There were two guestrooms in the house, one in which Landon’s mother now slept on the top floor, and then one for Landon himself on the bottom floor. Through the years he had decorated the room to be his “room away from home.” It had a desk with a few video game monsters and action heroes sitting on it. In another corner there was even a desk where some of his favorite books were tucked away. The bed was familiar to him and he had never had trouble sleeping in it before.
Maybe it was the fact that his heart still felt so heavy, or maybe it was how quiet the house was, but he was having trouble sleeping. He kept constantly tossing and turning. He had just managed to fall asleep when the soft sound of footsteps reached his years and the small groan of floorboards.
That was odd, it didn’t sound like his mother’s footsteps. They were too soft and… it was too many of them.
Immediately he went into terror mode. He slammed his eyes closed and went completely still. His heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest he was so scared. His brain immediately concocted a host a disturbing images. Complete with everything from robbers to monsters. He heard the door to his bedroom open and he stuffed his fist into his mouth to keep from screaming out. His back was to the door and he didn’t move. Hopefully whoever it was would just take what they want and leave.
“You sure this is the room?” he heard a voice whisper.
“Can’t you feel it, stupid? There’s definitely magic in here. The crystal has to be in here. No keep your voice down.” This second voice was higher. A girl’s voice. Both voices sounded around his age, but he was sure the other voice had been a boy. “I brought you here because I thought you knew how to be quiet.”
“I do know how to be quiet – but I’m not a thief.”
“Look, there’s the boy. It was on a leather cord. Look around and see if you can find it.”
Leather cord…? Landon’s hand instinctively went to the crystal around his neck. He never took it off. Was this what these people were after? But why? It was just a silly piece of rock. He couldn’t even imagine what a robber would want with it? There was a Playstation in his room. Why weren’t these guys more interested in something like that?
“I don’t see it,” came a reply a few minutes later.
He heard the girl make a clicking sound with her tongue. “He’s wearing it. Here, Jasper, give me your knife.”
Landon’s breath caught in his throat. His muscles locked and he kept completely still. Please don’t hurt me, he prayed. He heard the soft steps of someone coming even closer to him; felt the soft touch of someone taking ahold of his blanket and pulling it back just enough to get at his neck. The cord at his neck tightened as the person took ahold of it and then he felt a soft jerk and a snap – and then the leather cord was pulled free of his neck, his assailant lifting away the rock.
“Got it,” the girl’s voice whispered triumphantly.
“Ok, good, Kite. Can we get out of here now?”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
The footsteps turned and abandoning all sense of keeping quiet, the two figures rushed out of his room. Landon spun around in his bed, sitting up with a snap. Kite? That girl from earlier?! Had that scrawny girl just robbed him?
He jumped up from his bed, grabbing his red hoodie and pulling it over his head, ramming his feet into his boots. As he swept out of his doorway he grabbed his traveling pack from the corner and threw it over his shoulder. In a matter of seconds he was out the screen door in the kitchen heading towards the woods. As he ran he fished through his pack and pulled out a flashlight. Kite and her companion – she had called him Jasper? – was nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t matter. He had a vague idea where she was going. She had told him where she supposedly “lived” and he knew these woods better than anyone.
No stupid girl was going to steal from him and get away with it! And not when the object was something as precious as that rock. It was the one thing that linked him to his grandmother. He was not going to give that up so easily.
He took off into the woods. The night air was cold and his breath steamed in the beam of the flashlight. He had always considered himself a very fast runner in school so he was very surprised that he never came across the two thieves. When he broke into a clearing he stopped dead and spun around trying to catch some sight of anything or anyone.
The forest had given way to a small lake. It was fed by a waterfall that was barely twice his height. When he was normally here for summer break he would usually climb up that rock wall so he could jump in from the waterfall into the pool below. That’s why Kite’s statement that she lived further in was so strange to him. The woods stretched for miles back. The rock wall was low here but it gradually rose and cut off most the area. There’s no way a girl like Kite could get from any place on the other side of the woods to his grandma’s home in one day. When she had run off she had run in the direction of this place. He was sure of it.
A squeak and an echoed shout confirmed his suspicions. “Curse you, Jasper! My leg’s all wet now.”
Landon spun around trying to figure out where the voice had come from. He looked towards the waterfall and frowned. No, he was sure the rock wall behind it was solid. He crept up to the edge and pressed himself up against the wall. Rocks poked up from the waters making convenient stepping stones. There was just enough room for him to squeeze his head between the wall and the waters without getting wet. He was so stunned by what he found. A big gaping hole just big enough for someone his size was open in the wall. He was sure he had never seen this before. Even now his explorer’s instincts were tingling.
Licking his lips he pulled his back around and threw it in ahead of him so it wouldn’t get wet and then he jumped in himself. Not a moment too soon! The rock wall suddenly came to life, grating stone against stone as it slid back into place. He shouted in dismay pressing his hands up against the rock, trying to figure out the mechanic to reopen it so he could get back out again. He couldn’t find it.
But the girl would know. No choice but to go forward now. He pulled his pack back around his back and started to crawl forward. The tunnel was too cramped and too low for him to full stand, though he could manage a bit of a crouch. Only once did he hit his head, but he plowed forward, anxious to reclaim his grandmother’s necklace and return back home.
He just about tumbled out of the tunnel before he realized that it was up – the hole was up, or rather up in a wall. He stared down below. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t jump he surmised. He crept to the edge and pushed himself out. He landed neatly on his feet, turning around to look upwards at the hole in the rock face. A short climb would easily see him back up. He turned back around and shined the flashlight forward again, trying to listen for the girl and her friend.
He had no idea where he was now. He assumed that he was still in the forest. It seemed logical, but something about the surrounding area seemed odd. The trees were much more sparse and he could make out the lands nearby. The tunnel itself hadn’t been that long. Certainly not long enough to leave the woods, but then he couldn’t be quite sure. Nothing around him looked at all familiar. Even the air seemed warmer somehow.
The sound of a breaking stick caught his attention. He took off after the sound hoping to see the girl soon, angry that he had not yet caught up with her. Girl or not, he might give this girl a good wallop when he caught up with her.
He tripped over a root on his way and went skidding through the dirt. Groaning he started to pick himself up but the sound of a low rumble froze him in place. He remembered once hearing a wild dog growl. That’s how this sounded. His blood turned cold and that familiar grip of fear took over him. He slowly looked up and gasped.
The creature was at least five feet high and completely jet black. It glared down at him with evil red eyes. In the darkness it was hard to make the creature out except for a formless blog. Was it a bear? He didn’t think it was but it was the closest thing that his imagination could supply him. Deadly claws flashed in the beam of his flashlight. Why could he make out claws but not a form he wondered.
He screamed and flipped over to his butt, crawling across the ground crab style as he tried to put distance between him and the strange beast. The creature watched him its eyes narrowing, the growl deepening. It’s going to attack! Landon thought in horror. For one horrible moment all he could think of was his mom. What would she think when she woke up in the morning and found him not in his bed. If he died here would she even ever find him?
He did the only thing that came to mind. Throwing back his arm he hurled his flashlight at the creature’s face with all his might. He knew it would be a good shot even as he spun around and took off running, a scream ripping from his throat.
He cursed himself almost immediately as he hurtled head long through the woods. Without his flashlight he couldn’t see! He had an extra one in his pack but he didn’t dare go in after it. Behind him the creature let out a vicious roar that he was sure would be heard for miles. He could hear the beast pounding after him. The ground shook and vibrated. This was like a horrific nightmare. He was the fastest in his school but right now he didn’t feel all that fast at all. He begged his legs for more speed, tears filling his eyes.
“Someone help me!” he screamed. Someone? This was the forest! There was no one for miles. He was going to die. A bear was going to eat him and not even leave a trace of him behind.
He leapt over the edge of an embankment, but his foot slipped and he went tumbling first head over hills and then round and round on his side until his back slammed into a tree. For a moment he laid there dazed, but another roar woke him up. He looked up to find the beast hurtling down the hill at an incredible speed. He spun around and did the next best thing and began climbing up the tree, grabbing branch after branch, pulling himself up as quickly as possible.
The beast slammed into the tree almost knocking him out. It roared in frustration and swiped at him. The claws caught his ankle and he screamed. He could feel blood and he knew it was bad, but he forced the pain into the back of his mind and pulled himself upwards still. Bears could climb trees. He knew that, but it was his best option right now. Maybe if he could get into the lighter branches the bear couldn’t follow him. He had to try.
He heard a branch break below him and he knew that it was all over. There was no way he was going to climb fast enough.
Several voices raised into the air. Loud whoops and hollers. For some reason these surprised Landon more than the bear did. There’s… not supposed to be anyone else here…
“It’s a Canis!” he heard someone shout somewhere in the trees not far from him. “Be careful, men. Jeff, get the boy!”
Get the boy? Did they mean him? The situation was so bizarre that for a moment he stopped climbing. The roar of the beast behind him crashed over him. He reached up trying to grab for another limb, but instead a hand grabbed him around his wrist. Suddenly he was pulled up onto the branch in one easy movement. “Look out there, lad. Leave the climbing to us squirrels next time.”
He gawked at his savior. The man was half naked with nothing on him but cloth britches and a quiver strung across his chest. The man looked normal in almost every way except that his eyes were a strange yellow.
The man pulled a bow around and nocked an arrow and fired down into the beast. Without waiting to see if his arrow made its mark, he spun around and caught Landon by his middle. He leapt off the tree and for a wild moment him and Landon went flying through the air. The wind whistled past Landon with terrific speed that didn’t seem natural. For a moment he thought they were going to fall to their deaths or maybe slam into a branch, but instead the man landed with a deft skill, lightly dropping Landon back down.
“W-who are you?!” he gasped yanking himself away from the guy.
“Your savior, that’s who, kid. What the heck are you doing out here? Are you an idiot? You shouldn’t be out here at night. Your parents will tan your hide.” Then he paused and looked Landon over. “Hey… just what tribe are you from?”
“Tribe?!” The word was so weird and immediately conjured up images of Indians and pirates. “My name’s Landon and this is my grandma’s woods.”
“Your grandma’s? Just –“ Suddenly the guy’s eyes went wide. He grabbed Landon by his arm and pulled him closer. The man raised his nose and for one brief moment Landon swore the guy was sniffing him. “You’re human!” the man said suddenly jerking away from Landon.
Was this guy insane? Landon gawked at him. “Of course I’m human. What do you mean?” But the guy had already turned around. He raised two fingers to his mouth and blew. A sharp whistle cut through the air. A minute later another man dressed similarly to the first landed on the other end of the branch, crouched down with a hand resting on the bark. Like an animal, Landon thought.
“What’s the problem, Jeff?” the man asked, his voice much deeper and despite his wiry build Landon immediately got the sense that this was the man in charge.
“The kid’s human, Derrick.”
The man’s eyes slid from Jeff to Landon. Landon felt his breath catch in his throat. The guy’s eyes were the same bright yellow. Something was very very wrong here. Derrick frowned and shook his head. “Human, yes, but I sense something else. Doesn’t matter. We need to fall back and get back under the protection of the barrier spell.”
“What are we gonna do? Take him with us?”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“Wait!” Landon shouted. “I’m not going anywhere with you guys. I need to get back home. My mom will be worried if she wakes up and I’m not there.”
“Sorry, kid,” Derrick said, sounding anything but sorry. “It’s too dangerous at night. Jeff, go on ahead. Take the kid back. We’ll deal with him in the morning.”
“Wait! Wait!!” Landon screamed trying to pull away from Jeff as the man wrapped his arms around his middle again. He struggled as hard as he could but he was no match for the adult’s strength. Before he had a chance to make another sound Jeff had launched himself off the branch and again the two of them were flying through the air.