over to him.”
Seth laughed. “As long as he pays what he owes, he can spit-roast you over a barbecue for all I care.”
“You can’t do this, please.”
Seth reached over and replaced the gag. “Watch me.” Ryan tried to scream from behind the cloth. The vampire reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered mobile phone. He kicked Ryan in the side of the face to shut him up, knocking him back to the floor and leaving a boot shaped red mark across his face. Pointing the phone’s camera at Ryan, he took a photo of the boy as he lay on the cold metal floor battered, bound and bleeding, illuminating the scene with the phone’s flash. A few button pushes later and the photo was beaming its way across the mobile network to a handset in London. Within seconds, Seth’s phone rang and the vampire quickly answered it. “Talk … nothing I couldn’t handle … at the moment, no … uh huh … got it …” Seth looked down at Ryan and smiled. “Your brother wants a word with you.” He removed the cloth gag and held the phone to the boy’s ear.
“Hello little brother, it’s been a while.” As he heard his brother’s voice, Ryan froze. In that instant, it was four years ago and he was ten years old again. Blood splattered on his face, his parents lying dead in front of him. Mark’s voice in his ear, the last words his brother spoke to him burning into his memory as the knife sliced into his throat. His brother’s voice cut through the flashback. “What’s this, after four years you’ve got nothing to say?”
“Go to hell you bastard, I don’t have a brother!” Ryan yelled.
Mark chuckled down the phone. “Is that any way to speak to your brother?”
“You lost the right to call yourself that,” Ryan said angrily, “when you raped and tried to murder me!”
“It was nothing personal Ryan, I…”
“Nothing personal?” Ryan said incredulously, cutting him off. “You don’t get much more personal than that!”
“Well, we’ll have plenty of time to talk in a few hours.” Seth took the phone away from Ryan’s ear and shoved the gag back into his mouth, ruffling the boy’s hair patronisingly as he did so. The vampire climbed back into the front passenger seat, leaving Ryan alone in the back of the van. As Mark talked, he rooted through the glove compartment looking for an A-Z Map of London. He followed Mark’s directions and circled a street on the map, showing the location to Jared who held up four fingers.
“No problem, should take us about five, five and half hours … ok, see you there. And make sure you’re ready with the payment.” Seth hung up as Jared looked at him quizzically.
“Why did you say five? We can make it in four.” Jared asked.
“Because,” Seth said glancing at the tied-up boy lying in the back, “now we’ve got some time to have some ‘fun’ with the brat.”
Ryan lay there wriggling his wrists and ankles, desperately trying to loosen the restraints as he listened to what the two men had planned for him. It was useless though, they were too tight. The only thing he achieved was to inflict small cuts on his already sore wrists and he felt blood slowly trickle out of the fresh wounds. As he struggled, he began to realise that the situation was hopeless.
“So,” Ben said taking a deep breath, “Ryan’s been kidnapped by a vampire.”
“Yes,” Daniel said keeping an eye on the compass.
“But the other guy isn’t a vampire?”
“No, as far as I know he’s just a regular human being.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s a bag on the back seat, reach around and get it. Have look inside; there should be a pair glasses in there.” After a few seconds of rummaging, Ben pulled out a pair of strange looking glasses. The lenses were smoked and thicker than normal, although they did not appear to be designed to correct the wearer’s vision. Just above the nose bridge were two small LEDs, neither were lit. Either side of the lenses, Ben could see two devices that looked like the small digital camera lenses found on mobile phones. Just behind the cameras were two small buttons. Ben assumed the batteries were contained in the ends of the legs that were bulkier than usual. “Put them on and press one of the buttons.” Ben did as he was instructed, pushing the button next to the left lens. There was a flicker of static in his left eye but it quickly vanished. At first he didn’t notice anything different but soon, he could just about make out a second “ghost” image overlaying his vision through his left eye. “The lenses are actually semi-transparent LCD screens linked to the cameras on either side of the glasses. Since the image of a vampire cannot be recorded electronically, the digital cameras won’t see them. The semi-transparent nature of the screens allows the image captured by the cameras to be overlaid over the natural optical information coming into your eye.”
“Meaning that a vampire will appear transparent,” Ben said realising what Daniel was trying to explain.
“That’s right.” As they drove on, the lights of Cliffport had receded behind them and they were now driving down dark and unlit country roads. There was no traffic in either direction and they drove on through the evening alone, neither saying much to the other. Daniel was beginning to regret bringing the boy along with him. He had initially thought that having a friendly face with him might convince Ryan that he was there to help. Now, he had realised that he’d probably made a mistake. All he was doing was putting a second boy in danger. “You know, you’re taking all this rather well. Most people would freak if they found out that one of their friends had been kidnapped by a vampire.”
“Well,” Ben said shrugging, “a week ago I was attacked and nearly killed by something called a ‘deepling’. If it wasn’t for Ryan kicking its ass, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
At the mention of the deepling, Daniel glanced at the Ben curiously. Ryan had taken on and defeated a deepling? That was no easy feat for a 14-year-old. Suddenly, as they turned a corner, a pair of red rear lights appeared out of the darkness ahead of them. In the light from the car’s headlights, Daniel recognised it as the van used in Ryan’s kidnapping. He took the glasses off Ben, placing them in his lap.
“Is that them?” Ben asked pointing towards the van. Daniel nodded in response. They stopped behind the van as it paused at a cross roads before turning left. Daniel drove the car straight on. “Wait, aren’t we gonna follow them?”
The older man didn’t answer; instead, he drove forward until they were out of sight of the van. He picked up the glasses in his lap and put them on, fiddling with some of the buttons. Turning the car around, Daniel switched off the headlights and began following the van. Responding to Ben’s quizzical look, he pointed at the glasses. “Oh, they also double as night vision aids.” The followed the van for twenty minutes until it pulled off into a rest area. He stopped the car and backed it up around the corner and out of sight before turning to Ben. “Stay in the car,” the older man said as he reached into the back and pulled out a duffel bag.
“But,” the boy started to say in protest.
“No,” Daniel said firmly pressing the car keys into Ben’s hand, “no matter what happens, you stay in the car and lock the doors. If something goes wrong, you get yourself out of here. Don’t be a hero.” Daniel got out of the car and jogged into the bushes that ran by the side of the road, bag in hand, leaving Ben alone in the car to glower at his back.
Seth turned to Jared. “Pull up in that rest area,” he said pointing out through the windscreen, “that looks as good a place as any.”
Ryan felt the van turn off the tarmac road and onto a stretch of rustling dirt and gravel. His heart was pounding in his chest, and his panicked breaths through the gag were short and ragged. He had never been more terrified in his life, almost scared beyond rational thought. Four years ago, he had been too young and naive to understand what was happening to him. Now he was older, and unfortunately for him, wiser. He knew what Mark had planned for him, and he had a good idea what the vampire had meant by “having fun.” His struggles to escape his bonds had now become frantic, his wrists slick with the blood from the cuts caused by the plasticuffs.
Jared switched off the engine and opened the driver’s side door. “Where are you going?” Seth asked him as the vampire turned to climb into the back.
“I’m going for a slash,” Jared replied pointing towards the toilet block he had seen as they pulled in.
The vampire chuckled. “Ahh urination, a mortal weakness that I don’t miss.”
Jared climbed out of the van and turned to face Seth. “Oh I don’t know, I think it’s a good trade-off if it means I can enjoy a cold beer and a good kebab.”
“I can enjoy a cold beer as well you know,” Seth said in mock-pout.
“Yeah,” Jared said slyly, “but only after it’s been filtered through someone else’s digestive system and into their bloodstream.” He closed the van door and started walking to the toilet block. Seth climbed into the back and sat opposite Ryan. He looked down at the boy whose struggles had ceased when the vampire had sat down. The boy’s obvious distress aroused him, as did the smell of the boy’s sweat and blood. He reached down, wiped some of the boy’s blood on to his finger and brought it up to his mouth, sucking on the blood soaked digit. The vampire closed his eyes and groaned in pleasure at the sweet taste.
Along with the pounding headache, Ryan now felt nauseous watching the vampire enjoy the taste of his blood. He glared at the vampire, determined not to show any fear or weakness. Seth laughed as he saw the childish defiance in the boy’s eyes. “Glare at me all you want boy, it aint gonna save you.” The vampire got up and pulled out a large knife. Kneeling down next to Ryan, he bent over and cut the plasticuffs securing his ankles. “One way or another,” he said sitting down on Ryan’s legs, preventing the boy from kicking out at him, “by the end of tonight you’ll be screaming. The only choice you get in the matter is whether it’ll be in pain or in pleasure.” He reached down and began slowly massaging the boy’s groin through the material his long shorts. The boy squirmed beneath him, wriggling in an attempt to get free while furiously shaking his head. In response, the vampire started to massage him more roughly causing Ryan to whimper through the gag. “The more you resist, the more it’ll hurt.” A single tear escaped from Ryan’s left eye. Seth leant forward and licked at the side of Ryan’s face. As the boy shivered at the unwanted physical contact, Seth pushed his free hand under Ryan’s hoodie and t-shirt and began to play with one of the boy’s nipples. “Relax a little, it’s not as if you’re a virgin at this,” the vampire whispered cruelly into Ryan’s ear before kissing the boy softly on the forehead, “which is a shame since I prefer tight young virgin ass.”
Ryan took the opportunity to attack then with the only weapon available to him, jerking upward and head butting the vampire in the face. Seth grunted in pain and fell off Ryan as the boy kicked up with one leg, unbalancing the vampire. As the vampire sat on the floor clutching his nose, Ryan lashed out with his foot. The boy’s kick connected with the vampire’s jaw, the heel of his shoe striking solidly with the side of the face. Seth was momentarily stunned by the savage kick but quickly shook it off as he saw Ryan scramble to his feet and start moving towards the back door. He got up and grabbed the back of the boys head by his hair, yanking back hard. Ryan screamed in pain as he was pulled off his feet and fell backwards. Using the momentum of the fall, Seth slammed the boy’s head on the floor of the van. Ryan struggled to stay awake as red and white flashes washed over his vision, the blow to the head making him dizzy. He felt himself flipped on to his stomach as rough hands grabbed his belt and pulled his shorts down to his ankles, taking his boxers with them. Seth looked down at the half-naked boy beneath him as he straddled Ryan’s legs. “Your brother may want you alive,” he said undoing his own pants, “but I guarantee that when we’re finished with you, you’ll be begging us to kill you to make the pain stop.” As Seth positioned himself above and behind Ryan, ready to take the boy whether he wanted it or not, the side door of the van slid open. “What took you so long, you almost missed the fun.” He turned to the door, expecting to see Jared. Instead, he came face to face with the barrel of a pump-action shotgun.
“Suck on this leech.” Daniel said pulling the trigger. The shotgun’s blast was like thunder in the enclosed space, the flash of the blast illuminating the interior of the van like a strobe. Seth was thrown back against the side of the van, his blood spraying against the wall. As the vampire slid down the wall, its head a ragged mess of torn flesh, Daniel put the shotgun down and reached into the van to Ryan; gently sitting him up with one hand while pulling the boy’s shorts back up with the other. Ryan’s eyes went wide; first with confusion, then with recognition. Behind him, the vampire was already starting to move as the flesh and bone started to knit themselves back together. “We better hurry,” Daniel said, loosening the gag and pulling out his knife so he could cut the plasticuffs binding Ryan’s hands. “That only slowed him down.” However, before he could cut the plasticuffs, he was struck from the side by a blinding bolt of electricity, sending him scraping across the floor. Ryan whipped his head around and saw the vampire’s partner standing by the toilet block, electricity crackling up and down the man’s forearms. Daniel grabbed Ryan’s leg as he pulled himself up off the floor and looked up at the boy, twitching as the after-effects of the electrical attack fired random nerve impulses. “Run,” he said pointing down the road. Not waiting to be told twice, Ryan slid off the van and started running down the road.
Seth sat up just in time to see Ryan jump out of the van and run off. Cursing, the vampire jumped up and leaped out of the van; narrowly avoiding landing on Daniel who rolled out of the way. Jared was already running towards ran and when he saw Seth get out he yelled, “Go get the kid; I’ll deal with this fucker.” Seth nodded, batted away an attempt by Daniel to grab him, and set off in pursuit of Ryan.
“First a vampire, now a bloody warlock,” Daniel muttered grabbing the shotgun and pointing it at Jared, identifying him as a greater threat than the vampire because of the man’s use of magic. Jared reached out with his hand, flicking his wrist. The shotgun was wrenched out of Daniel’s hands; flying across the space between the two men.
Ben sat in the front passenger seat twirling the car keys anxiously around his fingers. He had put the glasses on to take his mind off the situation and had to admit that they were cool. Everything appeared a ghostly green through the glasses, although the digital smearing of the image as he moved his head made him slightly nauseous. He wondered how Daniel had been able to drive wearing them.
He had just discovered the zoom function when the boom of a shotgun caused him to jump, dropping the glasses. Less than a minute later, he saw the blue-white flash of lightning illuminating the area, the light emanating from just around the corner. Ben looked nervously at the back seat, hoping to find a weapon of some sort. Motion in the corner of his eye made Ben face forward and he saw Ryan run around the corner, almost stumbling several times. With a relieved smile on his face, he unlocked the car door, ready to go out and meet Ryan but then he saw the reason behind his friend’s panicked flight. Someone was chasing him and, just like before, the pursuer was gaining ground. This time however, Ben was not just going to stand by and watch his friend be attacked. Shifting over to the driver’s seat, he slammed the keys into the ignition and started the engine. Luckily for him, Daniel’s car was an automatic and he slammed his foot down on the accelerator, the car surging forwards.
With the vampire just a few feet behind, Ryan’s feet pounded the tarmac as he desperately tried to escape. Suddenly, he heard the sound of an engine being gunned and he was blinded by a pair of headlights as a car roared towards him. Ben drove the car around Ryan, missing him by just inches as the back wheels lost traction and skidded across the tarmac. The headlights briefly illuminated Seth’s face as the car hit him head on. Ryan turned and saw the vampire strike the windscreen, spider-webbing the glass as he was thrown up and over the car, rolling several times. Ryan stopped as the car screeched to a halt.
Ben jumped out of the car, its engine still running, and ran over to Ryan. Ryan was dumbfounded as he saw Ben approach him, a beaming smile on his face. “What … what are you doing here?” he stammered as Ben skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Rescuing you,” Ben replied as he noticed Ryan’s hands were tied behind his back. “Come on, I think I saw a knife in the car.” He pulled Ryan over to the car, climbing in to pull out a craft-knife from a toolbox on the back seat. Turning Ryan around, he started to cut through the tough plastic of the plasticuffs. Suddenly, a voice groaned from behind the car. Both boys turned to see a hand clamp on to the rear spoiler. Using it as leverage, Seth pulled himself upright, his fangs bared in an inhuman snarl.
“What is it with you kids from that town?” He flexed his neck muscles as he stepped away from the car, the ligaments in his neck cracking. Before either boy could react, the vampire charged forward, shoved Ryan out of the way and grabbed Ben. The younger boy cried out as the vampire turned him around so that they were facing Ryan, the smaller boy pinned against the vampire’s chest by one of the man’s tattooed arms. As Ryan tried to get back up, Seth grabbed Ben’s hair with his free hand and pulled his head back, baring the boy’s neck. “You shouldn’t have run boy, now you’re going to watch me kill your little friend here.” He held onto the struggling boy, leaning down ready to tear the boy’s throat out with his fangs when he was stopped by the sound of laughter. Seth looked up; Ryan was on his knees laughing quietly.
“Ooh, that was a mistake,” Ryan said coldly getting to his feet. “Threaten me, beat me, I don’t care. But, if you harm him, I swear to God, I’ll rip out your spleen and shove it so far down your throat you’ll be pissing bile for a week. Vampiric metabolism or not.”
Ben breathed in sharply. He could barely recognise the person standing in front of him as his friend. Ryan’s face was distorted by barely suppressed rage and his whole body was shaking. However, what chilled Ben the most were Ryan’s eyes. They were cold, utterly devoid of any emotion. He felt the vampire’s grip on him loosen slightly, but no amount of struggling would allow him to escape.
“What,” Seth said laughing, “you’re gonna beat me with your hands tied behind your back?”
Ryan took a step forward, meeting the vampire’s eyes. “If necessary,” he said through gritted teeth.
Seth’s smile vanished as he looked at the 14-year-old boy in front of him. The scared and terrified child that he had tormented in the van was gone. In his place was someone that had been pushed to breaking point, and then thrown beyond it. Still holding Ben’s hair, he hit the boy’s head on the metal bonnet of the car, knocking him out. “You know what, your brother’s going to have to wait because after I’m done beating you to a pulp, I’m gonna make you watch me kill each and every one of your friends, one by one.”
As Ben slumped to the floor, Ryan dug the front of his foot into the dirt where he was standing. Seth didn’t notice the subtle moment and as he moved towards Ryan, the boy whipped his foot up, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirt into Seth’s eyes. With the vampire temporarily blinded, Ryan turned sideways on to him, spinning on his heel, and kicked out at the vampire’s chest. The force of Ryan’s left foot left the vampire winded but Ryan didn’t give him a chance to recover as he kicked out again. This time at the vampire’s left leg. Ryan allowed himself a small smile as the vampire collapsed to one knee, bringing his face within easy striking distance. Seth however was in not going to make it easy for him and the vampire’s vision cleared just in time to see Ryan’s foot heading straight for his face. He easily blocked the blow, standing up and growling as Ryan darted back a step. Seth vowed that he wasn’t going to underestimate the boy this time.
He punched at Ryan who attempted to dodge the blow but wasn’t quite fast enough. The punch struck him in the shoulder and unbalanced him, sending him to the ground. Almost at the instant that the boy hit the ground, his legs span around in a scissor kick. Seth jumped over the legs as Ryan used the momentum to get up, rolling backwards away from the vampire. Quickly closing the distance, he attempted to punch Ryan again. Ryan ducked under the strike and jumped up off the ground, spinning as he kicked Seth first with his left foot and then with his right. Both strikes landing squarely on Seth’s chest in a perfectly executed butterfly kick.
Around the corner, flashes of electrical discharge illuminated the trees as crackles of lighting erupted from the rest area where the van had been parked. The origin of the discharges was around the corner and hidden by the steep hedgerows and trees that lined this part of the road. Neither Ryan nor Seth noticed this however; both were too focused on each other.
Seth staggered back under the two-kick assault. When they had met before, his strength and speed had given him the upper hand. Now he wasn’t so sure. He began to think that taking this job might have been more trouble than it was worth.
Landing in a crouch as he came out of the butterfly kick, he sprang up and spin kicked the cars wing mirror. The mirror flew at Seth, who dodged the projectile easily. Ryan had not kicked the mirror as an attack though, but as a way to force the vampire back and away from the car. Ryan now stood between Ben and the vampire and he quickly glanced down at his friend. Apart from a slight cut to the forehead, Ben was all right, and he was just unconscious. Suddenly, Seth took advantage of Ryan’s momentary inattention and darted forward, closing the gap between them. He punched Ryan in the side of the face and in the chest before shoving Ryan onto the bonnet of the car. Grabbing him by the neck and holding him down, he smirked as he throttled the boy. Ryan’s vision was starting to blur and his hearing was starting to buzz as his brain was starved of oxygen. He knew that he only had a few seconds before he blacked out completely and with his hands tied behind his back, he was rapidly running out of options. The vampire was pressed up against him, pinning his legs to the bodywork of the car. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe, and all he could do was look up at the face of the man strangling him. The vampire grunted in satisfaction as he saw Ryan’s consciousness beginning to fade. Just as Ryan’s eyelids began to flutter, the boy somehow found a way to bring his legs up and kick the vampire off him. Ryan rolled backwards off the bonnet of the car and fell to the tarmac on the other side.
Seth watched as the boy disappeared out of sight. “This is getting ridiculous,” Seth thought to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something through the open back door of the car. Lying in the foot well between the front and back seats was a bag. Sticking out of the bag was a wooden baseball bat with a rubberised grip and handle. Seth picked up the bat as swung it several times, testing the weight. “Perfect,” he thought.
Ryan spluttered and wheezed as he sat against the front wheel, gasping for air. Suddenly he felt the car dip on its suspension and he heard the sound of metal warping. He looked up just in time to see the vampire standing on the bonnet raise a baseball bat above his head to bring it slamming down on his. The boy rolled to the side, springing to his feet as the bat struck the metal where his head had been just moments before. The vampire swung the bat again but missed as Ryan ducked, a wry grin on his face. “What’s the matter? An unarmed and tied up kid too much for you to handle so you got to resort to using a weapon?” Ryan mocked mercilessly, his voice croaking slightly.
“Shut up,” Seth snapped in frustration. He swung the bat, shattering the passenger-side front window as Ryan sidestepped around the swing and kicked out at Seth. Ryan’s foot connected with Seth’s wrist forcing the vampire to drop the bat and stumble back. As the bat hit the tarmac, the end of handle fell off, disconnecting easily from the rest of the bat. The wood where it had disconnected was sharpened into a point, almost as if the handle had been designed to conceal it. Both Seth and Ryan looked at the bat.
“You need hands to use a stake kid, all those fancy kicks of your’s aren’t going to help you.” Seth could tell by the expression on his face that the boy knew he was right. Then something seemed to change within Ryan. He started to pull at the restraints, first grunting and then screaming in pain. “Struggle all you want kid, you’ll never get them off that way.” Ryan didn’t listen; he continued to pull at the plasticuffs. Seth would have been right if it wasn’t for the small cut in the plastic that Ben had been able to make before they had been interrupted. The cut wasn’t very deep, but it was just enough to weaken the plasticuff to the point where the tough plastic snapped, the broken plasticuffs falling uselessly to the ground. “That’s … that’s impossible,” Seth said in surprise.
They both dived towards the bat at the same time, Ryan getting to it just seconds before the vampire. He span the bat in his hand, driving the pointed end up into Seth’s chest as the vampire landed on top of him. “Classic famous last words,” Ryan muttered as Seth howled. Ryan pushed the vampire off him and sat there panting as the vampire screamed and thrashed next to him. Ryan stood up, looking down at the vampire. Seth’s screams had become animal, inhuman in nature. Black veins were beginning to show themselves across his face and hands, anywhere where exposed flesh could be seen. Eventually, the vampire’s movements ceased and he dissolved into nothing more than a pile of dust. Hearing a sound from behind, Ryan turned around and brought his fists up ready to defend himself again.
Holding his side, his clothing scorched and burned in places, Daniel stood and looked at the scene in front of him. Looking slightly worse for wear, Ryan was bleeding from several small cuts, his clothes were filthy and a nasty looking black eye was starting to form. Yet despite this, he stood there triumphant and ready to continue fighting. To say that the experienced hunter was impressed would be an understatement. As Ryan recognised that the man in front of him wasn’t a threat, his shoulder’s sagged and he lowered his fists, the adrenaline draining from his system. Ben awoke with a groan, unsteadily standing up and holding his head. “Can we go home now?”
Sue looked at her watch as she sat watching the television. Ryan was supposed to be home over two hours ago and she was starting to get a little worried. It wasn’t like him to be this late. “I’m sure he’s fine,” Anthony said from the kitchen where he was working on his laptop, reading his wife’s mind. “You know what teenagers are like, he’s probably just lost track of time.”
Almost on cue, the front door opened and Ryan walked in. Sue stood up, launching into a prepared speech. “What time do you … good God, what happened?”
Ryan closed the front door and started walking towards the stairs, not saying a word and limping slightly. Anthony got up and walked into the living room and gasped when he saw the state his foster son was in. Sue had gone over to Ryan, taking him by the shoulders and turning him around. It seemed to take the boy a few moments to notice this, his eyes unfocused and vacant. “I’m … I’m fine,” he said finally. It seemed a struggle for him to speak.
“You’re not fine,” Anthony said trying to guide him towards one of the chairs, “you look like you’ve been beaten up. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what happened.”
For a second it looked like Ryan wasn’t going to answer; then he shrugged and looked down at the floor. “It’s nothing, I just got mugged.” Ryan couldn’t look at his foster parents, afraid that they would be able to tell that he was lying.
“You should’ve called us,” Sue said.
“They didn’t get anything and I didn’t want to worry you,” Ryan said dismissively.
Anthony sighed, “But that’s what we’re here for.”
Ryan pulled away from them. “I gotta use the bathroom,” he said quietly, heading up the stairs and barging past Trey who had been listening on the landing. He went into the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him. Standing in front of the mirror, he saw for the first time the state his face was in. As he stood there, everything that had happened to him replayed itself in his head in a confused jumble of images. He started to shake uncontrollably as he slowly collapsed to the floor. Ryan sat with his back to the wall, his head between his knees, his breaths rapid and shallow. He suddenly felt light-headed and nauseous, his stomach contracting violently. Scrambling across the bathroom floor, he barely made it to the toilet bowl before he vomited up his lunch. He sat by the bowl for several minutes as he gathered his thoughts and tried unsuccessfully to calm down. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t get the images out of his head. He picked himself up off the floor and leant over the sink, washing his face and rinsing his mouth out. Opening the medicine cabinet, he took a small pill canister from the top shelf and popped the top. The canister had his name on a prescription label fixed to it.
Four years ago, after being released from hospital, he had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. Since then he had been on and off medication to help him cope with the condition as well as seeing a child-psychiatrist once a month. Until recently, he’d been doing well, hardly needing to take any of the bitter tasting pills. However, with everything that had happened over the last two months; the nightmares, the encounters with the supernatural, and his brother’s reappearance in his life; he had started to need the pills more and more. Tipping one of the small white pills into his palm, he quickly swilled it down, grimacing at its taste. He stood there, breathing deeply for several minutes as the medication began to take effect, gradually calming him.
There was a gentle knock on the bathroom door. “Ryan, you alright?” It was Trey.
“I’m fine,” Ryan said sighing, “I wish people would stop asking me that and leave me alone.” There was a creak from the floorboards on the other side of the door; Trey wasn’t taking the hint. “What do you want?”
“I got a new DVD from the shops today, I … er …. Do you want to watch it with me?” Ryan unlocked the door and saw Trey standing there holding a shrink-wrapped DVD. Its cover was colourful, full of cartoon characters. The movie didn’t look like something he would usually watch, but Trey looked so earnest. “I’ve got toffee popcorn?” Trey said hopefully.
“You know what squirt,” he said taking the DVD from Tray and ruffling his already messy blond hair, “you sold me on it. Grab some soda from the fridge and meet me upstairs.”
“Awesome!” Trey said beaming. He turned and ran to the kitchen, almost tripping down the stairs.
“Trey,” Ryan heard Sue half-yell downstairs, “what have I told you about running in the house?”
Ryan chuckled quietly to himself as he shook his head and climbed the wooden stairs into the attic. A few years ago, when the Johnson’s had started to take on foster children, the attic had been converted into a games and media room. There was a large flat screen TV connected to an Xbox in one corner of the attic. Ryan went over to the console and turned it and the TV on, putting the DVD into the drive. He settled onto the large sofa facing the screen, making himself comfortable. A few minutes later, Trey came bounding up the stairs into the attic carrying a six-pack of cola, two bags of popcorn and a large bowl. The twelve-year-old almost leapt onto the sofa as Ryan pressed play. Munching on the popcorn, Ryan looked over at Trey and yawned. It was late and he was already feeling a little drowsy, but right now he could forget about everything that had happened and just be a normal kid for a while; something that he wouldn’t trade for the world.
Sometime later, Anthony slowly crept up the stairs into the attic. The boys had been up here for a couple of hours and things had become quiet. Before he turned in, he wanted to check on them to make sure Ryan was ok. He poked his head over the top of the stairs and saw that the DVD was on its menu screen. Slowly walking over to the sofa, he saw Ryan sprawled back on it; his mouth agape and his head leaning back as he snored quietly. Trey was leaning against him, also asleep. Ryan’s arm was draped around the smaller boy’s shoulder. Anthony smiled at the scene as he picked up the remote and turned the TV off. He went over to a cupboard and pulled out a blanket, placing it over the two boys, he decided not to disturb them. Anthony paused at the top of the stairs, turning as he reached to switch off the light. Ryan stirred, mumbling something in his sleep. There was a small, contented smile on the older boy’s face. He left them there, sleeping peacefully, and went back downstairs. Sue was already getting ready for bed. She looked up as her husband entered the room, a question on her face. “I think he’s going to be fine,” Anthony said in answer.
Ryan tossed and turned in the bed, caught in the throes of a nightmare. He was drenched with sweat, throwing off the bed covers with every violent twist and turn. In his nightmare, he saw a confusing mishmash of images. On old and imposing stone building on the bank of the Thames, a pair of yellow eyes and a scaled claw, his old home back in Truro, a dusty and ornate mirror locked in an attic, Cliffport’s beach fracturing into a thousand pieces, and the sensation of falling through darkness towards a circle of fire. A sinister hooded figure towered over him as he fell, laughing as he screamed.
He woke with a yell, sitting up in the bed. Heart racing, he flopped back down onto his pillow. He tried to pace his breathing, calming himself down but it was difficult. The nightmare was still fresh in his mind. Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was the early hours of Saturday morning. “Get out of my head,” he whispered lightly thumping the side of his head as he lay there. He’d suffered from nightmares ever since the night of the fire, but lately they seemed to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Ryan lay there for another hour trying to forget the nightmare before he fell asleep again.
The next morning, a bleary-eyed Ryan pulled himself out of bed. Despite still being fatigued from the restless night, he still managed to get himself down to the bus station before the others. Today was the day of “The Big Trip” as Tommy had taken to calling it. They had been planning it for most of the last week. It wasn’t that big of a trip really, just a bus ride into nearby Plymouth to go see a movie, get something to eat and generally hang out for the day. He slouched back on the wooden bench; his eyes closed listening to the sound of the traffic, the gulls over head and the gentle sound of water washing against the beach.
Ben, Jason and Tommy emerged from an alley across the road from the bus station. Since they all lived in East Cliffport, they had met in the park and walked down to the lower town together. As they crossed the road, Ryan cracked open his eyes at the sound of their voices. “Hey guys.”
Jason waved as they reached the bus stop. “Geez Ryan, you look rough,” he said as he saw the shadows around Ryan’s eyes.
“Yeah,” Ryan said as he yawned and stretched, “bad night. Didn’t get much sleep.”
“You still up the movie?” Ben asked.
“Are you kidding?” Ryan said sitting up, “I’ve been looking forward to this movie for months.”
The weekend bus service in Cornwall left much to be desired, especially outside the major towns and they had at least half an hour before the next bus was due. Across the road from the bus stop was a coffee shop; one of those soulless multinational brands that seemed to spread everywhere like a virus, even here in the heart of rural England, overcharging for the foul tasting “fair trade” liquid they called coffee. Ethical considerations aside, Ryan suddenly felt the urge to have large amounts of caffeine injected into his bloodstream. However, since that treatment was currently unavailable on the NHS, a large cup of coffee would have to suffice. Taking advantage of the long wait until the next bus, the four boys descended on the coffee shop, Ryan ordering something with lots of caffeine and very little milk in an attempt to “jump-start” his system. Refreshed or caffeinated, they hurried back to the bus stop just in time to see bus round the corner.
Sitting in the back corner as the boys left the coffee shop; a pale-skinned man got up and put a still full disposable cup of coffee into a nearby bin. He followed them out of the shop and watched them board the bus and depart. Seth squinted and flinched involuntarily as he stepped out into the sunlight. “This is going to take a little getting used to,” he said putting on a pair of cheap sunglasses. Across the road from the vampire, Ryan boarded the bus with his friends oblivious to the fact that he was being watched. Walking over to the car park next to the train station, Seth smiled as the bus pulled away. He’d overheard the boys’ conversation so he knew exactly where they were going; all he needed to do was to get Ryan by himself. “This is almost too easy,” he said with confidence.
The bus ride into Plymouth took nearly an hour as the bus drove along the winding country roads following the line of coast rather than journeying inland to take the dual-carriage way into Plymouth. They nipped inland every couple of miles as the roads passed through small villages or by one of the numerous holiday resorts that lined the Cornish southern coast. With bright May sunshine filtering through dappled, puffball clouds, the scenery they passed through on the journey was breathtaking. As they passed through the village of Crafthole, they cut inland across the Rame Peninsular arriving in the Cornish town of Torpoint on the banks of the River Tamar. Only a short chain ferry ride later, and they were in Plymouth on the Devon side of the river.
By the time the bus pulled in to the bus station, it was midday and they had less than fifteen minutes to get to the cinema. They darted across the busy road that ran alongside the bus station and into the nearby shopping centre. Weaving in and out of the throng of shoppers, they ran as fast as they could through the centre, at one point ducking around a concession stand to avoid the ever-present gaze of the mall security. It didn’t matter that none of them were up to mischief, “rentacops” tended to see all teenagers the same way, potential troublemakers and shoplifters. As it was, one of the security guards yelled at Ryan and Jason to take off their caps and hoods as the boys ran past him. Like most shopping centres across the country in recent years, they had introduced a ban on wearing baseball caps and hoods. They got to the cinema on the far side of the shopping centre with just minutes to spare, grabbing the last few tickets for Iron Man, which had been selling fast since it had only opened that Friday.
“That was frickin awesome,” Ryan said in awe, almost stumbling out of the cinema in a daze. For over two hours, he had sat enraptured watching the action on the screen. As they walked towards the food court, Ryan wasn’t the only one geeking out over the movie. Ben seemed to have enjoyed it almost as much as him.
Sitting on a bench opposite the entrance to the cinema, Seth was pretending to read a book while waiting for Ryan to come out. Seeing them exit the cinema, he waited a minute before putting the stolen book down on the bench and following his target.
The food court was noisy, full of families and screaming kids running between tables. Like most such places, it was an arena of tables and benches surrounded by a ring of fast food outlets serving a variety of “food.” Burgers, chips, cheap curries, kebabs, pizza and subway sandwiches; all the types of food that gave nutritionists heart attacks. Suddenly very hungrily, Ryan attacked his burger and fries as they decided what to do next. “What about HMV?” Jason suggested. “There’s a couple of CDs I wanna get that I can’t get back home.”
“Is that the one by the Pavilions?” Ben asked and Jason nodded. “Do you mind if we pop into Chimera Games on the way? I need some new minis for Wednesday’s game.”
“And I wouldn’t mind checking out the new comics,” Ryan said with a mouthful of fries.
A look passed between Tommy and Jason. “As if that’s the only thing you’ll be ‘checking out’.” Tommy said laughing.
Ryan paused, a handful of fries poised just in front of his mouth. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Jason snorted. “The girl behind the counter dude, I seen the way you look at her. She’s pretty cute for a geek.”
“Shut up.” Jason ducked as Ryan chucked his remaining fries at him. “It’s not like that. And just because she works in a gaming store, it doesn’t make her a geek,” Ryan explained, “her dad owns the store and she just helps out on weekends and on the school holidays.”
Ben nudged Ryan with his elbow, “Sounds like you’ve gotten to know her pretty well.” Ryan started blushing, failing to find the words for an effective retort.
“Dude, why don’t you just ask her out?” Tommy asked.
Ryan suddenly pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “I gotta go.”
“Hey wait,” Ben said, “we were only joking.”
Ryan turned back towards the table with a faintly bemused expression on his face. “Erm … noooo,” he said slowly, “I gotta go … to the toilet.”
“Oh … oh,” said Ben, realising what Ryan had meant, “we’ll be over by the cash machines outside.”
Across the food court, Seth was sitting at a table that a family had kindly vacated for him when he had “asked” them too. He scowled as he sat there, trying to eavesdrop on the boys’ conversation but the food court was too noisy. Even with his enhanced hearing, he was unable to pick up more than a few stray words above the racket caused by the hundreds of people. As he watched, he saw Ryan get up from the table heading towards the toilets. “This is it,” Seth thought getting up and heading in the same direction; the toilets were near one of the exits and around the corner. The boy’s friends would lose sight of him making it much easier for Seth to remove him without their interference. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ryan’s friends get up from the table. Seth froze but he was relieved when they started walking in the opposite direction away from Ryan.
Ryan flushed the toilet and stepped out of the cubicle. As he walked over to the sink, he was suddenly grabbed from behind. Span around, he was shoved backwards into the wall, hitting its tiled surface hard. Ryan yelled in shock and pain, lashing out at the man gripping him by the shoulders. He beat at the man’s tattooed and muscular arms to no effect.
Seth frowned; the brat was making too much noise; he needed to get this finished quickly before any busybodies tried to interfere. The vampire grabbed Ryan’s flailing fists and pinned them with one hand above the boy’s head. With his other hand, he stifled Ryan’s cries, clamping it over the boy’s mouth. Using his grip on his jaw, he forced Ryan to look at him, his eyes meeting the boy’s eyes. Eyes that betrayed the fear the boy was in.
For his part Ryan continued to struggle but as their eyes met, his body froze. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t move a single muscle, nor could he muster enough energy to scream from behind the hand. It was as if he had suddenly become completely paralysed.
Seth learned forward, smiling slightly. “Listen up kid,” he whispered quietly into Ryan’s left ear, “if you don’t want me to hurt you any more than I have to, you are going to do exactly what I say.”
At that moment, the door to the toilets opened and two men in their mid-twenties walked in. They froze at the door as they saw a tall and well-built man pinning a terrified boy to the wall, a hand over the boy’s mouth preventing him from calling for help. “What the hell?” One of them said taking a step forward. Seth turned to face him, snarling in anger. As he did so, his concentration slipped and his hold over Ryan’s mind faltered. Ryan suddenly felt able to move again and he wasted no time, viciously kneeing his attacker in the groin. Seth grunted and lost his grip; Ryan wriggled free and ran for the door, barrelling past the men.
Seth recovered just in time to see Ryan disappear through the door. He turned towards the door, intent on following his quarry but the two men moved to stand in his way. One of them pulled out a knife with a long serrated blade, brandishing it in the manner of someone skilled and experienced in its use. “You aint going nowhere mate until you tell us what you were doing to that kid.”
“I haven’t got time for this shit.” He barged between the men, shoving them aside effortlessly with enhanced strength. One of them struck the mirror above the sink, cracking the shatterproof glass as he struck it headfirst. The other man flew into one of the stalls and the door broke off its hinges with the impact. Rather than finishing off the two men, Seth simply left them lying stunned on the floor and left the toilets. Standing outside, the vampire scanned the food court but he couldn’t see Ryan; the boy had melted into the crowd. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath as he headed towards the nearest exit.
Ryan stumbled down the escalator towards the street frantically looking over his shoulder. He ducked behind a phone box just as the man who had attacked him stopped at the top of the escalator looking out across the street. A short distance away, not far from where he was hiding was his friends. He looked again towards the top of the escalator.
As he stood the top of the escalator, looking out over the busy street, he saw the boy peer out from behind a phone box. Seth smiled and began to force his way down the escalator. Realising that he had been spotted, the boy bolted, running down the street. Seth looked ahead and saw where the boy was running, directly towards his friends. The vampire knew that for the time being at least, he’d missed his opportunity to grab the kid. He’d have to back off and wait for another opportunity.
As Tommy and Jason messed around on the back seat of the bus, Ben looked over at Ryan. His friend was staring out of the window, ignoring the conversation. Ben suspect that he wasn’t really looking at anything. He had been quiet since they had left the food court and had seemed distracted. Ben got up and sat down in the vacant seat next to Ryan. He didn’t seem to notice so Ben put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. When he did so, he was surprised when Ryan jumped at his touch; a reaction he’d never seen from Ryan before. “You ok Ry?”
Ryan blinked a couple of times, released a sigh and seemed to collapse into the seat. “I’m fine,” he grunted.
“You sure? You’ve been a little distant.”
“I said I’m fine,” Ryan snapped turning back to the window.
Ben’s expression hardened. “Be that way then.” He got up and rejoined Tommy and Jason.
“What’s his problem?” Ryan heard Jason whisper behind him.
He sat in silence for the rest of the bus ride back into Cliffport. Lost in thought, he barely waved goodbye as they parted ways at the bus stop leaving Ryan to walk back home alone. Clouds had gathered and the sun was beginning to sink. Already it was grazing the tops of the hills surrounding Cliffport casting much of the town in an evening shadow. A chill wind was blowing in from the Channel. He trudged through the town, walking alongside the river towards the footbridge. Ryan was still shaken by the earlier events and he couldn’t get the man’s face out of his mind, the curse of having an eidetic memory.
Walking on autopilot, he eventually found himself on the breakwater having absent-mindedly wandered past the footbridge. Ryan wearily sat down for a few moments of rest, legs dangling over the edge of the quayside. He picked up a flat stone, tossed it once in his hand, and threw it across the water watching as it skimmed several times across the surface. Its simple motion caused a small smile to form on his face as he sent another stone skimming across the water. Several years ago, on a hot Saturday evening during the summer school holidays, Ryan and his father had sat on the banks of the River Truro skimming stones just like this. A perfect summer memory, one of the last before his life changed.
A chill suddenly overcame him, interrupting the pleasant memory as a shiver ran down his spine. The streetlights were starting to flick on along the sea front and evening was beginning to set in. Standing up, he pulled up his hood and starting walking back towards the footbridge with his hands stuffed into the hoodie’s front pouch. The sound of footsteps on stone caused him to look up. A figure had stepped onto the breakwater heading towards him. The man stopped a dozen feet away and looked up. As the light from the streetlight illuminated the man’s face Ryan froze, his heart starting to race. The man was the one that had attacked him in Plymouth; he’d followed him back to Cliffport. Glancing around, Ryan suddenly realised that the breakwater and seafront was completely deserted. He was alone with the man.
Seth smiled as he saw the fear flash across the boy’s face. He cracked his knuckles as he looked at the boy. “You should’ve come quietly when you had the chance kid. Now, I’m gonna beat you to a pulp and you’ll still be coming with me.”
Ryan took a step back. “What do you want with me?” As he said this, the smile on the face of the man in front of him widened. His incisor teeth, already pointed, elongated into inch-long fangs. Bone ridges seemed to form under the skin, accenting the area around the eyes and cheekbone. The sudden physical transformation shocked Ryan and the boy stumbled backwards. One word flashed through his mind, “vampire.” As the vampire’s eyes briefly glowed from within, Ryan realised why he had been unable to move when he had been grabbed earlier that day. The vampire must have hypnotised him somehow.
“Right now,” Seth said, “I’ll settle for just hearing you beg for mercy.” He started running towards the boy, intent on ramming him to the floor.
As the adrenaline began to course through him, Ryan shook off the shock as he began to realise the danger he was in. He prepared himself for a fight, one that his life may depend on. The vampire was charging towards him and Ryan ran forward. At the last moment, just as Seth was about to strike, Ryan dropped to the floor into a crouch and rolled forward. Seth was moving too quickly and was surprised by his quarry’s unorthodox manoeuvre. He stumbled into Ryan, tripping over him and falling to the floor. Ryan continued his roll, rolling onto his feet and turning to face the vampire. As the vampire scrambled to his feet, Ryan pivoted on one foot bringing the other around in a spin-kick. The vampire was too fast, he saw they attack coming. Seth grabbed Ryan’s foot, moving almost too fast for Ryan’s eyes to follow. The boy twisted in mid-air, wrenching his foot free from the vampire’s grip as his free foot whipped around and struck the vampire on the face. Landing on his feet, he followed the kick with a two-fisted punch to the vampire’s chest. Seth reeled backwards under the assault, taken by surprise by the boy’s skill and completely unprepared for the ferocity of the attack. He decided to take the “kid gloves” off and start treating this seriously but before he got a chance to retaliate, the boy had turned and fled.
Ryan had quickly realised that he was no match for the vampire; the man was too fast for him. As the vampire shook itself out of its daze, Ryan ran along the breakwater towards the town desperate to put as much distance between him and the creature. He ran through car park the lay between the breakwater and the rest of the town, the floodlights and CCTV cameras offering a brief illusion of safety.
“Shit,” Seth thought, “this kid is fast.” He’d been surprised by the boy’s speed, but he’d been more surprised by the kick. There had been no mention of karate lessons or martial arts training in the file that Mark had given him. It was obvious though that Ryan had more than just a little skill in the art of self-defence. When he dragged the boy back to London, he’d be having words with his brother about this. Despite the head start, Seth was catching up with the boy as they entered the car park. He knew that despite this, if the boy managed to get into town it would be next to impossible to grab him without causing a scene but, Seth had had enough of this job. At this point the vampire didn’t have a problem with leaving a few mutilated corpses if it meant finally getting the job done. However, if everything was in place like it was supposed to, it wouldn’t come to that. Seth had an ace up his sleeve.
Ryan ran across the car park, glancing behind him as he ran. Although the vampire chasing him was gaining, Ryan was confident that he could stay ahead of him long enough to reach the high street. Hopefully there, amongst the restaurants and pubs along the main road through town, he’d manage to find some help. Ryan darted around the side of a white van straight into an oncoming fist. The fist struck him the abdomen and he collapsed to his knees struggling to breath. As Ryan looked up to see who had hit, something hard struck him on the back of the head. White pain flashed across his vision and he slumped to the floor unconscious.
Seth walked over to where his partner, Jared, was standing over the Ryan’s unconscious form. Sneering in contempt, the vampire kicked the boy in the side. He was about to kick him again, this time in the head when Jared grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him aside. “Hey, you said we needed the brat alive and in one piece.”
“Shut it, blood bag, he’ll still be alive after I’ve finished.” Seth said as he shook himself free.
“Hey, as much as I’d enjoy seeing you whale on some kid, perhaps here and now aint the best time and place?” Jared saw the conflicting emotions and desires flash across Seth’s face before the vampire realised that Jared was probably right.
“Fine, I can wait.” Seth picked Ryan up and slung him over his shoulder as Jared opened the van’s side door.
“Hey fugly,” a voice yelled out from across the car park, “leave him alone!” Seth and Jared turned around to see a blond-haired young man slide over the bonnet of a car and start running towards them. Daniel pulled his doubled-bladed boomerang formed by a pair of connected knives with long curved blades and serrated edges from his belt and charged towards the pair.
Seth turned to Jared with a bemused look on his face. “You got this one?” Jared shrugged and pulled the pistol tucked into his pants that he’d used to knock Ryan out. Quickly aiming it, he pulled the trigger three times in quick succession and Daniel crumpled to the floor. “We better go, somebody might’ve heard that.” Said Seth as he roughly threw Ryan into the van and got in with him. Jared scooted around Seth and climbed into the driver’s seat.
From behind a nearby stone bench, Ben watched as the van tore out of the car park, its wheels squealing. Ryan’s attitude on the bus had worried him, although the terse brush off had annoyed him. Something had obviously been bothering him, something that his friend had felt unable to talk about. So, after saying goodbye to Tommy and Jason, he had doubled back intending to head over to Ryan’s house to talk to him. By chance, his route through the town had taken him along the seafront and he had seen Ryan’s confrontation with the man on the breakwater. Ben had been ready to run over and help when he’d seen the other man with the gun. He was ashamed to admit to himself that he’d been scared and that his fear had made him hide. From his hiding place, he had done nothing but watch his friend get ambushed and knocked to the floor. Then, a man had appeared out of nowhere, charging across the car park to the rescue only to be shot.
As soon as the van had left, he emerged from behind the bench and ran over to the man lying on the floor and knelt next to him. He wasn’t moving, and there were three bullet holes in the man’s t-shirt. Ben pulled his mobile out of his pocket and started to dial 999. Daniel’s hand suddenly reached out and grabbed Ben’s hand, stopping him from dialling. “Don’t,” he said coughing.
“But … you were shot!” Ben said stumbling backwards to sit on his behind.
Daniel sat up groaning. “Yeah, I hate it when that happens.” He lifted up his shirt to reveal a bullet-proof vest with three bullets embedded in its front. “That’s why I wear this.”
“What about my friend?” Ben asked. “Those men took him!”
Standing up, Daniel looked down at the young boy sitting at his feet. There was something familiar about him but Daniel couldn’t put his finger on it. Regardless the boy looked worried. “The police can’t help your friend. If anything, they might put him in even more danger.” He said trying to reassure him. “But that doesn’t mean that no one’s going to help him.”
The man looked up from the coolbox at the sounds of laughter as two boys ran into the back garden. “Ryan,” he said addressing the seven-year-old, “put down that bucket of water and stop chasing your brother.”
“But dad, he started it,” the small boy pouted as he pointed at his older brother, “he threw the sponge at me.” There was a large wet patch on the front of his t-shirt where soapsuds soaking into the cotton.
“Mark, is that true?” He asked, turning to his other son.
“Kinda,” the fourteen-year-old said guiltily scratching his head and smiling.
“In that case,” he said smiling in return, “then it is the decision of this court that the punishment be a ritual soaking.” He turned to younger brother who was gleefully smiling. “Mr Henderson, please carry out the sentence on behalf of the court.” Ryan quickly picked up the bucket, and with an evil grin on his face, threw the contents at Mark. The older boy gasped as the tepid soapy water struck him in the chest, soaking him.
“I’ll get you for that,” Mark said in mock-threat, chasing Ryan. The two brothers ran across the grass towards the back door, Mark finding it difficult to keep up with his younger brother. Ryan’s escape route was barred as the back door was opened and their mother stood their holding a tray of buns, uncooked beef burgers and sausages. Ryan darted to the side but Mark caught up with him, pulling the small boy into a headlock.
“That’s enough you two,” their dad said as their mum put the tray down next to the barbecue. “Remember our deal guys, no barbecue until you wash the car.”
“Awwww,” Ryan whined.
“Come on you,” Mark said grabbing Ryan’s hood and almost lifting his little brother of the floor, “we got a car to rinse and I’m starving.” The small boy yelped as he was dragged through side gate back to the driveway. Just a few minutes later, the sounds of squeals could be heard from the driveway.
Paul and Tracy looked at each other. “Hosepipes,” they said simultaneously.
Out front, the two brothers sprayed each other with the hoses, drenching themselves and the car. Thoroughly soaked, they turned their hoses back on the car and washed off the soapsuds. Mark noticed that his brother has hopping from foot to foot leaning on his tiptoes. “Do you need the toilet or something?”
Ryan nodded, “Uh huh, I gotta go bad.”
“Well,” Mark said rolling his eyes, “you’re a big boy now; you don’t need permission or anything to have a piss.” Ryan dropped his hose and ran into the house. Mark couldn’t help but squirt his hose at the ground just behind his brother’s feet, chasing him up the path. After finishing washing the car, ¬
Mark went into the back garden where his dad had already started the barbecue and first batch of burgers were on the grill. After a few minutes, the sizzling slabs of meat were ready. With a rumbling stomach, he greedily tucked into the first off the grill.
“Where’s your brother?” His mum asked as she drenched one of the burgers in ketchup, just the way Ryan liked it.
“He’s on the toilet,” he said with a mouthful of meat.
“Hmm, the toilet flushed five minutes ago,” she said looking up at the closed bathroom window. “Could you go and check on him?” Mark started to protest but his mother’s expression warned him that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
Grumbling, he got out of the garden chair and tromped across the garden and into the house. He had a good idea where Ryan had gotten to and as he approached the top of the stairs, he realised that he was right. Mark crept quietly up to his bedroom door, avoiding all the floorboards that creaked. A skill he had developed sneaking out at night without alerting his parents. Peering around the doorframe Mark saw his brother sitting at the foot of Mark’s bed holding a skateboard and playing with its wheels. Mark stepped into the doorway, leant against the frame and cleared his throat. Ryan stood up quickly, dropping the skateboard.
“Mark! I was just … er …” Ryan stammered guiltily. Despite how close the two brothers were, Ryan knew that Mark didn’t like people being in his room uninvited.
“You’ve been eyein’ my board for the last three weeks,” Mark said interrupting him. Ryan looked at the floor, his hands fiddling with the bottom of his t-shirt. “Guess I better teach you how to use it properly before you break your neck.”
Ryan looked back up, a hopeful look on his face. “You mean it?” Mark nodded. Ryan’s face lit up and the small boy threw himself at Mark and hugged him. “Thank you thank you thank you,” he said repeatedly. Mark lifted his little brother into a piggyback and started downstairs.
“Come on squirt, dinner first.”
Seven years later…
Mark rubbed the stubble on his chin and looked down at the photo of his brother. It had been taken through a telephoto lens and it showed him skating along, headphones on and school bag on his back oblivious to the fact that was being watched. The photo brought back memories from when he had decided to teach his little brother how to skate. Ryan had taken to it like a monkey to bananas. He put the photo down and looked at the others. One showed his brother sitting on a packed boat with a hundred other teenagers wearing life jackets. Another photo showed him sitting on a wall with a group of friends enjoying an ice cream cone in the hot sun. Over a dozen photos had been taken over the previous week. Most of them were of his brother but a few were detail shots of his friends and foster family showing everyone important in his brother’s life.
“You did good work,” he said to the man across the table from him. They were sitting in a dingy back alley pub in the East End of London; the type of pub where shady deals could be made with fear of questions being asked. The poor lighting and loud music masking any such deals being made.
The man took a sip from his pint. “You paid me well.”
“So,” Mark said putting the photos back on the table, “apart from these what else did my money get?”
“Quite a lot actually,” the man said smirking. He reached under the table, pulled a folder out of his bag, and placed it on the table. When the man opened it, Mark could see that it was full of official looking documents. “If you know the right people and have enough money, you can learn a lot about anyone.”
The man shuffled through the papers, picking out the key points. “Well, the kid’s had it rough the last few years. Lost his family in a home invasion in 2004, probably where he got that scar on his neck. Spent a while in hospital afterwards before being put into care. In 2005, he was back in hospital after a failed suicide attempt.”
“Suicide?” Mark said looking up from the papers.
“Er … first time with foster parents. By all accounts not exactly the role model type. Viewed their foster kids as a source of government cheques by all accounts. It happened a year to the day after the death of his family. No support at home, bullied like heck at his new school, he tried to hang himself but was found before it was too late. As it was, he was already unconscious when they cut him down. Foster parents dumped him back on social services as soon as he was out of hospital.”
“Harsh,” Mark said although inwardly he was cursing. If only that help had been a few minutes slower.
“Yeah, anyway, he’s had seven foster families in four years, failing at school …” The part about his brother failing at school piqued Mark’s interest. The Ryan he remembered was smart, even at just ten-years-old he’d stood out at primary school. “… was in a car accident a couple of months ago. Took a header into the bay but didn’t suffer any major injuries. Ran away from home last month, but was only gone for a day.”
Mark blinked, impressed at the depth of information the man had discovered. “Anything else.”
“Well, despite having more reason than most kids his age to go off the rails, he’s managed to keep his nose clean. Well, except for the fact that he’s got a few secrets.” He passed a fuzzy black and white photo. Unlike the others, it had been taken at night using a low-light camera. In the centre of the frame, Mark could just make out his brother climbing down the drainpipe outside his bedroom window. “Took this night before last. Don’t know where he went but he was gone a couple of hours.”
Mark smiled. “Used to do that myself when I was your age,” he said quietly, barely audible above the booming music. He cleared his throat and shuffled through the papers and photos. “Here’s what I owe you,” he said taking a fat brown envelope from inside his jacket. The man opened the envelope and quickly counted the stack of used notes within.
Satisfied, the man picked up his coat and bag. “If you need anything else Jim, you’ve got my number.” The man left the pub. A few moments after he had left, another man walked over from the bar and sat down opposite Mark.
“I take it you heard everything Seth?” Mark asked not looking up.
Seth smirked, his lips parting to reveal a set of fangs. He looked down the photos, picking one of them up. “This him? Good looking kid, what he do to piss you off?”
“You think you can handle him?” Mark asked him impatiently.
Seth leafed through the papers. “Sure thing, he’s just a kid right? No funky powers or shit?” Mark nodded. “Then he should be a pushover.”
“Good. This ritual you want as payment is difficult. Giving a vampire immunity to sunlight ‘aint like slapping on factor 500 sun block. It’s going to take a considerable amount of mojo to pull it off and I don’t want to be wasting my time on some fang banger who can’t deal with one 14-year-old kid.”
The vampire laughed. “Like I said, no worries.”
“Anyway,” Mark said not entirely convinced, “just get your arse down to circle on Friday night for the first part of ritual.”
“First part?” Seth said interrupting.
“Yeah, the first part. I’m not going to give you permanent immunity until you deliver my brother to me alive and in one piece. Until then, you get 24 hours cumulative immunity.”
“Fair enough.” Seth put the photos and papers into the file and stood up. “You better be on the level though. I know you got a rep in the scene and all, but you screw me on this deal and it’ll be you that ends up dead.” The vampire walked out of the pub and into the night. Mark waited a few minutes before taking a photo out of his jacket pocket. It was the one of his little brother skating along. He looked at it intently as he finished his pint.
After getting home from school, the first thing that Ryan did was take a much-needed shower. As Trey had put it, he stank from spending the night there, sleeping in his clothes. Later that morning, after a proper breakfast, Ryan was sitting in his room trying to decide between doing his homework and reading his comics when there was a knock on the front door downstairs. He heard Sue answer the door and a few moments later, her voice called to him up the stairs. “Ryan, it’s for you.” He put down the comic and went to the top of the stairs. Ben was standing at the front door.
“Come on up,” Ryan said.
Ryan led Ben up the stairs to his bedroom. The younger boy stepped into the room, taking in its contents. Posters covered the walls on both sides of the room. The ones by Trey’s bed were mainly for various bands while the posters on Ryan’s side of the room were a collection of skateboarding and snowboarding posters. Underneath one of the posters were three brackets made out of coat hooks that Ryan used to hold his skateboard. Particularly surprising to Ben, especially given his friend’s supposedly poor academic skills, was the shelf above the bed filled with neatly stacked textbooks. Some of which were of an advanced level. Ryan began clearing the comics away as Ben sat down on the bed. The younger boy picked up one of the comics and leafed through its pages. “What’s this one, I don’t think I’ve seen this one before”
Ryan took the comic off Ben and looked at the cover. “It’s the ‘Defenders’, it’s about this kid that lives in Liberty City in northern California. His dad was the superhero Defender. Only he doesn’t find out till after his dad dies in action. He finds a prototype set of powered body armour his dad built in a secret part of the junkyard where he now lives with his grandpa. Even though his grandpa is worried that he’ll get himself killed like his dad, he decides to put it on and take his dad’s place as the city’s resident hero. It’s really cool ‘cos the main character doesn’t have any superpowers at all. He’s not super strong or super smart; he’s just a regular kid. The suit lets him fight on the same level as the other supers but he doesn’t need it to be a hero. But as well as being a superhero, he’s still got to do the whole high school thing ‘cos no one can find out that the city’s biggest hero is just a regular inner-city fifteen-year-old kid.”
Ben laughed, “I can see why you like it. I knew you were into comics, but I didn’t know you were such a fan.”
“Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, mine’s comics,” Ryan said. “What about you.”
“I’m more into Dungeons and Dragons than comics.”
Ryan turned and looked at Ben, a little surprised. “Wow, a jock and a geek in the same body, is that even possible?”
Ben looked around the room. “I guess it makes sense now.”
“Never mind, a bunch of us are going down to the beach and I was wondering if you’d like to come.”
Ryan looked at him in surprise. “After what happened last night, I thought the beach would be the last place you’d want to be.”
“Hey, with Kung-Fu Ryan around, no scaly creature of the sea is gonna dare mess with us. But seriously, I want you to come. It’s about time you started hanging out,” held up another one of Ryan’s comics, “and besides, even superheroes get time off with their friends.”
Ryan shrugged smiling. “Alright, I guess I can spare a couple of hours to play bodyguard at the beach.”
“Cool, let’s go,” Ben said getting up.
Sue looked up as Ben and Ryan came down the stairs. “Going somewhere?” She asked as she saw Ryan putting on his hoodie.
“Going down to the beach for a couple of hours with some friends from school.”
“Ok,” she said, “be back for tea.” She watched the boys disappear out the front door. “Finally,” she thought to herself smiling, “some friends.”
Jason and Tommy sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach waiting for the others. Tommy had his headphones on, listening to music and writing down notes in his notepad while his cousin texted on his mobile. Jason, the older of the two cousins by just a month, had shoulder length black hair. Although the younger cousin, Tommy was the larger of the two being almost two inches taller than Jason. Tommy had dark red dyed spiky hair, almost burgundy in colour. His rather unconventional appearance was completed by a lip ring piercing his bottom lip. Both boys wore a dark red symbol on a piece of clothing. The symbol, which Jason had found on the internet last year, was the logo of the band that they had formed with two other boys from school. Jason wore it on the back of a black baseball cap while Tommy wore it on a pair of black wristbands.
At the same time, they both saw Ben and Ryan approaching from the cliff path.
“What about Indy, he’s an ass-kicking ARCHAEOLOGIST! If that’s not a geek-jock then I don’t know what is,” Ben said.
“Just knowing stuff doesn’t make you a geek,” Ryan argued, “if it did that would make Lara Croft a geek and there is no way that a girl with a rack like that could be a geek.”
Jason waved to the two boys as they walked over. “What are you two arguing about?”
Ben and Ryan looked at each other for a second and then burst out laughing as they released how absurd their conversation must have sounded. “Nothing,” Ben said, “hey, anyone seen Celeste?”
“I’m right here,” a voice said from behind Ben. The boy jumped at Celeste’s unexpected appearance.
“Crap, how the hell do you keep doing that?”
Celeste merely smiled sweetly. “Practice.”
“Great, now that we’re all here, what’s the plan?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, we didn’t skip band practice just to hang with dumbass and fish bait,” Tommy said grinning. His grin vanished as his cousin punched him in the arm. “Ow, I was kidding. Anyone who can come up with a story like the one Ryan did this morning is way too imaginative to be ‘tard.”
“That’s better,” Jason said cracking his knuckles.
“But,” Tommy said pointing at Ben, “you’re still fish bait.”
“Since the weather’s pretty fine,” Ben said scowling at Tommy, “I thought we’d hit the beach for a couple of hours, maybe mess around in the arcade and stuff. You know, just hang around town.”
“Considering you ‘aint got that much town to hang around in … sounds good,” Ryan said.
The gang spent the next few hours messing around on the beach. Cliffport may have become a tourist trap, but right now, it was that magical time of the year where the weather was good enough for the locals to enjoy the beach without being swamped by out-of-towners. As it was, there were only a few tourists, mostly taking holiday snaps.
Alternating between kicking around a football and throwing a Frisbee, none of the group strayed near the water, despite how tantalisingly cool it may have appeared. After a few hours, a hot and sweaty Ryan glanced over at the ice cream van parked over by the sea wall. “If you ask me, this is the perfect weather for some cheap ice cream.”
“Yeah, ‘cos I ‘aint got the pocket money for the good kind,” Tommy said as they jogged towards the van.
Five minutes later, they were all sitting on the sea wall, each enjoying a cone of soft scoop ice cream.
“So Ben,” Jason said, “how did you get on the school rugby team with your sucky throwing and catching?” Ben had seemed incapable of throwing the Frisbee on target or catching it all afternoon.
“I’ll have you know that the aerodynamics of a Frisbee are significantly different from that of a rugby ball,” Ben said defensively.
Jason laughed, “That’s your excuse and you’re sticking to it eh?” Ben just grunted in response as the others laughed around him.
Ryan had noticed Ben’s poor performance with the Frisbee as well. He suspected that there was more to it than just the differences between a rugby ball and a Frisbee. Ben had stayed close to Celeste all afternoon and had seemed distracted by her presence. It was obvious to him, even if it wasn’t to the others, that Ben had a crush on Celeste. As tempting as it was to tease him about it, he decided to be kind and keep it to himself. For the time being at least.
After cooling down with the ice cream, Jason dragged them all to the local arcade. However, after just ten minutes, they were thrown out by the manager after Jason began hurling a stream of insults at one of the machines.
“Calm down cuz,” Tommy said, his arm around Jason’s shoulders and guiding the irate boy away from the arcade, “it’s just a dumb game. Nothing to get so worked up about.”
Jason shrugged off Tommy’s arm. “It’s NOT a dumb game. I used to be the best person in town at DDR, but in the last month or so I’ve been knock off the top spot.”
“Is that all?” Ben asked incredulously.
“Is That All? This bastard’s grabbed the top seven spots on the high score table. What’s worse is all I got to go on is the guys handle RYEBREAD. It’s doing my head in trying to work out who it is.” At the back of the group, Ryan sniggered. At the sound of his amusement, Jason span round, confronting him. “What’s so funny?”
Ryan held his hands out defensively. “Chill, it’s just a game. I’m sure you’ll find a way to beat him. Eventually.”
By four o’clock, they had exhausted all the entertainment options that a bunch of teenagers could legally enjoy in the small town. They ended up hanging out at the end of the breakwater, laughing and joking as they watched the ships out in the shimmering waters of the English Channel.
They weren’t there long before Jake and Spud pulled up on a pair of BMX bikes. “Hey Ryan,” Jake said, “Your foster mum said you’d be near here.”
“Hi Jake, Spud, what’s up?”
“Me and Jake are heading over to the bike track, you wanna come?” Asked Spud.
“Cliffport’s got a bike track?”
“Yeah, it’s about a mile past the Burial Mound in some fields. You in?” Jake asked, “You can borrow my bike,” he added when he remembered that Ryan didn’t own a bike.
“Kinda got a prior engagement,” Ryan said nodding back towards his other friends, “besides I prefer tarmac and concrete. You can’t skate on dirt.”
“Fair enough. Hey, what was up with principal Winters? He seemed really pissed at you lot this morning. Did you guys get into trouble last night or something?” Jake asked.
Ryan became aware that the conversation behind him had died. “Er, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you at school on Monday.”
“Cool,” Jake said remounting his bike. He turned and waved at Ben. “Hey Ben, see you at the game tomorrow.” He and Spud cycled off towards the Burial Mound as Ryan turned back to the others. Ben, Tommy, Jason and Celeste were looking at him.
“Don’t worry,” he said trying to reassure them, “I’ll make something up. It’s not like he’d believe me if I told him what really happened.” The alarm on Ryan’s watch started beeping and he looked down, seeing the time. “Crap, I gotta go, dinner’ll be ready soon.”
“Do you have to?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, Sue’s making chilli today. Her beef chilli is frickin’ awesome. That and I’ve technically still got a curfew.”
“That sucks,” said Ben, “see you later then.”
Ryan rushed home, getting through the front door just as Sue yelled “Dinner” from the kitchen. He sat down at the table opposite Trey, savouring the smell wafting in from the kitchen.
The next morning, Ryan was awoken by the sound of a lawnmower in the back garden. Across the bedroom, Trey stirred, growling at the unwanted noise and attempting to bury his head under his pillow. Ryan pulled on a pair of old jogging bottoms and shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen. Anthony was in the garden and waved to him through the window as Ryan leaned against the kitchen counter with a glass of orange juice fresh from the fridge. There was cool breeze from the open back door and the smell of freshly cut grass smelt nice, and after his day yesterday, it only helped increase his already good mood. He pulled out several rashes of bacon and four eggs and set about preparing a fried breakfast.
Susan came into the kitchen and saw Ryan standing at the electric stove, whistling. She ruffled the boy’s hair, which earned a half-hearted protest, as she reached for the fridge door. “My, someone’s in a good mood this morning.” She looked over to the contents of the frying pan. “You’re not cooking breakfast are you?”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know,” Ryan said cheerily, “but I wanted to.”
“You must want something then,” Susan said, accusing him in jest. Ryan laughed in response.
Anthony and Susan had already eaten breakfast that morning but they both gratefully took a bacon balm. This left an extra egg for him and Trey. As he dished the bacon and eggs out, Susan called up the stairs to Trey and a few minutes later, the twelve-year-old stumbled down the stairs into the kitchen. He looked at Ryan suspiciously for a few seconds before hungrily tucking onto the breakfast, gobbling it down like a gannet. Ryan leaned back on his chair and turned on the small TV, tuning it to one of the cartoon channels.
“Stick it on 707,” Trey said with a mouthful of bacon, “I wanna watch Yu-Gi-Oh.”
“I’m watching Avatar, not that Japanese card gaming crap.”
“But…” Trey whined in protest.
Ryan leaned forward with an evil grin on his face. “Either I get to watch Avatar,” he said in a quiet voice, “or I tell Anthony that you still haven’t done the homework that was due in on Friday afternoon.” Backed into a corner, Trey relented and grumpily ate his breakfast while Ryan watched his cartoons.
The phone started ringing and Susan answered it in the living room. She came into the kitchen a few minutes later holding the handset. “Jake’s father’s on the phone,” she said to Ryan, “he wants to know if you saw Jake yesterday?”
Ryan looked away from the TV. “Yeah, we talked for a bit at the breakwater.”
“When was that?”
“About half four,” Ryan said thinking back. It had been just before he started back home. “Why?”
“Jake didn’t come home last night. Do you know where he might have gone?”
“No, he said he and Spud were going up to the bike track but that was the last I saw of him. Maybe he stayed over at Spud’s?” He said hopefully.
“No, he’s already checked with Stewart’s parents. He didn’t come home last night either.” Susan took the phone back into the other room, relaying to Jake’s father what Ryan had told her. As she left, Ryan began to get a bad feeling. His friend often stayed out late, something which caused friction between Jake and his dad. Sometimes he would spend the night at one of his friends but he would always let his father know where he was. Spud on the other, was always home on time. His mother kept him on a tight leash. Worried, he wolfed down the remains of his breakfast. “Tell you what squirt,” he said to Trey, “since I’m in such a good mood today, I’m gonna let you watch Yugi.”
Trey again looked at him suspiciously. “I know you’re up to something, I just don’t know what.”
Ryan cleared his plate away, putting it in the dishwasher and went upstairs. He hurriedly got dressed before grabbing his skateboard and rucksack and running out the front door. He closed the garden gate behind him and looked up at the fluffy clouds, realising that he had no idea what he was supposed to do. Ryan thought for a second, the last place he knew that Jake and Spud were heading to was the bike track. That would be the best place to start looking.
He skated across town, taking advantage of every shortcut that he had discovered in the three months he’d lived in Cliffport. Crossing the river at the footbridge, the wheels of the skateboard clattered rhythmically as they rode over the wooden planks. Sunday was always a slow day in Cliffport, especially before the tourist season kicked in and there was only a few people about. It didn’t take him long to reach the Burial Mound where he was forced to dismount, strapping the skateboard to his rucksack. A dirt path led away from the mound, presumably in the direction of the bike track.
Ryan knelt down next to the path, examining the dirt. There were a number of fresh ruts in the mud, two of which were narrow and could have been left by Jake and Spud’s BMXs. The others were wider and deeper, possibly left by dirt bikes. According to what Jake had said yesterday, the bike track was only a mile past the round. He started walking down the path and soon enough he began to hear the sound of dirt bikes.
Cresting the hill, Ryan could see the bike track. It was a collection of sculpted hills and dips surrounded by a low drystone wall. As he approached, he saw a group of older teenagers hanging around the entrance as a pair of dirt bikes tore round the track. Ryan didn’t know most of them but he grimaced when he recognised the youngest amongst them. Clustered together, they were a bunch of year 10 and 11 pupils from his school who all had a ‘reputation’. Cliffport’s resident hoodie-wearing delinquents, the gang seemed to collect ASBOs like Boy Scouts collected merit badges. The gang of five was led by a 16-year-old spider plant haired youth nicknamed Boris. One of the gang noticed him approaching and pointed him out to Boris who was trying to start a probably stolen dirt bike. Seeing this, Ryan took a deep breath and walked over to the wall, hoping that a physical barrier between them would offer some protection. Boris’s anger had a hair-trigger and on more than one occasion already, Ryan had been on the receiving end of it.
“What do you want,” Boris sneered at him as he sat astride the dirt bike, his ‘minions’ gathered around him.
“Were you here at around four or five yesterday?” Ryan asked.
Boris got off the bike and as he did so, his jacket briefly flapped open revealing the grip of a black pistol tucked into the front of his pants. Ryan stiffened for a second before he realised that real guns were probably not made from cheap plastic. He smiled inwardly, it was just Boris’s style to try and “big himself up” with a cheap two quid springer. Boris swaggered over to the wall, glaring at Ryan. “So what if I was?”
“Did Jake or Spud come by?”
“Who the fuck is Spud?” Boris asked in confusion.
“He means Stuart Masterson,” Abigail, one of the two girls in Boris’s gang explained.
“Oh yeah,” Boris said laughing, “They came round on their little push bikes thinking they could play with the big boys.”
“And.” Ryan prompted.
“And I told ‘em to piss off.”
“Did you see which way they went?” Ryan said curtly, getting a little impatient.
“Why the fuck…” Boris began before he was interrupted by Abigail.
“They went off that way,” she said pointing further down the path, “towards the old bridge.”
“Thanks for your help,” he said to Abigail, pointedly ignoring Boris as he turned to leave. He only got a few steps before Boris issued his parting shot.
“Fucking homo’s missing his boyfriend,” Boris said to his friends causing them to laugh.
He stopped, his fists balled as Boris and his gang laughed behind him. He turned and slowly walked back to the wall, his eyes narrowed. “What did you just say,” he said quietly.
The teenagers behind Boris tensed, expecting trouble. “You heard me,” the older boy taunted, “you emo homo fuck.”
Ryan’s face flushed with anger, his heart starting to race. He was on the verge of leaping over the wall and thumping Boris in the face. A rather rash action considering he would be outnumbered at least five to one. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and tried to calm himself down as the gang made jibes at his expense about him “taking it up the back door.” He wouldn’t let them get to him, he couldn’t. No matter how much he wanted to smash Boris’s arrogant, acne-scarred face in.
“You know what,” Ryan said opening his eyes, “I haven’t time for this.”
“Why, you gotta go find a corner to cry in and cut yourself or something.” Boris said.
“No, Jake and Spud didn’t come home last night. When my friends are in trouble, I care enough about them to try to help because I know if it was the other way round; they’d do the same for me.” Ryan was nearly yelling as he spoke, his tone cutting through the gang’s laughter and silencing it. “How many of YOUR friends could say the same about you eh?” He turned to walk away but quickly span back around as his anger peaked. “God knows I’ve got problems. I’ve not got issues, I’ve got frigging volumes but that’s nothing compared to you ‘Boris’. You think you’re the big man around town, tearing up the streets on stolen bikes, running around with a cheap and nasty air gun pretending it’s the real thing and vandalising bus shelters. But you know what, you’re not threatening, you’re pathetic. This is Cornwall, not fucking South Central LA. That bad boy ‘gangsta’ shit just makes you a joke round here.”
There was an uncomfortable silence after Ryan finished speaking. He saw the stunned faces of Boris’s gang and he suddenly realised that he had gone too far. Even the older dirt biking teenagers had stopped to watch the scene.
Boris was shaking with barely suppressed rage, there was no way that he was going to some punk-ass kid speak to him like that. He took a step towards the wall, intending to beat the smaller boy to a pulp for what he had said but he was stopped when Abigail grabbed his arm. “Let him go,” she said, “he ‘aint worth it.” Ryan took that as his cue and ran, following the path in the direction that Abigail had pointed. Boris pulled his arm out of Abigail’s grip and vaulted over the wall, intending to give chase but Ryan was too fast for him. In frustration, he pulled the air pistol, pumped the spring mechanism and pointed it at Ryan’s fleeing back.
He heard the clack of the air pistol’s mechanism followed by a thwack as a plastic pellet smacked into the skateboard strapped to his rucksack. Before Boris could fire again, Ryan ducked out of sight into a copse of trees. “Yeah, you better keep running Henderson,” Boris yelled, “I know where you live.”
After a couple of minutes, Ryan stopped to catch his breath against a tree. Even though he knew that he’d probably made one of the biggest mistakes of his life, he couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ve not got issues, I’ve got volumes,” he said in imitation of himself. “Well done Ryan, you mouthed off to the biggest bully in school and made a complete idiot of yourself in the same afternoon.”
Rested, he continued along the path following the wheel ruts left in the soft mud. The path ran alongside a small fenced in field next to a small farm. A solitary goat munched on the grass, blissfully oblivious to the world around it. Eventually, it dipped into a steep-sided, boulder-strewn, valley and crossed over a small river on an old stone arch bridge. The ground was ripped and torn, huge rends in the turf were gouged across the hillside. “What the hell happened here?” Ryan asked himself.
A glint of reflected sunlight from under the bridge attracted his attention. He ran down the path to the bridge and ducked underneath its stone arch. The light was reflecting off the silver frame of a BMX bike, identical to the one that Spud had been riding. The Just a few feet away, he saw Jake’s black BMX lying next to a granite boulder twice the size of Ryan. Looking around, he saw an opening at the base of the bridge’s arch on one side. The opening was partially concealed by a pile of rocks leaving only an opening small enough to look through and nothing more. There were drag marks leading towards it, the kind left behind by a body being dragged. Fearing the worst, Ryan ran over to the pile of rocks and peered through the small opening.
The opening led into a small cave. Jake was lying inside, he looked uninjured but he wasn’t moving and didn’t respond when Ryan called out his name. In the darkness at the back, he could see Spud who appeared to be in the same condition as Jake. Carefully, Ryan began to push the rocks away from the opening until it was big enough for him to crawl through. The roof was low and Ryan had to shrug off his rucksack in order to move around inside.
To Ryan’s relief, Jake was breathing and in fact appeared to be nothing more than fast asleep. However, despite his best efforts, Ryan was unable to wake either of them. As he shook Jake, gripping the boy’s shoulders, his hand tingled slightly. Holding his hand up to his face, he saw something on the skin glistening in the light from the opening. Fine grains of green dust like silica sand coated the palm of his hand. Looking across at his two friends, he could see that their faces and upper part of their bodies were similar coated in the green dust. Cautiously, he sniffed his palm and immediately, he felt light-headed and tired. There was a buzzing in his ear and grey static began to encroach on his vision as if he had stood up suddenly after lying down. He could feel himself beginning to fall asleep so he stumbled out the opening towards the river. Splashing himself with the cold water, he washed the powder of his hand, and for good measure, dunked his head under the water to wake himself up. “At least I know now why I can’t wake them,” he said to himself as he pulled his hoodie up over his mouth and nose forming a makeshift mask.
Ryan climbed back into the alcove and slowly dragged Jack and Spud through the opening into the open air, taking extra care to make sure that he didn’t knock their heads on the rocks on the way out. He carefully brushed the dust off Jake and Spud using the sleeve of his hoodie ensuring that he didn’t breathe the dust in or let any of it settle on him. Finally, he took the half-empty bottle of water clipped to a belt loop and upended its contents over Jake and Spud.
Spud spluttered and coughed as he awoke. Jake’s eyes fluttered and he groaned. “Why am I all wet?” He asked squinting up at Ryan. “Please tell me I’m not naked again.”
Ryan was taken aback by Jake’s question. “Okay, the fact that you just asked me that is creepy enough that I don’t want to know what happened the last time you woke up wet and naked.”
“Ryan?” Spud asked sitting up and looking around in confusion. “I thought you weren’t coming?”
“Erm, guys, its Sunday.”
“What!” Jake said bolting upright.
“It’s just gone half eleven on Sunday morning. Your dad and your mum,” he said pointing to Jake and Spud in turn, “are going up the wall since you didn’t come home last night.”
“Christ,” Spud muttered as Ryan helped him up, “my mum’s gonna kill me.”
“Never mind that,” Jake suddenly said, “we gotta be at the sports ground by twelve fifteen or we’ll miss the game.”
Ryan rolled his eyes as he walked the pair over to their bikes, eager to get them both out of here. Nothing about this situation seemed right and he could sense that something was very wrong. Jake and Spud mounted their bikes. Jake looked back at Ryan who was hanging behind.
“Hey, hop on. I’ll give you a backsie back into town,” Jake offered.
“Erm thanks, but I kinda gotta take the coastal path home,” Ryan explained, grinning with embarrassment, “I met Boris at the bike track and I kinda pissed him off something chronic.”
Jake slapped his forehead, “Jeeze Ryan, can’t you go five minutes without picking a fight.”
“Jake c’mon,” Spud said, “If we’re late for the game, coach’ll kill us.”
Ryan waved as Jake and Spud rode off while he set off towards the path that ran along the coastline. He only got a few steps before he realised that he had left his rucksack back in the cave. Cursing himself, he ran back to the cave and retrieved it. Standing at the opening, slipping on the shoulder straps and fastening the chest buckle, he looked around the valley and slowly became aware that something wasn’t quite right. It took him a few seconds as he slowly walked away from the bridge before he realised what it was. The granite boulder that Jake’s bike had lain next to was gone. “What the fuck, that rock must have weighed two or three tons easy,” he said in alarm. “There’s no way a rock that size just upped and walked away.”
“Unless,” a deep and rumbling voice said from behind him, “it’s got legs and it’s not a rock.” Ryan slowly turned around, his heart racing. Standing on the bridge and towering over the boy was a huge creature, nine foot tall with grey skin. Its rubbery hide had a mottled texture that even up close resembled granite. Long, ungainly arms ended in huge clawed hands. The creature used one of its claws to pick at its teeth as its piercing grey eyes stared at Ryan hungrily. Ryan began to slowly back away, gulping in fear as the creature licked its lips.
“So, um, I’m gonna, er, just get going, ok?” Ryan stammered.
The creature leapt off the bridge, sailing over Ryan’s head hitting the ground behind him with a thump and causing it to shake. Blocking the path, it bent down and looked at the boy who stumbled back in surprise. “Oh I think it’s too late for that, you let my dinner escape.” It looked at Ryan like a butcher appraising an animal being lead to slaughter. “You’re a bit scrawny, not much meat on them bones, but you’ll have to do.”
Ryan’s heart seemed to stop as heard the creature’s words. “Yeah, I had a feeling you were going to say something like that.” Without waiting for a response, the boy turned and ran, his legs and arms pumping furiously. He scooted under the bridge, passed the opening and emerged from under the other side still running. Behind him, he heard the creature grunt followed by a strange whistling noise. A boulder, six feet across, slammed into the ground in front of Ryan, narrowly missing him. Unable to stop in time, Ryan collided with the boulder and fell to the floor winded. Thundering footsteps accompanied the creatures approach as it leapt over the bridge and strode towards the boy. It suddenly inhaled sharply and breathed out a cloud of green mist. Realising that this was probably the source of the green dust that had made Jake and Spud fall asleep, Ryan scrambled out of its path as the cloud dissipated.
“Stop running,” the creature growled, “all this exertion and stress is going to spoil the taste of the meat.”
“I’m not a cheeseburger with legs,” Ryan yelled darting around the boulder. The creature lashed out with its huge fist but Ryan saw it coming. He ducked under the swing and the fist smashed into the boulder, shattering it. Fragments of stone showered Ryan, the shards cutting the skin on the side of his face. Clutching the side of his face, Ryan snarled and leapt at the creature, landing on its outstretched arm and running up it towards the head. He was poised to strike, ready to deal a vicious kick to the face, when the creature shook its arm, throwing him off. Lying on his back, Ryan thought to himself “yeah, like the same trick ever works twice.” He looked up to see the creature standing over him. It raised its foot to stamp down on his face but he rolled to the side at the last minute and the foot stamped into the earth just a few inches from his head. Seizing the opportunity, Ryan twisted around and kicked at the creature’s legs. With its feet swept out from under it, the creature crumpled to the floor. Realising that there was no way that he could fight the creature; Ryan sprang to his feet in an attempt to run. As he got up, the creature’s arm reached out and slammed him in the chest. He was sent flying through the air, landing roughly on his back just in front of the bridge. As he landed, he heard something break and he silently prayed that whatever it was, that it wasn’t part of him. Quickly, he got back up and started running clutching his chest. He was heading for the coastal path, hoping that it would be too narrow and steep for the creature. Boulders and rocks rained down on either side of him, many of them shattering on impact and showering him with fragments. Soon, he was out of the valley and running along the coastal path to safety.
After several minutes of running, he stumbled to the floor panting heavily. He lifted up the front of his hoodie and looked at the red mark across his chest. “It’s a wonder I’ve got any intact ribs left,” he muttered. Groaning slightly, he picked himself up off the floor and began to walk slowly back to town.
Susan looked up from the magazine as the front door opened and Ryan limped in, closing the front door behind him. She gasped as she saw the state the boy was in, “Ryan, what happened? You’re filthy and your face is bleeding.”
Ryan wiped the side of his face with the back of his hand. Some of the cuts were still leaking a small amount of blood. He held up his skateboard showing Susan the broken front wheel. “My board hit a rut in the pavement and I took a spill,” he explained, hoping that Susan would believe him.
“How many times have I asked you,” she said dragging him into the kitchen, “to wear pads or protective equipment.” Susan pushed him into a kitchen chair and took a first aid kit from one of the cupboards. “I swear, one of these days you’re going to fall and break your neck.”
“Honestly, it’s not as bad as it looks. There’s no need to make a fuss,” he said getting out of the chair. Susan pushed him back down onto the chair.
“Hold still and let me clean the dirt out of those cuts.” She took an antiseptic wipe from the first aid kit and started cleaning the cuts on his face. Ryan hissed as the cuts stung under the assault of the antiseptic solution. “Stop fidgeting,” she said as she held on to the squirming boy, faintly amused at his obvious discomfort. Finally, she applied a plaster to the side of his cheek, covering the cuts. “There, now get upstairs young man and get out of those filthy clothes.” Ryan muttered under his breath as he walked up the stairs. His foster mother had enjoyed that a little too much. On the other hand, it was nice to be fussed over occasionally.
Once in his room, he quickly swapped the dirty clothes for fresh ones, dumping the dirty clothes in the wash basket. After a quick wash, he snuck a sly glance down the stairs. Anthony was still puttering around in the garden, Susan was in the kitchen and Trey was nowhere to be seen. He retreated to his bedroom and retrieved the leather bound book from its hiding place. A handful of handwritten notes were stuffed between the pages; translations of a number of important sections and a rudimentary index. “Let’s see,” Ryan said to himself as he flicked through his notes, “big, mean, very ugly, lives near an old bridge and likes to eat children? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’re a troll.” Finding the reference in his notes that he was looking for, he opened the book to the right page and starting reading the Latin text. There wasn’t much information in the book on trolls, what information it did contain was vague at best. It only took a few minutes to read the section and he was none the wiser. The only thing he learned was that trolls appeared to have a weakness against goats. Exactly what that meant wasn’t clear. Did it mean they were scared of them, allergic to their fur or that they simply couldn’t resist eating them?
Ryan spent most of the day trying to come up with a plan. He couldn’t just forget about what had happened. Wherever that troll had come from, it was here now and as long as it was around, it would continue to be a threat. The next person who encounters it might not be so lucky. He was so preoccupied that he barely acknowledged anyone at dinner that evening, grunting only the most basic of answers to any questions. At some point while pushing peas around on his plate, he made a decision. Trolls were weak against goats. That much was certain as far as the book was concerned. The only to find out what that meant was by experimentation, and Ryan had always been very good at science.
Making sure the spare pillows were convincingly stuffed under the blankets, Ryan couldn’t help but smile at the juvenile nature of the act. He knew that it would only pass a cursory inspection but he was only going planning to be gone for a few hours. Still, he paused as he thought about what he was about to do. The plan was deceptively simple. Wait until nightfall, sneak out of the house and make his way to the farm by the bridge, “borrow” the goat from the field and see what happens when he points it at the troll. Simple, but illegal. If he was caught with the goat, he’d not only be in trouble with the police, but he could imagine what the jokes would be like at school.
In preparation for his nighttime excursion, he had dug out all his all-black clothes had dressed head-to-toe in black “urban ninja” gear. He had even raided Anthony’s shed for a pair of bolt cutters and some rope, putting them in his rucksack along with his skate helmet and pads. After the earlier encounter with the troll, he decided that the little extra protection provided by the pads and helmet was probably worth it.
He picked up the now-fixed skateboard, pulled on his gloves and opened the window. As he climbed onto the desk, he was stopped as Trey rolled over and looked at him. “Where are you going?” He asked sleepily, the moonlight coming in through the window reflecting off his eyes. Ryan turned, still crouching on the desk, and looked across the room at him.
“I’ve er, got some stuff I need to do,” he tried to explain.
“You’re coming back, right?” Trey asked sitting up slightly.
“Of course I am,” he said quietly, “I’m only gonna be a couple of hours.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Trey who lay back down and fell asleep again. Breathing a sigh of relief, Ryan shouldered his rucksack and climbed through the window.
The night air was cold and still. It had just gone midnight as he quickly made his way across the town. There were only a few people out at this time of night, but even so, Ryan kept to the shadows and back streets for as much as possible. The fewer people that saw him, the less chance there would be that he might find himself having to answer awkward questions later.
Eventually he found himself standing on top of the burial mound, the lights of the town behind him and only the darkness of the countryside in front. He looked up at the night sky. Out here, away from the streetlights, he was surprised by just how bright the stars were. “Enough sight-seeing,” he said to himself, “you’ve gotta job to do.”
It didn’t take him long to jog down the dark path, passing the empty bike track, and arriving at the gate to the farm. It was a back entrance, hidden from the main farm buildings by a large shed and locked with a padlock and chain. Ryan carefully approached the gate. He could see the goat lying down and tethered to a post in the farmyard. There were no lights on in the farmhouse but one of the upper windows was open. From its size and position, Ryan guessed that it was a bedroom window. To avoid waking the farmer, who knowing Ryan’s luck would be the type to own a shotgun, he’d have to be quick and quiet. Taking the bolt cutters out his bag, he cut through the chain and slowly opened the gate. Luck was on his side as the hinges were well oiled and the gate didn’t creak as he opened it.
He approached the goat cautiously, not wanting to spook the creature. The goat lifted its head and watched him warily. “Easy there girl,” he said softly, hoping that the goat was a female, “I’m not gonna hurt you, I just want to use you for a science experiment.” He took a carrot from his pocket and offered it to the goat in an attempt to gain its trust. As the goat munched on the carrot, he quickly took the flick knife from another pocket and cut through the rope. The gloat bleated loudly as he started to lead it towards the back gate. “Shush,” Ryan whispered, “here, have another carrot.”
Ryan led the goat through the gate and on down the path. Shortly, the path began to dip down into the valley with the old bridge and the troll. Here, the stillness and silence of the night unnerved Ryan. The scattered boulders were like shattered sentries forlornly guarding some ancient den. Bleating nervously, the goat seemed to agree with him.
Gathering his courage, Ryan strode down into the valley leading the goat by the rope. “Alright stinky,” he yelled loudly, “come on out. I got a present for you.” There was no answer. “What’s the matter? You’re not scared of a kid are ya?”
There was a rumbling to his left like a deep-throated growl. One of the boulders began to shudder and as Ryan watched; shallow bumps and ridges become more defined as they morphed into limbs and a head. Within seconds, what had appeared to be a perfectly normal lump of rock became a nine-foot tall troll. “Scared, of a foolish little boy that did not have the sense to not return?” It roared angrily, emphasising the word little. “I would have thought that after our first meeting boy, you would have run home to mother thankful that all you received was…” It never got a chance to finish its sentence as the goat rushed forward, tearing the rope from Ryan’s hands. The goat reared up on its hind legs, bleating aggressively at the troll. Despite its greater size and its more ferocious appearance, the troll reeled back in terror, its hands in front of it as if warding off some great evil. Stumbling backwards, the troll didn’t notice the boulder as he back into it and fell over. The goat leapt at the flailing troll, landing on its chest. Almost as soon as its hooves had touched the troll’s skin, the troll began to shake and quiver. Screaming, the troll’s flesh began to crack apart and dissolve into gravel. Ryan winced and turned away as the troll writhed and screamed in obvious agony. In just fifteen seconds, it was all over. The goat was left standing, looking slightly confused, in a pile of granite gravel. Scratching his head, he approached the goat and picked up the rope.
“Okay, I guess when it said weakness, it meant as in kryptonite.”
Ryan quickly returned the goat to the farm, leaving the goat tied to the back gate. He patted the goat on the head. “Good job girl, but let’s keep this between the two of us, agreed?” The goat bleated.
He headed back to town, acutely conscious of the fact that morning was rapidly approaching. In a little over 8 hours, he was supposed to be at school. If he didn’t get any sleep, he’d probably end up falling asleep during English again. It was with this in mind that he rushed through the deserted streets. As he jogged down the narrow, hedge-lined alley that ran between the main road and Candlewick Close, he was startled when a gang of masked youths charged into the alley ahead of him. Yelling obscenities, they barged past him, shoving him into the hedge before disappearing around the corner. Just moments later, a police officer ran around the corner into the alley, apparently chasing the youths. He slowed down as he approached Ryan, studying the boy trying to determine if was with the youths he was chasing. Luckily, for Ryan, the officer decided otherwise.
“You alright son?” He said running past.
“I’m alright.” Ryan pulled himself out of the hedge and dusted himself off. “It was Boris,” he said having recognised one of the voices, “he and the others went left.”
“Thanks,” the officer said as he reached the end of the alley and spoke into his radio directing another officer to the scene. “You should get home, it’s a school night.”
True to his word, Anthony had kept what Ryan had told him a secret. Although he did manage to convince Ryan that Susan at least should be told. Afterwards, Ryan had been symbolically grounded for a week. He wasn’t really being punished; he just had to have the appearance of being punished for Trey’s sake. Eventually things returned to normal, both at home and at school. The only thing that changed was that the whole experience had strengthened the relationship between Ryan and his foster parents. He had even taken the step of telling Jake an edited and sanitised version of what had happened to his family. For Ryan, finally telling someone the whole truth of what had happened had been a release, lifting something that had been weighing down on him for over four years. For the first time since that night, Ryan felt genuinely happy and could almost forget about his brother.
It was a dismal May morning nearly a month later as Ryan boarded the school boat for the trip across the bay. The water was choppy and Ryan hung over the side of the boat feeling queasy. It didn’t help that Jake was playfully tormenting him with a greasy bacon balm. The ten-minute boat ride felt like hours and he was glad when they finally arrived at the island and he was able to walk on solid ground once again. When they disembarked, the clouds started spitting rain and as the morning progressed, the weather steadily deteriorated. During the first period, instead of listening to the oral presentations in his history class, Ryan found himself looking out of the window at the dark clouds that hung dramatically low over the island.
“So while the Cornish Wreckers are largely considered a myth,” Celeste said as she stood at the front of the class, “there WAS an incident involving a suspicious shipwreck in 1689.”
“Ryan!” Mr Willis snapped as he threw a balled up piece of scrap paper at the boy. “Pay attention. Please continue Celeste.”
“A ship, heavily damaged, washed up on the shore of St Piran’s Island. Only one person, the captain, survived. The story told is that he ranted and raved about a doom coming to the town. That night, the lord’s only son, who had only just turned fourteen, was murdered. The captain, so the story says, was found dead the next morning, drowned in the highest room of the house.”
As she sat down, someone at the back of the class called out “woo, spooky.” Laughter rippled across the classroom.
“Alright nine B, settle down. Thank you for the … er … ‘informative’ presentation Celeste. Thomas, you’re up the next.”
At eleven o’clock, a special assembly was called and the 400 odd upper and junior students were crammed into the small assembly hall. They were told that the weather forecast for the afternoon had worsened, an unexpected storm was growing in the English Channel and it was expected to hit the Cornish coast sometime in the next few hours. As a precaution, the school would be closing early. Junior students would be going home first following the assembly; upper students would follow after lunch. There was a mixture of groans and cheers at the announcement.
“Are we being evacuated or something?” Ryan nervously asked one of his classmates as they filed out of the assembly hall.
“Nah,” Ben said, “this happens a couple of times a year.”
“Seriously?” Ben was a few months younger than Ryan and a good few inches shorter. He had an unruly crop of blond hair that seemed perpetually windswept underneath his bandana head wrap, even indoors. Three weeks ago, the teacher had moved Ben next to Ryan in order to help him with his maths, not that Ryan really needed the help. At first, it had been awkward but eventually the two boys started talking and Ryan had found himself inexorably drawn in to Ben’s circle of friends.
“When the weather get’s bad, they just close the school for the day. It’s kinda like a snow day but without the snow.” Explained Tommy, another of Ryan’s classmates and one of Ben’s friends. “You’ll get used to it.” They returned to what remained of the morning lessons eager to finish school early, although some of the children, Ryan included, were not looking forward to the rough boat ride ahead.
By lunchtime, the sea around St Piran’s Island had become very rough indeed; too rough in fact for the school’s boats to make the trip safely. A very brave teacher was selected to stand up in front of 120 teenagers from years 9, 10 and 11 and tell them that because of the conditions, further trips back to the mainland were postponed until tomorrow. They would be spending the night. The teacher was lucky that there wasn’t a riot when he told them that they would be spending part of their Saturday morning at the school.
The rest of the day passed excruciatingly slowly. Instead of wasting the afternoon, the children were kept busy with their normal afternoon lessons while the rest of staff prepared the sleeping areas. They brought the camp beds out of storage; setting them up in the gym, the assembly hall, the canteen and some of the classrooms. Although an extremely rare occurrence, being cut off from the mainland was a situation that the school was prepared for.
Outside, the strong winds and driving rain swept across the island, rattling the windows. As evening closed in, the children were assigned their sleeping areas. Most of the students were assigned either the assembly hall or canteen in the old manor house. With the need to separate the boys from the girls, there was inevitably some overspill. A small number of students had to be found alternative sleeping arrangements.
The 18th century manor house was the original home of the family that had donated the island to the community. Apart from the assembly hall and the canteen, the house was mainly used for staff purposes; the school having long outgrown the listed building’s original facilities and expanding into purpose built structures around the grounds. The first floor and the attic of the house were normally out of bounds to students but with sleeping space at a premium, four students were forced to use the attic. Ryan; along Ben, Tommy and Tommy’s cousin Jason, were the four lucky “volunteers.”
The boys followed the teacher up the stairs and into the attic. They expected to see a dusty and cobweb ridden attic, but when the light was switched on, they were surprised to see that the room was relatively clean and tidy. Even if the air was a little stuffy from being sealed for an extended period. The attic was decorated with plain pine panelling and looked like it had been converted for use as an office but for some reason had never been furnished or used. Along one side of the roof ran a large skylight that gave a spectacular view of the storm wracked seaward coast of the island.
“So,” Ryan said as he looked out of the window, “if the school get’s struck by lightning, we’ll be the first to get fried then, being in the roof.”
“I’m sure the school is well insulated,” The teacher said as she helped Ben with his camp bed.
Ryan turned his back on the window and looked for a spot to set his camp bed up. “Yeah, but are we?”
“Don’t mind him miss,” Ben said, “he’s just nervous that we’re gonna get stuck here over the weekend and that he’s going to be forced to do extra maths homework.”
“Heh,” laughed Tommy from across the room, “he faced down three knife wielding thugs singlehanded but he’s scared of a little algebra and lightning.” Not long after he had returned to Cliffport, the incident in Truro had made the local papers and since then, he’d been teased about it mercilessly.
“Shut it,” Ryan said jokingly as he threw a pillow across the room at Tommy, “or I’ll get you and make it look like Jason did it.”
“Hey, leave me out of this.”
Night closed in rapidly, cloaking the island in darkness. Ben, who’d always been fascinated by stormy weather, was sat at the window watching the rain. “Hey guys,” he said, “there’s something you should see.”
“Go to bed Ben, some of us are trying to get some sleep,” someone said in a muffled voice.
“No seriously,” he said getting to his feet and pressing against the glass, “you really have to see this.” He was joined at the window by Ryan, yawning as he peered out into the night. “There’s a ghost ship washed up on the beach.”
“Yeah right,” Jason said disbelievingly, “how do you know it’s a ghost ship?” Jason didn’t believe for a minute that Ben had seen a ship wrecked on the beach, ghostly or otherwise.
Ryan stepped back from the window and looked at Jason and Tommy with an expression of astonishment on his face. “Because you can see right through it!”
“No way,” Tommy and Jason said unison as they got up and ran to the window. There, driven on to the beach, was double-mast sailing ship. It’s ripped and ragged sails flapping in the wind as the rain swept across the deck. Just as Ryan had said, if you looked carefully you could see the surf on the far side through the ship’s translucent hull.
Ben pulled on his boots and began to put on his coat. “Where are you going?” asked Jason.
“Where do you think,” Ben answered stopping at the stairs down from attic, “I’m gonna check it out.”
“But it’s pissing it down!” Jason said.
Ryan turned his back on the window, sat down and started pulling on his shoes. “Not you too?” Tommy asked.
“I’m not letting him go out alone in this storm,” Ryan said as he pulled on his coat and joined Ben at the stairs. He turned to face the two boys still at the window with a mischievous grin. “Besides, there’s an actual, real live ghost pirate ship on the beach!”
“How do you know it’s a pirate ship?” asked Ben. Ryan just shrugged in response.
Tommy and Jason exchanged a look, both rolling their eyes, grabbed their own coats. “If you two are going then we’re not going to get left behind.”
“What’s the matter Tommy,” Ryan asked playfully remembering the other boy’s earlier jibe, “scared of being left alone in the dark and spooky attic?”
Slowly, the four boys crept down the stairs, speaking in hushed whispers. Listening carefully, they waited a few seconds to make sure that no teachers were on the prowl and they made their way to the main staircase and out of the building.
The wind and rain had eased slightly but they were still soaked by the time they reached the fence at the back of the school. The seaward side of the island was out of bounds for various reasons and a fence ran between it and the school. However, generations of schoolchildren had found their way beyond the fence, either climbing over it of squeezing through gaps or holes. Ben clambered through one of the holes in the fence and led the others towards a path. The path wound down the steep back of the island and rounded a pile of rocks before opening onto the beach.
Lying lengthways along the beach was the ship. From the closer vantage point, the ship appeared more real even through its translucency was more apparent. A gaping hole had been gouged in the side facing the beach, some of its cargo spilling onto the sand.
“So,” Ryan said as he looked at the ship in wide-eyed wonder, “are we really looking at an actual ghost ship, washed up during a mysterious storm.”
“Yep,” Jason said, “do you reckon we can get on board?”
“Only one way to find out,” said Ben as he set off running down the beach towards the ship.
Jason, Ryan and Tommy only hesitated for a second before following Ben. They stood together at the hole, staring into the darkness of the cargo hold. Now they were standing next to it, a shiver ran down Ben’s spine. “Maybe,” the boy thought to himself suddenly, “this isn’t such a good idea.” Before he could voice his concerns, Ryan had clambered up the spilled cargo and pulled himself into the hold, Tommy and Jason following soon after.
Wide-eyed with wonder, the boys walked around the hold. Tommy picked up a cutlass and began waving it around, pretending to be a pirate. Jason ducked under one of the boy’s wild swings, cursing as he did so. Another couple of inches lower and the rusted blade would have hit him in the face. As the two boys argued, Ryan knelt in front of one of the barrels. Curious, he ran his hand along the wooden surface of the barrel. He pushed hard against the wood and his hand slowly passed through it. His hand tingled, goose bumps spread up his arm and it felt like he was pushing his hand through a thick, sticky paste. Ben suddenly gasped and pointed towards the stairs leading to the deck. Ryan quickly pulled his hand out of the barrel, half-disappointed that it wasn’t covered in ectoplasm, and looked at where Ben was pointing.
Standing halfway down the stairs was a man dressed in the clothing of a 17th century sailor. Like the ship, he was translucent. The ghost took an unsteady step down the stairs. Ryan stood next to Ben and looked up at the ghost in amazement. “Dude, there is a ghost pirate on a ghost ship. This is frickin’ awesome. Why did I not bring a camera?”
The ghost took another faltering step down the stairs and raised a hand towards Ryan and Ben. “They have returned,” it said in a gurgling voice as water bubbled out of its mouth. A gust of wind blew in through the hole in the side of the ship, shredding the ghost like a cloud of smoke. The remaining wisps of its essence were sucked up the stairs by the wind and onto the deck. Running up the stairs, the four boys emerged on the deck. There was no sign of the ghost. Ryan leaned over the seaward side railings, looking down into the swirling seawater. At first, all he saw was the black water as it washed up against the side of the ship, but after a few seconds, he noticed a pair of pale yellow eyes looking back up at him. Ryan stumbled back away from the railing bumping into Ben who had been standing just behind him.
“Hey, be careful Ryan,” he said, “the deck’s slippery.” Ben saw Ryan’s fearful expression. “What’s wrong?” Ryan found that he was unable to speak and just pointed at the railing. The other boy went over to the railing where Ryan had been standing and looked over. He too saw the yellow eyes looking up out of the water. The eyes blinked as Ben leaned over the side and an arm reached out and grabbed the side of the boat. It was green, covered in scales and slime with webbed fingers and a large aquatic fin along its forearm. Whatever the arm belonged to began to pull itself up the side of the ship.
“I think we should get out of here,” Ryan said pulling Ben away from the railing.
“I agree.” Ryan and Ben ran towards the stairs, grabbing Tommy and Jason on the way.
“What’s the hurry?” Jason asked as Ryan pushed him towards the stairs.
Ben glanced back towards the railing. “We’re leaving.”
A hand appeared over the side of the railing; its claws splintering the wood as it gripped it. “That’s why!” Yelled Ryan pointing at the claw. “Now move your ass before I kick it.” Half falling down the stairs into the cargo hold, the boys fled the ship, hitting the waterlogged beach running. They ran across the sand knowing that it was more than just the wind and the rain that was at their backs. Ben stumbled in the darkness, sprawling flat on the wet sand. As he ran past, Ryan dragged the smaller boy to his feet and they continued running. “I ‘aint leaving you behind buddy.” They ran to a small ridge of sand topped with rocks that ran along the top of the beach and skidded down its backside coming to a rest in a tangled pile of limbs.
Ryan crawled up the sand dune and poked his head over the top of the ridge, looking out towards the ship. A figure appeared at the railing above the hole in the side of the ship. It was massive, nearly seven foot in height and its pale yellow eyes glowed in the darkness. Only when the lightning flashed could Ryan see the gills, fangs, scales and fins of its true form. Its eyes swept across the beach as if looking for someone or something, its nostrils flared as it sniffed the air.
“What’s going on?” A female voice said from behind them. Ryan span around and saw Celeste standing behind them and looking at the group with a quizzical expression.
Ben grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her to the ground. “We’re hiding from that,” he hissed pointing at the creature. “What are you doing out here?”
“Same thing as you,” she answered peering over the top of the ridge, “oh, and it’s coming this way.”
“Crap, we’re fish food,” Ryan muttered. Jason and Tommy started to panic as Ben tried to calm them down. He glanced over at Celeste. The girl was looking at him as if waiting for him to do something. “Ok, there’s only one of them. Tommy and Jason, you go that way. Ben, Celeste and myself will go the other. We’ll circle round the island and try to lose it. Agreed?”
“Split up, isn’t that usually a bad idea?” Tommy asked.
“He can only follow one group giving the other a chance to get away.” With the creature getting nearer, the others did not need much encouragement. On the count of three, Tommy and Jason tore off down the beach in one direction and Ryan and the others ran in the opposite.
The creature didn’t hesitate, setting off in pursuit of the larger group. Ryan cursed his luck when he saw that the creature was chasing them. They eventually ran out of beach, the sand coming to an abrupt end as a rocky spur jutted out from the cliffs into the sea.
Ryan was the first to rocks, vaulting on to them in a single leap before turning and holding a hand out for Celeste. As he pulled Celeste up on to the rocks, Ben leapt up. The rocks were slick with rainwater and Ben slipped, falling back on to the sand. He landed on his back, hitting his head on a stone. As Ben yelped in pain and held the back of his head, the creature caught up them, standing over the boy lunging downwards to attack him. Without a moment’s thought, Ryan jumped off the rocks towards the creature. With both feet together, he struck the creature’s chest sending it sprawling to the ground. As it lay dazed, he helped Ben to his feet and pushed him up the side of the rocks. “Christ Ben, I thought being on the rugby team meant you were supposed to be good at running and avoiding tackles.”
“Shut up,” Ben said as the jumped down the other side and caught up with Celeste, “my opponents are usually less than six feet high and only want to take the ball off me, not kill me.”
They ran down a small path that ran along the foot of the cliffs. On one side rose the steep rock face, on the other a 6-foot drop into the sea. The only thing separating the path from the waves was a metal railing. Thankfully for them, the wind had died down otherwise they would have been swamped by storm driven waves. Ryan chanced a glance behind him. Whatever that creature was, there was no sign of it. Its absence unnerved the boy. Something told him that it wasn’t going to give up so easily.
Ben and Celeste stopped as they rounded a corner, leaning against the rocks catching their breaths.
“At least we know what’s going to cause all those dolphins to beach themselves,” Celeste said between pants.
“What did you just say?” Ryan asked, unsure whether he had actually heard what he had just heard.
“I said, at least we know what caused those dolphins to beach themselves.”
The cliff here was not as steep, more a scree slope than a vertical wall. Ben looked at the path then at the slope. With the path so close to the water, he suddenly felt uncomfortable knowing that an aquatic monster was chasing them. The boy started climbing the slope, heading for the small plateau at the top of the hill, which gently sloped down towards the back of the school. He was quickly followed by Celeste and then Ryan. As Ryan headed for the slope, he heard a splash behind him. Turning, he saw the creature land on the path after leaping from the water. Glancing over his shoulder at his two friends, he had just enough time to scream “Run” before the creature struck him. Its arm slammed into his chest, sending him flying through the air and knocking him out of the way. Ryan’s back hit the metal railing and he slid over the top. At the last second, he managed to grab it and he was left hanging over the side, his feet dangling in the cold seawater. The creature’s blow had left him winded, and took him a few seconds to recover. He looked up as Celeste screamed, the creature was charging up the slope towards her and Ben.
Grunting, Ryan pulled himself back on to the path. He gritted his teeth as a stab of pain rippled across his chest; he knew that he’d have a bruise there tomorrow morning. Running up the slope, he saw Celeste dodge to the side avoiding the creature’s expected attack. The attack never came however, it surged pass Celeste heading for Ben. “Ben,” Ryan yelled, “watch out!” The smaller boy turned and faced the creature, his fasts balled ready to throw a punch. He lashed out at the creature but the punch failed to connect. Ryan could only watch as the creature grabbed Ben’s fist mid-swing and squeezed it as it snarled. Ben was forced to his knees, screaming in pain. As Ryan struggled up the slope, the creature picked up Ben and slung the kicking and screaming boy over its shoulder. It turned, and started making its way back down the slope towards the sea. Seeing this, Ryan forced himself up the slope, his feet digging into the gravel. The creature swung its arm out in an attempt to knock him aside but this time Ryan was ready for it. He ducked under the arm and slammed himself into the creature’s legs. It fell back, dropping Ben. The loose gravel beneath their feet slipped and the three of them tumbled down the slope. Celeste reached out and grabbed Ben as he slid past but Ryan was too far away. He rolled all the way to the bottom, coming to a rest against the railings, the back of his head smacking the metal pole.
Celeste looked down the slope and saw that the creature had already stood up. It was moving towards Ryan, its claws extended. The boy was slumped against the railings and he didn’t appear to be moving. As the creature approached him, she realised that he wasn’t conscious. She screamed at the top of her lungs for him to wake up.
Everything was blurring around Ryan as he struggled to remain awake. Ryan could feel himself slipping away and as hard as he fought against it, he seemed unable to slow his slide into unconsciousness. He was ready to succumb to the darkness when the sound of his name being screamed lanced through his consciousness, waking him. His eyes snapped open and he saw the creature standing over him, its massive fists raised and ready to smash down on his face. With a yelp, he rolled to the side, the fists narrowly missing his head and instead buckling the metal railings. Ryan scrambled to his feet and as the creature turned to face him again, he punched it in the side of the chest. The creature hissed as the punch connected but showed no sign that it had been hurt be the blow. It struck out at the Ryan who dodged backwards, the claws slicing the air just inches in front of Ryan’s face. He punched the creature again, skinning his knuckles on its rough skin. Again, he hit the chest area and again, the creature showed no sign of being injured. This time however, Ryan could feel cartilaginous plates lying beneath its skin, almost like natural body armour. There was no way he’d be able to hurt the creature by attacking its chest. The only attack option left to him was the head, but the creature was at least a foot and a half higher than he was. A thought popped into his head. It was a long shot, but it might just work.
Halfway up the slope, Ben watched as Ryan nimbly dodged the creature’s blows. Ryan seemed to be waiting for something but whatever that was, Ben was sure it wouldn’t work. The creature was just too big and too strong to take on alone. Ryan needed help. He started to scramble down the slope but was stopped when Celeste grabbed his wrist. “Wait,” the girl said.
“Wait,” she said with greater emphasis, “and watch.”
The moment that Ryan appeared to be waiting for seemed to come. They watched as their friend darted backwards several steps before running towards the creature. He jumped, his right foot landing on the lower rung of the metal railing to his right, followed by his left foot kicking off the upper rung. The boy launched himself at the creature, twisting and spinning through the air, his left foot lashing out in a vicious spin kick that struck the creature in the right side of the head. Even up the slope, Ben and Celeste could hear the crack of bone snapping as the creature crumpled to the floor. Ryan landed behind the creature’s body, panting heavily.
Ben looked at Ryan in amazement and turned to Celeste. “Did you know he could fight like that?”
“Yes,” she said lightly, “but he didn’t.”
Before Ben could respond, Ryan had joined them. “Let’s go,” he said hurriedly.
“Is it dead?” Ben asked.
“Dunno, but I ‘aint hanging round to find out.”
Climbing up the scree slope in the dark was hard enough but the path back down to the school was narrow and slick with rain. They took extra time on the treacherous path and it was a good twenty minutes before they were in sight of the school fence. Tommy and Jason were at the hole waiting for them. The cousins were relieved when they saw the group round the corner.
After making sure each other was ok, they climbed through the hole and slowly made their way back to the school. It turned out that sneaking out was far easier than sneaking in. Their way in was barred by the school principal and two other staff members. The children were ushered into the main building and they stood in a line, dripping wet, as the principal walked back and forth in front of them. Mr Winters stopped and rubbed his temples in annoyance.
“The five of you,” he said sternly, “in my office, tomorrow morning.” The boys were frog marched upstairs back to the attic while Celeste was taken back to the assembly hall.
The next morning, Principal Winters had been furious with them. They were each given a week of detention and told to write a 500-word report on the subject of “Why I thought it was necessary to endanger my life by going out in the middle of a storm.” All told, they had probably gotten off lightly. They were lucky, as the principal put it, that they weren’t all suspended on the spot. Duly chastised, they had joined the rest of the student body in the dining hall awaiting the boat back to the mainland.
They sat together at a table in the dining hall, none of them wanting to speak about last night events. Ryan was looking down at the table, seemingly studying the generations of names and dates scratched into the wood. He absent-mindedly traced the outline of some of the scratches with a biro as he thought about last night. Jason returned from the vending machine and put a can down in front of Ben. “Happy birthday dude,” he said sitting down next to him, “it ‘aint much but it’ll do until we escape this place.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, taking the drink, “I hope the boat comes soon, the last thing I want is to spend my birthday trapped the school.”
“Wait,” Ryan said abruptly, his attention suddenly focused on Ben, “today’s your birthday?”
“Yeah,” Ben answered.
“Your 14th birthday?”
“So, last night was the night you turned 14?”
“Christ,” Tommy whispered to his cousin loud enough for everyone to hear, “I know Ms Simmons said he needed help with his maths but I didn’t think he was this slow.”
Ryan ignored him. “That’s it, that’s the reason why it was after you.” His friends looked at confused. “I’ve been trying to figure out what that creature was after you,” he explained, “but I couldn’t work out why.”
“It’s called a deepling,” Celeste said interrupting, “there’s a couple of old Cornish legends about aquatic fish-men that live in the sea. They’re said to be the descendents of the inhabitants of the sunken kingdom of Lyonesse.”
There was several seconds of silence as the boys looked at Celeste, unsure what to think.
“Anyway,” Ryan continued, “why go after Ben? He’s just a normal regular kid, there’s nothing special about him.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, slightly miffed at being referred to as “nothing special.”
“When the ‘deepling’ first attacked I thought it went for Ben because he tripped and was the closest. But later, it knocked me out of the way, ignored Celeste and went right for Ben, picking him up. It only really attacked someone else when they got in the way.”
“You mean you.” Jason said.
“Yeah, and that ghost. When he pointed at us and said ‘they have returned’ it wasn’t pointing at us, it was pointing at Ben, warning him.”
“Yeah, but why me?” Ben asked, now thoroughly confused.
“Because last night was the night you turned 14. The same thing happened in 1689, when that ship ran aground.”
“What ship?” Tommy asked.
“The one in my oral history report, remember?” Celeste answered.
“But what’s that got to do with me?”
“Good question,” Tommy and Jason said together.
“I’ll show you, follow me.” Ryan led them out of the dining hall and into the foyer. On the wall by the main staircase was a large engraving depicting the Seymour-Conway family tree, the original owners of St Piran’s Island. “Look,” he said pointing at the tree, “in 1689 the 14-year-old son of Lord Conway died. Just like in Celeste’s story. Twenty-six years later, the 14-year-old son of the next lord died. Again, in 1754, 1796, 1797 and 1832 the sons of the local lord all died aged 14. I bet if you looked into the records, you’d find they all died on the night they turned 14.”
“I still don’t get what this has to do with me?”
“Ok, here in 1912, Melissa Seymour-Conway married a local man, Trevor Ford.”
“Wait, my great grandfather was called Trevor and my great grandmother was called Melissa,” Ben suddenly said.
“Right, two years later in 1916, Melissa’s younger brother died aged 14. Two years after that, her father died. Probably due to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Her mother never remarried and with her death in 1934, that meant that your great grandmother was the only surviving member of the Seymour-Conway family. According to his family tree anyway.”
“You mean,” Ben said as he slowly started to realise what Ryan was getting at.
“That you, Benjamin Ford, are a direct descendent of the family that originally owned this island. A family that was cursed for some reason so that all their sons would die if they spent their fourteenth birthday on the island.” Ryan folded his arms in smug triumph.
“Dude,” Jason said slapping Ben on the back, “it’s not every day that find out you’re descended from nobility and cursed to die a messy death all on the same day.”
“Oh come on,” Tommy said, “you’re not believing this crap are you?”
“I dunno, my grandfather said that his mum wouldn’t let him stay on the island as a kid and made him promise not send my dad to school here when he was a kid. Maybe this was the reason.”
As his friends talked, Ryan inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. At first, he had feared that the reason the creature had appeared was that it had been sent by his brother. He knew that his brother knew that he was now living in Cliffport, and after the incident with Trey, he knew that his brother knew how to use magic. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that Mark would be capable of summoning some monster to do his dirty work. When he had first realised that Ben had been the target of the creature and not him he’d been relieved. He felt a little guilty about that.
“So what happens now?” Ben asked.
“Now you go home,” Celeste said, “and enjoy the rest of your birthday.”
“Yeah, before the creepy fish men get you,” Tommy teased.
“Hey you lot,” a teacher called out as he came out of the dining hall, “boat’s here.” They went back to the rapidly emptying dining hall and grabbed their school bags.
The weather outside contrasted strongly with yesterdays. The grey clouds had dissipated, the morning sun was shining brightly and the boat ride home was quick and uneventful. Ryan noticed that Ben did not take his eyes of the water during the trip. He went over and leant against the railing next to him. “They won’t be coming for you again you know,” he whispered quietly.
“How do you know that?” Ben asked still staring into the water as the boat sliced its way across the bay.
“Whatever the reason, the curse only seemed to affect people when they turned 14. After last night, you should be safe.”
“Maybe,” Ben said, “but I’ll feel a lot safer when we get back to shore.” Ryan looked up from the water to the cliffs as the boat entered the harbour. The boat was passing a gap in the dry stone wall that ran along the cliff tops. Blocked by a temporary orange safety barrier, it was the one created by the car that had knocked him into the water two months ago. Looking at the seventy-foot drop into the water below, Ryan shivered as he remembered what had happened that day. “You’re not the only one.”
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.
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!”
“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.
“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.”