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An Update

Writing
Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.

An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.

Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.

After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.

These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself.  Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
University
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.

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Ryan’s Story – The Tattoo

Untitled-1The wind whipped at the sea, sending bursts of spray up onto the cliff-side path. Ryan pulled his coat tight trying to ward off the cold wind. He was supposed to be revising for his SATS exams that started on Monday but he had needed to get some fresh air after being cooped up in the house ever since getting out of hospital earlier in the week. That was what he had told Susan and Anthony, making up some story about having to return a library book in order to explain why he was taking his backpack with him. The truth was that Daniel had answered the message that Ryan had left on his voicemail, phoning him on Friday night to arrange a meeting. So here he was on a cold and windy Saturday morning, making his way towards the old lighthouse.

The lighthouse was on old granite and brick structure, constructed in the 18th century. It had served the small fishing port well into the 19th century until it was replaced by a sturdier structure out by the breakwater. That one itself was replaced by an automated electric lighthouse in the 1970’s. The original lighthouse remained as a local landmark, perched on a small plateau by the cliffs. As tourism had increased and started to replace Cliffport’s fishing fleet as the main source of employment, the lighthouse had become something of a tourist attraction. However, the Great Storm of ’87 almost put an end to that. The hurricane strength winds of that October night sheared the top off the structure; sending granite blocks, metal and glass tumbling into the raging sea below. All that was left was the hollow shell of the bottom half propped up from the inside by a latticework of supports. Shortly after coming to Cliffport, Ryan had noticed the sign outside the local church hall showing the total funds raised for the lighthouse’s restoration, a total that hadn’t seemed to have moved since the sign was put up two decades earlier.

As Ryan got to the end of the path leading up to the lighthouse, he heard the sound of barking from the path behind him. He turned and saw a small dog running up the path towards him. Ryan involuntarily took a step back as it ran up to him, its wild eyes startling him and reminding him for a brief second of the spectral hound that he had encountered nearly a month and a half ago. The dog ran around behind him and stopped, crouched on the floor whimpering. He was no expert, but even he could tell that the dog, an Alsatian crossbreed, was terrified of something. “What’s the matter boy?” Ryan asked as he stroked the dog’s fur gently. It’s black and brown coat was dirty and he wasn’t wearing a collar; Ryan guessed it was a stray. The dog perked up slightly as he spoke to it but shrank back down as Ryan heard voices down the path.

Boris and two other boys from school ran around the corner red faced and out of breath. The two boys were both carrying cricket bats, but Boris was armed with a knife. When the older boy saw Ryan standing in front of the cowering dog, he smiled. “Hey boys, looks like the mongrel’s found us another stray to play with.” Boris friends laughed as they spread themselves out in front of Ryan in a semi-circle.

Ryan’s eyes narrowed, having to deal with Boris was the last thing he wanted. “What’s the matter, bullying little kids at school not enough for you so you’ve decided to pick on defenceless animals now?”

“You and me, we got unfinished business,” Boris said glancing at his friends and waving his knife in Ryan’s direction. “But tell you what, give us the mutt and maybe we’ll let you walk out of this without breaking your legs.” His offer was greeted by derisive laughter by the other boys; Ryan had no illusion that the offer was genuine. He looked down at the dog behind him. Even if the offer had been genuine, he wasn’t about to hand the dog over to a bunch of thugs for them to torture.

“If you want this dog,” Ryan said surprising himself with how confident he sounded, “then you’ll have to come through me.” There was a glint in Boris’s eyes as he said this. Ryan realised that he’d probably made a huge mistake, the last thing he should have done is challenge Boris in front of his friends. The thug already had it in for him and after what had happened at school, he probably felt the need to prove himself. However, right at that moment, he was reminded of what he had said to Jake two months ago, “I ‘aint taking shit from any of you anymore.” He had meant what he had said back then, all those years of being someone’s punching bag were over. Even if it meant taking a beating, there was no way he was going to let this third-rate thug push him around

“You think I got a problem doing that retard?” Boris said as his friends laughed, “I mean, I heard you were a dumb shit but three against one, I thought even you’d be smarter than that.”

“I’ve taken on three knife-wielding thugs before and I still kicked their asses,” Ryan said cockily. He was also exaggerating slightly, only two of them had been armed and only one of them had actually been carrying a knife. “And the last time we fought Boris, I was half-zonked out by a stomach bug but I was still strong enough to put you on the floor.” The thug tightened his grip on the knife, silently fuming as Ryan spoke. Ryan reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the flick knife. He took a step forward and extended the blade. “Let me tell you something, three to one odds don’t mean that you outnumber me, it just means that I’ve got a target-rich environment.”

Boris’s body tensed, readying itself to charge forward and attack but was stopped when a new voice made itself heard. “Make that three against two.” Everyone turned towards the source of the voice. Ryan grinned confidently as he saw Daniel standing in the doorway, picking at the dirt underneath a fingernail with one of his knives.

“Who the hell are you?” Boris barked as Daniel walked over to stand beside Ryan. Suddenly Ryan didn’t look like such an easy target and Boris’s friends looked a little less sure about themselves. They looked between themselves and their ringleader nervously.

“I’m someone who thinks children shouldn’t play with knives or gang up on those younger than them,” Daniel said quietly, drawing his other knife and twirling them around in an impressive display of skill and finesse. “Unlike you kids, I know how to use these weapons so I suggest you leave before I have to show you what a real knife fighter can do.”

“Hey Boris,” one of the thug’s friends called out, “we can always get him at school next week.” The two sides stared at each other across the dirt for several tense seconds until Boris huffed and stepped back, relaxing the grip on his knife. He looked at Ryan with a grin on his face, although his eyes were anything but friendly.

“See you on Monday morning Henderson,” Boris said calmly, “maybe you won’t be so cocky without your boyfriend around to protect you.” With that, the thug turned and left.

Ryan watched as the boys left, not relaxing his stance until Boris had turned the corner out of sight. He dropped down into a crouch, his arms resting on his knees and laughing nervously, releasing the tension that he was feeling. The dog stood up and walked over to Ryan’s side, nuzzling against his knee as its tail wagged. Without thinking about it, Ryan reached down and scratched the back of the dog’s head affectionately. “It’s okay little fella, that jerk’s gone now.” Ryan looked over at Daniel to say thanks but stopped when he saw the look on the man’s face as he looked down at him. It was a look of disappointment. “What?”

“So you’re carrying a knife now?” Daniel said as he tucked his knives back into a pair of holsters inside his jacket.

Ryan stood up and laughed. “You’re one to talk, you carry two of them; both of them bigger than my forearms.”

Daniel crossed his arms. “That’s different, I…”

“What,” Ryan interrupted, his expression hardening and his face assuming an adolescent pout, “I’m not allowed to defend myself? After everything I’ve been through the last two months, I reckon I deserve the right to carry some protection.”

As Ryan spoke, Daniel saw that there was a confidence in him that had not been there before. When he had first tracked Ryan down nearly a year ago, he’d been a lonely young boy, barely willing to raise a fist in his own defence. All traces of that boy were gone now and there was a fire within him, perhaps a dangerous one. Along with his newfound confidence and courage, there was a short temper and a reckless streak a mile wide. He realised that Ryan had stopped talking and an awkward pause had settled over the two. “You’ve changed.” He finally said.

Ryan’s mouth opened, ready to give an angry response. Before he did, the boy’s expression softened and he looked down at the ground. He walked over to nearby bench facing the cliff edge and sat down, staring at the knife in his hand. “I’ve had to,” he said quietly. Daniel came over to the bench and sat down next to him.

“I guess so; just don’t forget who you are inside.” He put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. “You said you needed to talk.” Taking a deep breath Ryan told about what he had experienced when he “fell ill.” Listening carefully, Daniel only interrupted Ryan when he needed the boy to clarify some detail or another. After Ryan had finished speaking, Daniel leaned back on the bench and looked out to sea. “So what makes you think what you saw wasn’t just a fever-induced hallucination.”

Ryan tried to explain but he struggled to find the right words. “I remember,” he said eventually after several failed attempts, “spending my twelfth birthday hiding under my bed and barricaded in my bedroom because my foster parents at the time had come home from the pub drunk, again. But I also remember spending it paintballing with Mark and my dad before going out for a family meal; two years after he was supposed to have killed them. Plus, ¿cómo diablos puedo hablar español si nunca me lo han enseñado?”

“You what?” Daniel asked, not speaking a word of Spanish.

“I said, ‘how the hell can I speak Spanish even though I’ve never taken any lessons in it?’. The only languages I’ve learned in school are French and a bit of German. It was the other me, the one from my ‘hallucination’ that did three years of Spanish in high school. I don’t know what’s real anymore!”

Daniel whistled, “Listen, you’re not going crazy if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Ryan looked at him desperately. “Then what the hell’s happening to me?” He was close to the breaking point; Daniel could see that from the look in the boy’s eyes. The eighteen-year-old stood and leaned against the railing, facing Ryan.

“It’s difficult to explain,” Daniel began, “but I’ll try.” Ryan had been the victim of a very old and very powerful curse; one that had a unique method of attack. It subdued the victim, making it appear they had taken ill and falling into a deep fever. Their consciousness would then be forced to experience a kind of alternate reality crafted by the caster. “What you experienced was real. It sounds like Mark trapped you in a world where the events of that night four years ago never happened. He used that to get close to you without you suspecting. You’d have no memory of your real life while under the effect of the curse; at least not until the magic started to decay. That’s probably why you have all these memories that aren’t yours.” Ryan looked down at the ground, his hands fiddling uneasily with the material of his jeans. “If he’d managed to kill you while you were ‘hallucinating’, then you would have gone in to a coma and died here.” But it didn’t make sense, Daniel thought to himself. There was no way that Ryan’s brother should have been able to cast this curse. He wasn’t nearly powerful enough and even if he were, he would have needed a foci in order to target Ryan. When he told this to Ryan, the boy looked up at him, the light of realisation in his eyes. He reached inside his backpack pulled out the old leather bound book. Flicked through the pages, he stopped when he reached one that had a crudely drawn picture of a red crystal.

“Would something like this work?” Ryan showed the book to Daniel.

“A Seer Stone? That could work, but they were all supposed to be lost or destroyed long ago. Where would he get…” Daniel stopped midsentence, Ryan suddenly had a very guilty look on his face. “What did you do?”

“I kinda gave him one?” Ryan admitted. “But I didn’t have much of a choice.” He went on to explain what had happened a month and a half ago to Trey. When he was finished, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back sighing. “You know, I hate to admit, but with the way he set everything up, Mark’s smarter than ever I gave him credit for.”

“Well, at least we know where he got the power from.” Daniel said sitting back down on the bench. “But he would still have needed a foci to target you. It’s usually something personal; either something of yours or something of his in your possession.”

Ryan’s mind was blank; he couldn’t think of anything that could be the foci. He hadn’t seen his brother in four years, and as far as he knew, everything he had owned back then had been lost in the fire. It was conceivable that Mark could have taken something before torching the house but Daniel told him it was unlikely that anything could have retained a strong enough psychic impression after all that time. “But if we can’t find it, what’s to stop Mark from using it to attack me again?”

Daniel looked at the boy, a mischievous grin beginning to form. “I have an idea. But it’ll probably land you in a heap of trouble.”

Ryan returned the smile. “What’ve I got to lose?”

—-

It had taken them a couple of hours to drive from Cliffport to Newquay, a town on Cornwall’s northern coast. The drive had been quiet, with few words being exchanged between Daniel and Ryan. Daniel had joked as they walked from the old lighthouse to the car, the small dog Ryan had ‘rescued’ following close behind, that it looked like Ryan had made a new friend. The man had found it less funny when the dog jumped onto the back seat and no amount of cajoling would get him to get out. Eventually, he had given in and Ryan had climbed in the back. Ryan had spent most of the trip sitting in the back and looking out the passenger side window, lost in thought. The dog was sitting on the seat next to him, its head resting on his lap. Daniel broke the silence as they passed by the town of Bodmin, asking Ryan what he was thinking about. “I would give anything to be able to go back to that night and stop him.” He had said. “The one thing I’ve wanted more than anything is the chance to change what I … what happened that night. I miss all of them, even Mark. As much as I hate him, part of me misses the way we used to be. All the fun we used to have, the way he looked out for me. I guess I’ve always wanted to know what it would’ve been like if they hadn’t died. Now I know. But it’s a rough trade; the lives of Trey, Ben, Jake and Spud for my parents.” Daniel didn’t know what to say after Ryan had finished, so the rest of the trip was done in silence.

When they finally arrived at Newquay and pulled into a car park, Ryan paused as he got out of the car and watched the surfers a short distance away from the beach. “I’ve seen you on that skateboard of yours,” Daniel said noticing what Ryan was looking at, “you’d probably be pretty good on a surfboard.”

Ryan turned and looked at Daniel, his eyes narrowed in annoyance. “You know, this whole stalker thing you got going ‘aint exactly helping me ‘resolve my trust issues’ as Mrs Anders would say.”

“Who’s Mrs Anders?”

“Nobody you need to know about,” Ryan said shaking his head as the dog jumped out of the car. He was surprised; Daniel seemed to know everything else about him, which was disconcerting enough, but at least there was one thing he didn’t know, the name of his psychiatrist.

They walked away from the seafront, into the town. Taking several of the back streets, it didn’t long for Ryan to get thoroughly lost. Eventually they reached their destination, a small shop above a Chinese takeaway. Before he opened the door to the stair, Daniel turned to Ryan. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Ryan nodded and together the climbed up the stairs.

The shop was dark, dimly lit by small windows. A row of chairs was lined up against one wall facing the counter, like in a doctor’s waiting room. On each of the walls were pictures of tattoo designs; both illustrations and actual photo’s of tattoos on various people. In a glass cabinet behind the counter was a selection of ear and body piercings. “Hey, anyone home?” Daniel said leaning over the counter and yelling over the load music coming from the back room. The music was turned down and a man in his late-twenties came out of the back room. He was a large man, nearly six foot in height although some of his muscle had turned to flab through lack of exercise, ruining what otherwise would have been an impressive physique. The man glanced at Ryan dismissively as he entered the shop front before focusing his attention on Daniel. “So what can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for some help for my friend here,” Daniel said. The man glanced at Ryan a second time with an appraising eye before returning his attention to Daniel.

“Kids under 16 need a parent or legal guardian present before any piercing can be done,” the man said hitching his thumb over his shoulder towards a sign on the wall that said the same, “it’s not against the law but it is company policy.”

“That’s not what we’re here for…”

“No way,” the man interrupted, “tattooing a minor is against the law, and I’m not losing my license because some punk wants to join a gang.”

“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly before Daniel cut him off.

“Look mate, we’re not here for gang tags or something to impress girls. We’re here for one of these.” Daniel pulled a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and showed it to the man. There was a symbol drawn on it, an inverted triangle with small arcs on each of the upper two points. Almost like part of a circle that would have surrounded the triangle connecting its three points. The arcs and the tip of the bottom point were drippy, almost like something dribbling downward from their points. When the man saw the picture, he nodded in understanding. “So you’re after a Protection Sigil?” Daniel nodded. “You sure this is what you want for the kid, tattoo’s are kinda permanent after all.”

“Hey,” Ryan said indignantly, “I’m standing right here you know.”

Ignoring the boy, the man haggled with Daniel over the price for a few minutes before eventually coming to an agreement. “Gear’s in the back,” he said beckoning for Daniel and Ryan to accompany him. As Ryan turned to follow, the man held out his hand stopping him. “Hey shrimp, flip over the closed sign and lock the door will you, we don’t want anyone coming in while I do this.” Muttering under his breath, he did as he was told. When he went into the back room, he saw the man placing a small stepping stool next to the tattoo chair in the centre of the room. Seeing Ryan enter the room, the man cracked his knuckles. “Now that we’re alone,” he said, “I can dispel this bloody enchantment.” The man’s hands quickly formed a series of symbols in front of him and Ryan watched as the man’s form seemed to collapse in on itself. As the man shrank, a dog-like muzzle transformed the profile of his face and hair sprouted from his body. Thankfully, his clothes shrank with him and fitted his new four-foot high body perfectly. Ryan glanced over at Daniel, unnerved by the man’s sudden transformation. If Daniel was concerned though, he wasn’t showing it. The man looked over at Ryan and pointed at the chair. “Well kid, you waiting for an invitation? Hop in.”

Ryan climbed up into the chair and couldn’t stop himself from giggling. “What’s so funny shrimp?”

“The big plan to stop my brother from cursing me again is getting a tattoo from an ewok!” Daniel smothered a snigger behind his hand.

“I’m not a ewok,” the man said indignantly, “I’m a pooka.”

“A whata?”

“A pooka, a member of the fey race, from the goblin realm?” The man threw his hands up in frustration. “Don’t they teach human children anything anymore?”

Ryan was still giggling. “But you look…”

“I know, I know,” the man interrupted laughing slightly, “trust me, my people were howling for George Lucas’s blood long before he made those blasted prequels.”

Daniel cleared his throat. “While I’m sure this is very amusing to you two, can we get on with this? I don’t think I can stand any more of this Linkin Park crap.” He said referring to the music playing.

“It’s not Linkin Park…” the man began as he climbed on to the stool.

“It’s Amber Pacific.” Ryan finished for him.

The man punched Ryan playfully on the arm, “You’ve got taste kid, I like you.”

“All sounds like emo pop punk crap to me,” Daniel muttered under his breath.

—-

Ryan couldn’t help but look at the tattoo as they drove through the Cornish countryside. It hadn’t taken the man long to do it, his hands blurring with supernatural speed as he tattooed the shoulder of Ryan’s left arm. He had expected it to hurt, after all the ink was being placed under the skin using a needle and he wasn’t exactly fond of needles to start off with, but it hadn’t hurt at all. In fact, he had barely felt the procedure. Daniel told had told him that the tattoo granted him protection from rituals like curses, hexes and scrying spells. The tattoo would make it almost impossible to target Ryan unless they had something of him to use in the ritual. Something like a strand of hair or a drop of blood. The tattoo would have little effect if a warlock tried to throw a lightning bolt or fireball at him however. Magic like that didn’t need to targeted, just cast in the right direction. Despite the added protection the tattoo provided, Ryan didn’t feel any different. He had to take Daniel’s word that the tattoo was worth it.

“Have thought about what you’re going to tell your foster parents?” Daniel asked Ryan as he rolled his sleeve back down his arm.

“When I first came to live with Sue and Anthony, they sat me down in the kitchen and laid down the ground rules. No alcohol, no drugs, especially no smoking around the house. They were particularly insistent on that one,” Ryan said smiling at the memory. “Be home before curfew, you know, the usual stuff. They never said anything about not getting a tattoo.” As he said this, he noticed Daniel glancing at him and seeing the expression on the older boy’s face, he laughed. “I know, I know, I can’t use that as an excuse. I’ll have to think of something, but I don’t want to lie to them. They’ve been real good to me.”

The small dog sitting on Ryan’s lap yawned contentedly. “You keeping him or what,” Daniel asked nodding towards the dog.

Ryan looked down at the dog who looked back up at him expectantly. “I always wanted a dog when I was little, just need to think up a name for him.” The dog sat up and started licking Ryan’s face, causing the boy to giggle. “Now I’ve got to figure out a way for them to let me keep you.”

—-

That evening, after checking that Sue and Anthony were in the living room watching TV, Ryan quietly crept out of the back door and headed to the garden shed. He had gotten home earlier that afternoon and, not knowing what to say to his foster parents, Ryan made sure the tattoo remained hidden under the sleeve of his t-shirt during dinner. When evening had started to close in, he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to chance a visit to the shed. Carrying a small bundle wrapped in a blanket, he quickly walked across the garden and opened the shed door.

As soon as he opened the the dog leapt at him, yipping happily. “Quiet down boy, you don’t want the others to hear.” Ryan unwrapped the bundle to reveal a pair of small bowls from the kitchen, a plastic bottle filled with tap water, a can of dog food he had bought from a shop on the way home and a small squeaky ball. The dog ran around his legs excitedly as he filled one of the bowls with water and emptied the can into the other. Ryan smiled as the dog greedily gobbled up the food. “You’ve got my table manners, that’s for sure.”

The dog looked up, as if distracted by something. There was a creak from the window and Ryan turned around to see Trey looking in through the dirty glass. Their eyes met and Trey grinned sheepishly. Realising that he had been rumbled, he motioned for Trey to come in. The younger boy came in and sat down next to Ryan. Cautiously at first, the dog padded over to Trey and sniffed at him. Apparently deciding that he liked him, the dog licked at Trey’s outspread hand. “What’s his name?”

“Bucky,” Ryan said picking up the ball, “and this is his ball.” He squeezed the ball and laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Bucky’s ball? Buckyball? Geddit?” Trey looked at him blankly. “Carbon 60 is one of the hardest substances known to science. It’s better known as buckminsterfullerene and its most common form is a spherical molecule called a bucky ball.” The younger boy still wasn’t laughing. Now that he had said it aloud, it wasn’t as funny as he had first thought. In fact, it sounded a little sad, a little geeky.

“Where did you get him?”

“He found me,” Ryan said, “up by the lighthouse. Boris and some of his jerk friends were torturing the poor thing.”

“Do you think he belongs to anyone?” The dog seemed completely comfortable around the younger boy now, as it sat on his lap while Trey stroked him.

Ryan shrugged. “No, I think he’s a stray.”

“Kinda like us then,” Trey said looking over at Ryan. The two boys sat in the shed, lit by an electric lamp, laughing, talking and playing with Bucky. Neither of them realised how late it was getting until the shed door was opened and their foster father looked inside.

“We were starting to wonder where you two had got too,” he said. Then he saw Bucky sitting between Ryan and Trey. “Where did that come from?”

Ryan and Trey looked at each other, at first neither of them saying anything. Ryan opened his mouth to say something but was beaten to the punch by Trey who picked up Bucky and went over to Anthony. “His name’s Bucky, he’s a stray and he’s got nowhere to go,” Trey said holding Bucky tightly, “can we keep him, pleeease?”

Anthony looked down at Trey. He tried to look stern, but Ryan could see the corner of his mouth curling upwards as he barely concealed a smile. “Trey Bennett, are you trying to give me the puppy dog eyes routine?”

“Maybe,” Trey said slowly, “is it working?”

“How did you get so manipulative?” Anthony asked.

“He’s twelve,” Ryan answered causing Anthony to laugh and Trey to scowl.

“Having a pet isn’t like getting a new computer game or toy,” Anthony said carefully, “it’s not something you can just abandon when you get bored.”

“Is that a no?” Trey asked at the same time as Ryan asked “Is that a yes?”

“It’s a big responsibility, and it’s something that we’d have to talk to Susan about. But for the time being, you’d better bring him inside; it’s going to be very cold tonight.”

“Yes!” Ryan and Trey cheered at the same time, high-fiving each other. Anthony told Trey to take Bucky inside as Ryan picked up the bowls, blanket and ball. As he turned to follow Trey, Anthony put an arm across the doorway, barring his exit.

“Don’t think we haven’t noticed that … thing on your arm,” Anthony said as he lifted up the sleeve of Ryan’s t-shirt, “Tomorrow, we’re going to have a little talk about the sort of behaviour that is and isn’t appropriate for a fourteen-year-old. But for now, I think it’s an early night for you.”

Ryan’s Story – The Memory

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.”

“Like what?”

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.

Ryan’s Story – The Runaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake nodded, “uh huh.”

“When did you last see him?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ryan’s gone missing.”

—-

Early last night…

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Next morning…

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

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

“Ryan’s gone!” Trey blurted out.

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

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

—-

During morning lessons…

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

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

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

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

“Control to two-six-zero, come in.”

“Two-six-zero to control, go ahead.”

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

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

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

—-

At that moment…

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

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

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

—-

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

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

“Ryan? Ryan Henderson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your parents?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nuh-uh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up; don’t tell me what to do!”

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

“And how would you know!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you stay with me until they arrive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Later next morning…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who didn’t?”

“Mark.”

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

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

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

“I can’t,” said a muffled voice.

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

“No,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan’s Story – The Jewel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

“Have done your homework?”

“Yes sir,” Ryan said playfully.

“Is Trey up yet?” Susan asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See what?”

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

“What about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rhodium.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, what do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ryan’s Story – The Accident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go, go where?”

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

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

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

“Which is where exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

“So he’s gonna be ok?” Trey asked.

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

“Can we go in and see him doctor?”

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

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

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

“Like I went five rounds with Hatton.”

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

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

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

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

“But I…”

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

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

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

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

Ryan’s Story – The Incident

WARNING: This story includes incest, the rape of a small child and murder. If you are easily offended, do yourself a favour and don’ read any further.

Ryan (just prior to his 10th birthday) and his older brother Mark who is already planning his family's murder

Ryan awoke with a start, dragged prematurely from his dreams for some unknown reason. His room was dark, the moonlight filtering in through the small window and casting a square of illumination on his prized SpongeBob poster. When he looked over at the radio by his bed, he saw that it had only just gone midnight. Sleepily, he lay back in his bed and tried to get back to sleep. Just as he was about to drop off, he heard a sound from downstairs. It sounded like something falling to the floor followed by a muffled cry that was cut short. Sitting upright now, he listened carefully and could just about hear voices from the living room below. He couldn’t make out what they were saying but he could tell that the tone was harsh. Slowly he got out of bed, making sure not to make the floorboards creak beneath him as he walked. Ryan picked up the plastic hockey stick that he had received for this tenth birthday last month and quietly opened his bedroom door. A voice in the back of his head was warning him of danger, warning him to go and hide but he was too young to understand what it was saying.

Across the landing, the door to his parents’ bedroom was open. Light from the streetlights outside cast an orange glow into the room and he saw that the bedcovers had been wildly thrown aside. There were small sticky spots on the carpet creating a trail towards the stairs down. Ryan, only ten, was only dimly aware that they were blood stains as he crept down the hallway to the stairs, passing the closed door to his older brother’s room. He paused for a second before remembering that Mark was spending the night at a friend’s house. As he reached the top of the stairs, harsh laughter barked from the living room followed by a muffled scream. “Mum?” the boy asked quietly, grasping the hockey stick like a weapon.

A figure stepped out of the living room and stood at the bottom of the stairs looking up Ryan. The figure was 5’9” and dressed from head-to-toe in black. Black pants, black hooded sweatshirt, and a black balaclava mask hiding his face. He was holding a vicious looking combat knife, its 12-inch blade slick with blood. The figure’s front was covered with something that glistened in the light from the living room. As their eyes met, Ryan realised that the substance on the figure’s front was blood. A wet patch appeared on Ryan’s pyjama bottoms as he lost control of his bladder. The figure took a step up the stairs, Ryan’s bravery broke and he dropped the hockey stick, fleeing towards his bedroom. Behind him, he could hear the figure thundering up the stairs.

The boy ran into his bedroom, intent on escaping through the window by climbing out onto the roof of the garage and jumping down to the ground. However, the small boy could only run so fast and before he had even got more than a foot into the room, he was tackled from behind. Ryan was shoved against the wall and then to the floor, kicking and screaming. In the commotion, a picture was knocked off the wall, the glass breaking as it hit the floor. “Mumdadhelpgetoffmehelp.” A gloved hand clamped itself across his mouth, silencing his cries for help. Ryan punched at the figure’s face and kicked him in the groin. The figure grunted, releasing Ryan who tried to scramble to his feet but didn’t get far. Growling angrily, the figure grabbed Ryan by the throat, squeezing and cutting off the air to his lungs. Ryan brought his small hands up the figure’s wrists, trying to loosen the grip, but it was no use, he wasn’t strong enough. In desperation, he beat ineffectually at the figure, only ceasing when his vision started to cloud and his arms fell limply to his sides. Mercifully, the figure released his grip on the boy’s throat, dropping Ryan to the floor. Barely able to maintain consciousness, he was unable to resist as he was picked up and thrown roughly onto his bed. Ryan heard the sound of something ripping and felt his hands been pulled behind him and taped together at the wrists. Another piece of tape was wrapped across his mouth, gagging him.

Lying there, terrified breaths rasping through his nose, he could feel the menacing presence of the figure standing above him. For a few brief seconds, Ryan wondered what the figure was waiting for and then he got his answer. Rough hands dragged his pants down to his ankles and forced his legs apart. His strength returning, Ryan tried to crawl away across the bed only to be dragged back by his ankle. He heard a zip being undone as the figure pulled his own pants and boxers down. Ryan’s green eyes widened in horror, and his breaths became fast and ragged as the he saw the figure’s already erect penis. The figure wasted no time and flipped the boy onto his stomach. Strong hands gripped him, holding him down. Ryan closed his eyes, tears streaming down his face and soaking into the mattress as he wished with every fibre of his soul that his older brother would come home and save him. The bed dipped as the figure knelt astride the boy and then, without any warning, the figure’s penis slammed into his anus and Ryan screamed. The tape across his mouth muffled any cries but he didn’t care, he screamed until he became hoarse. The figure suddenly pulled out until only the tip was inside and then he slammed back in again, just as roughly as before. Ryan screamed again, his cries ragged as the figure began to thrust in and out of the boy. Unable to move under the figure’s grip as he lay beneath him, Ryan could only lie there and pray that it would be over soon. The figure did not pay attention to the boy’s screams as the thrusted harder and harder as he came to a climax. His semen spilled into Ryan, further lubricating his bleeding anus. Taking advantage of this, the man thrusted into him harder than ever, enjoying the sounds of the boy’s screams. Finally, the figure exited the broken ten-year old and pulled his pants up. Ryan lay there quietly crying into the mattress, the tape across his mouth muffling his sobs.

The figure grabbed Ryan by the collar of his t-shirt and pulled him to his feet. Ryan was he was half-dragged down the stairs and into the living room. Through tear-blurred eyes, he saw another person, his face concealed by a scarf standing over his naked mother, pulling up a pair of ratty long shorts. “Dude,” the person said as he saw Ryan dragged into the room, “what took you so long?” The person sounded young, probably no more than 16 or 17. “Oh, had a bit of fun with the runt eh.” The youth said when he saw the blood dribbling down the back of Ryan’s legs. Ryan was allowed to fall onto the floor and he curled up, whimpering softly. Looking over towards his mother, he saw her lifeless eyes staring vacantly into space. A pool of blood was slowly forming around her head, forming from the blood leaking from a cut across her neck. Next to her lay his father, dead from cut across his neck that had almost decapitated him.

The youth walked over to Ryan and kneeling down on one knew, yanking the boy up by his hair. Looking over to his companion who walked up behind him, he picked up a knife. “You were right, he is cute.” He dragged the flat of the blade softly across the boy’s throat. Ryan had retreated into a dark place in his mind unable to cope, virtually insensate to what was happening around him. “You remember the deal right? I get to bang him and gut him before you do that ritual thing.”

“Actually,” said his partner, the familiar sound of his voice causing Ryan to open his eyes. “There was something I forget tell you.” He grabbed the youth’s head and pulled it back baring his throat. In one swift motion his combat knife slashed across the youth’s throat spraying Ryan in the face with his blood. The youth fell to the floor twitching as he died. “The ritual requires the slaying of one’s best friend as well as his family.”

Ryan had trouble accepting what he was hearing as the figure bent down next to the cowering boy and looked into his confused eyes. He shook the hood off his head and pulled the balaclava up revealing the face of his 17-year-old brother.

“Mark!” Ryan cried from behind the tape as he tried to wriggle backwards. His brother looked down at him, a thing smile of contempt on his face. Ryan’s mind raced as the full horror of his brother’s betrayal crashed down on him. He became light headed; the room spinning as Mark grabbed his hair and pulled him into a standing position. Positioning himself behind Ryan, Mark whispered into his ear.

“You were always a whiney little bitch.” Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan saw the light glint off the blade as the bloodied knife was brought to his throat. Screaming, Ryan closed his eyes as he felt the sharp blade of the knife pierce into the flesh of his neck, slicing across it and tearing the skin. Mark dropped his younger brother onto the floor, laughing coldly as the boy’s blood began to soak into the carpet. As the blackness closed and he passed out, Ryan felt himself dragged roughly across the floor. Then he felt nothing.

Ryan’s eyes opened sometime later and he found himself lying on the floor of his parents’ bedroom. The cut across his neck had not been deep enough to kill him outright but had had lost a lot of blood and was still bleeding. He was woozy from the blood-loss as he tried to sit up and failed. Listening intently, he couldn’t hear his brother anywhere near, only the faint sound of crackling. From where he was lying, he could see the bodies of his parents. He could also the body of the youth that Mark had killed. For some reason he had been redressed in some of Mark’s clothes, his hands bound with tape and gagged. The crackling sound was growing louder and the floor was getting warmer. There was also a strange smell, barely masked by what Ryan suddenly recognised as the smell of burning. It took a few seconds but he eventually recognised the strange odour as the smell of petrol. As he became more alert, he realised with a start that the floor was soaked in it and so was he.

With renewed strength, Ryan struggled to his feet and staggered over to the bedroom door. Using his elbows, he clumsily opened the door only to be assailed by the heat and smoke wafting up the stairs. Coughing, he made for the stairs. The stairs were already engulfed by fire and the flames were rapidly clawing their way up towards the first floor. Ryan was overcome by the heat and smoke, falling back against the wall. Lying on the floor, he gasped for air and started to feel darkness close in as he drifted into unconsciousness. However, the boy fought against it, forcing the blackness back out his vision. He vowed to himself that he wouldn’t give in; that he would survive to tell someone what had happened.

Crawling along the floor, he made it into his bedroom, closing the door behind him. With his hands bound behind his back, he knew he wasn’t going to get far. A piece of glass from the broken picture frame cracked under his knee, slightly cutting it. Realising that this might be his chance, he grasped the piece of glass and carefully began to cut at the tape. It took several minutes for him to cut the tape and by the time he was done his wrists were slicked with blood from small cuts caused by the glass shard. Ripping off the tape gag, he rushed over to the window. By now, smoke was filling his room and the paint on the door was starting to bubble from the intense heat on the other side. Ryan could see the orange glow of fire under the door jam, and little licks of flame were starting to leak around the sides. To his horror, he found the window was locked, a security bolt preventing him from opening it. It was getting difficult to breath, the heat in the room was soaring and the smoke caused coughing fits strong enough to make white light dance in front of his eyes with each cough. In panic, he looked around his room for something heavy, and in desperation, he picked up the Playstation and started beating on the window. It took several attempts but eventually the glass shattered

The cool night air flooded into the room as he climbed out on the garage roof, cutting his palms and knees in the process. At this point, the fire in the house flashed-over, exploding outwards and consuming the main structure in a fireball. Ryan was flung from the roof of the garage by the blast and into the garden where he lay dazed for several seconds. As he started crawling towards the road, he could hear sirens. The blue flashing lights illuminating the neighbourhood. As he passed out, Ryan felt gently hands pick him up and begin to carry him away from the house.