Landon kept his head down. His hood was pulled up to keep his face covered. Now and again he dared to look up and around himself, but quickly pulled his eyes back down to the ground watching only the back of the feet of the person walking in front of him. In the light of day, looking around at the scenery around him it was almost a little too easy to believe what these freaks were saying… that he was in another world.
Nothing looked familiar, not even the trees. They were all gnarled and grotesque looking. The men – and now some women too – from the squirrel tribe jumped through the branches, navigating them with ease. If he looked hard enough through the trees he could make out land beyond. Not the green grass land that he was so used to back home, but dark lands. Grass was brown and dying and even the sunlight had a different look to it.
He wanted to deny it with all his heart but he was sure of it. He was not in his grandma’s woods.
Kite and the two other boys walked along beside him. Her father lead the way but other men walked among them. From the way that they were each dressed Landon had a feeling he was looking at a mixture of four tribes. There were the Squirrels. Others were dressed in pants and shirts with the same sort of traveling cloaks that Kite wore. Then there were other men and women who were dressed in long orange robes with giant sleeves. They reminded him of monks or people from some sort of religious order. And last were the collection of lean people who were not as tall as the others. These people wore primarily black and the way they stalked around Landon was reminded of ninjas.
He looked at Kite’s friend, Jasper. As pale and skittish as he looked, not even his cool black clothes could make him look half as impressive as the rest of his tribe. The boy kept fidgeting and constantly kept his hands in motion. In his hands he had a long white string and was making odd designs with it as they walked.
So even in magical lands there were nerds, Landon thought.
Jasper suddenly held up his hands in triumph, the string was laced between them in a clever design. “Kitty whiskers,” he shouted.
The other boy scowled and reached out snatching the string from the boy’s hands. “That looks nothing like cat whiskers!” he shouted. The amount of anger baffled Landon. He quickly manipulated the string himself and held it up with a smirk. “Cat’s eye.”
“That’s the Fish in a Dish,” Jasper scowled. “Give me back my string.”
The two started an argument with the other boy hold the string just out of Jasper’s reach high above his head. Kite whirled on them. “Give him back the string, Milo!”
Milo scowled at her but tossed the string back to Jasper. Landon stared between the two of them his curiosity starting to burn inside of him. He astonished his own self when the question leaked from his mouth, “So, what are you supposed to be?”
Jasper stopped and stared up at him in surprise as if he couldn’t believe that Landon was talking to him. He even pointed to himself before he answered in a hush voice. “Rabbit.”
“And not a very good one,” Milo guffawed. He then jabbed a thumb at himself. “I’m a tiger.”
Jasper’s hands were tight at his sides, his face almost red in anger. “I’m not a very good rabbit? Tiger my left foot – you’re nothing more than a kitten.”
“You want me to deck you, grass eater?!”
“Knock it off!” Kite shouted at them. Her eyes shifted to Landon and she slowed her pace to match his. “So, you’re starting to believe?”
“I believe you’re all delusional,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.
Kite sighed and for a moment she was quiet before she asked. “What did you do with the stone? I notice it’s not around your neck.”
“It’s in my pack. Don’t even try anything, thief. I’ve got it hidden away where no one’s going to find it. You’ll have to shred my back to find it.”
“I’m not a thief!” she shouted. “Look, Landon, I’m sorry for stealing something so precious to you, but you have to understand. My family needs that rock. I told you my uncle died, right? He was killed because an evil warlock named Dubhlainn killed him. He’s taken over the whole world. Our tribes are the last corner of Delancia that he hasn’t taken over yet. But he’s going to. And when he does then no one will be free to stand up against him.”
“And how’s my rock supposed to stop that?” Then he quickly added, “If I did believe your story – which I don’t.”
“Because it’s not just a rock. It’s a crystal with a fairy inside. Warlock Dubhlainn froze all of the immortal fairies. They were very powerful magic wielders. The Wolf tribe tried to protect them, but they all died trying to.”
“So just unfreeze those fairies. Why is my rock so important.”
“Because your rock isn’t frozen with Dubhlainn’s spell. It’s different. The last fairy froze herself so that she would be protected. She knew the only safe place for her was in the human world but fairies can’t exist without magic. So she froze herself. A member of the Wolf tribe was placed in charge of her. They both ran. I don’t think either one of them counted on the tribe being slaughtered. I think the idea was that someone was supposed to come get them. It was a super-secret mission.”
“So… you think my rock is this fairy thing and… my grandma was a member of this Wolf tribe?”
“Not your grandma. No. She wasn’t old enough. This was like over two hundred years ago.”
He stopped in his tracks and gaped at her. “You’re saying you’re being attacked by the same person over two hundred years? People don’t live that long.”
“Because Dubhlainn is half fairy. I told you, the fairies are immortal.”
“So he’s immortal and you can’t kill him?”
“I don’t think Dubhlainn is completely immortal. He’s just really hard to kill and I don’t think he ages the same.”
Landon jammed his hands on his ears and stomped ahead of her. “I’m done listening to you right now! You really are insane. I’m going to get home and I’m never going to look back. I’ll go to sleep tonight in my bed at home and when I wake up I’ll pretend that this was just a dream after all.”
“I wish I could pretend it was just a dream,” he heard Kite said in a small voice that didn’t match her. He ducked his head and picked up his pace trying to keep the voice out of his head. Was he feeling sorry for her? He tried to tuck the emotion away.
They came to an area where there was suddenly a lot of tree damage. One whole tree was split vertically as if something had sliced it down the middle and then pulled the halves apart.. He looked around. “What happened here?” he asked.
“This is where we rescued you last night, kid,” Jeff said.
He gawked at it. “That bear did that?”
“That was no bear last night. That was a Canis. A vicious half-dog creature. Some say that Dubhlainn the Dark One turned the last of the Wolf tribe into those creatures. You’re lucky you survived. Not many can outrun those beasts.”
Landon felt his blood drain from his body. Psychos or not, looking at the devastation he was glad that the creature had not caught him. There would have been nothing left of him. “Did you guys kill it?”
“Kill it? Heh, we gave it a good whipping and sent it back with its tail tucked between its legs, but no, we didn’t kill it. We had nowhere near the man power for that last night.”
Landon decided to not ask any more questions. He wasn’t getting the sort of answers that might make him feel any better. A few minutes later he was excited to find a soft glowing beam and traced it back to his flashlight. He clicked it off and on a few times. The light flickered but held.
“What’s that?” Milo asked snatching it out of his hands.
Landon ground his teeth but forced his anger back. People here clearly needed to learn some manners and a few laws of ownership. “It’s a flashlight.”
“What’s it for?” Milo flicked the thing on and shined the light around to the amusement of others.
“It just is what it is. It provides light in dark places.” Seriously? Was he really standing here explaining a flashlight to this guy? Except that he didn’t think the boy was pretending that he didn’t know what it was. Milo tossed it back and Landon quickly stashed it away back in his pack.
The cliff wall came into sight. It was a welcome sight. Landon could see the hole that he had dropped out of. In the light of day it was now easier to see the surroundings. It looked as if there used to be a much larger cave, but a rock slide had overcome it.
“It used to be sealed. We had a devil of a time getting that small tunnel cleared out,” Kite said. “But the three of us managed it. Jasper did the digging and Milo did the heavy lifting.”
“And you just stood there ordering us about like slaves,” Milo said gruffly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Who sealed it?” Landon asked.
“Dubhlainn. He didn’t want anyone escaping. I think he also didn’t want anyone getting back in.”
“Huh? Wait – so you think he knows that a fairy escaped?”
“It’s just a theory. I have no real proof.”
“You don’t have proof of any of this,” her father snapped at her.
Jeff walked up to Landon. “Let’s hoist you up there, little fella. After you, Kite?”
She stomped her foot. “I’m telling you this is a big mistake! I do have proof. I saw it! I saw it in the journal.”
“A journal you found in a place you should never have been in. Two men lost their lives trying to rescue you.”
Kite flinched as if she had just been slapped. Landon wasn’t sure but he thought he saw tears filling in her eyes. She walked up to the wall and slowly started to climb up reaching the hole. “Doesn’t change the fact that I saw it. I had to-“
But whatever Kite thought she had to was cut off by her scream. It took Landon a moment to process exactly what had just happened as she came hurtling back down to the earth. It had looked as if a black stick with feathers at the end had grown out of her shoulder blade. He heard Kite’s father shout in dismay and ran and captured her in his arms. Almost immediately the adults all jumped into action, shoving the children back to the wall. The Squirrels pulled out their bows and nocked arrows to strings. The Rabbits pulled out vicious looking blades and the Tigers hefted clubs over their arms.
At first Landon couldn’t tell what it was that suddenly hurtled out of the trees towards the line of adults. Not until a Rabbit sliced through one and its body crashed down to the ground in front of Landon. The thing looked like some sort of cross between a warthog and dog. Its face was shaped like a snout with sharp canine teeth and white tusks arced around the jaw. Its ears were small pig-like things that poke out of purple hoods. The creatures wore tunics but left their legs exposed. They were twisted things that ended in hooves or claws depending on the beast. The one that landed near him carried a chipped blade, but he could see others that carried a variety of different weapons.
Fear turned into a lump in Landon’s throat. This was real… this was way too real. One of the pig-like creatures rammed Jeff hard in the middle with a large club. The man went flying and Landon looked up realizing with horror that there was nothing in between the creature and him.
“Run!” Jasper shouted.
Something grabbed his arm and yanked him in a direction. Landon took off with him, his brain frozen in time with his body moving on auto pilot. He looked over his shoulder and shuddered in horror as the creature and several others stampeded after them hot on their heels. Landon drew in a deep breath and focused all his energy into his legs. He easily passed Jasper and reached out and grabbed the boy by the sleeve. “Can’t you run any faster?!” he demanded.
“Not in this form. Look, follow me and you better keep up. I know a way to lose this guy.”
Jasper pulled free of his grip and suddenly he was running ahead of Landon – and shrinking. Before his eyes Jasper changed from a small boy into a tiny grey furred rabbit with long floppy ears. At first Landon’s mind refused to believe. Tried to think a thousand and one ways to explain where Jasper had gone and where the rabbit had come from. A grunted shout from behind him forced his focus back at the manner at hand.
Jasper raced ahead able to duck and weave easily through the undergrowth that Landon had to jump over. When Landon next looked back over his shoulder he thought they might be managing the impossible. They were leaving those weird creatures behind! He turned back around to see Jasper ahead tucking around a corner. Suddenly a high pitched animal squeal rent the air.
“Jasper!” Landon shouted.
He slid to a quick stop as a pig-like creature stepped around a tree. Its mouth was curled back into something that resembled a smile. From its clawed hand hung Jasper dangling from his back legs, completely limp.
“Don’t stand there gawking!” another familiar voice shouted. “Grab the rabbit and get outta here!”
A black and orange shape suddenly hurtled past Landon. It flew into the pig’s face and went to work scratching and spitting, hissing as it clawed. Jasper fell towards the ground and Landon dived and caught him just before he slammed into the ground.
Hugging the limp creature to his chest he spun around and took off in another direction. He hurtled through the forest stopped only when he reached a cliff. He slid to a hard stop, one sneaker slipping on wet rock. A river had curved around and now dropped several feet below. Landon considered his chances about leaping into the water. He was sure he could survive it but he wasn’t sure how he would manage with Jasper in his arms.
He whirled around at the sound of a loose rock falling. Several pig creatures were advancing on him now, their eyes gleaming. One of them took a leap at him and Landon had just enough time to spin around and take a flying leap out into the air. He shouted as he plunged every downwards.
Suddenly there was the flap of wings around him and arms grabbed him around the waste. At just the last second something arced his body upwards and instead of slamming into the water he was suddenly flying over it, skimming the surface. The sound of wings was still in his ears and he looked up to find Kite’s face close to his.
At least part of it was Kite’s face. She had a beak and everything from her cheek bones back was feathers. Her arms were wrapped around her chest but he felt talons. “Hold still, human. This isn’t easy,” she grunted.
They flew over the river bank and crossed onto ground. Landon braced for impact as Kite’s wings faltered and he slammed into the ground in a shower of dirt and foliage. Kite went flying a little further, landing just a few feet away. He dropped Jasper on the ground and rushed after her.
Her half-transformation was already melting away. The arrow still stood straight up from her shoulder blade. Had she flown with that still inside of her? Now he was impressed, he had to admit.
He relaxed for a moment thinking that that maybe they were now free, but this time something else crashed through the woods and bounded on them. Fear turned Landon’s body cold as he found himself staring face to face with the Canis from the previous night. He stared down at the bodies of Kite and Jasper. He couldn’t run! He couldn’t just leave them behind for this beast to grab them.
He stood up and placed himself between Kite and the beast. He would go down fighting before he turned tail and ran abandoning people – no matter who they were. He pulled courage from the deepest place of his heart. He had no weapon and surely not the strength, but he was going to give it all he had to try to keep this beast away from them.
The Canis reared up on its back legs and roared filling Landon with fear. Inside of him Landon felt the fear suddenly turning into something else inside of him. Only half conscious of it he opened his mouth and his own voice matched that of the Canis as he bellowed at the creature and then ran and leapt, hurtling towards the creature’s face, prepared to meet his fate.